4. Maasai Words (Morphology)

  MORPHOLOGY (morph = 'shape'; ology = 'study of') concerns the word shapes of a language.   The morphology of Maa nouns and adjectives is reasonably simple. With few exceptions, all Maa nouns indicate grammatical gender, number and case. Adjectives inflect for number and case, but not gender. Case depends on the role a noun plays in the larger sentence.  (Case will be illustrated in Section 5.)  Maa verbal morphology is quite complex.

Gender in Nouns

  Maa grammatical gender refers to whether the noun belongs to the "masculine," "feminine," or (very rarely) "place" class. Masculine gender is normally used for things that are biologically masculine or large, as for ɔl-ɔ́rɔ 'he-goat,' ol-dóínyó 'mountain,' or ¾l-abáànì 'healer, doctor,' which in some special contexts may also be used to refer to 'God.' Feminine gender is typically used for biologically feminine and small items, or sometimes when a perjorative meaning is intended, as for en-kíné 'goat' or 'female goat,' en-dóínyó 'small mountain, hill,' or ɛnk-abáànì 'female doctor, small male doctor, quack.'  Maa roots are, for the most part, gender neutral, in that a given root can take either a masculine or feminine prefix, depending on what a speaker wants to say, as in ɔl-ɔ́rɔ 'he-goat,' versus ɛnk-ɔ́rɔ 'weak or small he-goat.' However, one gender is usually the unmarked (normal) gender for the root in question (Payne 1998). Some nouns do take only one gender (Enk-áí 'God'), and few nouns do not take any gender prefix (kʊlɛ́ 'milk'). Bernd Heine has observed that in the South Maa dialects, the vowel of the gender prefix expresses number ɛnk- 'feminine singular,' ɪn(k)- 'feminine plural';ɔl- 'masculine singular, ɪl- 'masculine plural'); while in the North Maa dialects, the number vowel does not occur. When a determiner like ɛná 'this (feminine) ' or ɛldɛ́ 'that (masculine)' occurs with a noun, then a gender prefix does not also co-occur.

Singular and Plural Nouns

  Most Maa nouns have singular and plural forms, depending on whether the speaker is referring to one, or more than one, item. There are about twelve different singular-plural classes, and this is an area of Maa morphology which must simply be memorized as the forms are quite irregular. If a noun stem most normally denotes a singular item, then it may take a plural suffix:

SINGULAR                                    PLURAL
ɛnk-áí    'thunder, sky, god'            ɪnk-áì-tìn     'thunders, skies, gods'
ol-kér    'castrated ram'                  ɪ-l-kɛrr-á     'castrated rams'
ɛnk-ají   'house'                             ɪnk-ájí-jík    'houses'
en-jóré   'war, raid'                        in-jor-în       'wars, raids'

  But if a stem most normally denotes a plural item, then it may take a distinctive singulative suffix, as in some of the following.

 PLURAL                                       SINGULAR
ɪl-áɪ́bártàk   'male initiates'             ɪl-áɪ́bárt-ànì   'male initiate'
ɪnk-áɪ́k        'arms'                         ɛnk-áɪ́-ná       'arm
ɪl-ákɪ́r          'stars'                         ɔl-ákɪ́r-à         'star'
ɪl-álá            'tusks'                        ɔl-alá-ɪ̀           'tooth, tusk'

  The simple form kʊlɛ́ is inherently plural 'milks,' while complex kulíáréi designates a collective 'bunch of milks.'

  As can be seen in just these few words, sometimes the same form (e.g., -a) designates singular and sometimes plural, all depending on the stem class. Sometimes, the shape of the stem changes even more dramatically in order to convey singular versus plural: compare en-kítéŋ 'cow,'in-kíshú 'cows;' en-títo 'girl,' intóyyè 'girls.'

Verb Structure

  Maa verb words are much more complex than nouns, so much so that a single Maa verb can express what a whole sentence is needed for in most Indo-European languages. This is because the Maa verb obligatorily indicates tense-aspect, person of the subject, and person of the object if the verb takes two participants. Depending on what else the speaker wants to convey, the verb may also indicate negative; subjunctive or imperative mood; causative; passive, middle, and antipassive voices; reflexive and reciprocal; the direction an action was performed in; and other aspects of the situation such as whether an action was performed for someone's benefit, or with some instrument.  The order and variant forms of much of the verb word is described by B. Wallace (1981).

  Here we give just a sampling of verb words for 'love' or 'like,' to show the richness of possible verb words. Each verb in what follows also constitutes a complete sentence. Some words are minimally different by tone, again illustrating the importance of this feature in the Maa language.  Note how tone can specifically distinguish singular versus plural third person subjects in perfective aspect (but not always elsewhere). PERF indicates perfective aspect; for many verbs a prefix and a suffix must occur together for this meaning. SUBJ indicates subject. The tone on the following words reflects the IlWuasinkishu dialect, and may vary somewhat for other dialects.

á-nyrr                                                                m-a-nyrr
1SG.SUBJ-love                                                    NEGATIVE-1SG.SUBJ-love
'I love it/him/her/them.'                                           'I don't love it/him/her/them.'

áá-nyrr                                                              áa-nyrr
1SG.SUBJ:2SG.OBJECT-love                             3SUBJ:1SG.OBJECT-love
'I love you.'                                                           'They/he/she loves me.'

'I loved (something)' or, 'I started loving (something).'

áa-t-nyrr-â                                                         áa-t-nyrr-á
'They have loved me.'                                               'He/she has loved me.'

  In the following pair of words (or sentences), the tone pattern on the entire word is crucial to knowing whether the subject is first person plural 'we;' or whether there is an "inverse" relation between subject and object, meaning that the object "outranks" the subject on the hierarchy: first person singular > second person singular > third person (and first and second plural) (Payne, Hamaya & Jacobs 1994). Some Maa dialects use ¸k-, and others use k-, as the prefix form for both these meanings. Comparison of the following set of examples with the set just above illustrates another significant feature of the Maa language, which is vowel harmony. In the following, addition of the +ATR inceptive suffix makes the preceding vowels also become +ATR. (This process is sometimes blocked, particularly by the vowel a, as can be seen in yet further examples.)
ékí-nyórr-ù                                                             ékí-nyorr-ú
INVERSE-love-INCEPTIVE                                 1PLURAL.SUBJ-love-INCEPTIVE
'He/she/they will love you.'                                       'We will love him/her/them.'
or, 'You (singular) will love me.'

    The following show a few of the many additional word forms that can be derived from the verb root ny¾rr 'love' or 'like':

'You (plural) will love each other.'

'I am loved/(unspecified) people love me.'

'He made him love (something).'

'I used it to make him love (something).'

'I used it to make him be a loving person.'

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This page written by Doris L. Payne