5. Maasai Sentences (Syntax)

  In all languages, words are combined together, into larger phrases and sentences, according to rules specific to given languages.  The rules governing how phrases and sentences are composed is called SYNTAX (syn = 'together'; taxis = 'arrangement'). As a child acquires Maa, he or she necessarily learns the Maa rules of syntax.  Some major issues that any language must develop rules for are: how to indicate SUBJECT and OBJECT; what order different constituents (or "phrase units") can occur in; how to indicate that a noun functions as instrument, location, benefactive, direction, etc.; and how to combine simple sentences together to make more complex sentences.

5. 1. Simple Clauses

Case Marking on Nouns
  In Maa, the most neutral way to compose a sentence consisting of several words is to arrange them in the order: Verb (or predicate) Subject First Object Second Object Adverbial. However, the order of subject and object can vary without causing any confusion, since all nouns must be marked for case, i.e., for the syntactic role the noun plays in the sentence. In Maa, case is indicated solely by the tone pattern on the noun; cf. enkínè 'goat' as nominative subject, and enkíné 'goat' as accusative object. (Also compare compare á 'home' and â 'our'.)

-t-nyrr-á                      en-kínè                                          á
'The goat has loved home.'

-t-nyrr-á                             en-kíné                                       â
3SUBJ-PERF-love-PERF          FEM.SG-goat.ACCUSATIVE   our
'He/she has loved our goat.'

Constituent Order
  The following two sentences vary in the order of words, but have identical meanings in terms of the event they describe. This is because each noun retains the same tone pattern, regardless of whether it occurs directly after the verb, or at the end of the sentence.
é-tó-ní-ó                          en-kínè                                       n-kráí
'The goat heard the child.'

é-tó-níŋn-kráí en-kínè
'The goat heard the child.'

The choice between these two sentences depends on whether the goat is the more central participant in the discourse (the first version), or the child (the second version) (Payne, Hamaya & Jacobs 1994).

  Most of the world's languages (but not all) have small words that can be either pre-posed or post-posed to a noun, to show that the noun has a non-subject and non-object relation to the verb. Such relations typically include meanings like locative, instrumental, accompaniment benefactive, directional, manner, purpose, source, goal. In Maa, such relator words are consistently preposed to the nouns, and thus are termed prepositions.

  Maa actually has only two fully grammaticalized prepositions:for showing the 'accompaniment' relation; and the very general preposition which is used everywhere else that a preposition is needed. Following , a noun necessarily occurs in the ACCUSATIVE tone pattern; following it necessarily occurs in the NOMINATIVE. is perhaps most accurately understood as indicating that the noun following t has some non-subject, non-object, non-accompaniment relation to the verb.  It's exact translation into another language will depend on the context. The following present only a sub-set of the meanings t¹  can convey. The vowel of this preposition is generally deleted and the remaining t becomes a prefix if the following word begins with a vowel.

-ár-à                                             t-l-kj¥
'They are fighting in/by the river.'

-ár-à                                             t-
'They are fighting because of that.'

-ár-à                                         t-oó-údísìn
'They are fighting with sticks.'

áa-t-ar-á                                                     ¾l-ámèyù                  te-yyê
'Hunger has beaten me more than you.' (i.e., 'I am hungrier than you.')

-ta-ár-¥-ak-®                                                        t                          Ná®r
'They have been beaten here from Nairobi.'

k-bá-¥                              t                           Ná®r
3SUBJ-arrive-VENTIVE     PREP/SOURCE      Nairobi
'He will arrive from Nairobi.'

káá-bá-®k¯                                                     t                                            Ná®r
'I will meet you at/in Nairobi.'

á-úré-ísho                                      t                     n-­t¥                       a-ló
'I am fearful if I don't go. '

5.2. Complex Sentences

  Another important part of syntax concerns rules for combining simple sentences to create complex ones. There are several ways to do this in Maa, depending on the verbs involved and the specific meanings the speaker wants to achieve. In the immediately preceding example, for instance, we see the preposition introducing a clausal complement of the verb 'I am afraid.' One of the complement verbs is prefixed with n-, which is commonly used to show that the events or actions in several different clauses are conceptually closely connected. Another way to introduce a subordinate clause is with the conjunction peê 'if, so that.'

é-úré-ísho                                       en-kítòk                 peê         m-é-ló
3SUBJECT-fear-ANTIPASSIVE     FEM.SG-woman      so.that     NEG-3SUBJECT-go
'The woman is fearful so she doesn't go. '
  A distinctive aspect of Maa complex sentences is the frequent use of partially-infinitive verb forms. In a fully-infinitive verb, the verb would not change regardless of subject, tense-aspect, or any other feature of the sentence, as in the to-sentence forms of English: I want to eat. We want to eat. They wanted to eat. He probably wants to eat. Unlike English, Maa does not have fully-infinitive verbs. Rather, a verb must minimally show whether the subject of the sentence is singular versus plural! If the root is prefixed with Low-tone a- and carries a final-syllable High tone, the infinitive has a singular subject. But if the verb is prefixed with áa- and the rest of the verb carries Low tone, the subject of the infinitive is plural. Partial-infinitives can be further inflected for subjunctive mood, and can take various derivational affixes. In the following, lo 'go' ambiguously means either movement or future action. The singular and plural roots for 'go' are radically different, much like English go and went.
ká-ló                             a-óp                 a-otikí
1SG.SUBJECT-go.SG   INF.SG-swear  INF.SG-do.on.purpose
'I am going to swear (e.g., before a judge) deliberately.'

ékí-púó                         áà-òp                 áa-otikí
1PL.SUBJECT-go.PL    INF.PL-swear     INF.PL-do.on.purpose
'We are going to swear (e.g., before a judge) deliberately.'

ká-g®rà                                             a-ój
1SG.SUBJECT-progressive.action     INF.SG-scratch
'I am scratching.'

ká-tó-ótíkí-ó                                                 a-ny¾rr-aá                             em-búkù
1SG.SUBJECT-PERF-do.on.purpose-PERF   INF.SG-love-DIRECTION     FEM.SG-book
'I accepted the book deliberately.' (NOTE: This sentence has a rude tone to it.)

  Linguist Mitsuyo Hamaya (1992) has shown that in Maa, partial-infinitives can be strung together to indicate that the infinitive verb was the result, purpose, manner, instrumental means, or object complement of another verb. Further, as seen in some of the examples above, an initial fully-inflected verb like káló and kag®rà can convey just tense or aspect, with the following partial-infinitive conveying the main lexical meaning. Or a verb root can be repeated a second time in the partial-infinitive form in order to bring additional participants into the sentence.
é-lép-ókì                                en-kítòk                  -l                    kl
3SUBJECT-milk-DATIVE    FEM.SG-woman     MASC.SG-MAN  milk
a-lep-oki-níé                                                 m-plpl
'The woman will get milk for her husband with a cup.'
  Together, the uses of the partial-infinitives in Maa are just like the uses of  SERIAL VERB CONSTRUCTIONS  in many other African languages.  It is common in serializing languages for one fully inflected verb to be serialized together with completely infinitive, or bare, verb roots. The uniqueness of the Maa construction is that the only option is to use the partial-infinite form.

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This page written by Doris L. Payne