Philos. Rev.


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The alliterative concord, which makes this family of languages unique among human tongues, consists in a device which indicates the agreement of the dependent words upon the governing noun by means of a prefix attached to verb, adjective, numeral, and possessive pronoun, relative and demonstrative. There is no sex gender in the language, but some eight "classes," or grammatical genders, with an inflection for the plural. Each of the sixteen different noun prefixes must be applied to the dependent words in the sentence. For example, should I wish to ask the question: "Where are those two spoons of mine which you gave me?" every word except the verb in the dependent clause have to begin with the plural prefix of totoko ("spoons"), thus:

"Totoko tonko tokam tofe toki baki wonkaka tolenko?"

"Spoons those mine two which you-gave-me where-are-they?"

Should the question be regarding the whereabouts of an equal number of bananas, similarly acquired, the words would be:

"Banko banko bakam bafe baki wonkaka balenko?"

"Bananas those mine two which you-gave-me where-are-they?"

Suppose there is only one banana involved in the inquiry, then I should have to ask:

"Jinko jinko jikam jiki wonkaka jidenko?"

"Banana that mine which you-gave-me where-is-it?"

I should ask for two goats given by you and lost by me in the following language:

"Nta inko ikam ife wonkaka ilenko?"

"Goats," etc.

Should I inquire about canoes, every dependent word must begin with bi-, the prefix for biato; if for sticks, it would be be-, the prefix of betamba, etc.

There is a diminutive prefix which can be further diminished so that by the form of the noun the degree of littleness can be indicated. Likewise there is an augmentative inflection which can be still further augmented. Thus the five words, imbwambwa, imbwa, mbwa, embwa, embwambwa, mean respectively: "little tiny dog," "little dog," "dog," "big dog," and "enormous big dog." It is a sort of comparison of nouns.

The verb is very highly developed and very complex. It contains the subject of the verb in the form of a pronominal prefix, as in Latin. It also has a pronominal syllable to indicate the pronominal object, as in Hebrew. But in this family of languages there is the indirect object, which is similarly indicated. Akenda, "he-is-going"; tokenda, "we-are-going"; wonkunda, "you-are-striking-me"; akokunda, "he-is-striking-you"; lonjeleza, "you-bring-him-to-me"; baolonjeleza, "they-have-brought-him-to-me."

By suffixes the shades of meaning of the verb can be changed after the analogy of the Hebrew verb form. Thus tunga means "to tie or bind"; tungama, "to be bound"; tungya, "to cause to bind"; tungels, "to bind for" someone; tungola, "to unbind"; tungana, "to bind each other"; yatunga, "to bind one’s self"; and so on to the number of eight. But there are numbers of permutations and combinations of these, as, for example, the causative and dative can be combined in the form tungeza, "to-cause- (or help-) to-tie-for" someone; tungoza, "to-help-unbind-for" someone; tungameza, "to-help-to-place-in-a-bound-state-or-condition-for-the-sake-of" someone, and so on to the number of ten or twelve.

Now each of these separate forms is capable of tense and modal inflection to the number of at least fourteen tense forms, different in toto from the models of Indo-European tense inflection. There is an indefinite present, an immediate future, a distant future, an immediate past, a remote past, a continuative past, a past with the consequences no longer obtaining, e.g., nsombaki, "I-bought-it (but sold it again)," a "not yet" tense, and various ways to introduce negative ideas.

Examples of the variety of pronoun, tense, and mode in a single word would be: ifokokaya, "he-will-surely-give-you"; aoyatunga, "he-has-bound-himself"; aoyatungama, "he-has-placed-himself-in-a-bound-condition"; aoyolokotungamezamaka, "he-has-caused-himself-to-be-placed-in-a-bound-condition-for-your-sake."

The extraordinary development of the verb and noun is compensated for by a corresponding lack in adjectives and prepositions. If we reckon all the agglutinated forms of a transitive root like tung-, "bind," including the possible pronominal combinations, there would be more than five thousand different words from this root alone.1

1Faris, E.n/an/an/an/an/a, "The Mental Capacity of Savages," Amer. Jour. Sociol., 23: 609–611.


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Chicago: "Philos. Rev.," Philos. Rev. in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed December 2, 2023,

MLA: . "Philos. Rev." Philos. Rev., Vol. 23, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 2 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: , 'Philos. Rev.' in Philos. Rev.. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 2 December 2023, from