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Classificatory Verbs

One of the most important and often-discussed types of Dena’ina verb are those known as the classificatory verbs. (Pronounce this word with stress on the first syllable: ‘cláss-i-fic-a-tor-y’). Classificatory verbs form a special group of verbs which share similar structure and meaning. The verb stem of a classificatory verb is very abstract and refers to a type of motion or handling associated with particular kinds of objects. For each classificatory stem, many different verbs can be formed to refer to handling, motion, or location of particular kinds of objects.

Classificatory verbs: object in position
Dena'ina English type of object
qałnigi dnaz'un a rock is there compact object
izin ztun a gun is there linear object
minłni zqun (a cup of) water is there object in open container
ch'da łkits a blanket is there fabric-like object
kił ztan a boy is laying there animate object
gech' zdlu gloves are there plural objects

With classificatory verbs the verb changes depending on what type of thing is being described. This situation is really very similar to what we observed with the different verbs for ‘to walk’. We have different verbs for ‘singular walk’, ‘plural walk’, ‘animal walks’, etc. In that case, the motivation for grouping the verbs together was that the fact that they correspond to the same English verb ‘walk’. That’s partly the case with classificatory verbs as well. We have different themes for ‘compact object lies’, ‘flat, rigid object lies’, ‘contained object lies’, etc, all of which translate with the same English verb ‘to lie’ or ‘be in position’. But clearly these are different themes in Athabascan referring to very different types of meanings. The way I handle a rock is very different from the way I handle a cup of water. Even the way a rock is in position is different than the way a cup of water is in position. Each of these verbs are different in Dena’ina and has different shade of meaning.

However, classificatory verbs do form a coherent group because they all share the same grammatical properties. Each of the classificatory verbs can occur in many different types of verb themes, yielding meanings such as ‘carrying X type of object’, ‘giving X type of object’, etc. The full extent of this can be seen by examining a dictionary entry for one of the classificatory stems.

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