Zero derivation in Ainu

Ainu is supposedly a polysynthetic language, but displays a large number of characteristics that, at least when compared with the prototypical North American polysynthetic language, don’t really line up in my opinion.

I’ve long had a suspicion that Ainu has zero derivation, but didn’t have a lot of particularly good examples. One of my go-to ones up to this point has been the word omke ‘cough’, which is both a noun and a verb. The other night, I came across what I think is a much better example:

(1) a-un-kor-e-∅ ka somo ∅-∅-ki1 ruwe ∅-∅-ne wa.
INDF.A-1PL.O-have-CAUS-NMLZ even not 3.A-3.O-do FACT 3.A-3.O-COP EMPH
‘It was the case that we weren’t given it.’ (Nakagawa and Nakamoto 2004: 72)

I think there is one strong line of evidence for this being zero derivation of a verb to a noun, and one weaker one. The stronger of the two is the fact that this cannot be a relative clause, and the weaker is the non-occurrence of the complementizer hi.

Relative clauses in Ainu are modifier-head in their order. We have a verb, aunkore ‘we weren’t given any’, a potential relative clause but not a head and a particle ka ‘even’, along with the preceding verb, also a potential relative clause but not a head. Note that the adverb somo ‘not’ this negates the following verb (here, ki ‘to do’), so clearly, we have no potential heads for aunkore ka to be a relative clause that is the object of ki.

There is an alternate interpretation here, that the complementizer hi is just not expressed here for some reason. This would not be unheard of. For instance, compare the following in English:

(2) He said that I fell.

(3) He said I fell.

Both are perfectly grammatical. In Ainu, however, we do not find this variation. I was unable to locate any examples of the complementizer hi followed by even the lexical verb ki ‘to do’. So while it could be the case that we just lack a complementizer here, I think instead we are dealing with zero derivation.


1. As an aside, ki here functions as a light verb. I’m not entirely sure if in this capacity it is still transitive, but I have glossed it as such. Clearly, in its function as the lexical verb ‘to do’, we have good evidence that ki is indeed a transitive verb.

For instance, it takes transitive agreement markers (Izutsu 2003, a corpus of Asahikawa dialect Ainu, has examples of both an-∅-ki |INDF.A-3.O-do| and ci-∅-ki |1PL.A-3.O-do|, and no examples of *ki-an |do-INDF.S| or *ki-as |do-1PL.S|, and can be antipassivized (cf. i-ki-an |APASS-do-INDF.S|, also many examples in Izutsu 2003). But to the best of my knowledge, and certainly in Izutsu 2003’s corpus of Asahikawa Ainu, no distinction is made between the light verb ki and the lexical verb ki, so I’m just not sure.


1 – first person
3 – third person
A – Agent-like argument (“subject”) of a transitive verb
APASS – antipassive
CAUS – causative
COP – copula
EMPH – emphatic
FACT – factual/inferential evidential
INDF – indefinite person
NMLZ – nominalizer
O – Patient-like argument (“object”) of a transitive verb
PL – plural
S – single argument of an intransitive verb


Izutsu, Katsunobu. 2003. Ainugo Asahikawa Hōgen Kōpasu ni Motozuku Bunpōsho Hensan no Tame no Kiso Kenkyū [Basic Research for Compiling a Grammar Based on a Corpus of Asahikawa Dialect Ainu]. Asahikawa: Hokkaidō Kyōiku Daigaku Asahikawa-kō.