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.

7 thoughts on “Zero derivation in Ainu

  1. I think your argument about Ainu’s differences from the prototypical “polysynthetic” languages is an interesting one and I’m still digesting it. But I’m not sure that this is a good example of (productive) zero derivation specifically, because “(ka) somo ki” is a fixed pattern for negating verbs. I don’t have Nakagawa/Nakamoto handy but I do have Nakagawa’s more recent “New Express Ainu-go” and in chapter 4 (pp34-37) this pattern is explicitly addressed. The example in the dialogue is “ku=nuye ka somo ki” (“I didn’t carve it”) and the explanation explicitly calls this is equivalent to “somo ku=nuye”.

    I just looked it up in Sato 2008 (“Ainu-go Bunpo no Kiso”), and on p96 they actually argue that “somo ki” should, as a unit, be considered an auxiliary (助動詞), pointing out that it goes in exactly the same place as “eaykap” (“can’t”) and doesn’t take person affixes. (Sato does admit that this analysis is not the standard one (一般的な説ではない), but it makes sense to me.)

    So I’m not sure if “ki” can do the work you are asking it to do here — although it might be evidence for productive zero derivation in the past, surviving as a fossilized way of forming negatives in the language today.

  2. Somo pyr-qa qw= wen-an a-nw-ye-qar-yn-qar rw-we ne-e wa Qarahto Ayn ytah an(r)y pa-teq ( a-yay-a-papw an ne-e ) Y-ran-qarahte-e ! Pyr-qa no an. Ytah-qatw-ca-ran-qe=an qw=qy-a-roro an ne-ne , qwsw ne an qor-o-qa ( Aynw ytah montwm qatw a-nw-qar ne w-sa-w-saq wa ho-qan-pa an rw-we qw=yay-nw an (ysam wn-an-pe) wn a-nw-qar wa yn-qar yan ne-e a-C(h)a-ran-qe-qan-py-nw-ye-qar wa pyr-qa ya maq ya an wa ne-e.

    Pyrqa no an ne-e Qarahto , Qwry-rw, Qamcatqa Aynw ytah an(r)y w-sa-o-qa-y w-we-tore-(w-pe-sh) wa w-qo-y-so-ytah wan-py-sos QanaZawa , Qyndaychy Qarahto Aynw ytah qw= a-yay-wch-as-qw-ma ram-ma .I study Qanazawa ‘s ainutopic- Aynw phrase book Dictionary and wish to make Berlitz style Aynw Phrase Dictionary for Researchers of Aynw language in Aynw with Aynw vocabulary of language terms in Aynw for researchers to use with informant to discuss analysis of Aynu Grammar in Aynu about different dialects and students can practice speaking Aynu ,because I will not do any analysis until I master Aynw , because if we do not write in Aynw while discussing that language then we are not reviving but just making something that Aynw can not use Aynw ytah any qy an ro ne-e ,op-yt-ta a-e-y-w-an-qe roq yan ne-e a-ry -qy-qy-roq an (1 want to speak Aynw/ ytah e-ye-ha-we paro qw-ta Qw=qon-rw-sw-y a won-te rw-we-ne-e-an-pe-e.

    1. That Ainu writing above is quasi free style ,kind of like pidgin ( not all together Grammatically correct., if a native speaker with very high qualifications, as an academic in another language ,if there exists,even most Ainu natives were educated in Japanese not Ainu only. The odd letters B is P, C or Ch ,D is T , F and H are sometimes interchangeable G is Q ,I is Y, K is Q, as well, M and N are sometimes seen in the same word ,especially if they written with Katakana, U is W ,the ones not mentioned can be used in none Ainu words ,if Japanese can make strange none Japanese words with Katakana then why not Ainu , not saying it is correct ,but Katakana is difficult to use with some languages ,my signature ,just change the letters. The hyphen is to break up words into particles not morphemes ,but to show that these particles are used in other words to make up longer words I have seen several versions of y-yay- ray-kere, iyayreikere, iyairaikire.

      If you want to learn Ainu with Japanese(no furigana) with English go to,now Ihave the original book and have been comparing the modern Japanese and the corrected Ainu and the whole re-vamping of the online version and the original words and phrases right or wrong are quoted for reference, but some phrases’s errors have been changed meaning they do not show the book phrase , though the versions have been split up and categorised in other places .The Talking dictionary an earlier version also as been modified, but I still see English mistakes there too, so anyway Spoken and written are never the same ,suspect also for Ainu.The ainutopic has some bugs and there is no Ainu ABC or other index with page numbers ,that and various formats and adding words handwriting ,copying for years.I bought the 1986 re-produced version in 1993 and the 1973 re-produced version in 2015 and it has not been corrected between 1889 to 2000 ,why is that? it has been used by many and possibly many published Ainu learning books ! so are they all correct ?

  3. 1.Aynw ytah-2.qatw-qw-ta qar 5.yn-qar 6, e-ne qy an.

    5.Try write 2.sentences 3. in 1.Aynw language 6., like this.

  4. Even I struggle with Ainu grammar , because 1. Spoken form in any language do not always go to exact grammatical rules 2. The written Ainu was either written by a Japanese applying a flaw sentence or An Ainu ( linguist) ! The fact that Ainu written form and grammar has never been analysed 3. Ainu have been mixed up displaced all over Hokkaido and local usage mixed 4 we think that we know our own grammar and apply the same rules to a language that has conditioned by the above , see the original Ainutopic book and the online version A-e-ram (-usausak) my spelling A-e-ram{w} w-sa w-sa-q} dubious. why ‘ u ‘ and not ‘i’ ,u-sa- i-sak. isam = not, without , sak ,a-i-sak, (A-e-ram{u} =an = understand. u-sa ( o-ka-i-pe ) various , A-e-ram-(w) =heart in exist , u-sa = various, u-sak=without 無い! アイヌ語會{会}話辞典。page 166. 1.(無) s(h)omo ; i-sam. 2. ない sak , example sentence 1. 私( わたし) は 持(もつ)た ぬ。Ku sak. = I do not have ! 2. もー それ より 無い。Pa-te-k a(m)n-pe ne na. !! 3. 少 (すこ)し も 無い。Am (n) ras pak-no i-sam !! So we do not know if this is correct, mis-written, misheard or purposely ( at that time it was forbidden to speak Ainu yet Japanese could study it !

  5. Ainu topics has word for word translation and gloss ” am ras ” is = nail end ! ! = a little bit ( pon pon-no pon) . Again ,spoken Ainu ( The Ainu or Emishi of Tohoku and Hokkaido are all mixed they lived in small groups so they may have borrowed from each other or it is possible the Tohoku and Hokkaido , Sakhalin , Kuriles were much more incomprehensible in former times and when the Wa Jin graddually pushed north these languages became merged ,And there were struggles between tribes for land and also adopted ideas and traded things , over thousands of years the languages changed generation to generation all the while surely some story teller starts to coin new words phrases , all languages do that ,children too play with words , taboo words are many so they must invent code ash-ke uk ( shake or take the paw hand ) is a hunt of a bear to test the bear is dead or playing for dead by taking the hand and letting go and after also taking the baby cub by the ears ( Ainu bear is a ‘ God’ ! So hence the none use of kill directly google BAT_A2E A2E Batchelor’s Ainu to English Biglobe ….

  6. Using this Ainu phrase book best I can write.
    It is a while, O-hon-no (W-tw-rw space, time ,interval ) so-mo w-nw-qar=an qw-sw ne-e.
    Ryq-ta above W-qo-y-so-ytah phrase Qan-py-sos =an chy-qy ne-e a-syn-no-qar =(re-make if possible.
    search field is wen=wrong some words or letters will result any words that contain (all letter ‘o ‘ in all the words or nothing ,but they are there and why they did not make an Ainu index, If I want to check or find a word meaning ‘while’ in Ainu because I do not know it ,fine ! I see a word first time fine I can find it,Japanese or English and Ainu have several words mean differently in all three so we need to cross reference them and show the use.languages have various words that have parts that are other words ‘beca-use’ or no-thing ,mean-ing mean-while,in Ainu there are many of these kind of words ‘Qor= to have’,ex; se-qor,en-qor-e,qor-o-qa,qor-a chy ,qor-qa,a-qor ,nan-qor .are these the same ? Ainu is ,adding parts ,but the meaning sometimes changes and /or as no relation

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