Umu: Arguments & Verbs

Umu verbs differ from English verbs in many ways. A major difference is how Umu treats ARGUMENTS.

English uses WORD ORDER (the man bites the dog vs. the dog bites the man) and CASE (I see him and he sees me) to differentiate the perpetrator of the action (AGENT) from the victim of the action (PATIENT). In English, perpetrators come before verbs and victims come after verbs—case is only marked on pronouns.

In Umu, there’s no CASE marking, and WORD ORDER signals DEFINITENESS. Because of this, Umu verbs work differently.

Patients & Agents

If a verb has only one argument, the argument is always the PATIENT. This applies to transitive verbs as well.

The AGENT always comes after the PATIENT.

Pre-Verbal & Post-Verbal Arguments

Umu has no articles (a/the). When an argument comes before the verb, it’s interpreted INDEFINITE. When after, DEFINITE.

The closer an argument is to the end of the sentence, the more topical/definite it is. Compare the examples below with those above.

Because me’u shark is both the AGENT and the TOPIC in this example, it’s interpreted DEFINITE (see: Topic Prominence).


English has grammatical SUBJECTS and OBJECTS. Subjects are necessary to form complete phrases, while objects are not.

English: Subjects are required. Objects are optional.

The girl eats (food).
*(The girl) Eats food.

You can’t say “eats food” in English without specifying who or what is doing the eating. Rather, English used the PASSIVE VOICE to shift the focus from SUBJECT  to OBJECT.

Food is eaten.

Umu, by contrast, has AGENTS (perpetrators) and PATIENTS (victims). Patients have more grammatical weight than agents, which means phrases must have a victim but needn’t have a perpetrator.

Umu: Patients are required. Agents are optional.


So how do you say “the girl eats” in Umu?

The simple answer is say the verb twice.

na ti
eat girl
(something) eats the girl or
the girl is eaten

na na ti
eat eat girl
the girl eats (something)

What’s going on?  As mentioned earlier, a lone argument is always the patient and, when there are two arguments, the agent comes last. Reduplication turns the “second” verb into the patient, promoting the original patient to agent.

This is possible because Umu lexical categories (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverb, etc.) are fluid. The word na means to eat, the act of eating, eatable, even eatably all at once.

*this last example should be glossed 'eat eat food'.

The second example above is not a viable utterance because food (as traditionally conceptualized in Umu) is not capable of eating other things.

Why then aren’t food and eat the same word? Similar to English, muji food is a nutritious substance that sustains life, while na eatables is anything capable of being bitten off, chewed, and swallowed. This isn’t the same thing.

Perhaps a better example is the word drink. In English, you can drink a drink, the same way you can eat food.


3 thoughts on “Umu: Arguments & Verbs

Add yours

  1. It looks like you have two grammatical rules that are going to come into conflict on more than a few occasions:

    1. “The AGENT always comes after the PATIENT.”
    2. “The closer an argument is to the end of the sentence, the more topical/definite it is.”

    Implication: the agent is always more topical than the patient. But what if it’s not? Is it possible, at all, to topicalize a patient?


    “Umu has no articles (a/the). When an argument comes before the verb, it’s interpreted INDEFINITE. When after, DEFINITE.”

    How are agent and patient disambiguated in such cases?

    1. Good input. These are problems I’ve been trying to sort for awhile.

      The first issue I think I’ve sussed (although playing with the notion of double topics might burst my bubble). I was thinking I’d do this in two ways:

      1. to topicalize the patient… just omit the agent. Kinda cheap, I know, but as far as comprehension goes, I think it’s a good work around:

      na ti me’u
      eat girl // shark
      The shark eats girl

      na ti
      eat // girl
      The girl is eaten (by something assumed or unspecified)

      Of course… that’s only so satisfying so I was also thinking this might work:

      2. I could topicalize the patient the same way I deal with sole agents: reduplication/the anit-passive. I think this could work since topics don’t really need to interact with the verb at all (it just so happens, at times, they do). So I’m thinking:

      na na me’u
      eat eat // shark
      the shark eats (something assumed or unspecified)

      na na me’u ti
      eat eat shark // girl
      the girl, the shark eats

      I’m pretty happy with this arrangement. Though you’re right, it means the agent doesn’t always come after the patient… though maybe it does if topics don’t really have to be arguments:

      (eat1=verb, eat2=patient, shark=agent, girl=topic)

      This next issues is much more tricky. At first I thought:

      1. I’d make a rule like: patients are always closer to the verb than the agent, and default to the above when the verb is straddled.

      (an agent) (a patient) (verb)
      (verb) (the patient) (the agent)
      (an agent) (verb) (the patient)
      maybe also
      (a patient) (verb)(verb) (the agent)

      In the end I didn’t go down this road cause I think this interpretation muddies my concept of topic—plus throws off my word order. From my understanding of Topics, they’re pretty much always definite. And since in most cases the Patient or Agent is also the topic, I’m hoping it won’t be an issues. Plus I see languages out there like Lisu that apparently never distinguish between subject and object and only mark topic.

      So it’s pretty tricky. I think I have a very Indo-European idea of TOPIC so it’s a real challenge for me to stretch my brain in these directions. I think even now I’ve roped topic too closely with the verb.

      But this is the working logic as it stands presently

      Cheers Cromulant! You’ll find issues like these all over the place with Umu. I’m grateful for the opportunity to sit down and work it through in response. Otherwise they’re just out there unresolved. Have you any alternative suggestions?

  2. I don’t think agent omission is viable as THE way to topicalize a patient, but it could be A way. It’s fine so long as the nature or identity of the agent is unimportant, but this will not always be the case. I think your second idea is better.

    However, if you go with the second idea, I think you should reformulate your rules, because it is clearly not the case that word order alone disambiguates agent and patient. Rather, it is a combination of word order and voice. Thus, it is not the case that the agent always follows the patient.

    Verb reduplication could also be a solution to the second issue:

    na ti me’u
    the shark eats the girl

    me’u na ti
    the girl is eaten by a shark

    na na ti me’u
    the shark is eaten by a girl

    me’u na na ti
    the girl eats a shark

    …and so on.

    But maybe this ‘ties the topic too closely to the verb’? Honestly, I don’t know a hell of a lot about topics, and my perspective here may well be too IE-colored to be useful.

    I’ve heard a bit about Lisu. I am skeptical of the claim that it never distinguishes agents and patients. Rhetorical (unless you happen to know): how would Lisu render ‘the man killed the tiger’ and ‘the tiger killed the man?’ This isn’t a situation where the semantic roles are obvious–men kill tigers fairly often; tigers kill men fairly often; neither meaning can be assumed here. If Lisu is a functional language (and I am sure it is), then it has a morpho-syntactic method for distinguishing agent and patient when context and common sense are insufficient–and I think the same necessarily applies to Umu.

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