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 CORE 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.

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ta’ö ‘ara
sleep boy
The boy sleeps.

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nöna nöti
eat girl
(Something) eats the girl.
The girl is eaten.

The PATIENT is always closer to the verb than the PATIENT.

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Nnadi me’u.
nöna nöti me’u.
eat girl shark
The shark eats the girl.

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.

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‘ara ta’ö
boy sleep
A boy sleeps.

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nöti nöna
girl eat
(Something) eats a girl.
A girl is eaten.

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Me’u dinna.
me’u nöti nöna
shark girl eat
A shark eats a girl.

Because both shark and girl are pre-verbal they are in definite. Shark is the AGENT because it is farther away from the verb than the PATIENT.


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.

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nöna muji
eat food
(Something) eats the food.  or
the food is eaten.

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nöna nöti
eat girl
(Something) eats the girl. or
the girl is eaten.

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Nnamuji di.
nöna muji nöti
eat food girl
The girl eats the food.


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

The simple answer is say the verb twice.

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nöna nöti
eat girl
(something) eats the girl or
The girl is eaten.

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Nnanna di.
nöna nöna nöti

eat eat girl
The girl eats (something).

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*Nnanna muji.
*nöna nöna muji

*eat eat foot
*The food eats (something).

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

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


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