Murriny Patha’s ‘Elided Progeny’ Construction

Murriny Patha is fun. Especially if you like “kintax” (Evans 2003), cause it’s got it in spades. Murriny Patha keeps delivering weird phenomena that require unconventional nomenclature (see for instance Walsh 1996). “So what”, I hear you asking, “is the ‘elided progeny’ construction?” In Murriny Patha it constitutes a subclass of what are clearly a group of “triangular” referring expressions, whereby a person-referent is referred to via “triangulation” – that is indirectly, via another person or persons. The most common of these are possessed kinterms: my father, your uncle, their cousin etc. The person that the kinterm is anchored to is frequently termed the propositus. Other classes of people may also take a propositus: e.g., John’s bank manager. Arguably all kinterms are anchored to a propositus, regardless of whether the propositus is expressed overtly or not. Thus when an adult addresses a child, “Hey, where’s daddy?”, the altercentric kinterm Daddy has an implied 2nd person propositus. However the same adult, when talking to another adult, may use egocentric kinterms with an implied 1st person propositus i.e., “Mum is driving me mad.”

The “elided progeny” construction is a kind of kin-based triangulation, but the kinterm corresponding to son or daughter is just missing. These things are very common in Murriny Patha conversation. In fact “triangulation” is generally a very common means of referring to people. I wouldn’t say it’s the default method of referring to persons, but it probably is the preferred choice for “upgrading” reference to persons. So how does this construction work? It’s basically a special case of the Murriny Patha possessive construction.

Inalienable possession is generally marked with possessive pronouns. The possessive pronouns have the same form as regular “referential” pronouns. They don’t decline, but they do exhibit different syntactic behaviour. If a person Y owns some X, and Y is of gender α, then Yα‘s X is expressed in Murriny Patha as
[(X) (Yα)]=Proα, where Proα is a possessive pronoun of the same gender as Y, the possessor. The possessive pronouns seem to encliticise to the “possession” group (X and/or Y). So for instance, if John has a car, “John’s car” would be expressed in the Murriny Patha as:


    Nandji trak John nukunu.

    [nandji trak John ] =nukunu
    [ – ‘residue’1 vehicle man’s_name ] =his
    [X Ym ] =Prom

    “John’s car”

However, both X and Y are “optional”. Well, they can’t both be elided at the same time, but it’s exceeding rare to find both an overt possessed and an overt possessor within the same construction. Far more common are:


    Nandji trak nukunu.

    [nandji trak Ø ] =nukunu
    [ – ‘residue’ vehicle Ø ] =his
    [X Ym ] =Prom

    “his car”

where just whose car is recoverable from context, and,


    John nukunu.

    [ Ø John ] =nukunu
    [ Ø man’s_name ] =his
    [ X Ym ] =Prom

    “John’s [x]”

where whatever John “has” is recoverable from context. The “elided progeny” construction belongs to this second pattern, whereby the progenitor corresponds to Y and the “elided progeny” corresponds to the missing X.


    Thanggirra nigunu.

    [ Ø Thanggirra ] =nigunu
    [ Ø woman’s_name ] =hers
    [ X Yf ] =Prof

    “Thanggirra’s [son/daughter].”

In 4, the missing X corresponds to one of the kinterms wakal, “progeny” (i.e., “son/daughter”), muluk, “son”, or newuy, “daughter”. Because the kinterm marking the gender of the progeny is elided, there is no way to tell from the construction alone whether the speaker is referring to a son or a daughter, but this information is usually recoverable from context. In fact wakal, “son/daughter”, is much more commonly used anyway than the gender-specific terms muluk and newuy, so this is hardly an issue. The following “full” version (where X is not elided) is grammatically acceptable but is actually unattested in my corpus of conversation:


    Wakal Thanggirra nigunu.

    [ wakal Thanggirra ] =nigunu
    [ progeny woman’s_name ] =hers
    [ X Yf ] =Prof

    “Thanggirra’s son/daughter.”

Very common are embedded triangulations, where the parent (Y) is expressed via a kinterm, which is itself also anchored to a propositus. The following example has a male progenitor:


    Yu, Beatrice kanggurl nyinyi nukunuya.

    Yu Beatrice [ Ø [kanggurl =nyinyi ]] =nukunu -ya
    Yes woman’s_name [ Ø [father’s_father =yours ]] =his -particle
    [ X [ Ym ]] =Prom

    “Yes, Beatrice2 [is] your paternal grandfather’s [daughter].”

More interesting than the construction itself is what it actually gets used for (or what triangulation in general gets used for). One of the reasons triangulation is so frequent is because of the numerous taboos on personal names (deceased persons, opposite-sex-siblings and opposite-sex-cousins, mothers-and-sons-in-law etc.). Here is one of my favourite pieces of data. In this example, the speaker was disambiguating (other-repairing3) a line of reported speech. The “reported interaction” had been between a husband and his wife. The “animator” (Goffman 1980) of the following utterance is specifying that the “reported speaker” was the husband and not the wife. (The line of reported speech is not included here).


    Mengedha nukunuwathu, pipin ngay niyurnu, puwarli ngay nyiniya.

    mengedha nukunuwathu
    He_was_saying_to_her He_was

    [pipin =ngay ]] =nigunu pugarli =ngay nyiniya
    [father’s_sister =my ]] =hers cousin =ngay anaph
    [X [Yf ]] =Prof

    “He was saying to her, my aunt’s [X = son] (was saying to her), that [bloke is] my cousin.”
    (Effectively: “It was him, my aunt’s son, my own cousin, who was saying that to her.”)

This utterance is produced as three latched intonation units (here separated by commas). The middle intonation unit is an elided progeny construction with an embedded triangulation (pipin ngay, “my aunt”). Each of these intonation units is designed as an upgrade from the prior person reference. However, you may well ask how “my cousin” can possibly be an upgrade from “my Aunt’s son/daughter”, since all of the progeny of one’s father’s sister are necessarily one’s cousins. Genealogically this information is redundant, but it’s a long way from redundant pragmatically. Murriny Patha speakers avoid pronouncing the names of close opposite-sex cousins, so this third intonation unit makes it crystal clear why the speaker is displaying Circumspection (Levinson 2007)4 about naming the referent. But “my Aunt’s [x]” does exactly the same thing, so why repeat it? It may be that the first part of this utterance was produced in overlap, whereas puwarli ngay nyiniya was produced “in the clear”. However, it seems that here we have an utterance that massively associates the referent to the current speaker. Association (Brown 2007; Stivers, Enfield & Levinson 2007) is a conversational design principle, or preference, whereby a person being referred to is associated to one of the co-present interlocutors, often the current speaker or their addressee. Note that the speaker could easily have been circumspect about naming this person, without actually associating the referent to herself. She could easily have said, mengedha nanggun niyurnu, “her husband was saying to her”. However, she here doubly associates the referent to herself: firstly in an indirect fashion, though the aunt. She then ramps up Association by choosing herself as propositus for the kinterm puwarli “cousin”. If anyone were to have missed the association the first time (perhaps because of the overlap) they would surely have got it the second time. Slam dunk for Association! This utterance is gutsy. It’s saying something like, “I know what you’re talking about. And I know what I know, because he is my own cousin, so stick that in ya pipe and smoke it!”

1 Murriny Patha has 10 nominal classifiers (Walsh 1997). Nandji is the residue class. Things of non-indigenous origin usually pertain to this class.

2 “Beatrice” is a pseudonym.

3 Schegloff (2000).

4 Circumspection as a conversational maxim obliging interlocutors to “observe local constraints” on referring to persons. So for example, at school, students should not address their teachers with their first name but should rather use Mr X or Miss Y, etc. “Circumspection is thus a motivation to avoid the selection of the default referring expression” (Levinson 2007: 31).



Brown, Penelope (2007). Principles of person reference in Tzeltal conversation. In Enfield, N. J. & Stivers, T. (Eds.), Person Reference in Interaction: Linguistic, Cultural and Social Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 172-202.

Evans, Nicholas (2003). Context, Culture, and Structuration in the Languages of Australia. Annual Review of Anthropology 32: 13-40.

Goffman, Erving (1980). Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Levinson, Stephen C. (2007). Optimizing person reference – evidence from repair on Rossel Island. In Enfield, N. J. & Stivers, T. (Eds.), Person Reference in Interaction: Linguistic, Cultural and Social Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 29-72.

Schegloff, Emanuel A. (2000). When ‘Others’ Initiate Repair. Applied Linguistics 21(2): 205-243.

Stivers, Tanya, Enfield, N. J. & Levinson, Stephen C. (2007). Person reference in interaction. Person Reference in Interaction: Linguistic, Cultural, and Social Perspectives. Cambridge: CUP. 1-20.

Walsh, Michael James (1996). Vouns and nerbs: A category squish in Murrinh-Patha (northern Australia). In McGregor, W. (Ed.), Studies in Kimberley Languages in Honour of Howard H. Coate. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 227-252.

Walsh, Michael James (1997). Noun classes, nominal classification and generics in Murrinhpatha. In Harvey, M. & Reid, N. (Eds.), Nominal Classification in Aboriginal Australia. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 255-292.

6 thoughts on “Murriny Patha’s ‘Elided Progeny’ Construction”

  1. This is great, I’ve never thought too seriously about the referential semantics of kin terminology or possessive constructions, so the English example ‘where’s daddy’ is interesting. I’m just thinking whether Wagiman does anything similar along the lines of elided possessed entities, rather than eliding the possessor, which is of course highly common when a possessive pronoun is present.
    I also find it interesting that Italian, of which, being an italophone, you should be fully aware, does this possessed entity dropping frequently in the case of referring to one’s progenitors:
    Abito coi miei
    live-1sg-pres 1sg.poss-pl
    ‘I live with my [parents]’
    (An example I remember from first year university)
    But I doubt you could do it with two orders of magnitude, ‘I live with my friend’s [parents]’, for instance.

  2. It seems to me that you can use the bare possessive only when speaking about your own parents or somebody else’s parents (or progenitors…if you prefer).
    You could say, for instance:
    1. Vai dai tuoi stasera?
    ‘Are you going to yourPL [parents]’
    2. Che dicono i suoi del matrimonio?
    ‘What are his/herPL [parents] saying about the marriage/wedding?’
    So as you can see, you can refer to other’s progenitors also, but only in contexts in which there is no person reference like ‘friends’: for example, if we are three in a conversation I could say:
    3. Vivo dai suoi
    ‘I live with his/herPL [parents]’
    but only accmpanied by some kind of gesture or head movement towards the referent.
    This construction, moreover, works only with the plural. I couldn’t say:
    4. Vivo con mia
    ‘I live with myF [mother]’
    5. Vivo con mio
    ‘I live with myM [father]’
    Nobody would understand who I’m talking about (mother, father, uncle, grandma, boyfriend, etc.), even if my mother/father were near me fisically or retrievable from the co-text.
    You could say, nevertheless:
    6. Vivo con la mia vecchia
    ‘I live with myF-S oldF-S [one]’
    7. Vivo con il mio vecchio
    ‘I live with myM-S oldM-S [one]’
    8. Vivo con i miei vecchi
    ‘I live with myPL oldPL [ones]’
    But this is something different, I think.
    So it seems to me that it’s a king of idiom, rather than a rule.
    It should also be noted that in Standard Italian, there is no article before the possessive singular placed before family names (but in the Tuscan variety).
    You couldn’t say:
    9. *Vivo con il mio padre
    ‘I live with my father’
    But you could say:
    10. Vivo con il mio papà
    ‘I live with my daddy’
    (even though it is connotated as a child variety, rather than an adult one)
    Now that I think about it, mamma (mommy) and papà (daddy), don’t belong uniquely to family talk (or talk in the family, or with children). Two friends, meeting after some time, could use it too:
    11. Come sta tua mamma?
    ‘How’s your mum?’
    12. Come sta la tua mamma?
    ‘How’s [the] your mum?’
    with the article, is (as already said) typical of the Tuscan variety, but if heard by a non-Tuscan is felt as rather wierd.
    You’ve raised a very interesting topic, as always, Joe!!! Now I feel compelled to find out more about possessives and family names!!!! 😀

  3. Elenora, on the ‘head movement’ indicating whose progenitors one is referring to, consider this example:
    E Giaccomo, abiti con lui, tu?
    And Giaccomo, do you live with him?
    No. Ma abito con i suoi.
    No, but I live with his (parents).
    É possibile?
    How about also making explicit the propositus in those 3rd person. Could you say:
    ?Abito con i suoi, Giaccomo.
    I live with his (parents), Giaccomo’s.
    This is going a fair way beyond my rudimentary knowledge of Italian though.

  4. Soooo, provided that I only know about my own head movements 🙂 I can only tell you whether those utterances sound “grammatical” too me (I suppose this is what you’re asking me).
    Well, the 1st ex. is very possible, but I would rewrite it as it follows [question mark standing for rising intonation to be associated with a question intonation in both utterances]. I also perceive a contrast/affiliation with somebody else living with Giacomo, because of the pronoun at the end of the sentence, which is generally dropped in “normal” instances.
    1. E Giacomo? abiti con lui, tu?
    And Giacomo? do [you] live with him, you?
    No. Ma abito con i suoi.
    No, but I live with his (parents).
    2. *Abito con i suoi, Giaccomo.
    I live with his (parents), Giaccomo’s.
    This second example sounds really ungrammatical, even though you might also find it in a recording, depending on the intonation. But if you are looking for a grammatical utterance instead:
    2a. Abito con i suoi, di Giacomo.
    I live with his (parents), Giacomo’s.
    but it sounds like an utterance contrasting somebody’s assumption that you are living with somebody else’s parents, not Giacomo’s.
    Anyway, without a recording and a context it’s difficult to say anything more than this. Depending on the sequence those utterances might also have other meanings, I guess.

  5. I guess we sort of have this going on in English too:
    Merry solstice celebrations to you and yours
    Where the elided possessed entity refers, as is my understanding, to one’s kin, or immediate family. But then again, this is really only heard with reference to Christmas celebrations and is probably a bit of an archaicism.

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