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Learning the Pronominal Prefixes

One of the early challenges in learning Kunwok is the pronominal prefixes. We'll break it down to make it easier to learn.

Pronominal prefixes are like pronouns (e.g. I, you, she) except they attach to the verb. Thus, we can say ngare (I go), with the nga- prefix (I) attached to the re verb (go). Use the yi- (you) prefix to say yire (you go).

Two kinds of verbs:
Before getting started, it helps to understand the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs.
Transitive verbs transfer their action from the do-er to something/someone, from the agent to the patient (e.g. find, follow, deceive, look after).
Intransitive verbs lack any object to receive the action (e.g. sleep, run, sit, return).
Read more about transitive and intransitive verbs.


Step 1: Singular intransitive

We start with singular prefixes (I, you (sg), he/she/it).

Nonpast Meaning Past Meaning Comment
ngare I go ngawam I went nga- is the first-person singular, I
yire you (sg) go yiwam you (sg) went yi- is the second-person singular, you (sg)
kare he/she/it goes wam he/she/it went - (no prefix) is the third-person singular, he/she/it

Notice the extra prefix ka- which only shows up in third person singular in present tense. You'll hear it all the time, so you need to know it. Here it is again for bidbun (climb) and mankan (fall).

Nonpast Meaning Past Meaning
ngabidbun I climb ngabidbom I climbed
yibidbun you (sg) climb yibidbom you (sg) climbed
kabidbun he/she/it climbs bidbom he/she/it climbed
ngamankan I fall ngamankang I fell
yimankan you (sg) fall yimankang you (sg) fell
kamankan he/she/it falls mankang he/she/it fell

You might like to try writing and saying these prefixes with a range of other intransitive verbs, e.g. dowen (be unwell), durndeng (return), nalkbun (cry), yerrkan (sit), dolkkan (stand).

Step 2: Plural intransitive

Next, we replace the singular with the plural prefixes (we, you (pl), they).

Nonpast Meaning Past Meaning Comment
karrire we go karriwam we went karri- means we (including the hearer), i.e. first-person plural inclusive
ngurrire you (pl) go ngurriwam you (pl) went ngurri- means you (pl), i.e. second-person plural
kabirrire they go birriwam they went birri- means they, i.e. the third-person plural

Note that when we translate karrire as 'we go', it also means 'we're going', 'let's go', and 'we will go'. (If you find it strange that a verb can indicate present or future tense, just think about these English phrases: we go today, we go next week). Let's see these prefixes again with bidbun and mankan.

Nonpast Meaning Past Meaning
karribidbun we (incl) climb karribidbom we (incl) climbed
ngurribidbun you (pl) climb ngurribidbom you (pl) climbed
kabirribidbun they climb birribidbom they climbed
karrimankan we (incl) fall karrimankang we (incl) fell
ngurrimankan you (pl) fall ngurrimankang you (pl) fell
kabirrimankan they fall birrimankang they fell

Note that Kunwok has a special form of the plural which just concerns the case of two people or things. We will cover this case later. For now we'll make the simplifying assumption that any more than one is plural.

You might like to review what we have covered so far and make up a table for a verb in nonpast or past, for example:

Singular Plural
ngare, I go karrire, we (incl) go
yire, you (sg) go ngurrire, you (pl) go
kare, he/she/it goes kabirrire, they go

It's a good idea to master these 6 prefixes before going further. You could make flashcards, or find a bininj to practice with. You can also put these into sentences including nouns:

  • bininj kare wolehwole, the man's going this afternoon
  • karrire ngudda dja ngaye dja wurdurd, Let's all go, you, me, and the kids
  • yimankang wanjh yidolkkang, You fell then you got up

Step 3: Singular transitive with third person object or subject

Remember that transitive verbs involve action that is transferred from subject to object. Let's look at some pronominal prefixes on transitive verbs. The first column should look familiar (it's the same as the intransitive verbs).

Nonpast Meaning Past Meaning
nganan I see him/her/it ngannan he/she/it sees me
yinan you see him/her/it ngunnan he/she/it sees you
kanan he/she sees him/her/it kabinan it sees him/her

Note that the bi- prefix occurs when the subject is less animate than the object. So we can say bininj kanan duruk (the man sees the dog) or duruk kabinan bininj (the dog sees the man).

Note also that we can put these words in different orders without changing who is doing the action, e.g.:

  • bininj kanan duruk the man sees the dog
  • duruk kanan bininj the man sees the dog
  • bininj kabinan duruk the dog sees the man
  • duruk kabinan bininj the dog sees the man

You might learn these pronominal prefixes in pairs, nga/ngan, yi/ngun:

  • ngayawan yawurrinj dja nakka nganyawan I'm looking for the young man and he's looking for me
  • yibekkan yawkyawk wanjh ngalekke ngunbekkan You're listening to the girl then she'll listen to you

We can combine intransitive and transitive verbs:

  • ngawam nganang nakamarrang I went to see Nakamarrang
  • ngalbulanj kadjare kunwok nganbukkan Ngalbulanj wants to teach me Kunwinjku
  • duruk ngunbayeng dja yimankang The dog bit you and you fell
  • bininj mudika birribidbom wanjh birrilobmeng walem The men climbed into the truck then drove south

You might like to try making up some more sentences, and check them with a Bininj friend.

Step 4: Transitives between first and second person

The most common situation with a transitive verb is the "I>you" case, e.g. nan I see you, bukkan I show you, yawan I look for you. This case of the "zero prefix" appears in the top-left corner of the table.

Nonpast Gloss Translation Past Gloss Translation
nan I>you see I see you (sg, pl) kannan>me/us see you (sg) see me/us
ngundinan we>you see we see you (sg, pl) kandinan>me/us see you (pl) see me/us

We change from the zero prefix to ngundi- in the case of a plural subject, e.g. ngundibukkan we show you, ngundiyawan we look for you (bottom left).

The right side of the table concerns action in the reverse direction, from you to me, i.e. second person to first person.

Step 5: Transitives with 3rd person plural objects (draft)

Singular Object Meaning Plural Object Meaning
nganan I see him/her/it ngabennan I see them
yinan you (sg) see him/her/it yibennan you (sg) see them
kanan he/she sees him/her/it kabennan he/she sees them
kabinan it sees him/her kabennan it sees them
karrinan we (incl) see him/her/it karrbennan we (incl) see them
ngurrinan you (pl) see him/her/it ngurrbennan you (pl) see them
kabirrinan they see him/her/it kabindinan they see them

Step 6: more... to be continued