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ablative: a case form indicating the source of a movement; in some languages it is also used to express causality or to mark the second term of a comparison.

ablaut: see vowel gradation.

absolutive: a case form marking the subject of an intransitive verb and the object of a transitive verb in an ergative-absolutive language.

abugida: a syllabic alphabet in which every consonant has an inherent vowel.

accusative: a case form that marks the direct object of a transitive verb.

active voice: the subject of a transitive verb and the agent (the performer of the action) are the same and what is affected by the action is the direct object (the patient).

adjective: a word expressing a property or attribute of a noun.

adjunct: an optional constituent of a construction that denotes the time, place, etc, of  the action but not a participant in it.

adposition: a word governing a noun or pronoun and expressing a relation to another word or element in the clause. If the adposition precedes the noun/pronoun it is called preposition, if it follows the noun/pronoun it is called postposition, and if it is composed of two elements, one preceding and the other following the noun/pronoun it is called circumposition.

advanced-tongue-root vowels: a term which refers to a state of the root of the tongue during the pronunciation of vowels in certain languages. The advanced tongue root vowels (ATR+) are pronounced by moving the base of the tongue forward (with expansion of  the pharyngeal cavity) being perceived as "tense" or "bright". In the (ATR-) vowels the tongue remains in neutral position.

advanced-tongue-root vowel harmony: in it, there is a contrast between vowels pronounced with an advanced tongue root (+ATR) and a retracted tongue root (-ATR): only vowels from  the +ATR set or from the -ATR set appear in the same morpheme.

adverb: a word that modifies a verb, an adjective, another adverb, a phrase or a clause, indicating time, place, manner, cause, degree, etc.

adverbial phrase: a group of related words that functions as an adverb.

affixes: bound grammatical morphemes that do not have a sense by themselves. They can be inflectional (like in English plural -s and past-tense -ed) or derivational (e.g. -ness and pre-). If they are placed before a word they are called prefixes, if they are placed after it they are called suffixes, and infixes when they are in its middle.

affricates: sounds combining a stop with an immediately following fricative sharing the same place of articulation.

agent: the constituent of a sentence which is the performer of an action.

agglutinative languages: in them, several morphemes are bound to form a word and the boundaries between them are unambiguous; each morpheme (affix) has its own grammatical meaning or function and is individually identifiable.

aktionsart: a distinction of aspect expressed lexically rather than grammatically or by derivational morphology.

alienable possession: see inalienable possession.

allophones: variants of the same phoneme occurring in different environments.

alveolars: consonants produced with the blade of the tongue below the center of the alveolar ridge like c in vice, n in nun, r in rear, ll in fellow.

analytic (or isolating) language: one in which words tend to remain unchanged and in which syntactical relations are conveyed by word order and auxiliary words, rather than by inflection or agglutination.

anaphoric: a word referring to, or replacing, a word used earlier in a sentence, to avoid repetition.

apocope: the loss of a sound or sounds at the end of a word.

approximant: a term used by some phoneticians to refer to liquids and glides.

aspect: a verbal category that expresses the way in which time is denoted by the verb i.e. if the action has been completed or not, if it is ongoing or habitual, etc.

aspirated stops: a stop consonant pronounced with an exhalation of breath.

attributive adjectives: those that follow or precede the noun they modify without a linking verb between them.

auxiliary verb: it accompanies the lexical verb of a verb phrase and expresses person, number, aspect, tense, voice.


benefactive: a case form pointing to the individual for whose benefit something is done.

bound morphemes: those that can never stand alone occurring only in combination with others.

breathy voice (murmur): a type of voice quality in which a great deal of air passes through a slightly open glottis.


causative: a verbal form whose subject is not the performer of the action but its instigator. In other words, it conveys the idea of  ‘to cause to’, ‘to make to’.

circumfixes: are bound grammatical morphemes (affixes) composed by a prefixal and suffixal part that function together.

circumposition: a combination of a preposition and a postposition working together as a single adposition.

cleft constructions: in them, a single clause has been divided into two separate sections, each with its own verb, one of them appearing in a subordinate clause. For example, the sentence 'Mary is driving a new car' can be expressed for topical reasons in two different cleft sentences as: 'It is Mary who is driving a new car' or as 'It is a new car that Mary is driving'.

clicks: ingressive consonantal stop sounds produced by sudden withdrawal of the tongue from the soft palate, front teeth, or back teeth and hard palate, occurring in some southern African languages.

clitics: are morphemes syntactically free but phonologically bound to other morphemes (head nouns, prepositions, verbs, adverbs). They may function at phrase or clause level and have grammatical rather than lexical meaning.

complementary distribution: in phonology, it refers to variant sounds found in different environments that represent the same phoneme.

compounding: combining existent words to make a new one.

conditional: a mood that refers to a hypothetical state of affairs or to an uncertain event that is contingent on another set of circumstances.

conditional sentences: those that contain two clauses, one (protasis) is the condition, a hypothetical situation, and the other the consequence (apodosis) of the former.

conjunction: a word that connects parts of a sentence or independent clauses.

continuants: sounds produced with an incomplete closure of the oral vocal tract like fricatives, liquids and glides.

contour tone: a tone that shifts from one pitch to another over the course of the syllable or word.

contrafactive or contrafactual: a type of conditional mood in which if a condition had occurred a consequence would have ensued, but as the condition did not occur the consequence did not happen.

converbs: non-finite verbs (verbs with reduced or no inflection) used in dependent clauses to describe successive actions in a narrative.

copula: a verb, in particular a form of the verb 'be', which links a subject to a noun phrase, adjective or other predicate constituents.

copulative compound: a combination of two or more words joined by an imaginary conjunction 'and'.

countable nouns: denote countable entities such as table, chair, etc.

creaky voice: in this type of phonation the vocal folds are tightly compressed and vibrate below the frequency of normal voicing with a very small airflow through the glottis.


dative case: a grammatical case indicating an indirect object or recipient; it can also express purpose.

declarative sentence: it is a sentence in the form of a statement.

declension cases: any of the inflectional forms of nouns, pronouns and adjectives indicating syntactic relations between the words in the sentence.

definiteness: is a category of noun phrases distinguishing between entities that are specific and identifiable in a given context (definite noun phrases) and entities which are not (indefinite noun phrases).

deictic: relating to a word or expression, specifying identity or spatial or temporal location from the perspective of one or more of the participants in the speech, whose meaning is dependent on the context, e.g., here, you, me, that one there.

dentals: consonants pronounced with the tip of the tongue against the upper front teeth (as th in thin) or the alveolar ridge (as t in rate and d in body). The former are, sometimes, called proper dentals and the latter alveolars.

derivation: adding an affix to a word to form another word belonging to other syntactic category.

derivative (or secondary) conjugations: are those based on a stem derived from a primary verb, by affixing, reduplication or vowel changes, that extends its meaning, e.g. causative, desiderative, intensive, etc.

determiner: a word, belonging to a group of noun modifiers, that determines the kind of reference a noun has (articles, demonstratives, possessives).

devoicing: when a voiced consonant becomes voiceless.

dialect continuum: see macrolanguage.

diglossia: when two varieties of the same language are used under different conditions within a community, often by the same speakers.

digraph: a series of two letters to represent a single sound.

diphthong: a sound formed by the combination of two vowels in a single syllable, in which the sound begins as one vowel and moves toward another.

direct object: the patient of a transitive verb i.e. the object that receives the action. In many inflected languages it is marked with the accusative case.


ejectives: stop consonants produced by closing the glottis while there is an occlusion in the oral cavity. The larynx is raised rapidly upwards so that the air entering in the vocal tract increases the pressure in it. When the oral closure is released the stop bursts with a greater amplitude.

enclitics: clitics that occur at the end of a morpheme.

epenthetic: a sound or an unetymological letter inserted within a word.

ergative case: it marks the subject of a transitive verb in an ergative-absolutive language.

ergative-absolutive languages: in them, the subject of a transitive verb is marked with the ergative case while the subject of an intransitive verb and the object of a transitive verb are marked with the absolutive case.


finite verb: a verb form fully inflected according to the verbal categories of a language (tense, aspect, mood, number, person).

flap: a type of liquid consonant produced by allowing the tip of the tongue to strike the alveolar ridge very briefly e.g. an r-sound like in English 'roar'.

focus: comment or rheme about the topic of the sentence.

free morphemes: those morphemes that can stand alone as words.

fricatives: sounds made by the friction of breath in a narrow opening, producing a turbulent air flow like v in valve and z in zoo.

fusional language: a type of synthetic language in which several grammatical categories (e.g. number, gender, case, person, number) may be  expressed by a single affix, in contrast with an agglutinative language.

future perfect: expressing an action to be completed in the future before another future action.


gemination: identical adjacent speech sounds, especially doubled consonants.

genitive case: it is used primarily to mark possession.

glides: or semivowels are sounds produced as the vocal organs move towards or away from articulation of a vowel or consonant e.g. the y in yet and the w in won.

glottals: consonants articulated in the glottis like h in hot.

glottalized consonants: those produced with complete or partial closure of the glottis while articulating a sound other than a glottal one, like the ejectives of Amharic and the ejectives and implosives of Hausa.


imperative: a mood that expresses command, prohibition, entreaty or advise.

imperfective aspect: indicates that an action is in progress or is habitual.

implosives: kind of stops with a mixed glottalic ingressive and pulmonic egressive airstream mechanism. That is, the airstream is controlled by moving the glottis downward in addition to expelling air from the lungs.

inalienable possession: certain nouns have the property of always being possessed. For example, body parts and relatives do not exist apart from a possessor i.e. a hand implies someone's hand, and a father implies someone's father. Other things, like most objects, may be possessed or not. When these latter types of entities are possessed, the possession is alienable.

incorporation: is a phenomenon by which a verb forms a kind of compound with, for instance, its direct object or adverbial modifier, while retaining its original syntactic function.

indicative mood: it expresses a fact (assertion, denial or question).

indirect object: this is the object for which the action is done.

infinitive: expresses an action or state without reference to person, number or tense, it may function as subject or object of a sentence.

infixes: are bound grammatical morphemes (affixes) that occur within another morpheme.

inflections: changes in the form of words to indicate their function in the sentence.

intransitive verb: is a verb associated with one argument, the subject.

instrumental case: a case indicating a means or instrument; it may also express company or the agent in passive constructions.

irrealis: a set of grammatical moods that indicate that a certain situation or action is not known to have happened as the speaker is talking.

isolating language: see analytic language.


labialized consonants: are those having a secondary articulation involving the lips while the remainder of the oral cavity produces another sound.

labials: consonants articulated in the lips, with both lips (bilabials) or with one lip and the teeth (labio-dentals) e.g. p in pup, b in tribe, ph in elephant.

laterals: sounds in which the tongue is contracted in a way that a greater volume of air flows around one or both sides  of it without central escape of air, but not complete medial closure e.g. the sound l.

lexical morphemes: words that have meaning by themselves like nouns, verbs and adjectives.

lexical verb: the main verb of a sentence and carries the meaning of the action.

locative case: a case typically expressing location in time or space.

logophoric: special third-person pronouns used to specify if the subject of dependent clauses is the same as the subject of main clauses or not. Logophoric pronouns are common in the languages of West Africa.


macrolanguage: or dialect continuum is a range of dialects spoken across a territory that differ only slightly between neighboring areas, but as one travels in any direction, these differences accumulate such that speakers from opposite ends of the continuum are no longer mutually intelligible.

mass nouns: are not countable common nouns such as snow, wind, etc.

middle voice: when the performer of the action (agent) is affected by the action (patient).

modality: is what allows speakers to attach expressions of belief, attitude and obligation to statements.

monophthong: a vowel that has a single perceived auditory quality. Contrasted with diphthong.

mood: a category that reflects the mode or manner of an action, which may be real, unreal, possible, certain, a command, a wish, etc. It can be indicated by means of verbal inflections or by phrases.

mora: it is a unit of time that measures the duration of a syllable, a short syllable consists of one mora and a long syllable of two morae.

morpheme: the smallest meaningful unit in a language.

morphology: is the study of the formation of words and how they may change their form.


nasals: consonants produced by lowering the velum (soft palate) and closing the oral cavity; as a consequence the air from the lungs passes through the nose only.

nasalized consonants: those in which the oral airflow is accompanied by nasal airflow.

nominative-accusative languages: in them, the subject of a transitive verb (agent-like) and that of an intransitive verb are both marked by the nominative case while the direct object of a transitive verb (patient-like) takes the accusative.

nominative case: it is used to mark the subject of the verb.

non-finite verb: a verbal form not fully inflected for categories such as tense, aspect, mood, number, person.

noun class system: the grouping of nouns in different classes, marked by an affix, characteristic of many African languages. All members of a given class share the same affix. Some classes are semantic, others are based on grammatical categories but many are heterogeneous. There is, usually, a system of agreement or concordance between noun modifiers and the noun i.e., they all share the same class affix. This concord may extend also to the verb, and to the subject, object and relative markers.

noun incorporation: the process of affixing a noun to a verb resulting in a complex verb.

noun phrase: consists of a noun as its head with zero or more modifiers (determiners, adjectives, etc.). This string of words can be replaced by a single pronoun, and can be the subject or object of a verb, or the complement of prepositions or of postpositions.

numeral classifiers: in some languages, classifiers are required when nouns are modified by a number and/or a determiner (quantifier or demonstrative). They encompass several broad semantic/conceptual groups but many of them do not have any obvious semantic correlation with their nouns.


object:  it can be direct or indirect, the direct object of an active transitive verb is the patient, and the indirect object of an active ditransitive verb is a recipient or goal.

obstruent: a stop, affricate or fricative.

optative: a mood that, typically, expresses possibility, capability or wish.


palatals: consonants produced with the anterior part of the body of the tongue touching the hard palate e.g. y in yet.

palatalized consonants: those pronounced with a palatal secondary articulation i.e. consonants pronounced as if followed very closely by the sound [j], like it occurs in many Slavic languages.

passive voice: when what is affected by the action is the subject (patient) and the doer is the object.

past perfect: expressing an action completed in the past relative to another past action.

patient: the semantic role of a noun phrase denoting something that is affected or acted upon by the action of a verb.

perfect aspect: indicates that a completed action is relevant to the present, or expresses a state.

perfective aspect: indicates that an action has been completed.

periphrastic constructions: in them more than one free morpheme is used to express grammatical meaning instead of inflectional affixes added to a single morpheme.

phonemes: any of the perceptually distinct units of sound in a specified language that distinguish one word from another.

phonemic: a basic sound in a language whose change might originate a different word.

pitch accent: variation in pitch to give prominence to a syllable or mora within a word. Pitch depends on the rate of vibrations of the sound i.e. the degree of its highness or lowness.

polysynthetic languages: in them, single words may express the meaning of whole phrases or clauses by means of multiple affixes.

post-alveolars: consonants produced by the blade of the tongue touching behind the alveolar ridge as sh in she and g in gem.

postpositions: a word following a noun or pronoun that expresses a relation to another word or element in the clause.

predicative adjectives: are adjectives that modify a noun but are separated from it by a linking verb.

prefixes: are bound grammatical morphemes (affixes) that occur before a morpheme.

prepositions: a word preceding a noun or pronoun that expresses a relation to another word or element in the clause.

present perfect: expressing an action completed in the past but relevant to the present.

proclitics: clitics that occur at the beginning of a morpheme.

pronouns: third-person pronouns are substitutes for nouns; first and second person pronouns do not replace a noun, they are used to indicate the speaker or the addressee in a speech.

proper nouns:  are nouns that refer to a particular entity such as the name of a person, a place, etc.


quantifiers: express quantity-related concepts. They include the numerals and words such as 'every, each, all, many', etc.


reduplication: a process in which the root or stem of a word (or part of it) is repeated exactly or with a slight change. It is used in inflections to convey a grammatical function, such as plurality, intensification, etc., and in lexical derivation to create new words.

reflexive pronouns: pronouns used when the object of a sentence is the same as its subject.

reflexive verb: is the verb whose agent performs an action that is directed at itself; it takes a reflexive pronoun as object.

relative clause: it is a subordinate clause that modifies a noun phrase and is introduced by relative pronouns ('who, what, which') or relative adverbs ('when, where, why').

restrictive clause: a relative clause serving to specify the particular instance or instances being mentioned.

retracted-tongue-root vowels: a term which refers to a state of the root of the tongue during the pronunciation of vowels in certain languages. See advanced-tongue-root vowels.

retroflex consonants: pronounced with the tip of the tongue curled up towards the hard palate like Dravidian and Indo-Aryan , , , .

rhotics: also called r-sounds, are consonants produced with a simple or repeated brief contact between the tongue and a point on the upper surface of the vocal tract (apical trills, taps and flaps). Laterals and rhotics may be grouped together under the name of liquids.

rounded vowels: those pronounced with the lips pursed like the i in ship, the o in ooze, and the a in ball.


sandhi: the process whereby the form of a word changes as a result of its position in an utterance. It is very prominent in Sanskrit whence this term comes from.

schwa: the unstressed central vowel (as in 'a moment ago'), represented by the symbol ə in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

serial verbs: two or more verbs, having the same subject, tense and mood, standing next to each other without a conjunction.

sibilants: fricative consonants made by directing a stream of air with the tongue towards the sharp edge of the teeth, which are held close together i.e. s-like sounds.

sonorant: a vowel, a glide, a liquid or a nasal consonant.

split ergativity: ergativity is restricted to certain categories and contexts e.g. to a certain aspect or a certain tense. Most ergative languages are, in fact, split ergative.

stative verbs: express a state of affairs or being rather than action. They differ from action verbs in meaning, formal structure and usage.

stops: consonants produced with complete closure of the oral tract.

stress accent: variation in loudness to place emphasis on a syllable within the word.

subject: it is the agent of transitive verbs or the single argument of intransitive verbs. It has a particular case marking or clause position.

subjunctive: a mood that represents an act or state, not as fact but as possible, uncertain, doubtful or wished.

subordinate or dependent clause: is a clause that adds information to an independent clause, but which cannot stand alone as a sentence. There are different types of subordinate clauses like noun clauses, relative clauses, and adverbial clauses.

suffixes: are bound grammatical morphemes (affixes) that occur after a morpheme.

syntax: it deals with how sentences are constructed i.e. in which order words are arranged to show their relative function.

synthetic languages: are those that form words by affixing dependent morphemes to a root. The affixes may be fused with the root and/or among themselves (fusional languages) or may have clear boundaries (agglutinative languages). Word order is less important in expressing grammatical relations in the sentence than in analytical languages, because each affix in itself expresses them.


tap: an r-sound similar to a flap.

tense: a verbal category relating the time of an action to the time of the speech.

tone: a change in pitch to give prominence to a syllable or mora.

topic: or theme of a sentence is what is being talked about.

transitive verb: a verb associated with two arguments, the subject and the direct object.

trill: the pronunciation of a consonant, especially r, with rapid vibration of the tongue against the hard or soft palate or the uvula e.g. Spanish 'perro'.


unrounded vowels: those pronounced with the lips unpursed like the e in bed, the a in bad, and the u in cup.

uvulars: consonants produced with the back of the tongue in the uvular region as q in Arabic and r in French.


valence: refers to the number of arguments that a verb may take.

velarized consonants: are those having a secondary articulation by which the back of the tongue is raised toward the velum (soft palate) during the primary articulation.

velars: consonants produced by the posterior part of the body of the tongue touching the velum or soft palate like k in take, g in egg and ng in sing.

verbal noun: a noun that is also a non-finite verb form, usually the infinitive or gerund e.g. 'I like singing'.

verbal phrase: it consists of a verb and its modifiers and objects.

vocative: the case used to address a person.

voice: form of a verb showing the relation between the subject and the object of an action and the action itself.

voiced sounds: those produced with vibration of the vocal chords.

voiceless sounds: those produced without vibration of the vocal chords.

vowel gradation or ablaut: a vowel whose quality or length is changed to indicate linguistic distinctions e.g. in English strong verbs (sing, sang, sung).

vowel harmony: the assimilation of a vowel to another vowel when they are near in a word or phrase. For example, in some languages if the first vowel of a word is a back one, then the second has to be a back vowel too.

vowel heightness: it refers to the position of the tongue in relation to the roof of the mouth when producing the vowel sound.

vowel length: is the duration of a vowel sound.

vowel roundedness: it refers to whether the lips are rounded or not when the vowel sound is produced.


wh-questions: information-seeking questions that use interrogative pronouns or adverbs most of which starts with wh in English like 'why, what, who, where, when'.

word order:  the linear order of constituents of grammatical sentences (subject, object, verb).

word stem: the basic part of a word to which affixes can be attached and is common to all inflected variants. Sometimes, the stem and the root of a word are the same.


yes-no questions: those whose expected answer is yes or no. In some languages they are distinguished from declarative sentences only by rising intonation, in others by a special word order, in others by a special particle or enclitic.

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