In some languages a single noun can have many meanings, depending on which class it's functioning-as-a-member-of in any given instance. For example, take a language like Yumhir (of which bits and pieces here are all that exist), whose 5 noun classes are traditionally arranged in a hierarchy like so:

Yumhir has the following classifiers, which are separate words (BTW, _e_ is schwa, _ng_ is velar nasal, _wh_ is devoiced _w_, _nh_ is devoiced _n_, etc.):

class definite indefinite
1 whe
2 anhu ---
3 unge
4 ya et
5 u we

Here's a short vocabulary -- <1> means class 1, <2> is class 2, etc.; more basic meanings (loosely speaking) are given first:

  mhiwe    <4> hand; <5> finger; (figurative) <1> doer, agent.
  yagrare  <5> blob (of spit etc.); <4> streak (of blood etc.)
  ekua     <1> fool; <2> foolishness
  whut     <5> water (in a cup), ? pool; <3> lake, ocean; <4> river
  ngaya    <5> eye; <2> vision; <1> watcher, guard; <4> telescope
  berinha  <2> death; <4> corpse (of a person or long, thin animal);
                <1> Death (personified); <3> ? plague, pestilence

(You could put these in a grid; this might make the patterns of variation in meaning clearer.)

So, for example, _anhu ekua_ 'the foolishness', _whe ekua_ 'fool', _et mhiwe_ 'the hand', _pek u mhiwe_ 'three fingers' (_pek_ 'three').

This reminds me of semantic variation in Hebrew verbs. It strikes me that the lesson in all this is that grammatical processes that alter meaning may do so in (very interestingly) unpredictable ways!

Last modified Saturday, April 24, 2004 at 16:42:17 GMT -0500