Ngan'gi Verbs (Simple verbs vs complex verbs)


Ngan'gi is a language that has a distinctive type of structure which linguists refer to as 'morphologically complex'. This means that words are often made up of multiple meaningful parts (morphemes). In English words can be morphologically complex, as we can see in nouns like 'anti-dis-establish-ment-ari-an-ism', however such big words are the exception rather than the rule. In Ngan'gi it is very common for words to be morphologically complex, and it is verbs in particular that exhibit this structural characteristic.


There are two types of verb in Ngan'gi – simple and complex. Simple verbs consist of just a finite verb which inflects for tense, aspect and mood categories (saying whether or not it happened, when it happened), and which hosts a prefix marking its subject and a suffix marking its object. There are only twelve such verbs in this language, seven intransitive and five transitive, so they can simply be listed exhaustively. Table 1 below sets out these twelve simple verbs, showing sample subject prefixes and object suffixes marked off by hyphens (just to show you the structure – we don't normally do this in writing Ngan'gi). The verbs 'see' and 'take' demonstrate object marking on transitive simple verbs, and the simple verb 'arrive' demonstrates the possibility of optionally adding a suffix to simple verbs which marks a 'goal' (or indirect object). Each verb listed here is in just one specific tense/subject form. The full set of possible forms for each of these verbs is set out under Finite Verb Tables.


Table 1: The 12 'simple' verbs in Ngan'gi



sit ngi-rim I'm sitting.
stand ngi-rribem  I'm standing.
lie yi-bem You're lying down.
go  ya-ganim You're going.
travel[1]  yi-rripin

She's travelling.

perch  wi-tyibem  It's perching.
arrive ye-menggeng-ngindi  You arrived to me. 


say/do/think  ngi-m  I did it.
see ngi-nyirri-nyi I'll see you.
take ya-wang-ngi  Take me!
inscribe, write  nga-rim  I'm writing it.
spread, smear ngu-pun   I'm spreading it.


Beyond these twelve, every other verb in Ngan'gi is complex, consisting of a finite verb in combination with a coverb, most frequently in that order. Finite verbs and coverbs in combination constitute a single word (there are both phonological and morphological criteria showing this) but as noted above when we write Ngan'gi we break them up to avoid the look of very long words. A typical complex verb made up of these two parts might look like this, where ngirim is the finite verb, and fifi is the coverb:


1) Ngirim fifi
  1sgSSit smoke
  I'm smoking.


Note on the layout of example sentences:

When we present Ngan'gi examples we use the 3-line system you see here, where the 2nd line is a 'gloss' of the various meaningful parts of the word. This example is glossed to show that Ngirim is the '1st person singular subject form of the Sit finite verb, and it combines with the coverb fifi which means 'smoke'. Then the 3rd line gives you the English translation. To save space the glossing system does not provide information about the tense inflection of each finite verb, but that can be worked out by referring to the Finite Verb Tables. You'll encounter lots of glossing abbreviations throughout this section. They'll seem a bit obscure at first, and they do demand some linguistic knowledge, but there is a listing of them at the very end to help you.

In total there are 31 finite verbs, and all of them pair with coverbs to form complex verbs. Thus each of the simple verbs can also occur in combination with a coverb. We call these 12 verbs 'finite verbs' in discussing their complex verb role, and 'simple verbs' in discussing their independent occurrence. (Note that the simple verbs 'write' and 'spread' are glossed as 'Poke' and 'Slash' when functioning as finite verbs). Below we list the finite verbs in three sections: intransitives (involving no object), transitives (involving an object), and reflexives (involving yourself as object). The finite verbs above the dotted line are those which can also function as simple verbs, those below it can only co-occur with coverbs.


The 31 finite verbs in Ngan'gi:



Sit carried out in a sitting posture

Stand carried out in a standing posture

Lie carried out in a lying posture

Go carried out in motion

Go* carried out in motion

Perch carried out up off the ground

Arrive involving arrival/emergence



Say/Do speech and unspecified doing (do things, say things)

See performed with the eyes (look at, watch, keep an eye on)

Poke using long thin things in point contact (stab, prod)

Slash using hinged trajectory and edge-on contact (sweep, slice)

Take taking/bringing things


Hands holding things within the grasp of the hands (grab, hold, grip)

Feet holding things down with the feet (tread on, kick, walk on)

Mouth holding things within the mouth (chew, suck)

Bash using vertical trajectory and lumpy contact (thump, crash)

Move moving things to a different place (shift, throw, push)

Heat applying heat (burn, melt, warm, light)

Suck ingesting things (eat, drink)

Pull pulling things (pull, tow, lever up)

Snatch acquiring things (get, pick up)



Say/Do to yourself reflexive speech (talk to yourself, mutter under your breath)

See yourself reflexive activity performed with the eyes (look at your own reflection)

Hands yourself reflexive activity holding things within the grasp of the hands

Feet yourself reflexive activity holding things down with the feet

Mouth yourself reflexive activity holding things within the mouth

Poke yourself reflexive activity using long thin things in point contact

Bash yourself reflexive activity using vertical trajectory and lumpy contact

Move yourself reflexive activity involving moving yourself to a different place

Arrange yourself reflexive activity involving arranging your limbs

Heat yourself reflexive activity by applying heat


As far as meanings go, note that;

  • the set of intransitive finite verbs is mostly focused on posture and motion.
  • the set of transitive finite verbs shows a quite detailed concern with the mechanics of how objects are manipulated (with hands or feet, poked or cut, etc).
  • the set of reflexive finite verbs can be thought of as the 'self-directed' equivalents of most of the transitive ones.


Interestingly Ngan'gi has devoted a major subset of its 31 finite verbs to the specific sense of self-directed activities, eg. where a person moves themself, rearranges themselves, or otherwise carries out actions towards themselves.

We've seen that most Ngan'gi verbs are made up of the pairing of 'finite verb + coverb'. Critically, finite verbs contribute to the semantics of the resultant whole verb in some way. In parts of northern Australia there are languages with small systems of finite verbs (in some cases just 5-10ish), and in such cases the meanings of finite verbs tend to involve quite generalised semantic distinctions in aspect and transitivity. In those languages with larger finite verb systems (say 30-35) such as the Southern Daly languages Ngan'gi and Murrinh-Patha, finite verb semantics tend to be more lexical, and we can flesh out their meanings in some greater detail.


In Ngan'gi there is generally no real difficulty in determining the semantic contribution that a finite verb brings to a complex verb. So, as you can see from the Finite Verb Tables, we've found it fairly easy to give each Ngan'gi finite verb a one-word English gloss, such as 'Sit', 'Go', 'Poke', 'Bash', etc. Their contrasting semantics can usually be determined through comparison, because many finite verbs contrastively combine with the same coverb, as in the sets below. eg.


2a) Ngirim fifi
  1sgSSit smoke
  I'm smoking (sitting).


2b) Ngibem fifi
  1sgSLie smoke
  I'm smoking (lying).
2c) Ngirribem fifi
  1sgSStand smoke
  I'm smoking (standing).
3a) Ngerin kalal
  1sgSHands rustle
  I rustled it (using my hands)
3b) Nganan kalal
  1sgSFeet rustle
  I rustled it (using my feet)
3c) Ngem kalal
  1sgSMouth rustle
  I rustled it (using my mouth)
4a) Ngarim gurrgurr
  1sgSPoke miss
   I missed an attempted 'Poke' contact (a prod or stab with a long thin weapon)
4b) Ngerim gurrgurr
  1sgSHands miss
   I missed an attempted 'Hands' contact (a pinch or grab)
4c) Ngupun gurrgurr
  1sgSSlash miss
   I missed an attempted 'Slash' contact (a swinging slap or chop)

However, in addition to these semantically transparent examples, it should be noted that there are many verbs in Ngan'gi where the finite verbs contribution to the meaning of the complex verb involves a high degree of abstraction. That the verb meaning 'to catch a flu' dem tip (Hand:grab) is formed with the 'Hands' finite verb, can be fairly easily viewed in terms of metaphorical extension – a flu grabs hold of you in much the same way as a policeman might, and 'holds on' longer than you'd want. However it is less apparent why a verb meaning 'want' derrigidi dem (want:Hands), or 'travel by plane' dem pat (Hands:arise), etc. should be formed with the 'Hands' finite verb. The impression you get is that Ngan'gi has used a set of basic common verbs, mostly grounded in physical actions, and put them to work as classifying verbs, which paired with coverbs allow you to express, through complex metaphorical extensions, any meaning that speakers need.


In Ngan'gi coverbs are an open class of typically uninflecting roots. Several hundred coverbs can be identified, and the class is open in the sense that additions to the class come about through;

  • some derived use of adjectives as coverbs, eg. dem yubu (Hands: good) 'repair something').
  • the combination of finite verbs with English/Kriol lexical verbs, eg. ringimap mem (ring him up:Do) 'make a phone call'.
  • and through some limited, morphological derivation - for example you can form locational coverbs by prefixing bodypart noun roots with ngan- , eg. dim nganderri (Sit: loc-back) 'sit on something's back'.

Coverbs are phonotactically different to nominal roots, often being closed monosyllables (ending in a consonant) and allowing initial or final consonants not found in other word classes or morpheme types.


While most Ngan'gi verbs are made of finite verb + coverb pairings, there is wide variation in degrees of productivity. Some coverbs combine with only a single finite verb, but others combine with a number of different finite verbs. Also, some finite verbs will be highly productive and combine with hundreds of different coverbs, while others will be relatively unproductive. Looking across Ngan'gi's 31 finite verbs, we can observe for instance, that 'Hands, Poke, Slash, Bash, and Move' are all highly productive and textually common, whereas 'Snatch, Pull, Suck and Perch', tend to be both rare and unproductive.


Finite verbs inflect for tense


Each of the 31 finite verbs in Ngan'gi behaves in very particular ways. Firstly, every finite verb has many word shapes, depending on things like the tense and who the subject is. Secondly, inflections (changes of shape) are obligatory - every single verb has them!


To take one finite verb as an example, consider the finite verb Dim 'Sit'. In Ngan'gi it is not possible to have a word that just means 'sit' €“ dim actually means 'she, he or it is sitting'. If you wanted to change the subject and say 'I am sitting' then the word shape would be ngirim. Or if you wanted to change the tense and say 'She was sitting' then the word shape would be dini, and so on.


Wordforms of Dim 'Sit'


Dim  ‘Sit’








Do it now     

Did it before

Used to do it

Not done it yet


























You n me






We two






You two






They two












you n us






we all






you all






They all






The word forms of all Ngan'gi finite verbs are listed in the Finite Verb Tables. Learning these word forms is one of the most challenging aspect of learning Ngan'gi, and very daunting to anyone learning it as a 2nd language. Fortunately there are very definite patterns in each of the tables of forms, and once you put some effort into learning these, their regularities make for fairly high levels of predictability.


Looking at the tables of forms, you'll see that the columns represent different tenses. Rather than choose technical looking labels like 'future' and 'past', we've chosen to give these columns labels like Do it now, and Did it before, etc.


Subject marking in the Ngan'gi verb


In Ngan'gi there are clearly intransitive verbs, which only have subjects, as in 5) below. We also find clearly transitive verbs with both subjects and objects, as in 6) below. Information about the subject of a verb is marked on the verb itself by prefixes. So for example, in a verb like ngirim fifi 'I'm smoking' the finite verb is ngirim, and we could say that the first part of this, the ngi-, indicates that the subject is 'I', and the second part -rim is the root of the finite verb 'Sit'. You can see a similar ngi- form marking the subject while prefixed to -nyinggin in example 6).

(5) ngi-rim-fifi
  I'm smoking.
(6) ngi-nyinggin-nyi-kerrety
  I'm looking after you.

We can contrast this ngi- prefix marking 'I' in 5), with yi- in 7) marking 'You'.

(7) yi-rim-fifi
  You're smoking.

Despite the neat segmentation of the subject prefixes ngi- and yi- in these three examples, in Ngan'gi the forms of subject prefixes tend to vary across each finite verb, and their boundary with the finite verb root tends to be a bit blurred. It is often difficult to segment off the subject as a separate prefix, and it usually easier to just say that the 'subject + finite verb root' form has a particular shape. This is the approach we have adopted throughout the Finite Verb Tables where the finite verbs are listed according to all their subject and tense shapes.


Object marking in the Ngan'gi verb


Ngan'gi also marks objects on the verb, and it does this by adding suffixes to the finite verb. So, in a verb like ngi-nyinggin-nyi-kerrety 'I'm looking after you' the finite verb is nginyingginnyi, and the last part of this, the –nyi, indicates that the object is 'you'. The object forms that can appear as suffixes to the finite verb are more stable and segmentable than the subject prefixes. As the boundary between them and the finite verb root is always clearcut, we can provide a table of their unique forms (see below).


Object suffixes come in two main types, which we label 'objects' and 'goals'. In sample sentences we gloss these as O and G respectively. In general objects are the non-subject arguments of more obviously transitive verbs like 'hit' or 'grab', involving a person or thing that has something done to them that affects them. In contrast, goals are the non-subject arguments of intransitive verbs like 'come to', or less obviously transitive verbs, like 'speak to', involving a person or thing that has something done to them, but that something has less of an affect on them. It is not always possible to accurately predict whether the non-subject argument of a particular verb will be an object or a goal. Does a verb like 'see' involve an affect on the person seen for example? As it happens 'see' takes object forms, but you just have to learn this. After a while though you will find that you develop strong and useful intuitions about the kind of non-subject marking to expect of a Ngan'gi verb.


You can see from the Ngan'gi Object and Goal suffixes Table below that Ngan'gi only has different object and goal forms in the singular. In the dual and plural there is currently no distinction in form. Note also that the 3rd singular object forms are blank. You can see that the differences between Ngan'gikurunggurr and Ngen'giwumirri are fairly minor;


  • -ngindi vs -ngiti for the 1st singular goal forms
  • -dirr and -dirrki vs -nirr and -nirrki for the 2nd plural and dual forms
  • -wirr and -wirrki vs -wurr and -wurrki for the 3rd plural and dual forms


Table: Ngan'gi Object and Goal suffixes









1sg 'I'





2sg 'you'





3sgm 'he'





3sgf 'she'





1dlinc 'you n me'





1dlex 'we two'





2dl 'you two'





3dl ‘they two’





1plinc 'you n us'





1plex 'we all'





2pl 'you all'





3pl 'they all'






So, to take a Ngan'gi verb like nginyinggin + kerrety (I See + hold), we could substitute different direct object suffixes to get;

Nginyingginnyi kerrety.

I'm looking after you.

Nginyinggin kerrety.

 I'm looking after you him/her/it.

Nginyinggindirr kerrety.

I'm looking after you (plural).

Nginyingginbirr kerrety.

I'm looking after them.

Nginyingginbirrki kerrety.

I'm looking after them two.

Similarly, to take a Ngan'gi verb like ngemenggem (I Arrive), we could substitute different Goal suffixes to get;



I come to you.


 I come to them.


I come to her.


I come to you all.


I come to those two.

Note that:

  • The final m of ngemenggem can change to an n or a ng to be like the object/goal suffix that attaches to it.
  • The 2sg goal suffix -mbi gets reduced to just -bi when it comes after an m or n.
  • The 3 plural and dual forms become -birr/-birrki and -burr/-burrki when they follow an m.



Marking dual and trial subjects


Ngan'gi marks the difference between singular and plural subjects by the form of the finite verb inflection. Plural marking typically involves adding –rr– to the singular subject form as in;

Ngemenggem. I arrived.
Ngerrmenggem We arrived.

Ngan'gi also allows subject marking for the number categories dual (two subjects) and trial (three subjects). Dual marking adds -gu after the finite verb, while trial marking adds -nime to the right of the coverb. Note in the examples below that the forms of these subject marking categories are stacked up on the complex verb, so to indicate a dual subject you need to add the plural marker -rr-, and then the dual marker -gu. To indicate a trial subject you need to add the plural marker -rr-, and then the dual marker -gu, and then the trial marker -nime.

Ngerrmenggenggu. We two arrived.
Ngerrmenggenggu name We three arrived.

Note that the dual subject marker -gu fits into the same verbal slot as the object markers discussed above. Where a Ngan'gi verb has both a dual subject and a singular object, then there is a different set of bound forms which mark both these categories of information simultaneously:


Ngan'gi singular Object and Goal suffixes where the subject is dual


  Ngan'gikurunggurr   Ngen'giwumirri
  Object Goal Object Goal
dual subj + me -ngerr -ngindirr -ngerr -ngeterr
dual subj + you -nyerr -mberr -nyerr -mberr
dual subj + him   -nerr   -nerr
dual subj + her   -ngerr   -ngerr



In addition to Objects and Goals, there is another set of bound pronouns which we find in Ngan'gi verbs marking people who are disadvantaged by the action. These bound pronouns are suffixed, not to the finite verb, but appear to the right of the coverb, as you can see in this example.


(8) dagum felfil nginde

     3sgSFeet runaway 1sgBad

     (My wife) she ran away on me.


In example 8) the pronoun nginde marks 'me' as the person who is disadvantaged by my wife running away. As a glossing convention we have used 'Bad' to mark this meaning (ie. a bad thing happened to me). The full set of 'Disadvantaged' pronouns for both Ngan'gikurunggurr and Ngen'giwumirri are set out in the table below.


Table: Ngan'gi Disadvantaged person marker

  Ngan'gikurunggurr Ngen'giwumirri
bad for me -nginde -ngidde
bad for you -kide -kide
bad for him -nide -nide
bad for her -ngide -ngide
bad for you n me -nin -ninde
bad for us two -ngirrkide -ngirrkide
bad for you two -dirrkide -nirrkide
bad for them two -wirrkide -wurrkide
bad for you n us -nin nime -ninde nime
bad for us all -ngirrse -ngidde
bad for you all -dirrse -nidde
bad for them all -wirrse -wudde



We can distinguish two usages of these 'Disadvantaged' pronouns. Firstly, they can occur with intransitive verbs marking people who are adversely affected by some activity, as we've seen above. Here is another example of this construction type.


9) Peke kinyi yenim mesyirr ngidde.

    tobacco this 3sgSGo hand-extinguish 1sgBad

    This tobacco is always going out on me.


The second usage of these 'Disadvantaged' pronouns is to mark the person who has part of their body adversely affected in the activity expressed in transitive verbs. As the examples below show, these can involve either intransitive or transitive verbs.


10) Akumifi daram fidudu ngidde.


      tendon 3sgSPokeSelf curl 1sgBad


      My tendons are cramping on me.




11) Kultyinimbi depi ngayi nyinyi ne demeni meyenggi ngidde tye.


      Yesterday head 1sg 2sg PURP 3sgSHandsSelf talk 1sgBad Past


      Yesterday I was thinking about you (lit. My head was talking to itself about you, on me.)



12) Wusye deminy firrtit ngidde.


      hair 3sgSHands footpluck 1sgBad


      She plucked out a hair from my head on me.



13) Marrawuk ninggi wumbun matati kide detyerr nyinyi.


      dryseasonwind AGENT 3sgSSlash split 2sgBad mouth 2sg


      The dry season wind has split your lip on you.