The Omaha-Ponca morpheme ama is an excellent example for synchronic employment of several diachronic stages of grammaticalization in a language. In part 1 of the article which is based entirely on Eschenberg (2004: 72, 84-91) for the three main syntactic functions of ama (auxiliary, article, evidential) the various uses and their semantics and functional variants are listed with at least one example each. Besides being interesting for its semantic complexity, this is preparatory information for part 2, where the process of grammaticalization and scopal change is analysed by means of RRG (Role and Reference Grammar).


Grammaticalization is the diachronic change of a morpheme or of a word from lexical status to grammatical (syntactical or morphological), to a functional language unit, typically also widening its scope (effective area in a sentence) in the progress. According to Traugott (1986), grammaticalization usually also brings subjectification along, such that the meaning of grammaticalized elements tends to become less objective and more subjective (speaker's point of view). Grammaticalization involves morphosyntactic, semantic and pragmatic changes.

Omaha-Ponca ama

I'm using the 'practical' notation here that Eschenberg uses and which is also the official Omaha-Ponca notation.
on — a nasal vowel between a and o, like in English 'hot', but nasalized; in IPA notation ɔ̃
— voiced j, like in French 'Jean'; IPA: ʒ
— like the English fricative in 'shy'; IPA: ʃ
th — like English 'that'; IPA: θ
th —  aspirated t (a slight h after the t); IPA: th

1.  ama as an auxiliary

(1)  zizika duba edi   am   -ama  hegashtewonzhi.
     Turkey some there EXIST-EVID by no means a few
     'There were some turkeys, a great many.' (Eschenberg 2004: 84)

Eschenberg follows Koontz (1984: 146) glossing ama as 'exist' in its use as an auxiliary. In the example above (1), the auxiliary is realized as am-. As an existential auxiliary ama can be used only for plural subjects; for singular subjects akha must be used.
As an auxiliary, ama may also have a progressive reading (instead of existential), if the subject / action has already been introduced. In (2) the action goes on over an undefined distance (athe 'go'). In its progressive reading, ama may be employed with singular (2) or plural (3) subjects.

(2)  gon xage athe am -ama.
     and cry  go   AUX-EVID
     'And he was going along crying.'
(3)  una -i  ama, xitha  ama, e  monxe ibisonde  ata-xti  gawinxe   am -ama.
     seek-PL the  eagles the  it sky   press.ag. at -very fly.round AUX-EVID
     'Those whom he sought, the Eagles, were flying round and round 
     pressing very closely against the top of the sky.'
Syntactical and semantic function in terms of RRG

Eschenberg states that "In terms of RRG, as an existential predicate, ama is a predicate, part of the LSC [Layered Structure of the Clause, note by SB.].
As an aspectual modifier of the verb, ama, an auxiliary, is a nuclear modifier."

2.  ama as a definite article, a proximate marker with stage/scene-related functions

According to Eschenberg (1999: 85 following Koontz 1984: 144, following Unknown n.d.: 38-46, following Dorsey ms.: 20-22, 148-52), "Ama also functions as the definite article for agentive arguments that are either plural (...) or in motion."

In example (4), the plural subject NP, and in example (5) a singular subject NP in motion are marked by ama, which here functions as a proximate marker setting the marked subjects in the centre of the stage. As for motion, according to Eschenberg (2004, 2001) ama doesn't simple denote motion, but rather a motion towards something or to a direction, or motion out of the scene, a change of scene — e.g. (5), (6). By contrast, the motion in example (7)  does not imply a change of scene — the dog stays within the lodge/scene — and consequently akha is used instead of ama.

Setting a character centre-stage
(4)  nuzhinga onguta-ama e  uhi.
     boys     our   -the it win.3
     'Our boys won.'
Motion to/towards
(5)  nudahonga ama wagonze ama monzhon weahide  wathithon ayatha.
     leader    the teacher the land   far.away work.3    go.3
     'The head teacher went far away for work.'
Movement out of the scene / off stage
(6)  egithe    atha-bi-ama  wa'u  ama.
     at length went-PL-EVID woman the.PROX
     'At length the woman went.'
     (from the camp to yonder cliff)
Movement within the scene
(7)  gon ti    zhinga the timonthe          atha-bi-ama  shinudon akha.
     and lodge small  the within the lodge went-PL-EVID dog      the.PROX
     'And the dog went within the small lodge.'
     (in same general area)
Removal of a character from the scene

In example (8) a character is removed from the scene of the discourse/conversation. It contrasts with (9), in which there is no motion and the character, though absent, is in the centre of attention. Instead of ama, akha is used, marking the character as 'singular, animate, not in motion, proximate, definite (the)'.

(8)  Creighton ama athi-bazhi.
     Creighton the here-not.3
     'Creighton isn’t here.'
Motion implied by ama with non-motion verbs

Motion can be implied by the use of ama with non-motion verbs.

(9)  kida -ga       ha,      a  -bi-ama  mashtshinge ama.
     Shoot-MASC.IMP MASC.DEC say-PL-EVID rabbit      the
     'Shoot it,' said Rabbit.
Syntactical and semantic function in terms of RRG

According to Eschenberg, in its use as an article, ama has the functions of a definite marker and a deictic marker on the NP.

3. ama as an evidential

Information conveyed is not first-hand, but obtained from somebody/somewhere
(10) Monshte khe ta tadonhe tonga bi-ama.
     South   the at tornado big  PL-EVID
     'I guess there was a big tornado in Oklahoma.'

(11) Upade   akha wani a  -bi-ama.
     Surgery the  pain say-PL-EVID
     'They say the surgery is painful'
Reportative frame; speaker narrates in story world
(12) Hinxpe-agthe   abthixe bthe, a  -bi-ama.
     Fine  -feather I marry I go  say-PL-EVID
     'I go to take Fine Feather for my husband,' said she.
Expressive frame; speaker speaks through or as a character
(13) Tena! Hinxpe–agthe   wi e  bthin ha.
     Why   Fine  -feather I  it I am MASC.DECL
     'Why, I am Fine Feather.'
Syntactic and semantic function in terms of RRG

As an evidential, the function of ama is that of a clausal marker.