Saturday, July 07, 2007

And how do you know that? (paca)

Here's a little bit of linguistics fun that I thought might interest people.

In English, verbs have to express whether or not the subject is singular or plural, the tense of the event or action (past, present, or future), mood (declarative versus subjunctive), as well as "aspect", which is whether the action is completed, a regular occurrence, or currently ongoing. The verb "walks" tells you that the subject is singular (the s), that it is basically present, and that it happens regularly, as in "she walks". If you leave off the "s" to say "she walk", it sounds wrong to us. Of course, if you say "walked", the walking is in the past now. If you add versions of "has and had" to "walked", then the action must be complete. She is no longer walking.** Most of the languages that we learn have different versions of these sorts of things, and so it can sometimes seem that this is the way things must be. How could you possibly speak differently? But, as always, very little of this is actually obligatory. French doesn't distinguish in its grammar between "she walks" and "she is walking". This can trip English speakers up when learning French, but the French get by just fine. In fact, how often do you really need to say, "she walks". In Mandarin Chinese, they don't do true tense on the verbs. You can say that an action is completed, or if it has ever been done, or if the action is ongoing at the moment, but none of those are truly tense. So how do they get by? You just say things like "yesterday" and "next year".

But these features of number, tense, mood, and aspect (and person and gender) are by no means the only possible things one can mark on a verb, and compared to some languages, English is hopelessly imprecise. Speakers of such languages must be baffled at how we ever get along without the grammatical feature they grew up with. One such item is "object marking". While Spanish, French, German, and English worry a lot about making the verb agree with the subject of the sentence ("he runs" but "they run" for instance), some languages match the subject marking and raise your grammar by one object. So one particle on the verb might say that the subject is singular, while a second particle says that the object is plural. So "he kicks the ball" might be "he kicksur the ball" while "he kicks the balls" (cue Ril here) might be "he kicksoo the balls."

Another category that we also miss out on is frequently called "evidentiality". Evidential grammatical particles inscribe right on the verb how the speaker came to know the information she is stating. An example is the Amazonian language, Taliana (spoken not by people who live in the Amazon basin, but by large beautiful she-warriors lead by Zena and Wonder Woman). Little known fact. In this language, if you saw Jose playing soccer, your verb would be "dimanika-ka". But if you did not see it, but heard the roar of the statdium (and perhaps people chanting Jose's name, your verb would be "dimanika-mahka." If you went home and saw the soccer ball missing and Jose's soccer shoes gone, you might infer that he is playing soccer, and your verb becomes "dimanika-nihka". If it's Sunday afternoon, and Jose always plays soccer on Sunday afternoons, you might simply assume that's what he's doing and so then you use "dimanika-sika". Finally, if you just heard it from someone, then you have to use "dimanika-pidaka."***

I don't do syntax, but that's pretty cool.

This stuff really isn't as weird as it may seem. English has ways of getting this same info across. You can say "I heard that Jose...." You can use "seems". There are lots of options. The difference between English and a language like Taliana is that it is obligatory in the Taliana language. If you leave the evidentiality bit off, it sounds just as weird as if someone said in English, "Yesterday, I walk to the store." You have to have that "ed" on there. And in Taliana, you have to have evidentiality marked.

A final interesting fact about the Taliana people is that they, along with other people in this area, are "multilingual exogamous." It is only permissable to marry someone who speaks a different language and is from a different tribe. Fortunately for everyone, there are lots of other languages in close proximity. And so people end up speaking 4-5 languages typically.

** What is the difference between "has walked" and "had walked"? If she "has walked" then as of this moment, she has done the action of walking and it is completed. She has walked. If she "had walked" then there is some point in time in the past, perhaps yesterday at 2:15 at which she had done the action of walking and completed it. So they both say that the action is completed. The first says that it is completed as of now; the second says it is completed as of some point in the past.

*** All of this info on Evidentiality is based on the work of Alexandra Aikhenvald. In particular, 2006. 'Evidentiality in grammar', pp. 320-5, Volume 4 (article 0252), of Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, 2nd edition, edited by Keith Brown. Elsevier: Oxford, and 2006. 'Tariana', pp. 506-7 of Volume 12 (article 4489) of Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, 2nd edition, edited by Keith Brown. Elsevier: Oxford. Those are both pdfs if you want to click on them.


bunnygirl said...

Ooh, fun linguistics stuff!

And how about those particle words in Mandarin Chinese? If I remember correctly, you can't just say "book," you have to add the correct particle to imply that it's bound (or presumably, you could add the particle to imply that it's a scroll, if that's the case).

And then there's just "ma." English implies a question with a rising tone at the end of a sentence, but in a tonal language, you can't do that. So you just tack on the little "this is a question" word at the end.

Funny how different languages work and what that sometimes says about how a culture evolved. What does it mean that in Spanish, you never drop something, it just fell? Even if you dropped it on purpose, it fell. Se cayĆ³. Little kids must have a field day with that! :-)

Jangari said...

The evidentiality of that Amazon language is similar to a Papuan language (of the highlands, I believe) called Oksap or Oksapmin. By memory they have about a dozen different evidential particles, and equally obligatory.

writtenwyrdd said...

What fascinating stuff! I missed out when i decided not to opt for that Linguistics degree...

Sammy Jankis said...

I've been meaning to buy a shirt with a quote from a favorite TV series of mine, "Dong ma?". Bunny's comment reminded me of that.

And this post goes to show that linguistics can be interesting. I guess it is kinda like psychology, I loved classes on developmental psychology but couldn't stand memory and forgetting. A lot of the stuff you talk about hurts my head trying to comprehend, but this sounds fascinating.

ril said...

Fascinated by the linguistics, yet troubled by the suggestion that I do only innuendo and double entendre.

Unable to think of a witty rejoinder, ril repairs to the den with a Puffy video and a stiff one.

pacatrue said...

Admit it. Ril. You got the stiff one after putting the video on.

Hah! Take that, I can do the naughty humor too. Sorry. Humour.