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Spec Tech: “Wait, who hit who?”

February 17, 2011
This week’s Spec Tech post is jointly written by the two linguists on the faculty: Ryan Denzer-King and Chris Doty.

Before we dive into the topic of this week’s post, we need a bit of background. All languages have ways of indicating who is doing what to whom, a phenomenon known as person-marking. English, like most languages, distinguishes three categories of person, and it does this with the use of pronouns.

1st person indicates that the speaker of the sentence performed the action described, as in “I went to the store.” 2nd person indicates that the person being spoken to performed the action, as in “You ate the spider.” 1st and 2nd person are often referred to as “speech act participants” (SAPs), because 1st and 2nd person are the people who participate in the speech act (1st person utters, 2nd person hears). 3rd person verb forms indicate that neither the speaker nor the hearer performed the action, as in “He stole the ferrets.”

What we’re interested in for today’s post are the ways in which languages can divide up the category of 3rd person. In English, and a number of other languages, 3rd person gets divided somewhat by gender: “he” and “she.” But other languages do cooler things here.

In English, when we have a non-SAP involved in the discourse, there is the potential for ambiguity. For example, consider:

“John was in a tizzy last night and got into a fight with Bill. He hit him so hard that he broke his jaw.”

Here, it isn’t clear that who broke whose jaw.*

In languages with what’s called an “obviative” system, however, there is a means of marking two different 3rd persons such that the doer and the doee of an action are clear, even when there are only pronouns in the phrase. These two types are often called 3rd person (or “proximate”) and 4th person (or “obviate”). The details of these systems vary a bit from language to language, but in the broadest strokes, the proximate 3rd person is the topic of the discourse, while the obviative 4th person is used for everything else.**

What does this system actually look like? Well, let’s pretend that English has two little words to indicate a 3rd person and a 4th person — “da” and “ma,” respectively. If we look at our example sentence again, we’ll see that the topic of conversation seems to be John—Bill is rather incidental. So, if John hit Bill, we’d get:

“John was in a tizzy last night and got into a fight with Bill. He-da hit him-ma so hard that he-da broke his-ma jaw.”

Here, we have pronouns that refer back to John—our topic, and thus our proximate 3rd person—marked with “da,” and those referring to Bill, our obviative 4th person, marked with “ma.” What happens if it was Bill who hit John?

“John was in a tizzy last night and got into a fight with Bill. He-ma hit him-da so hard that he-ma broke his-da jaw.”

The main thing to note here is that nothing at all has changed except for which pronouns take which suffixes, even though we have the opposite meaning.

Okay, now that we have an idea of what this system looks like, let’s look at an example from a language which actually does this. Algonquian languages, in which obviation is most widespread (occurring in every language in the family) and most pervasive, mark the status of different entities by suffixes that occur on nouns — much like what we saw in our English example above — as well as with suffixes on verbs.

In Blackfoot (an Algonquian language), 3rd person is marked with the suffix –wa, and 4th person with the suffix –yi. An example is “ponoka-wa áínoyiiwa nínaa-yi,” which means “the elk (ponoka) sees the man (nínaa).”

However, since obviation provides a way to tell who is the topic of the conversation and who isn’t, Blackfoot speakers hearing this in the right context (where the elk was established as the topic) would know that this sentence meant that the elk was seeing the man, and not the other way around.

Astute readers may note that in the right context English speakers too will know who is seeing whom, as long as someone or something has been unambiguously established as the topic of the conversation. This is important, because it tells us that speakers of all languages are able to keep track of what the topic of a conversation is; what’s interesting about languages with a proximate/obviate system is that some languages have an overt, standardized way of doing this, whereas in others — like English — speakers keep track of everything without specific words or suffixes.

What does this have to do with spec fic? Nothing much, specifically, except to serve as an example of the seemingly “alien” things that real languages do. When you’re trying to make your language weird, it’s not a bad idea to look through what some real languages do.

* Granted, it looks like it was probably John that did the hitting, but it could be Bill.
** Algonquian languages also make a 5th person distinction, where the “subobviative” or 5th person indicates any possession or relation of a 4th person. Crazy, huh?
3 Comments leave one →
  1. noothergods permalink
    February 17, 2011 9:27 am

    I’m not very good with linguistics but that’s never stopped me from studying. This is a really cool post and I love the idea. If only we could introduce a proximate/obviate system into English my life would be easier. …That might be an exaggeration.

    http://www.lanternhollow.wordpress.com

  2. Chris Doty permalink
    February 17, 2011 10:16 am

    I can’t tell you how often I’ve wished English would just use a semantic case-alignment system with an ergative option!

    …. That’s not really much of an exaggeration, actually :p

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