In my last post I discussed the concept of deixis and illustrated deictic demonstratives in Pnar. Pnar's deictic demonstrative system combines gender clitics with largely distance-based deictic morphemes, so there are potentially twenty demonstrative forms that identify nominal distance in relation to the deictic center, which can be either Speaker or Addressee, depending on the context. I'm still trying to figure out which for some forms.
The subject of my HLS talk related the Pnar demonstrative system to the demonstrative systems of other neighboring and related languages. Pnar is a bit unusual in that it is a clearly Austroasiatic language (like other Khasian varieties), yet it is geographically separated from most other Austroasiatic languages by Tibeto-Burman and Indo-Aryan speakers. Identifying similar concepts and forms in these neighboring languages could provide evidence for language contact. Here is a map from the Ethnologue (which I made adjustments to) that shows some of the languages I decided to use to compile a table. Unfortunately not all the neighboring languages listed in black have adequate descriptions. For all you budding linguists out there, go describe them!
Because discussion of deixis is not uniform, I decided to limit myself only to forms which served a nominal demonstrative functon: those words which point out the distance of a noun from a deictic center, or exist in a paradigm with words that do. This excludes a lot of Tibeto-Burman verbal affixes which encode direction (uphill, downhill, across, etc..), and was necessary to keep the talk short enough for the conference. I worked from existing descriptions of neighboring and related languages, and unfortunately some of the languages have little to no description, descriptions that made little to no reference to demonstratives, or I couldn't get ahold of the reference in time. So here is a table with some of my findings:
I think a few things are worth noting here. First, all languages in my sample have at least a proximal/distal distinction. Second, Tibeto-Burman languages in my sample vary widely in terms of how many distinctions they encode in demonstratives. Third, Austroasiatic languages have the largest number of distinctions in their demonstratives, having at least four in each language. However, they are not uniform in terms of which distinctions they make - Pnar, while it has five distance-based demonstratives, has no 'up' or 'down' (in some descriptions 'upstream' or 'downstream') that is part of the demonstrative paradigm.
In terms of language contact, it is interesting to consider that Ao, Karbi, and Garo (which only have a dual distinction according to the descriptions I read) have had considerable contact with Indo-Aryan languages which have only a dual distinction. It is worth noting that Ao also has a non-visible/anaphoric marker that was not considered by Coupe (2007) to be a demonstrative, but may well be (personal communication).
There are many more interesting thoughts that could be drawn from this brief look at deictic demonstrative systems, and I hope these posts have helped you think about the system in your own language or languages you work on. Feel free to leave thoughts, suggestions, corrections, and general comments below!
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At the Himalayan Languages Symposium last week I gave a talk about deixis. This grammatical feature is essentially 'pointing', and words or morphemes in language can point to various things, so grammarians often talk about person or distance-based deixis, social deixis, and temporal deixis.
Distance-based deixis is often encoded in words called 'demonstratives', social deixis in 'honorifics' like "sir", "ma'am" etc.., and temporal deixis is encoded in tense markers. Deixis is actually more complex, though, as deictic morphemes can really point to any point in the communication space, as illustrated in the diagram on the right from Gerner (2009).
Since deixis is such a large topic, my 20-minute talk focused on the way distance-based deixis is encoded in Pnar and in related languages through demonstratives, specifically words that identify the location of nouns in space, relative to a deictic center. Most languages have at least a 2-way contrast (like English "this" and "that"), and rarely more than three. I began to be interested in this feature since in Pnar there is a 5-way contrast in demonstratives and some of the forms resemble similar words in neighboring Tibeto-Burman languages (a completely different language family). Just to illustrate, below on the left are the spatial deictic morphemes in Pnar (the black circle in the middle represents the 'deictic center', which in this case is the person who is speaking), and on the right are the words in some examples of noun phrases in Pnar. You will notice that demonstratives in Pnar are a combination of deictic markers with gender proclitics that identify the noun that the demonstratives are pointing to.
At this point there are a lot of other things I could discuss, but the post is getting a bit long. So I think I'll pause here and my next post will be about the features of demonstratives in neighboring languages. At least now you have a better idea of what deixis is, and how languages can differ significantly in terms of what they can encode in a spatial deictic system.
Gerner, Matthias. 2009. Deictic features of demonstratives: a typological survey with special reference to the Miao group. The Canadian Journal of Linguistics/La revue canadienne de linguistique 54:43–90.
I mentioned that Dr. Anvita Abbi gave a great talk at the Himalayan Languages Symposium on her work on Great Andaman in the Indian Ocean. Here's a map just to show you where that is. [Image credit: Barefoot Holidays]
It's a pretty remote area. In fact, the Nicobar Islands to the south are completely closed to outsiders. When you consider that the speakers of Great Anadaman are down to a single location and the community is switching to Hindi and English as a means of communication, the closed nature of the Nicobar Islands seems somewhat justified. Great Andamanese is actually 10 languages, of which 4 were documented by Dr. Abbi and are spoken by only a handful of speakers. I'll let you check out more about that on this site.
One of the reasons it was fascinating to hear about was because of the highly-developed gender system based on a conceptualization of the world in relation to the human body. Generally, the kind of gender in languages that people are familiar with is that found in Romance languages, where nouns are marked as masculine or feminine, and verbs agree with nouns so that you know which noun is 'controlling' the action (it's more complicated than that of course, but this is just to illustrate a point).
However, gender is simply a noun class system, and nouns can have as many classes as a language (or speakers of a language) find(s) useful. So German has three noun classes (masculine, feminine, neuter), and Bantu languages have a ton (help me out Bantu language experts), and other languages have noun classes based on living things, non-living things, plants, humans, tools, certain kinds of animals, etc..
What is interesting about Great Andamanese is that the same class markers are used on both nouns and verbs in a highly productive way (meaning that they seem to apply in all sorts of ways to both verbs and nouns). These noun class markers identify actions (such as going and coming) as related to one of 7 or so body part prefixes (which also classify nouns) depending on whether the action is conceptualized as relating to mouth (being ingested, digested, etc.. i.e. thinking or being beautiful), or moving in a certain manner (feet), and there are conceptualizations related to all sorts of body parts. Unfortunately I don't have all my notes with me, as I just flew to the US for my brother's wedding, but it's really interesting to think of how this language connects (or doesn't connect) to languages in Southeast Asia and Africa. Read up more on this fascinating system here, and check out Dr. Abbi's new grammar of Great Andamanese, recently published by Brill.
Yesterday afternoon I gave a talk at the Himalayan Languages Symposium, which was held this year at NTU. It's the 20th meeting, and has generally focused on languages of the Himalayan region, which is a pretty broad area when you consider that the Himalayan range stretches from Pakistan to Burma. That's a heck of a lot of languages.
It was a really great conference, thanks to clear papers and engagement on a variety of topics. Phonetics and phonology of individual languages, historical reconstruction, ancient Tibetan, theoretical implications of marking patterns, field reports, typological surveys, Nepali Sign language, child language acquisition, and sociolinguistic studies were only some of the areas covered in the talks. One of the most interesting to me was a report by Anvita Abbi on the languages of Great Andaman, an island in the Andaman-Nicobar chain. These languages are an isolated group that remain unclassified and are in danger of extinction. I'll have to write a separate blog post to explain my fascination.
My talk was on deictic demonstratives in Pnar and the neighboring languages of northeast India. Look for a follow-up post in the next couple days that explains a bit more. For now, I'll just say that it was a great conference and it's back to the thesis in the coming week.
Image Credit: ICIMOD
Last week I had a Eureka!* moment. I love these moments - when you've been trying to figure out a problem (could be big, could be small) and it is frustrating you to no end, and then finally you break through and find the solution! It's pretty amazing.
This Eureka! moment had to do with the linguistic examples I wrote about earlier. They weren't formatting properly, and because of this some of the examples were splitting across pages. Pretty early on in my attempts, I posted on a forum devoted to LyX/LaTeX/TeX, the typesetting program I use. Forums are pretty nifty ways to aggregate knowledge, and I've learned a ton about LaTeX through this particular forum. If you have a specialized industry or tool and you haven't found a forum where people can help each other out, find one quick or make one yourself. It is totally worth it.
Unfortunately, with this particular issue no one was able to help. So I kept troubleshooting, trial and error. Eventually one of the things I tried worked! So satisfying. I imagine this is what I'll feel once I finally submit my PhD thesis... though people tell me a grammatical description is never complete, even if it's over 1,000 pages.
*As I remember, and according to Wikipedia, "Eureka" comes from the Ancient Greek word εὕρηκα heúrēka, meaning "I have found (it)" and is attributed to Archimedes, who discovered how the volume of objects could be measured by water displacement.
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