Sunday, April 13, 2008

What on earth is ergative?

A couple of times now I have mentioned "ergative" or "ergativity." Some of you know what this is, while others may not. It has to do with how languages divide up the duty of representing three categories: subject of an intransive verb, subject of a transitive verb, object of a transitive verb.

Theoretically there are four possibities, but in actuality two are usually found in natural languages. The shorthand names for them are accusative and ergative. Here is how they work:

Accusative languages:

transitive subject
intransitive subject
transitive object

Ergative languages:

transitive subject
intransitive subject
transitive object

In each system the roles with the same color are marked the same way. The role marked with a different color is marked differently. If, like me, you are a native speaker of an accusative language, the ergative system looks quite bizarre. However, as you can see from the way I have listed them, it is just a matter of how they divide up grammatical space. Neither is inherently more logical than the other. Each gets the job done.

In each case, the system is named for the role that is marked differently. Since in English the direct object is the role distinguished, the system is give the name "accusative," after the traditional name of the case for direct objects in Latin, Greek, etc. The ergative role is the distinctly marked role in the ergative system. The term comes from a Greek root meaning "work" and was coined in the 1970's by linguists working on such languages.

Ergative languages are quite common. All Mayan languages are ergative, as are Basque, Eskimo, many Australian aboriginal languages, and even a few Indo-European languages such as Gujerati (spoken in India). In most ergative languages there is a "split," that is, in certain constructions ergative case marking is used, while in others accusative or non-distinguished case marking is used. Sometimes the trigger is a particular verb tense or aspect, other times it is subordination. The latter is the case in Tektiteko, the language about which I wrote my Masters thesis. In this language, ergative marking is the norm, but when a clause is subordinated (e.g., "when I went...", "so that I can..."), all three cases are marked the same way, with ergative prefixes. This may sound confusing, but in the context of a real life situation, there is rarely any ambiguity.

Cherokee: If you thought Mayan languages were hard...

I have a little Cherokee blood, 1/128 of the total, going back to a great-great-great-great-great-grandmother whose English name is all that is known to me: Susannah "Sookie" Coleman. She was married in 1732, if memory serves (thanks to my Aunt Pat, assiduous genealogist, for this information). I have known this for a long time, and consequently, Cherokee has from time to time been a language of interest to me. However, it wasn't until just four or five years ago that I got beyond occasional perusal of a glossary that my Aunt Mary gave me some years ago.

I finally got a real dictionary of Cherokee, one complete with grammatical tables and listings of the principal parts of verbs. I have also managed to collect a number of linguistic articles on the language. As I was saying, a few years ago I became more seriously interested in the language. I worked and learned the entire syllabary devised by Sequoyah. While perfectly adequate for native speakers, it does not reflect all details of pronunciation, so a translateration with tone, vowel length and other phonetic details is necessary to learn correct pronunciation.

The dictionary I have referred to above is the Cherokee-English Dictionary by Durbin Feeling, edited by William Pulte, published by the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma in 1975 and conveniently available in an affordable reprint.

After the body of the dictionary there is a 120 page outline of verb and noun inflection, and some notes on syntax. I had thought Mayan verb inflection was a bit involved, but I hadn't seen anything yet! Cherokee verb inflection is extremely complex. Mayan languages have distinct sets of ergative and absolutive prefixes, which are used in sequence on transitive verbs to mark subject and object respectively. However, Cherokee has two sets of prefixes, called A and B. Each set has an intransitive variant, which only marks the subject, and a transtive variant, which has subject and object marked in fused forms.

The persons marked are first singular, first dual inclusive, first dual exclusive, first plural inclusive, first plural exclusive, second singular, second dual, second plural, third singular and third plural (though set A does not distinguish number at all in the third person). When you get to transitive verbs, there are specific prefixes for each logically possible combination of subject and object in all these persons. And in the transitive prefixes, third person singular and plural objects come in two varieties: animate and inanimate. To make things even more fun, each of these many prefixes has one variant when it comes before a consonant and another when it comes before a vowel. Three Set A third person prefixes have variants in the singular. This means that for intransitive verbs there are 19 Set A prefixes and 20 Set B prefixes, for a total of 39. There are 150 Set A transitive prefixes and a similar number for Set B, though only 32 of these last are different from their Set A counterparts, which brings the total to a mere 182.

All the above is quite apart from the 11 tense and locative prefixes that precede pronominal prefixes, the reflexive prefix that comes between pronominal prefixes and the verb stem, the 31 non-final tense/aspect/mode/case/conjunctive suffixes and the 19 final tense/mode/conjunctive suffixes. All of these have complex co-occurrence restrictions (i.e., rules about how many of each can occur and in what combinations).

Then there are the 20 person prefixes used in passive constructions, plus the passives formed by replacing Set A pronominal prefixes with Set B ones and inverting the order of the subject and direct object in the clause.

Then, there are a number of verbs that have different stems, depending on what kind of subject they have (if intransitive) or what kind of direct object they take (if transitive). The categories are: animate, liquid, long and rigid, flexible, non-long and inflexible. Sometimes these forms are clearly related, other times they are not (like "go" and "went" in English").

How do you know which set of prefixes to pick? Well, it depends on the individual verb and on which of the five principal parts is being used: present progressive, non-progressive remote past, present habitual, imperative or infinitive. The choice is not predictable by any simple rule. All the forms have to simply be memorized.

How does this degree of complexity compare with other languages? Here is a little list with my informal classification of difficulty of verb morphology for various languages about which I have some knowledge. I will use the famous 1 through 10 scale, with 1 being the simplest (no inflection) and 10 being the most complex.

Chinese 1
English 2
German, Syriac, Hebrew 3
Spanish, Coptic 4
Latin, Greek, Russian, Arabic 5
Sipakapense 6
Tektiteko 7
Cherokee 10 (12? 20?)

While Cherokee fascinates me, it is obvious that it would take several years of serious study to come anywhere close to mastering it. So for this lifetime, I think I will have to content myself with a superficial knowledge of it. Even so, long may it live! Maybe in my next incarnation... ;-)

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Tectitec: My First Mayan Language

May 31, 1984. I flew into Guatemala City for the first time in my life. A new country, a new language family. I was 23, a bit too full of self-confidence, but raring to go.

I knew that I would be investigating some Mayan language for my Masters thesis, but I didn't know which one and I knew virtually nothing about Mayan languages. In fact, when I arrived in Guatemala, the only two facts I knew about Mayan languages were:

1. They had a glottalized "b".
2. They were ergative (whatever that meant).

Well, I was soon to learn a lot more. I had been training to do linguistic investigation in the field for almost three years. I was dying to actually get a chance! I arrived in Guatemala as a graduate student in linguistics at the University of Texas at Arlington, and also as a member of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, the "field division," so to speak, of Wycliffe Bible Translators.

I was looking forward to a career as a linguistic consultant, helping others do the groundwork necessary to produce high quality translations of the Bible in various minority languages around the world. My long-term goal was to work in the area then known as Irian Jaya, a province of Indonesia, on the western half of the island shared by the country of Papua New Guinea. However, because of my knowledge of Spanish, the assignments committee of SIL had decided to recommend that I do research for a thesis in a Latin American country, as there were many needs for consultant work there. Through a series of twists and turns, Guatemala wound up being the country where I went. It's truly amazing what kind of effect on one's life a seemingly fortuitous choice like this can have.

Within a few days of arriving in Guatemala, I met Ed Beach, who was working hard to translate the New Testament into the Tectitec language (these days the official spelling is Tektiteko). Ed was eager to find a linguist to do a detailed analysis of the grammar for him. I was looking for a project just like this to do for my thesis. A match made in heaven!

Within a few days, I was headed for the remote town of Tectitán with Ed, his wife Elenore and their three small children. Tectitán was on the extreme western edge of Guatemala, bordering on Mexico. In those days it was a long, difficult trip, much of it over rough, narrow, twisting dirt roads (now the road is paved the whole way!). Even though I had had a course in field methods and another in anthropology, and Ed told me a number of useful pieces of cultural information before and during the trip, I still found myself undergoing severe culture shock. I was also under considerable stress at being separated from the first girl I had ever been serious about: Anne Munz. We had met in field training camp just before I went to Guatemala. At the end, though we had decided we were seriously interested in each other, I had my two years in Guatemala planned and she had her support-raising time back in New England planned. There was no practical alternative for either of us at the moment. I'll spare you the details, but we survived, and we will soon celebrate 23 years of marriage!

But back to Tectitec. I was severely stressed, but also very excited finally, at long last, after so much longing, hoping and praying, to actually be doing what I had been dreaming of doing since I was a senior in high school! I remember sitting there in Ed's office that first morning, taking my first look at the texts he had transcribed and glossed as best he could. How did all those morphemes and words fit together? This was what I had prepared for and what I was eager to do: figure out a new language!

I worked with native speakers, transcribed a text from a recording, tried to learn to speak at least some Tectitec, but above all, I tried to write a careful, coherent description of the grammar of the language. No one had ever done this before. I did have some help from a good grammar of a neighboring, related language called Mam (pronounced like "Mom"), written by Nora England. But Tectitec was its own language and I had to figure out a number of things on my own. I also devoured linguistic literature on other Mayan languages.

I learned what ergative meant, and also antipassive. I learned about relational nouns, possessive prefixes that varied depending on whether the word began with a consonant or a vowel, and so on and so forth. I learned about a third person singular prefix that was usually zero but was occasionally ts
or ts' (that is, glottalized ts). More challenging was learning about the very complex system of directional verbs that were tacked on before many, if not most, other verbs, or functioned as the main verb themselves. Up to three directional verbs plus a fourth one that meant "finish" could precede just about any transitive or intransitive verb. They had a wide range of effects on the meanings of verbs: up and down, in and out, up-entering and down-leaving, etcetera.

In the middle of my research, in May 1985, Anne and I were married. She went up to Maine two weeks before our wedding to see to all those last-minute preparations, and I went up one week later. We went through a crash-course of premarital counseling usually done over six weeks, we got married, and two weeks later we were back in Guatemala! (She had come down three months earlier to live and work in the capital, where I was then doing research and writing.)

Finally, after a year and a half of research and writing and even getting help from an eminent linguist, Dr. Kenneth Pike, I had a reasonably good thesis put together. Anne and I went back to Dallas in December 1985, and the following spring I took my last courses and completed my thesis. Shortly after I graduated, we returned to Guatemala to participate in a sociolinguistic survey of the area where various dialects of the Quiché language (now written K'iche') were spoken. But that's a story for another day...

Friday, April 4, 2008

Success in Syriac and Coptic

It was with some relief today that I learned that I had passed both of the comprehensive examinations for my M.A. in Semitics. I took my comps in Syriac (major) and Coptic (minor). This involves, for each language, 8 hours with texts to translate, grammar and literature questions to answer, and a dictionary as an aid. I am glad to have passed this benchmark in my studies. I started studying Syriac 27 months before my comps and Coptic 19 months before. I am grateful for the excellent instruction in these languages that I have received at Catholic University from Dr. Sidney Griffith (Syriac), Dr. Chrysi Kotsifou (introduction to Coptic) and Dr. Janet Timbie (Coptic readings). I look forward to learning more, and to generally enjoying the company of my fellow students and the other members of the faculty who make the CUA Semitics Department so outstanding.

Now I have another very full year of classes (Syriac, Coptic, Aramaic and Akkadian), preceded by 9 hours of Classical Greek in the summer. After this I will be eligible to take my doctoral comps. I hope to feel sufficiently prepared to do this in the summer of 2009.

In the meantime, I will get my intermediate degree in this program (the M.A.) on May 17th, one day before my 23rd wedding anniversary and two days before the beginning of my summer Greek classes.

Shaynaa w-shlaamaa! Rashe hn pJois! (That is, "Peace and wholeness," a good Syriac greeting, and "Rejoice in the Lord," a good phrase in Coptic.)