Sunday, April 13, 2008

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... ;-)

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