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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Empathy Hierarchy and Other Ungodly Things

A ways back I wrote a post about empathy (also called animacy or agency) hierarchies and how the empathy hierarchy in Spanish and other romance languages worked, explaining a peculiarity of their grammar that had haunted me since high school Spanish. Unfortunately, I was excited at the time I was writing, and didn't explain it near as clearly as I should have.

Anyway, to briefly recap, empathy hierarchy is a system of classifying entities (e.g. nouns) according to the level of empathy the speaker feels towards them. While the number and composition of levels vary by language, the general trends are 1st person >= 2nd person >= 3rd person, animate >= inanimate, definite >= indefinite (e.g. "those people" >= "some people"). In Spanish there were three levels with regard to verb agreement: 1st person ("[yo] juego" - "I play") > 2nd person familiar ("[tú] juegas") > 2nd person formal ("usted juega") + 3rd person ("[él] juega"); this makes logical sense because you would have more empathy towards those you would address with the 2nd person familiar (e.g. your friends and family) than those you would address with the formal 2nd person (e.g. people you meet on the street). One of the most common things governed by empathy hierarchy is verb agreement, which is exactly what is seen in Spanish in the above examples.

One of the languages (actually a family of languages) I'm creating for one of my stories turns the concept of empathy hierarchy completely upside-down. In these languages, verbs agree with the subject, direct object [if any], and indirect object [if any] (this is as complicated as it sounds, though some real "polypersonal" languages actually do have verbs that agree with all three of those). As the subject, direct object, and indirect object are not marked for case and word order is free, verb agreement is really the only way to tell who's doing what in a sentence; for example, you could have something like "Dog bone boy gaveheitit" or "Bone boy dog gaveheitit", which would mean more or less the same thing, as word order isn't important in this respect (word order indicates more subtle things, such as what is emphasized in a sentence).

However, instead of relying on animacy or empathy to create this agreement system (animacy and/or empathy being pretty much universal in natural languages, as far as I know), these languages use rank. Specifically, a seven-tiered hierarchy with levels I label -3 (lowest) to +3 (highest). For humans, rank reflects social status relative to the speaker. Rank 0 is reserved for the first person, ranks below 0 represent those below the social status of the speaker, and ranks above 0 above the speaker, with the degree of difference indicated by the rank (rank x + 1 > rank x); e.g. use of rank 2 by the speaker to refer to someone would mean that that person has a social status substantially higher than that of the speaker. For nonhumans (animals and inanimate objects) rank is based on respect for that thing - positive and/or honorable things would have high rank, negative or dishonorable things would have low rank; in this way rank resembles more arbitrary noun class systems.

Now, depending on how deeply you thought about what I just said, you may or may not already be scared of this idea; so let me illustrate. Suppose you have two coworkers at a job talking to each other (thus they'd be of the same social status). As it's customary to show some respect to those of the same rank as you in East Asian cultures (these languages are loosely based on Japanese, with a bunch of fun stuff thrown in), both would refer to each other ("you" in English) with the +1 level. However, as this system does not distinguish between 2nd and 3rd person, if one of them uses the +1 level for something, it could just as easily refer to some third co-worker who wasn't a part of the conversation (a 3rd person, no pun intended). Or it could simply refer to some inanimate object that just happens to be at the +1 rank.

But that's easy stuff. Now imagine a person writing to a politician. If this was just an average person, they might use rank +2 to refer to the politician ("you", in English), given the significant difference in social status. The politician would then use rank -2 to refer to the person (or -1, if the politician wanted to be polite), which would also be written "you" in English. Now suppose they were talking about the king. The lay person would probably refer to the king with +3 rank; the politician, however, would use a lower rank (+1 or +2), as their own social status is greater. Of course, any of these (-2, -1, +1, +2, +3) could simply be referring to an inanimate object, instead.

Worse yet, the innate rank of an animal or inanimate object could be modified based on the rank of a possessor; that is, if the possessor of an object has a significantly different rank than the speaker, the rank of the thing possessed might be elevated or lowered to reflect the possessor.
Suppose that dog' has an innate rank of +1. In the previous scenario, the person might then use rank +1 to refer to his dog, +2 to refer to the politician's dog, and +2 or +3 to refer to the king's dog. The politician, on the other hand, might refer to his own dog as +1, the person's dog as -1, and the king's dog as +2.

And as one last nail in the coffin of sanity is a concept I call the heterogeneous plural. That is, a plural that comprises members of significantly different rank. In this case, the rank of the group as a whole would be the rank of the highest-ranking member. So if the person writing a politician referred to level +3, he could be referring the the king, the king and the politician together, the king's dog, or something else entirely.

That's me: raping your mind since 1983.

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