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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Random Linguistics Fact of the Day

Many languages have a concept of a hierarchy of animacy/empathy (not a very informative link, I'm afraid; this looks really interesting, but I haven't had time to read it, yet). In these systems, things that the speaker is more empathetic toward tend to be treated as superior to those with less empathy. E.g. first person > second person > animal > object, etc. (this is just a general example; specifics vary widely).

This hierarchy can appear in a wide variety of ways, from extremely subtle (so much that you might not even notice it) to very obvious. Some languages, for example, place nouns with higher empathy before nouns with lower empathy. Others have the verb of the sentence agree (e.g. in Indo-European languages like English, verbs always agree with the subject - "I am", "you are", etc.) with the parameter that has higher empathy - e.g. the subject in "I ate a fish", the object in "the dog bit him". Still other languages have the empathy of the agent (this is a more specific form of subject, which refers specifically to the one taking an action against something else) dictate the voice of the verb, such that the subject is always the thing with higher empathy; for example, you would say "I was hit by the ball" rather than "the ball hit me" ("the ball" is the agent in both cases, though it's a prepositional object in the first, and the subject in the second).

All of the aforementioned examples were fairly obvious. Here's one that's much more subtle (in fact, I didn't even notice it when WarBringer87 was first translating some stuff for me). In Armenian, nouns are modified based on who possesses them. For example, for the noun "keerk" ("book"), "[eem] keerkus" would be "my book" ("eem" means "my", but the -us suffix also indicates that; thus "eem" is optional), "[koo] keerkud" means "your book", and "eeren keerkuh" means "his/her/its book" ("eeren" isn't optional for reasons we're about to get to). At first glance this may seem like it's simply a possessive suffix based on the person of the possessor. However, one additional fact proves that it's something more interesting: "keerkuh" (lacking any possessor) can also mean "the book". Thus we actually have a three-level empathy hierarchy: first-person singular possessor (-us) > second-person singular possessor (-ud) > everything else (-uh).

In other news, now I have the urge to go look at that Trique Bible of mine to try and figure out whether the "fourth person" pronoun is something lower on the empathy hierarchy than third person.

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