Friday, February 20, 2009

The Tyranny of Morphology

Coming out of an airport, you have to pick one of two exits: "Goods to Declare" or "Nothing to Declare". You have to go through one to get out; but (at least in Customs' eyes), by going through either exit, you state whether or not the contents of your luggage are legally subject to import duties. If you feel so scrupulously honest and so intensely secretive that you decide you have to leave that question unanswered - your only option is to stay inside.

Often your language does that too (Whorf said it first.) Just like the airports, the trick is to set things up in such a way that trying not to answer the question is either unacceptable (ungrammatical) or automatically interpreted as implying a particular answer. If you're talking about a friend in English, you don't have to indicate whether the friend is male or female until you refer back to the friend with "he" or "she"; in Arabic or Spanish, you have to state which it is from the start; and in Chinese or Songhay you can get away with never saying it at all. If you believe something definitely happens at some point, but don't want to say whether it's already happened or not yet, there's no simple way to say that. At best, you end up having to use cumbersome disjunctions like, if you're into apocalyptic prophecies, "The Antichrist either will be born some day or already has been"; and disjunctions like that will always be interpreted as meaning that you don't know which, not that you know but don't feel it's relevant.

In Korean (according to a talk by Peter Sells I heard today), a special verbal affix -si- (one among many, many politeness indicators) is used to indicate that the human subject of the verb (loosely speaking - it may also be a possessor of the subject, or a topic) is notionally of higher social status than the speaker. Thus:

sensayng-nim-i ka-si-ess-ta
teacher-HONORIFIC-NOMINATIVE go-SUBJECT.HONORIFIC-PAST-DECLARATIVE
"The teacher went."

vs.

koyangi-i ka-ess-ta
cat-NOMINATIVE go-PAST-DECLARATIVE
"The cat went."

The thing is, this means you can't be neutral about the subject. If you don't use this suffix with a subject that would normally take it, like "teacher" or "pastor", your listener will assume that you don't respect them so highly. You can't even get away with being ambiguous - I'm told that a disjunction of politeness levels, like *"The teacher went(honorific) or went(unmarked) away", is totally unacceptable. There are genres, such as academic writing or journalism, where politeness morphology is not normally used, allowing you to be neutral on this; but in a face-to-face conversation, as far as I understand, no such solution is available. (Any Korean readers should feel free to correct me!)

No language is likely to be able to stop you from saying what you want to say, if you try hard enough. But things like this can make it a lot harder to avoid saying what you don't necessarily want to say.

9 comments:

bulbul said...

I'm told that a disjunction of politeness levels, like *"The teacher went(honorific) or went(unmarked) away", is totally unacceptable.
Sorry, I'm not sure what you're saying. Do you mean that combinations of noun-HONORIFIC (-nim) and verb (without the honorific affix) are not permitted? Because at least according to my limited understanding, this is not necessarily the case. '-nim' can also be used to indicate closeness or special relationship of the subject to the speaker, but -si (like other verb suffixes) is to some extent hearer-oriented and its use depends on who you're talking to and who else is around. So for example if you were to speak to your sister about your father, you would certainly call him 아버님 abǔ-nim, but the verb could very well take the -yo suffix without -si, especially if he's not within earshot.
Chapter 2 of this guide does a pretty good job of covering the ins and outs of the use of -si.
If you're referring to a situation where the subject is also the hearer, then of course you're right.

Lameen Souag said...

I mean a disjunction of verb politeness levels where you say he "went(-si-) or went(plain)." Interesting about the hearer-orientation of -si - I hadn't gotten that impression from the talk.

David Marjanović said...

GAAAH! bulbul speaks Korean, too!!! It's slowly getting scary.

bulbul said...

"went(-si-) or went(plain)."
I see, thanks. I have trouble imagining a sentence where one would even attempt that. That would be like mixing Dutzen and Sietzen.
The way I understand it, -si and verbal endinds in Korean are governed by the holy quadrity of sociolinguistics: who speaks to whom about whom and who else is around. So it's actually a tyranny of morphology and pragmatics.

David,
relax, I don't, or at least not yet :) I won't be lost on the streets of Seoul (or in the offices of Samsung in Galanta), but I'm nowhere near fluent. I love just about everything about Korean - from the script through the absence of realative pronouns and the ideophones to the honorific system. And now that Lost is back on and - spoiler alert - Jin is alive, I'm doing some catching up :)

David Marjanović said...

Dutzen and Sietzen

Tsk, tsk. With z, not tz, because it follows a long vowel.

I don't, or at least not yet :) I won't be lost on the streets of Seoul (or in the offices of Samsung in Galanta), but I'm nowhere near fluent.

That's called British understatement.

And how, exactly, can one love a honorific system? ~:-|

The absence of relative pronouns seems to be more widespread. It's shared by Mandarin, where you have to turn everything you want to relativize into an attribute.

And yes, the alphabet is pure genius!

bulbul said...

Tsk, tsk. With z, not tz
I shall smack myself upside the head forthwith.

And how, exactly, can one love a honorific system? ~:-|
Um, truly, madly, deeply? :) What I appreciate most is how it can provide great insight into interpersonal relationships in just a few seconds without resorting to reading body language. Now that's one language I'll never get the hang of.

David Marjanović said...

What I appreciate most is how it can provide great insight into interpersonal relationships in just a few seconds without resorting to reading body language.

Great point -- but, on the other hand, learning to use a honorific system when speaking must be utter horror.

nycguy said...

Totally off topic, but the use of dutzen brought back a vivid memory from my German childhood. We used it to describe easter egg battles at Easter. We kids would attack another's egg with our own and try to crack it. The one whose egg cracked was the loser. I have no idea if this verb has any other sense in German.

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