Friday, June 05, 2009

Why dead snakes are like clothes

What would you say if, in some science-fiction novel, you read of a language where the situations that in English would be described as "The clothes blew down from the clothesline", "Push that dead snake away with a stick", and "I see where he's carrying the rabbits he killed hung from his belt" were all naturally expressed with the same root, plus nothing more than different affixes? What about "I slammed together the hunks of clay I held in either hand", "I slung away the rotten tomatoes, sluicing them off the pan they were in", and "I picked up in my mouth the already chewed gum from where it was stuck on the table"? My inclination would have been to dismiss it as a neat but implausible idea, placing some strain on the reader's suspension of disbelief. But - until no more than thirty years ago - such a language existed right in California. Go to Part III of Leonard Talmy's dissertation Semantic Structures in English and Atsugewi to get the data; here's a slightly less surprising example as a taster:

Subject=I, Object=3rd personfrom a linear object moving axially [with one end] non-obliquely against the FIGUREfor a small shiny spherical object to moveout of a snug enclosure/a socketfactual
I poked his eye out (with a stick.)
Subject=I, Object=3rd personfrom the mouth/interior of a person, working ingressively, acting on the FIGUREfor a small shiny spherical object to moveall about, here and there, back and forthfactual
I rolled the round candy around in my mouth.

Of course, people are people; after explanation, the similarities are easy enough to make out, and presumably given enough time anyone can learn to look at a situation and decompose it into elements like these, rather than the elements that "leap out" at an English speaker. In fact, I suspect that having to learn to see things the way the people you talk to do is one of the subtler drivers behind contact-induced language change. But cases like this provoke thought: just how much can the attributes of a situation most relevant to formulating a sentence vary from language to language?


John Cowan said...

(I thought I posted this before, but perhaps it got lost in transit.)

I first ran into this in Kluckhohn and Leighton's 1946 book on Navajo, which explained that the English sentence You eat blueberries is expressed in Navajo as ná'aldił 'You are accustomed to eat plural separable objects one at a time.' Now this may indeed, in context, be the idiomatic thing to say, but it can't be a full translation of the English; it will not work in a context where some are eating blueberries and others are eating strawberries.

So what we have here is a distinction between what Robert T. Hall called low-context and high-context cultures: the high-context young British male may say of a party something like "Not quite", whereas his American counterpart will say forthrightly "The music sucked, the beer ran out, and the women were dogs." The same communicative function is served by each, but they do not mean the same thing.

Lameen Souag said...

That's a fair point, but high context vs. low context is itself a linguistically relative notion. There are aspects of the context that would seem to be harder to avoid specifying in Atsugewi than in English - for example, whether the clothes in the first example were floppy (as clothes normally are) or stiff (pragmatically unlikely but conceivable), or whether the candy being rolled around was round or not. It's clear that it often takes a lot of context to translate an Atsugewi sentence into English, so from an English perspective such sentences are high-context. But it seems possible that English sentences that we would think of as low-context are often missing enough information about shape and alignment and so forth to look high-context from an Atsugewi perspective; if there were any speakers left, I'd love to ask them.

Jim said...

I remember when talmy came to talk tous one day in a Morphology class, while he was doing this work. He told a story about working with his uinformant, who was an old woman. She got a kick one time of whispering in his ear a sentence that went like 3S - NEG-POTENTIAL - rope-like (that snake-like root)- RIGID - factive and then cackled as he went deep red.

As for the high-context/low context issue, this kind fo thing happens in English, but I think it happens more in high-context settings, like professional jargon or even slangs, like enlisted slang in the Army, working not only on the level of conscision John mentions, but also on specific lexical items. I don't remember specific examples because it's hard to stay current.

Gang jargon works the same way - "Five poppin', six droppin" means only and can man only "A Bloods clique shooting down members of a Crips clique." The numbers refer to the five and six points on the stars they use in their gang graffiti.

David Marjanović said...


As in "cannot"?

Jim said...


It translated to: "He couldn't get it up."