Thursday, January 22, 2009

Oldest Papuan writing?

What are the oldest written documents in a Papuan language (ie a non-Austronesian language of the New Guinea region?) I'm not totally sure, but a strong candidate has to be the court records of Ternate. The islands of Ternate and Tidore in eastern Indonesia speak two closely related languages belonging to the non-Austronesian North Halmaheran family. They have been writing using the Jawi Arabic script since at least the 1500s; in fact, some of the earliest surviving Malay manuscripts are letters from the sultan of Ternate from about 1521.

Recently I came across an 1890 book on Ternate online: Ternate: The Residency and its Sultanate. The book includes a brief introduction to the language and a word list; it also gives reproductions of several manuscripts whose originals date back to the mid-1800s, along with translations. So if you want to try your hand at deciphering them, or just see what a Papuan language looks like in Arabic script, have a look! The page I've linked to (Arabic interpolation de-italicised) starts:

ma-dero toma hijratu-nnabiyy ṣallī `alayhi wa-sallim nyonyohi pariama calamoi si-raturomdidi si-nyagisio si-rara, tahun alif, toma-arah Sawal, i-fani futu nyagimoi si-tomodi, malam Jumaatu...

"In the year Alif of the Moslem era 1296, during the month of Sawal, on a Thursday night, the seventeenth night of the moon..."

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Verbal adjectives in English

It may seem pretty exotic to English-speakers that in some languages adjectives behave almost exactly like verbs, but this strategy is not as un-English as it looks. Consider the following colloquial American English sentences, with more formal approximate "translations":

This rocks! - This is good. (and not *This is rocking!)
That would rock! - That would be good.
That rocked! - That was good.
That was a rockin' day. - That was a good day.

This sucks! - This is bad. (and not *This is sucking!
That would suck! - That would be bad.
That sucked! - That was bad.
That was a sucky day. - That was a bad day.

In these, a property usually expressed with an adjective ("good", "bad") is being expressed using a stative verb, but only in predicative constructions (that is, to form a sentence.) In attributive function (that is, modifying a noun) an adjective derived from this verb is used. Like other stative verbs ("know", "be") but unlike non-stative verbs, it uses the simple present form to express a current situation, not the present continuous.

Within English, this pattern may seem pretty odd. But it corresponds rather well to how adjectives are expressed in Songhay languages, eg Koyra Chiini (Heath 1999:73). There, properties are expressed in predicative contexts just like verbs, with the same mood/aspect/negation particles, and in attributive contexts usually take a suffix:

ni beer - you are big (like ni koy - you went)
hal a ma beer - until it gets big (like a ma koy - he will go)
har beer - a big man

ni futu - you are bad
har futu-nte - a bad man

In Songhay the perfect aspect is used with stative verbs to express a current situation; but, like the English simple present tense, this is the simplest indicative verb form. The chief difference is that in Songhay the predicative verbs are used for inchoative senses too, as if "That rocks!" could mean "That is becoming good" as well as "That is good".

Typologically, I find it kind of interesting that what looks like a couple of verbal adjectives should be lurking in the recesses of the English lexicon. But it also has practical applications: if I were trying to teach Songhay or a typologically similar language to Americans, I would certainly start by discussing the example of these two English words.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Coptic adjectives

A little follow-up on the previous post, based mainly on Reintges' Coptic Egyptian (Sahidic Dialect): A Learner's Grammar:

In Coptic, predication of properties is handled exactly as for nouns, including the use of an determiner with the adjective:

hen-noc gar ne neu-polytia
indef.pl-great for are their-labours.
For their labours are great.

In attribution, the structure is Determiner - A - n - B, where A can be the noun and B the adjective, or vice versa:

ou-kohi n-soouhs: a-small n convent
t-parthenos n-sabê: the-virgin n prudent

To express the material of which something is made, you use the same structure, except that only B can be the material:

t-kloole n-ouein: the-cloud n light "the cloud of light"

Note that this is separate from the attributive construction:

ntof pe-iôt pahôm "He, our father Pahom"

So can adjectives be distinguished as a separate word class, when they behave so much like nouns? The answer is yes: an adjective is an item that can occupy either A or B in the attributive structure without a change in referential meaning. (See Coptic Grammatical Categories, Shisha-Halevy, p. 53.) If you reverse the constituents of a genitive or material construction, you change the referential meaning: "a vessel of wood" vs. "vessel wood (ie wood for vessels.)" If you do so for an adjective-noun attributive construction, the referential meaning stays the same: ou-noc n-polis or ou-polis n-noc both refer to the same entity, "a big city". So for this case, Dixon's hypothesis scrapes through.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Adjectives - who needs 'em?

Most languages have a class of words that express properties and behave differently from other words. These are called adjectives. In English, for example, words like "red" or "old" or "tall" behave differently from nouns or verbs. For example, you add -s to verbs in the present tense if their subject is 3rd person singular, like "he sings" or "she eats"; but you can't add -s to an adjective, so you say "he is red" rather than *"he reds". You can put "very" before an adjective ("very red"), but not usually before a noun (you can't say *"very food".) Verbs can't be placed between "the" and the noun (unless you add an ending like -ing or -ed), but adjectives can (you can say "the red car", but not "the move car").

It turns out, according to Dixon 2004, that practically every language - perhaps every language - has at least one separate class of words, definable purely on the grounds of their (morphosyntactic) behaviour rather than their meaning, that refer to properties. This class typically includes words expressing size, age, value, and colour, and sometimes more.

But often, a concept expressed using an adjective in one language is expressed only by a verb or a noun in another. For example, in Kwarandzyəy adjectives come between the noun and the plural marker:

ạdṛạ kədda yu
mountain small PL
"little mountains" (hills)

But there is no adjective "happy" in Kwarandzyəy; instead, you use a verb, yəfṛəħ "be happy, rejoice". And to say "the happy people", you say "the people who are happy/have rejoiced":

bạ γ i-ba-yəfṛəħ
person who they-PF-happy

Moreover, though they may always be distinguishable by some test, they usually tend to behave very much like another word class. In fact, Stassen 1997:30 (link goes to 2003) postulates that in every languages adjectives handle predication (saying "X is red", for example) in the same way as either verbs, nouns, or locations. For example, in English or Arabic, adjectives handle predication like nouns (you say "He is tall", just like "He is a footballer"); in Korean or Tamasheq, they do it like verbs; and some languages, like Japanese, have both verb-like and noun-like adjectives.

So clearly people can do without some adjectives, and clearly the behaviour of adjectives tends to be very similar to the behaviour of some other word class. Why not do without them altogether? It would be easy enough to construct a language where no morphological or syntactic tests could distinguish adjectives from verbs, or from nouns. So if practically every language does take the trouble to distinguish them, there must be some pretty powerful cognitive motivation for it - and some pretty powerful historical tendencies acting to separate adjectives from verbs and/or nouns. The question isn't directly relevant to my current work, but it's worth thinking about.