Predication in an Alien Language

I’m doing ‘Field Methods in Linguistics’ this term, in which we’re working on understanding an unfamiliar language, through direct interviews with our consultant (a native speaker of the language). For our first short paper, we had to propose a basic analysis of the sentence structure. I ended up coming up with an initial theory that I’m quite happy with, and I thought I’d write about how I came to it.

In a nutshell, my theory is that every sentence in the language has an obligatory predicate-marker before the predicate proper. As such, the form of a simple sentence would be something like:

(Subject) – pred – Predicate

By my hypothesis, the predicate marker cannot be omitted, and is always present in some form. The predicate itself may either be a verb, or an adjective (in the sense of ‘is red’). While the predicate marker might be thought of as functioning like ‘be’ in some ways, it doesn’t carry tense; in the language we’re studying it is the verb which realizes the tense/aspect, although the predicate marker is involved in various kinds of agreement. Another interesting feature is that by my hypothesis, it is never absent, so it is akin to having an ‘affirmative’ declaration with every predicate, except, of course, when the sentence expresses something other than ‘affirmative’ (e.g. negative, question, etc.).

But my main motivation for writing this post was to recount some of the ideas and theories that guided my thought-process. What I hypothesized to be a predicate-marker is the so-called [w-]-morpheme that we’ve been discussing in class.

  1. In one of the first few classes, a classmate mentioned a language where both affirmative and negative conditions are marked. (In contrast, in English, we only distinguish ‘waste’ and ‘ do not waste’, without having to say ‘do waste’.)
  2. My lab partner had observed that negation in a sentence patterned with the appearance of the [m-] morpheme and the omission of the [w-] morpheme, in a way that was reminiscent of ‘do’-support in English (e.g. ‘He says.’ vs. ‘He does not say.’).
  3. Some data about how to form questions was also discussed in class, and it was noticed that the [w-] morpheme was also absent.
  4. In a later class, a classmate raised the example of the sentences for ‘I melted the butter.’  and ‘The butter was melted by me.’ I noticed that it was possible to omit both the subject and the object (‘I’/’me’ and ‘butter’), which left only the predicate for ‘melt’ (in its presumably conjugated form) with a preceding morpheme.

I had also observed a few things from the data.

  1. There is a long form of the [w-] morpheme and a shorter form. I noticed that the longer form did not appear with adjectives and verbs with no direct object.
  2. I also noticed that the subject could be dropped if it was either a pronoun, or if the predicate was an adjective. With the butter example, it appeared to me that the subject was omitted in the spoken sentence, but that it was semantically present, in that it seems clearly discernible from the spoken context.
  3. I noticed that the negative marker and the question marker patterned together.

Fragments from these observations and discussions about some points of syntax conspired to bring the notion of predication to mind, and brought me back to my formal logic and computer logic lessons from last term. I was also fortunate to have been looking at adjectives in lab sessions, in that the predication of properties (‘is red’, etc.) was on my mind. After observing how subjects could be dropped, and how question-marker and negation patterned together vis-a-vis the [w-]-marker, I was led to the hypothesis described above.

All in all, this was good fun. On the one hand, the computational and logical paradigm made the patterning comprehensible, but on the other hand more organic questions about register (formality and informality) and semantics (negation is so tricky) also played a part.

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