The Polynesian /ko/, and a Reflection on Syntactic Categories

Most recently, I’ve been studying Hovdhaugen et al.‘s Handbook of the Tokelauan Language for the preparation of a grammar sketch. My interpretation of the morphemes in the subsequent example from the text are based on their analysis. In particular, when I use the abbreviations ‘VP’ and ‘NP’ below, I refer to their explanatory framework, wherein all sentences in Tokelau may be divided into VPs and NPs only, and whether a phrase is a VP or NP depends on the central word. Each VP and NP has slots in which grammatical particles (prepositions, etc.) can appear.

I ended up looking at one particular example, which involved three variants of a sentence each having the meaning, `The boys built the house,’ in some detail.

  1. The first variant had the phrase-order: [VP Na fau] [NP2 te fale] [NP1 e na tama] .
  2. The second variant had the phrase-order: [NP1 Ko na tama] [VP na ki latou faua] [NP2 te fale] .
  3. The third variant had the phrase-order: [NP1a Ko na tama] [VP na fau] [NP1b e ki latou] [NP2 te fale] .

Some of the elements that appear in the above examples, interpreted:

  • NP2, /te fale/, might be glossed as ‘the house’.
  • The main element of NP1, /na tama/, might be glossed as ‘the boys’. ‘na’ here is analyzed by Hovdhaugen et al. as a plural article.
  • The main element of VP, /na fau/, includes the morpheme /fau/ for ‘build’. ‘na’ in this case is analyzed as a past-tense marker (distinct from the article). The form ‘faua’ we see in the second sentence is necessitated by the inclusion of the pronoun /ki latou/ in the verb phrase.
  • The words /ki latou/ are the third-person plural pronoun (‘them’). It appears in the VP of the second sentence, and its own NP in the third sentence.
  • The word /e/ which we see in the first sentence in NP1 and the third sentence in NP1b was interpreted as a preposition-of-sorts meaning ‘by’. In the above examples, it communicates that ‘na tama’ are they agents.

The element which I did not cover in the above list is /ko/. In Hovdhaugen’s grammar, /ko/ is described as occurring in sentences where an NP is the initial phrase. Ergo, we do not see /ko/ in the first sentence, in which the VP is the initial phrase, but it appears in the second and third sentences.

Regarding the significance of /ko/, one account that the authors present is that between a sentence with a /ko/-initial NP in the sentence-initial and a similar sentence with the VP in the sentence-initial position, the /ko/-initial sentence has the discursive function of giving information about the subject who participated in event x, whereas the VP-initial sentence describes event x, wherein the ‘subject’ was a participant.

One interpretation of this difference is that /ko/ has the function of indicating the subject of the sentence. Relatedly (but not necessarily), one might say that /ko/ marks nominative case.

But the difficulty is precisely in characterizing its function. The category of ‘subject’ itself is difficult to specify, and it is not clear whether the system of markings in Tokelau should indeed be characterized as a system of cases.

The /ko/ morpheme itself is part of several Polynesian languages, and as such has been treated in the academic literature before. Among these descriptions of Polynesian languages, /ko/ has been interpreted as a predicate marker, as well as a ‘copular preposition’. The notion of ‘copular preposition’ is potentially resolvable with Hovdhaugen et al.’s grammar, in that they propose a broadly defined ‘Preposition’ slot in noun phrases. The idea that /ko/ marks a predicate is potentially more difficult to resolve, in that Hovdhaugen et al. analyze it an element of a noun phrase specifically, whereas ‘predication’ itself presupposes a concept of predicate and argument.

Moving away from a discussion of abstract categories for the moment, in the context of the example sentences, one might imagine the effect of ‘ko’-involving constructions to be commensurate with the effect of constructing English sentences beginning with, ‘It is…’ (Credit to my Prof. for this discussion point.) For example, third sentence above (‘Ko na tama na fau en ki latou te fale’) might be constructed as, ‘It is the boys who built the house,’ or even, ‘It is the boys, they built the house.’ (As compared to the default, ‘The boys built the house.’)

The ‘it is’ construction in English itself seems to me to reflect aspects of both the copular preposition and predicate marker proposals, in that they both serve to isolate some function or aspect of the subject, which thereby allows it to be foregrounded in the sentence. (In fact, I think it is fair to say that both the quality of the ‘it’ and the ‘is’ in this construction are recognized as exceptional in some way; we call this particular ‘it’ the expletive ‘it’, and ‘is’ in English what we have traditionally called a copula, and is in any case not a typical ‘verb’.)

On a more fundamental level, I see the concept of predication and the function of a copula as operating on that troublesome boundary between noun-iness and verb-iness.

Earlier today I also happened to attend a senior’s comps talk on ambiguity and syntactic reanalysis. A brief illustrative example of both concepts is with the sentence, ‘The old man the boat.’ While it seems wildly ungrammatical on an initial reading, there is a grammatical interpretation (which I assume you have come to).

One theory of what causes that initial cognitive difficulty is that we construct the syntactic relations between the elements as we read the sentence, and upon encountering a difficulty in continuing the construction, we have to reanalyze the sentence. It was, however, a later point in the talk that seemed relevant to the problem of characterizing the function of /ko/. The presenter quoted a study wherein sentences like, ‘While John hunted the deer ran into the woods,’ were shown to subjects, after which the subjects were asked if John hunted the deer. The result was that many subjects answered in the affirmative. (In contrast, almost all of my friends in the linguistics department at the comps talk answered in the negative; I think there is a simple explanation for this discrepancy, which is that we’d been prompted to process things syntactically by having considered earlier ambiguous examples in the talk.)

making. That most respondents put ‘hunt’ and ‘deer’ together was thoroughly unsurprising, and that this superseded a syntactic judgment which (I believe) they were capable of making suggests that syntax is more superficial than fundamental. For instance, the categories of ‘noun’ and ‘verb’ are treated in our syntax as so clearly distinct that we may decisively call ‘man’ in ‘The old man the boat,’ a verb. By the same theory, we may conceive of the syntactically correct way to put ‘hunt’ and ‘deer’ together.

However, would we be able to make the same claim as decisively about the syntax of another language? Like the copula ‘is’ and the expletive ‘it’ in English, the Polynesian /ko/ seems to occur at that troublesome noun/verb interface, insofar as it seems potentially to mark a subject, suggest an agent (in Theta theory, any verb may be analyzed as having a certain configuration of nominal arguments, for example in how the verb ‘nag’ suggests a nagger and someone who is nagged), or even assign nominative case. Potentially none of these accounts are coherent, if our categories ‘noun’ and ‘verb’ need to be constructed differently.