Word Order and Case Marking with Modals

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Word Order and Case Marking with Modals
Release date March 19, 2011
Source Naviteri
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A couple of posts ago, in a response to a comment, I mentioned that the following example sentence was correct:

Pol säfpìlit verar wivan. ‘He's keeping his idea a secret.'

Here the verb var ‘persist in a state, continue to perform an action' is used as a helping verb or modal, with the meaning ‘keep on doing something.' A more literal translation of the sentence would be, ‘He's continuing to hide the idea.'

The question was whether the first word should be po or pol. Several people suggested that pol was incorrect, based on the evidence to date. For example, ‘He sees you' is Pol tse'a ngati, since tse'a is transitive, but ‘He CAN see you' is Po tsun tsive'a ngati, since here, po is the subject not of tse'a but of tsun, and helping verbs like tsun (also new and var) are intransitive.

So I thought it would be useful to clarify some things about case marking—and also word order—with modals.

First, word order.

I have a slide in my PowerPoint presentation about Na'vi that shows how the words in a simple sentence like the one for ‘Eytukan sees Neytiri' can be permuted in all possible ways, with all the versions grammatical and without altering the semantics of who is doing what to whom. In this case there are 3! = 6 possible permutations:

a. Eytukanìl tse'a Neytirit. b. Eytukanìl Neytirit tse'a. c. Neytirit tse'a Eytukanìl. d. Neytirit Eytukanìl tse'a. e. Tse'a Eytukanìl Neytirit. f. Tse'a Neytirit Eytukanìl.

This is not to say that all six sentences are completely interchangeable in discourse. As in the vast majority of natural human languages, the word orders where the subject precedes the object (a, b, and e) are the most common; the others are grammatical but are generally used for special emphasis. For example, suppose someone thought Mo'at saw Neytiri, but you know that it was actually Eytukan who saw her. The conversation could go like this:

–Spaw oel futa Mo'atìl tsole'a Neytirit. ‘I believe Mo'at saw Neytiri.'

–Kehe. Tsole'a Neytirit Eytukanìl. ‘No, the one who saw Neytiri was Eytukan.'

Here the speaker has chosen a word order that puts Eytukanìl at the end of the sentence to highlight the important, contrastive information—just as the English translation does, but less concisely than the Na'vi.

With a modal verb in the mix, however, the situation becomes more complicated.

Let's take as our example sentence ‘I want to eat teylu.' One way of saying that is Oe new yivom teylut. How many possible word orders are there? Well, in this case we have four words, so there are 4! = 24 logically possible orders. Bear with me as I list them all. (For brevity, I'll just use the initial letters of the four words.)

1. N O T Y 7. O N T Y 13. T N O Y 19. Y N O T 2. N O Y T 8. O N Y T 14. T N Y O 20. Y N T O 3. N T O Y 9. O T N Y 15. T O N Y 21. Y O N T 4. N T Y O 10. O T Y N 16. T O Y N 22. Y O T N 5. N Y O T 11. O Y N T 17. T Y N O 23. Y T N O 6. N Y T O 12. O Y T N 18. T Y O N 24. Y T O N

Are all 24 orders grammatical? Actually, no. The rule is that except in poetry or special ceremonial language, the modal has to precede the dependent verb. This means that in these examples, N = new must come before Y = yivom. So that knocks out half of the 24 logical possibilities. We're left with these 12 word orders:

1. N O T Y 7. O N T Y 13. T N O Y 2. N O Y T 8. O N Y T 14. T N Y O 3. N T O Y 9. O T N Y 15. T O N Y 4. N T Y O 5. N Y O T 6. N Y T O

Now what about the case marking? Well, it's clear that T is teylut throughout. As for O, oe is correct in all cases. But here's where it gets interesting: one of these sentences, number 9, has an alternate form where O is oel. That is, 9 can be either of the following:

9a. Oe teylut new yivom. 9b. Oel teylut new yivom.

In fact, 9b is more common than 9a. Why is that? Well, the combination of Agentive/Ergative (the “l-case”) followed by Patientive/Objective (the “t-case”) is so frequent in Na'vi (e.g., Oel ngati kameie) that sentences like 9a are uncomfortable for many speakers. So a reanalysis takes place, where new yivom is thought of as a single, transitive verb, making 9b possible.

And that explains why the ‘keeping secret' sentence we started out with is OK with either po or pol.

Sìlpey oe, fìtìoeyktìng law lilvu!

Ta Pawl

P.S.—The event with Marc Okrand in Boise was a blast! I really enjoyed meeting him, and I think our joint appearance went well. It was also great to meet 'Eylan Ayfalulukanä, an active member of the Community, who drove a long way to be there. Oh, and I got to see and talk with my first Klingon!

Addendum—March 22, 2011

Thanks to everyone who contributed astute questions and comments both here and elsewhere. Let me try to clarify some of the points I made above, although I can't promise to offer definitive yes-or-no rules in all cases: constructions like this are inherently fuzzy.

There are four word orders in contention for reanalysis (which I'll expand on in a bit); I'll repeat them here for convenience:

5. N Y O T 6. N Y T O 9. O T N Y 15. T O N Y

What defines these four is that in all of them, (a) NY (new yivom) is an uninterrupted sequence, and (b) O (oe or oel) and T (teylut) are contiguous.

The question is, Does O = oe or oel? As I indicated above, in all cases O = oe is grammatically correct. So it boils down to whether or not O = oel is also acceptable to native speakers of Na'vi in any of these sentences.

I'll address that question in a moment, but first some general thoughts on linguistic variation, a large topic about which books have been written.

As language learners, we feel most comfortable with definite rules: “It's A, not B.” But real language doesn't always work that way. Sometimes A and B are equally correct, with no difference in meaning or usage, although some speakers might be more likely to use one than the other. (In English, how do you pronounce the first syllables of either and economics? How do you contract He is not here—He isn't here or He's not here?) As you know, Na'vi is particularly rich in such “free variation” (mì fay vs. paymì; awnga vs. ayoeng; lora syulang vs. syulang alor; to say “Who are you?” even if “you” is simply nga, you have 12 choices!). Another kind of variation is not within a given speaker but among speakers: For some, A is right, B is wrong, and that's that. For others, A and B are both fine. For still others, A sounds better than B but B is still acceptable to some degree. That is to say, grammaticality judgments can vary among native speakers. (I just took a look at a textbook of mine from my graduate school days. In one of his seminal articles, Chomsky had “starred” an example sentence, *It is easy for there to be snow in June, indicating that it was ungrammatical. I wrote in the margin that I thought the sentence was perfectly fine.) There's no reason to think the situation is any different on Eywa'eveng. Unfortunately communication with Pandora has been difficult lately, and I haven't been able to ask any native speakers of Na'vi how they feel about these sentences. (Oh for a Na'vi Maltz!) So I've had to use my intuition. That being said, here are my best guesses:

The one most likely to be judged grammatical with oel is 9:

9b. Oel teylut new yivom.

That's judged acceptable by almost all Na'vi in all but the most formal situations.

The next most likely is 15:

15b. ?Teylut oel new yivom.

I'd put that at 50-50—that is, half the Na'vi will accept it, half won't.

The next is 6, which I'd put at 30% acceptable, 70% unacceptable:

6b. ??New yivom teylut oel.

Finally, 5 is generally judged unacceptable with oel:

5b. *New yivom oel teylut.

I spent some time trying to justify these intuitions, but after reading what I wrote, I didn't find the results coherent. And as they say, your mileage may vary. So I'm just going to leave it there, at least for the time being. Bottom line: If you don't want to take any chances, use the intransitive-subject case in all such sentences. But in sentences like 9, feel free to choose either case.

Just one more thing:

As I mentioned, for 9b to be judged acceptable, new yivom has to be reanalyzed in the speaker's mind as a single complex verb (or “super-verb,” if you like). That kind of thing is not unknown in English. For example, take the passive construction, which (at least under some theories of syntax) changes a sentence like The mouse ate the cookies into The cookies were eaten by the mouse: the original object of the verb has become the new subject, along with other changes. But what about:

a. The researchers didn't think of that outcome. –> That outcome wasn't thought of by the researchers.

b. Her friends spoke badly about her. –> She was spoken badly about by her friends.

c. His boss took advantage of him. –> He was taken advantage of by his boss.

If passive works on objects of verbs, then how are these passive sentences possible? After all, the new subjects are not the old objects of the verbs—that is, if you think of the verbs as, respectively, think, speak, and take. But instead, speakers appear to be reanalyzing the word sequences. Rather than considering “think of” as verb + preposition, they're taking it to be the super-verb “think-of.” Likewise with “speak-badly-about” and “take-advantage-of.” If you do that, then these super-verbs do have objects, which allows the passive transformation to apply.

The big question is, Under exactly what conditions do such reanalyses take place? If you come up with a complete answer to that question, please let me know!

Comment 1[edit]

Ngeyä tìpawmìri irayo, ma Kemaweyan. Rutxe oeyä tìoeyktìngit asawnung nivìn.

Comment 2[edit]

Srane! Kemlì'ut alu var fkol sar pxel pum alu new.

Comment 3[edit]

Irayo ngaru, ma MIPP.

Comment 4[edit]

Ke rolun oel kea aykeyeyt!