Preliminary Sketch toward a Grammar: The Syntax of Equations in Rawàng Ata

Please note that this is only the first part of such a section, detailing different forms; the second part will deal with when various constructions are used in preference to others. Other sections on nouns, verbs, deixis, pronouns and so forth will also be required. Nonetheless, hopefully this sketch will adumbrate for the interested reader some of the dimensions in which I intend to fill out the language.


1. Definition

An “equation” is a core utterance class in Rawàng Ata, typically associated with the communication of factual information. A single utterance may include multiple instances of equations, or of other utterance classes, but a single instance is sufficient for the utterance to be considered grammatically ‘complete’ and sufficient. Equations offer multiple descriptions of the same thing; these descriptions are divided into ‘new’ and ‘old’ descriptions; ‘old’ descriptions need not have been used verbatim earlier in the conversation, but stand for information that is both known (or potentially known) and known to be relevant.

2. Constitution

Equations are chiefly constructed out of large sub-units, ‘terms’, each of which offers a description. Terms are divided into the principle and the subordinate; ‘simple’ equations have only one principle term, while ‘complex’ and ‘serial’ equations may have multiple principle terms. Equations may also include ‘epiterms’, which are not terms themselves, and which cannot stand in their own right.

2.1 Types of Terms

There are three types of terms: deictic, rhemic, and phemic. Deictic terms describe the thing through ostension or other demonstration; rhemic terms, through a quality of the thing; phemic terms, through a factual relationship with other things. Deictic terms are clearly distinguished from rhemic and phemic terms, but the distinction between the latter two is pliable: many rhemes and phemes convey exactly the same factual information, but the former portray that information as an aspect of the thing itself, while the latter portray it as a contingent relation.

2.1.1 Structure of Deictic Terms

Deictic terms must always include some form of deictic phrase – either a deictic proform by itself, or a noun or verb modified by a deictic modifier. Deictic modifiers always follow immediately the noun or verb – they even come before a motif.

2.1.2 Structure of Rhemic Terms

Rhemic terms have one of two forms: an appositive phrase, or a nominal verb phrase. Appositions may in turn incorporate any rhemic term, and nominal verbs may have complements, which may in turn be any rhemic term. Apposition

An apposition is a placing of a noun or noun phrase placed subsequent to the rhemic noun. The apposite is placed into another case: generally, the ergative, although the locative and benefactive cases are also possible; where the rhemic noun is a prepositional pronoun, the apposite may be in an appropriate ‘controlled’ case:

dalè tipayu-yòn

the point of the peninsula

dalè ajunta-ya

the point of the dagger

oa fāma-ya

the thing on the surface of the great wave

ajunta oa-ya

the dagger on the surface of it

ajunta oa(ya) fāma-ya

the dagger on the surface of the great wave

dalè ajuntaya oa(ya) fāmaya tipayuyòn aban(ya) kosulauya

the point of the dagger that is floating on the great wave near the cape across the bay

It can be seen in the last two examples that although prepositions take the ergative when they are final apposites, this marking is often dropped when they are themselves followed by another apposite – this marking can return for purposes of emphasis.

One special case of apposition is that of an infinitive with its agent – the agent follows the infinitive and is in the locative case. Apposites in the ergative with infinitives indicate a less precise connexion, often an instrumental or an adverb of manner:


a holding


a seeing

tulàng komayon

seeing the girl

notàng komayon

a holding by the girl

notàng ajuntaya

a holding with a dagger Nominal Verbs

Nominal verb phrases have three componants – agent, object and verb. Of these three, only the agent is optional. The object is always unmarked, and the agent is always marked with the ergative case. The verb agrees with the object. The typical word order is AVO, but may be altered. It should be noted that the subject of a motive verb is considered its object for these purposes.

kòmaya ranotanga ajunta

the dagger (is) held by the girl / the holding of the dagger by the girl / the girl holding the dagger

ajuntaya tula kòma

the dagger (is) seen by the girl / the sight of the dagger by the girl / the girl seeing the dagger

tassida kòma

the travelling of the girl by river

In all these cases, a noun phrase that is placed first in the term may itself be a rhemic term:

kòmaya abanya wūya ata ranotanga ajunta

the holding of the dagger by the girl across the street

2.1.3 The structure of phemic terms Basic structure

Phemic terms have a more complicated structure – in part because the noun componants may be rhemic terms in their own right. A phemic term usually has three core componants: a agent, a verb, and an object. The subject and object may be rhemic terms, or simple noun phrases. Word order is free, but the default is SVO. The verb (or verbal phrase) may be in any of four voices: active, passive, active-reciprocal or active-reflexive; these are marked in varied manner. Active verbs agree with the subject through prefixes; passive verbs agree with the object through suffixes; active-reciprocals agree with both subject and object through prefixes, while active-reflexives agree with the subject with one prefix and are further marked by a suffix:

imàwa ra-solung-a kèlakī-ma

the sheep eats the grass

imàwa-ya solung-as-a kèlakī-ma

the grass is eaten by the sheep

imàwa-ya ra-sa-solung-a kèlakī-ma

The grass and the sheep eat each other

imàwa-ya ra-solung-ut-a

the sheep eats itself

As seen, the object, regardless of voice, is always placed in the accusative case (-ma, or –na when the previous consonant is a labial). The case of the subject depends upon a further property, known as transitivity: the agents of transitive verbs are unmarked, while the agents of intransitive verbs are placed in the ergative (-ya). Only verbs in the active or active-reflexive may be transitive. Structural complications of intransitives

Phemic terms with intransitive verbs may differ from this basic structure in either, or both, of two ways: they may lack an object, or they may have an agent.

Any intransitive verb may lack an explicit object. Where this object is clear from deictic or textual context, this may be considered anaphora, but where there is no clear object, this is no objection to the grammaticality of the expression; nor are such contextual deductions considered as fully binding as formal anaphora.

imàwaya rasolunga

the sheep is grazing (on sth.)

Alternatively, or in addition, the verb may possess an explicit agent, in addition to the existing subject. The relation of agent to verb is non-defined, but is often causative.

kòma imàwaya rasolunguta

the girl has the sheep eat itself Structual complications of motive verbs

The syntax of motive verbs differs to a degree from that of non-motives. Motive verbs are always transitive, and never passive, reciprocal or active-reflexive; they always lack an object. However, they may be transformed into non-motive verbs through the use of a suffix; these new verbs may be placed into alternative voices, or be given an additional subject; they also require an object, which is marked unusually:

kòma tassida

the girl travels by river

kòma imàwaya ra-tassid-ung-a leyà-sa

the girl has the sheep travel by river to the sea Lexical and syntactic variations in object-marking

Although it has been said that objects of phemic verbs are marked with the accusative, this is not universally the case. There are four exceptions: for syntactic reasons, to be discussed in a later section, an object may be placed in the lative or ergative cases; for lexical reasons, an object may be placed in the lative, prolative or ergative cases; in the case of de-motive verbs, the object is always in a non-accusative case; and certain verbs of ditransitive import may choose either their dative or their accusative object.

Demotive verbs place their objects in a variety of cases depending upon semantics. The lative case is used to indicate destination; the dative, direction toward; the avertive, direction away from; and the locative, motion within, through, around, or generally associated with. These objects may not be clarified with prepositions.

Non-motive verbs may lexically demand unusual object cases; these can be divided into bigoverning verbs (where the choice of case reflects a determinate change in verbal meaning) and fully unusual verbs (where only the unusual object case is permitted). These verbs must simply be learnt, but typically are verbs involving physical contact. The most prominent of these is the verb for touching, which demands the lative:

kòma kubumya imàwa-sa

the girl touches the sheep

A related example of a bivogerning verb:

kòma kudanujma imàwa-ku

the girl strokes the sheep

kòma kudanujma yolùti-ma

the girl stirs [in this context, froths or whips, or by extension curdles] the milk/cream

The semantic difference indicated by the choice of case can sometimes be quite dramatic:

kòma kurokanyàta imàwa-ku

the girl rubs the skin of the sheep

kòma kurokanyàta imàwa-ma

the girl prepares the meat of the sheep for cooking

The use of the accusative for the object of a bigoverning verb also has the effect of placing the object into the ‘substantial’ class of nouns. This also occurs when objects are in the ergative, and demands counters for marking plurality or possession of the object:

kòma kurokanyàta imimàwangakku

the girl rubs the skin of her several sheep

kòma kurokanyàta kutotora imàwama

the girl prepares the meat of her several sheep for cooking

The ergative mostly occurs with fully idiomatic meaning, with a fixed object:

kòma kuduana lòyang-am

the girl holds the pot

kòma kuduana lòyang-ya

the girl defecates

Meanwhile, the case-marking of semantically ditransitive verbs is noteworthy, because the verb retains the same meaning regardless of object marking: object marking merely shows which of the two possible classes of object is being expressed (no verb may have two simultaneous objects; however, see the later section on topical constructions). The dative is associated with recipients; the accusative, with themes:

kòma kutawīta ajunta-ma

the girl hands over the dagger

kòma kutawīta kōba-bi

the girl hands over to the lord

However, unlike in some languages, ‘ditransitive’ verbs are a small closed category in Rawàng Ata, containing only ten verbs: tawīt-, manèt-, ān-, ìlal-, kosul-, far-, dyani-, lafam-, wilàl-, and owa-; respectively, ‘to hand over (ACC) to (DAT)’, ‘to give ownership of (ACC) to (DAT)’, ‘to give responsibility for (ACC) to (DAT)’, ‘to give (ACC) as a gift to (DAT)’, ‘to hide (ACC) from (DAT)’, ‘to point to (ACC) for (DAT)’, ‘to uncover (ACC) in front of (DAT)’, ‘to turn (ACC) to point at (DAT)’, ‘to steal (ACC) from (DAT)’, and ‘to pay (ACC) to (DAT)’. Directive syntax

When an utterance contains a 1st or 2nd person deictic pronoun, “directive syntax” is triggered. The most immediate effect of this is to demand that both subject and object are marked on the verb (subject through preffix, object through suffix) – for ditransitive, this means that both objects must be marked, even if only one is explicitly stated (direct comes before indirect):

bā o-tawīt-ar-abalòy-a ajuntama

I handed the dagger over to a man who is socially superior to both of us.

In the case of motive verbs, this means that the de-motive suffix must be applied; the object suffix must then be given the appropriate case suffix as well (inverted through metathesis), while the optional independent object is placed in the accusative:

bā o-tassid-as-as-a leyà-ma

1st_person_masculine 1st-VERB-3rd_inanimate-lative-ition sea-ACC

I travelled by river to the sea

2.2 The combination of terms

Deictic, rhemic and phemic terms may be combined into larger structures in any of five distinct ways: parataxis, anaphor, subject-linking, topic-linking, or declension.

2.2.1 Parataxis

Paratactic connexion occurs when two terms are simply placed side-by-side. The meaning may be copulative (where one term is rhemic or deictic), or may merely indicate two related actions (where both are phemic):

wà, ajunta sanotanga kòmaya

this thing I am handing to you – it is the dagger the girl held

kòma kunotanga ajuntama, kòma kutawīta ajuntama

the girl held the dagger – the girl handed the dagger over

2.2.2 Anaphor

Anaphor takes the same structure as parataxis, except that one term is dependent upon the other due to the inclusion of anaphoric pronouns. There are nine anaphora: subject, object and oblique, each with animate, inanimate and feminine sub-types. As the names suggest, the subject and object anaphora respectively refer to the subject and object of the preceding term; the oblique anaphora refer more vaguely to a peripheral item, which may not even have been explicitly mentioned previously.

kòma kunotanga ajuntama, kusa kutawīta nà

the girl held the dagger; she handed it over.

2.2.3 Subject-linking

Phemic terms in which either both subject and object are shared, or the subject is shared and one verb is motive, can be combined quite simply into a more complex phemic term through concatenation of the verbs:

kòma kunotanga kutawīta ajuntama

the girl held and handed over the dagger

kòma tassida kutawīta ajuntama

the girl travelled by river and handed over the dagger

Both verbs must be in the active voice. These serial constructions may have idiomatic meaning.

2.2.4 Topic-linking

The ‘topic’ of an equation is broadly ‘what the equation is about’; it is generally the first noun or verb phrase in the equation. This establishes a semantic linkage between different terms in the equation, but in some cases this linkage may also be syntactic. This occurs when a verb (nominal or non-nominal, or even infinitive) lacks its primary argument (the argument with which the verb agrees), and the topic is ‘imported’ to fill the gap:

imàwa rabumya kòmaya, rasolunga kèlakīma

the sheep that the girl touched ate the grass

imàwa rasolunga kèlakīma, kòmaya bumyara

the sheep ate the grass, and the girl touched it [the sheep]

imàwama kòma sottùna, rayabōka

as for the sheep, the girl kicked it, and it ran away

imàwa ai, rasolunga kèlakīma

this sheep, it ate the grass

A special case of topic-linking is vocation. Here, the topic is placed in the vocative form, and imported into the second clause in the conventional manner, except that it the topic is treated as second-person for considerations of transitivity (but does NOT trigger directive syntax):

à imàwa, rasolunga kèlakīma

ah, sheep, you eat the grass

2.2.5 Declension

Rhemic and deictic terms may be subordinated by marking an element of them for case, to show their relation to another term:

kòma kusolunga imàwa, kōba-jnà

the girl ate the sheep, out of fear of the noble

ajunta-ya ò tul-a kòma, bè-bi sainangata

dagger-ERG NOT see-ITION girl, ALONG-DAT room

the girl did not see the dagger [nominal verb], because it [determined by topic] was on the far side of the room

Where the term to be declined is a nominal verb, the case ending is attached to the declensive particle, which is placed first in the term, followed by the item of import:

ilyasa kōba, uya-bi ajuntaya ò tula

the noble smiled, because he did not see the dagger

2.3 Epiterms

2.3.1 Types of epiterm

Epiterms can be divided into five kinds: expressives, interjections, tags, qualifiers, and frames. Expressives

Expressives are a confusing group of words, virtually limitless in meaning, which do not abide by the standard phonological demands of the language (some even require body gestures for their meaning). It is useless to attempt to describe all their uses, but they are placed at the beginning or end of a equation, and most typically express the mood of the speaker, the mood of something described, the atmosphere both climatic and emotional, or any distinctive motion or sound related to the equation. “Properly”, they precede the equation, but they may also be placed at the end for dramatic effect or clarification. Many are onomatopoeic, and many are reduplicative, or nearly so.

djindjixn, kòma tassida

in a fine but dense rainfall, the girl travelled by river

joanjuxan, kòma tassida

in a heavy, full-bodied rainfall, the girl travelled by river

!’ka, kòma tassida

oh dear! the naughty foolish girl travels by river!

!’kuku, kòma tassida

the girl travels by river – this can’t end well!

wàkwāk, kòma tassida

the girl travelled by river, surrounded by noise and gossip

mbwoshxwān, kòma tassida

in a vengeful fury, the girl travelled downriver

mbwoshxwān, kòma tassida – !’kuku !’ka!

in a vengeful fury the girl travels downriver – this can’t end well, the foolish evil girl!

lālwā{, kòma tassida [the brace standing for a hand gesture]

I think that what basically happened is that the girl travelled by river, or something like that Tags

Many terms may be followed by a small particle known as a tag. Strictly, these may be considered an open class, filled with any number of contemplative or suggestive noises. However, only a small number are codified in the language (other sounds are either ignored in writing and quotation, or else converted into the appropriate ‘correct’ tag). Tags are always strictly equation-final.

ilyasa kōba, uyabi ajuntaya ò tula, ū?

the noble smiled, because he did not see the dagger – or would you disagree?

ilyasa kōba, uyabi ajuntaya ò tula, shuko

the noble smiled, because he did not see the girl holding the dagger – or so I’ve heard

Tags may be modified by the contrastive deictic particles:

ilyasa kōba, ia ū?

the noble smiled – or would you disagree with this?

ilyasa kōba, awì ū?

the noble smiled – or would you disagree with that?

The latter indicates that ‘the noble smiled’ is not the first claim discussed – it may be a response to another claim, or it may suggest that earlier claims have already been rejected by the interlocutor.

The deictics may themselves be used as tags, with broadly emphatic and responsive/deliberative  semantics:

ilyasa, ia

I’m telling you, he smiled

worta, awì

And I’m telling you that he frowned!

worta kòma, awì

Yes, but on the other hand, she frowned Interjections

An interjection is a particle that is inserted anywhere into an equation. Interjections express the emotions of the speaker, and they are limited in semantic extent: they generally express surprise, realisation, anger or disbelief. They have a tendency to precede a word with which they are particularly associated, and they have a tendency to place themselves in a position of natural stress – in the case of monosyllables, this is done by masquerading as a part of a preceding word, if necessary through infixion, but in the case of polysyllables (including reduplicated interjections) they often place themselves as the initial syllables of the word in question.

worta’fang kòma!

that evil little girl frowned!

ilya’fan’da kòma!

that evil little girl smiled!

ilyasa fāfang’kòma!

that monstrously evil despicable little girl smiled! Qualifiers

Qualifiers are particles that are placed at the periphery of terms. They have two classes of usage: singular and connective. The latter occurs when two terms of equal rank (two rhemic terms, two deictic terms, or two phemic terms) are placed next to each other, and the latter is given a qualifier. They are a small closed set:

Ang and ira are enumerative. They suggest selection from a range of possibilities – ang suggests a free selection, while ira suggests a guided or particular suggestion. In connective use, they serve to indicate conjunction – ang tends to indicate incomplete conjunction while ira indicates completion, but this is a distinction of nuance, not grammar.

ang ilyasa kòma, kunotanga ajuntama

a smiling girl – she’s one of the ones who held a dagger

ira worta’fang kòma, kunotanga ajuntama

that evil little girl who smiled – she’s the one who held a dagger

ang ilyasa datta, ang worta kōba, arunotanga ajuntama

the smiling sailor and the frowning noble both held daggers

ira ilyasa datta, ira worta kōba, arunotanga ajuntama

it was the smiling sailor and the frowning noble who held daggers

The first instance of the qualifier may be dropped in the connective usage.

Dòy indicates iteration. Usually this implies repetition in time, but in some cases it may simply indicate addition, with the connotation of excess or extent. It is used only connectively.

ang ilyasa datta, ang worta kōba, arunotanga ajuntama

the smiling sailor and the frowning noble both held daggers

dòy ilyasa datta, dòy worta kōba, arunotanga ajuntama

the smiling sailor held a dagger, and again the frowning noble also

Dòy is always used in place of ira or ang for the third of three connected terms. It may be used for the second of two terms where the first is introduced with ira.

Ù serves to restrict, with the sense of ‘only’, or ‘just’ or ‘precisely’.

ù ilyasa datta

only the smiling sailor

ù arunotanga ajuntama

they just held the daggers

ù uyabi ajuntaya ò tula

just because he could not see the dagger

Narà is used to introduce a second depiction of the same thing.

ilyasa datta, narà ilyasa kōba

the smiling sailor – that is, the smiling noble

kòma kurokanyàta imàwama, narà widamàtta

the girl prepared the mutton for cooking, which is to say that she did her chores

Kuso indicates pluraction: that two actions are separate, but are performed simultaneously, or in close proximity to one another.

kòma kurokanyàta imàwama, kuso widamàtta

the girl prepared the mutton for cooking, and she also did her chores as well

kuso kòma kurokanyàta imàwama

one of the things the girl did was prepare the mutton for cooking


dā ilyasa datta

it is not the case that the sailor smiled

kòma widamàtta, dā ilyasa datta

the girl did her chores, but the sailor did not smile Frames

Frames are simple deictics that establish the place, time, or overarching topic of the discussion. They occur only at the beginning of equations, and continuity of frame is implied until a new frame is introduced. Ordinary nouns being used as names are suffixed with –ka. Frames are drawn from their own class of deictics, or are nouns with the frame suffix; the exception is in direct speech, where the frame is preceded by the preposition so.


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