A Course in Rawàng Ata: 1.4



All things are either animate or inanimate. This is a basic characteristic of nouns. In most cases, animacy is predictable semantically: humans, motive animals and tools are animate, along with a handful of ‘animates of power’ referring to important parts of the natural world (the sea, the sky, lightning, etc). However, there are sometimes exceptions, due mainly to change in meaning over time: fōna, for instance, is inanimate.

Animacy is not evident from word form, and must be learnt with the word. Sometimes, the same word may have both animate and inanimate uses with different meanings. For instance, lutà means ‘ball’ when inanimate, but ‘pair of testicles’ when animate.

The effects of animacy will be dealt with later.



Nouns are also either feminine or common. Most feminine nouns refer to female human beings, or to a few female animals of economic significance. Some tools particularly associated with women have taken on feminine gender: sisanto, “dildo”, and ùjmang, “cooking pot” are both feminine.  Again, gender is not marked explicitly on the noun and must be learnt.


Verb Agreement

The verb in Rawàng Ata must always ‘agree’ with a noun – this noun is the ‘control’. In the simple sentences considered so far, the control is the subject. Excluding first and second person subjects, which will be considered later, there are six possible agreement prefixes:

ku- is used whenever the control is feminine

dùr- is used when the control is ‘concertive’ – when multiple animate controls act in concert to create a single action

amor- is used when the control is ‘pluractive’ – when multiple animate controls act independently to perform the same action multiple times, or incoherently

ra- is used for all other animate controls, except for non-feminine humans

sa- is used for inanimate controls

a null or zero prefix is used for non-feminine human controls that are not concertive or pluractive


datta wohola kòmana

the sailor strikes the woman

datta dùjwohola kòmana [Sandhi! r+w=jw]

the sailors all strike the woman together

datta amojwohola kòmana

the sailors each strike the woman

kòma kuruaya ruruntama

the woman wipes clean the floors

datta ruaya ruruntama

the sailor wipes clean the floors

lutà sataka runta

the ball hits the floor

lutà rataka runta

the testicles hit the floor


Intransitive Verbs and the Ergative

Until now we have dealt with transitive verbs only. Transitive verbs in English have both a subject and an object; in Rawàng Ata, it’s slightly more complicated than that, but that’s how we’ll begin: if a verb has no object, it cannot be transitive. This means that it is intransitive.

What this means in practice is that the subject must be placed into the ergative case, marked by –ya. Otherwise, it is assumed that the verb is transitive, but that the object has simply been left to context.

Intransitive verbs with no object often have the connotation of aimless or universal direction. This may have idiomatic uses.

datta wohola

the sailor strikes [it]

dattaya wohola

the sailor strikes out

kòma kutaka

the young woman hits [it]

kòmaya kutaka

the young woman runs out of energy and/or nervous fortitude



ùjmang = cooking pot

As a result of the scarcity of metals, most cooking must be done in ceramic pots. Several specialised types exist, but most meals will be cooked in the ùjmang, a large pot designed for use in ovens. Key features include a squat, stable base, sides that are pinched slightly near the top to form a broad neck, and a pair of high, wide handles that reach well above the mouth of the pot. In general, the food is stewed. The pinched neck can in some cases be plugged; at other times, reeds can be placed across it to allow some foods to be steamed above the stew. To remove the hot, heavy pot from the oven, a strong wooden pole is thrust through the loops of the two high handles and into a recess at the back of the oven; the ùjmang may then be slid out along the pole, so that food can be ladled out into tureens. The ùjmang is an important social artefact, as it acts to distinguish who is within and who is without a certain family group within the baryōng. When two or more marital groups are present, they will have their meals cooked in different ùjmang; similarly, some servants may be ‘adopted’ into the family (albeit with a very different status from true-born members), and this is symbolised by allowing them to eat from the same ùjmang.

bolay = turtle

Bolay, turtles, are an important animal to the speakers of Rawàng Ata. They are admired and empathised with for their longevity and equanimity, and their predation upon dangerous jellyfish, while their practice of laying their eggs on land but living at sea is taken as symbolic of the (ideal) island lifestyle; but equally they are condemned for their lack of affection, particularly toward their young. It is a popular myth that the Lày people (the main and dominant speakers of the language) are descended from a the coupling of a woman and a giant turtle, which is held to explain the sea-longing and wanderlust that afflicts Lày men; for this reason, giant turtles are seen as kin, and to kill one is considered murder. However, the Lày have no such qualms about smaller turtles, which are both hunted and (in the case of some species) farmed – their meat and eggs are eaten, their skin is used for leather, and their plastrons may be used as an attractive material, or else ground down to a powder, from which is made a gelatinous foodstuff. Small species may also be found as pets. A final species sometimes seen is the colossal turtle, which wanders up from warmer waters from time to time: these gigantic creatures are treated with religious awe.

tumanya – to turn over in one’s hands

The verb is used usually in cases either of inspection of an object, or of idle motion. In its intransitive form, it has the metaphorical meaning “to muse, to ponder, to be puzzled, to deliberate”.

2 thoughts on “A Course in Rawàng Ata: 1.4

  1. miekko says:

    Good stuff.

    Again, I am reminded that your case nomenclature is somewhat special, and I’d like to hear what reasons you have for calling that particular case ergative (I seem to remember the earlier description of it gave away a bit more of that, but the nomenclature still doesn’t quite agree with me… so an explanation would be just as called for now as earlier.)

    I hope you are doing well. I have recently been having the time of my life, and in a couple of weeks this state of affairs will resume 🙂

  2. vacuouswastrel says:

    Not bad, thanks. Good to hear things are well with you!

    Regarding the ergative: well, more will be said about it later. But briefly:
    – It is prototypically used for subjects, but it is a marked case.
    – It has certain connections with possession and apposition that one might expect from ergatives.

    The only reason for NOT calling it an ergative that I can think of is that it isn’t used for ALL subjects, but that’s just a split in the typology.

    Plus: what else to call it?

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