A Course in Rawàng Ata: 2.1


Transitivity and Animacy Bars

Two related and important sets of rules are the rules of transitivity and the rules of animacy barring: what makes a verb transitive, and what restrictions are placed on inanimate/animate nouns with respect to verbs.

There are five rules of transitivity:

  1. Transitive verbs must have actual known objects, even if they are not stated explicitly
  2. Transitive verbs must represent successful actions that have not been blocked, and have not failed through error or circumstance
  3. Transitive verbs must have subjects higher in animacy than their objects
  4. Transitive verbs must represent actions that have had real and lasting effects upon their objects
  5. Transitive verbs must have subjects that were, or are considered as having been, in control of the action.

If any of these five criteria are not met, the verb must be intransitive, and the subject marked accordingly. Although a verb with no object cannot be transitive, not all intransitive verbs lack objects. Those that fail to be transitive for any of the other four reasons may have objects.

The third criterion is also an animacy bar: specifically, a relative animacy bar. Whether the criterion is met is judged by the animacy hierarchy, which details the degrees of animacy of various nouns/pronouns. In descending order of animacy: second person pronouns; first person pronouns; third person directive pronouns; anaphoric pronouns; deictic pronouns; pseudo-pronouns; non-feminine animate nouns referring to humans; feminine nouns; other animate nouns; inanimate mass nouns; inanimate count nouns.

datta wohola kòmana

the sailor strikes the young woman

kòmaya kufohola dattama [Sandhi! w becomes f after u]

the young woman strikes the sailor

Note that in the second example, the verb is intransitive due to the relative animacy bar, and the subject therefore requires the ergative case; moreover, the feminine subject requires marking on the verb.

In addition to the relative animacy bar, there also exist various absolute animacy bars, regulating the required minimum animacy level for a noun to be the subject of a particular verb. These bars are specific to the verbs in question. For instance, sakkunga, ‘to kick’, has an animate-only bar: the subject must be animate; wattujnya, ‘to orient’, has a human-only bar: the subject must be a human. Maximum animacy bars are also possible, although they are more commonly found with passive verbs (dealt with later on in these lessons). Some examples of maximum bars in active verbs include djitta, ‘to nip’, which is animate-max (humans and pronouns cannot be the subject) and furila, ‘to frustrate’, which is feminine-max (women can be the subject but men cannot).

The fifth transitivity law also includes an absolute animacy bar: only animates can be responsible for their own actions, and so only verbs with animate subjects can be transitive.



ayati = grain

The Lày consume a number of crops, but are chiefly dependent upon the grain of a liana similar in appearance to Wisteria, named sūn. Sūn lianas, properly tended, can produce very large harvests of grain, allowing high population densities; however, the work of maintaining the lianas, and of harvesting the seeds, while not requiring great manpower, is technically difficult and quite dangerous, being conducted at high heights with ropes and harnesses. Moreover, ‘breaking’ land for farming is very laborious: competing lianas must be eradicated, sūn lianas slowly grown, and optimal tree spacing and canopy density safeguarded. These factors have encouraged dense and efficient farming rather than casual expansion. Once the grain is harvested, it must be crushed and soaked, to remove toxins, before being dried into a course flour: this may be added to milk or water to form porridge for the elderly and for invalids, roasted to produce a crunchy topping for many forms, or primarily turned into noodles.

The word ‘ayati’ can also be applied to the grain of other plants: a species of rush, once a staple crop but now grown for its tubers and fresh shoots, or the various cereal crops grown in drier climates on the mainland. However, when used without disambiguation, it is now overwhelmingly the sūn grain that is intended.

siwàk = mud

Siwàk is defined more by weight and texture than by composition. Important uses include fertiliser, a construction material for simple structures, and plaster to line the walls of houses.

yohok = uncontrollable anger

This word is hard to translate simply. Rawàng Ata speaks of emotions in several different ways, which reflect the speakers’ theories of mind, action, and metaphysics. One species of emotion is a motivating spirit that possesses the body of the speaker and causes them to act in unrepresentative ways. This implies a weakness of the part of the speaker, but can also be used to remove shame from them: the emotion-spirits are so powerful than nobody is immune, and actions performed under possession are actions for which the individual is not ethically culpable (although punishment may still be required). However, it is not true to call these emotions ‘uncontrollable’, as some people do control them: being affected by the spirit is not the same as being mastered by it. However, if a person displays the emotion, they have not been able to control it, or have not chosen to do so. These emotions are spoken of as deities: Ūta Yohok, ‘Lord Anger’ is one of the most powerful. Whether these deities are purely metaphorical, ontologically sophisticated, or plain gods will depend on the speaker, and how they describe them will depend on the circumstances. Each god is considered to be the ruler of a pantheon of lesser gods, corresponding to different shades of emotion, distinguished by the type of action it provokes. However, the emotion is not the same as the action, because although actions and emotions are often hard to distinguish in the vocabulary of Rawàng Ata, these action-emotions are a different class from deity-emotions, and although action-emotions can result from the influence of a deity-emotion, they can also occur without the deity being present. The deities should therefore be seen as driving the individual toward different actions, where ‘action’ includes some types of emotion.

A key concept in Rawàng Ata emotional terminology is the distinction between ‘direct’ and ‘inverse’ emotions: direct emotions are those in which the expression occurs within the same social grouping as the object of the emotion, while inverse emotions are those in which the expression occurs in a grouping in which the object is not present. Yohok is a direct and destructive emotion. A man driven to yell at his wife in their home; two citizens fighting in the street; both are guided by yohok. In contrast, if two citizen are furious about the behaviour of another man’s wife, or if a lynch mob is going to drag a man out of his home, or if a man and his wife are plotting to kill their neighbour, these are all examples of actions driven not by yohok but by salyin, inverse destructive emotion.


2 thoughts on “A Course in Rawàng Ata: 2.1

  1. kelemta says:

    Very creative and interesting to read! I hope you will continue with these lessons for some time. Even though I don’t have the mental space to spare on learning it at the moment, it is always fun seeing a new lesson that brings up new ways of looking at structures and concepts. Thanks for putting this up on your blog.

  2. vacuouswastrel says:

    Thank you (whoever you are!)! It’s a pleasure to provide something that’s of interest to somebody.

    I anticipate these continuing for a while, albeit at a rocky rate. I’ve got the principle material written for another six, and there’s a LOT more of the language to cover after that.

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