Rawàng Ata: Politeness, I

Well, after those three little Rawàng Ata posts I made last month, I’ve rather gotten bogged down in this next one. In fact, I’ve decided I’ll split it up and post it in bits while I finish it up. Apologies for lack of glossing in the examples, but it should be fairly obvious. Once I’ve got some more of these articles down, I’ll edit and proofread and whatnot and make some nicer pdfs out of them. Anyway, today’s post is on how Rawàng Ata handles ‘politeness’, to which the answer is: extensively. By ‘politeness’, I should say, I’m meaning everything to do with encoding social hierarchies into the language.


The Là are a stratified and hierarchical society, and Rawàng Ata reflects this reality linguistically in several ways. There are six broad ways in which these distinctions are manifested: directive syntax; reference through agreement prefixes and pronouns; animacy hierarchy effects; possessive vocabulary; speech styles; and pragmatic politeness rules.

Directive Syntax

Directive syntax is the decision to use a particular kind of verb, or to treat verbs in a particular kind of way; verbs used in this manner agree with two arguments rather than just one (if transitive), and use a wider range of agreement prefixes.

Eg. 1      datta sakkunga fonama
the sailor kicked the foreigner
(discursive syntax)

                Eg. 2      datta rasakkungara fonama
the sailor kicked the foreigner
(directive syntax)

Eg. 3      dattaya tawa fona
the foreigner saw the sailor
(directive syntax)

                Eg. 4      dattaya ratawara fona
the foreigner saw the sailor
(directive syntax)

Directive syntax has no semantic content, beyond a vague implication of definiteness; it is almost entirely a matter of politeness. Within classes, directive syntax is only typically triggered by the use of an explicit first- or second-person pronoun, which in turn is largely avoided in order to avoid directive syntax. If directive syntax is used at all between people of the same class, and even more so if it is used with only third-person referents, it is usually with real or pretended seriousness, stiffness and formality. In urban areas, some thugs are known to use directive syntax between each other, and to demand it from their interlocutors; this, however, is viewed as tantamount to a crime by the true authorities. In talking to a particularly conservative or strict person, particularly somebody older or more powerful (or when the speaker fears being overheard), directive syntax may also be used when any referent is or is possessed by a person of higher class.

Between social classes, however, directive syntax is always required from the lower-class speaker,  no matter the topic under discussion. Primarily and most rigidly, this applies between nobles and non-nobles (in theory the true distinction is between freemen and tenants, and hence rural freeholders are considered ‘noble’ for linguistic purposes; however, while aristocrats usually consider rural freeholders to be noble, the lower classes do not (indeed, they usually look down upon them), and so will not use directive syntax to them unless in the presence of a true noble). Among non-nobles, a further distinction is less rigidly made between sublandlords (gentry) and tenants; among nobles, a further distinction was traditionally made between nobles and the royal family, but as there is no longer a royal family this has lapsed. The tenant/freeman dichotomy is furthermore emulated in personal relationships of great authoritative distance – directive syntax is used (among nobles) with people far above the speaker in the hierarchy of the family, and among the lower classes invariably toward their own personal landlord, no matter how small the gulf in class between them. It may also be emulated in more specific and personal relationships, as between a client and a patron, a student and a teacher, or between lovers; it is a formal register, but more importantly it is a respectful and submissive one.

However, it is not only the junior in any relationship who adopts directive syntax; the senior is also expected to employ it. Here, though, the pragmatic implications are more complex. In general, if a senior (a noble, patron, teacher, landlord, etc) uses only discursive (i.e. non-directive) syntax, they are doing one of three things: they may be offending the junior speaker by refusing to take their formality seriously or acknowledge their respect; they may be flattering the speaker by showing their comfort and informality with them; or they may be waiving the requirement of directive syntax and freeing the junior speaker to speak to them as an equal. In general, if it is the second of these options, the speaker is more likely to begin with directive syntax and then shift to discursive, as though forgetting the formality of the situation, whereas in the other two instances they are more likely to use discursive syntax all along. All junior/senior relationships can be waived in this way, apart from the fundamental distinction between noble and commoner, which cannot be waived (nor can directive syntax ever be abandoned when using explicit first- or second-person referents; this is wholly distinct from the normal class-based system of use). It should be noted that waiving this requirement does not by itself render the junior partner free of other obligations toward politeness; nor should it be assumed that the requirement will always be waived where there is good will. It is common, for instance, for teachers to always insist on directive syntax toward them from their students and former students when they are discussing matters on which the teacher is an expert, even if the requirement is waived when the conversation turns to other matters.

A word should be inserted here about the ambiguous position of house-servants. Although these are commoners, they are often treated as nobles for the purposes of directive syntax both by their masters (except in situations of direct command) and by other commoners; this is even more true of house orphans.

The use of directive syntax, then, is primarily a matter of pragmatic context: the most important factor is the relative status of the the speaker and listener(s), followed by the formality-status of the conversation. The ‘absolute’ status of the speaker or listener is only a tertiary concern, if that.

The selection of pronouns and agreement affixes, on the other hand, is primarily a matter of absolute status. The use of any overt first- or second-person anaphora at all, however, is itself a matter of selecting directive syntax, with all the implications discussed above.


If a speaker does choose to employ directive syntax, they must select both a pronoun and (where applicable) a verbal agreement affix to use. This is an area of the language that has somewhat degenerated in recent centuries, and current practice is both simpler and more flexible than that proscribed in former years (and which may still beseen in some poetic contexts).

If directive syntax is to be used, there are five possible status levels to choose from in selecting a second-person pronoun. The lowest level, represented by the pronoun tuya, is used in two circumstances: with foreigners, ethnic minorities, or landless people; or between two people who know each other closely and are on friendly terms and share the same social class with, furthermore, no overt hierarchical relationships between them; in this second use, it is informal, and may be objected to, though it is very common between, for instance, family members or fraternity members. The second level, represented by yòtuya and àituya, is the appropriate level for addressing commoners; note that yòtuya is the default, and àituya a special feminine form that also denotes either a degree of affection (romantic or otherwise, particularly between women) or a degree of respect for an older woman from a man (it would be used by a man (of any class) of a common woman he was wooing, by a noble woman of a favoured maid, or by a common man of, say, his mother-in-law, or a midwife). Furthermore, àituya is primarily used toward tanù, and only rarely toward kanuhà, and almost never toward kùnyi or mahàuko. The third level terms ranatuya and kulatuya are used for free (i.e. noble, or rural freeholder – note that even those who decline to use directive syntax in conversation with a rural freeholder will still probably allow them the third level pronoun) men and women respectively – there is no default assumption toward the male as there is in the second level, and women are never referred to by the male pronoun. However, there is an oddity here: although mahàuko are treated as women and addressed with kulatuya, kùnyi are not treated as male, and likewise are addressed with kulatuya. The fourth level has only a single basic pronoun, hòngātu, and is used for particularly senior aristocrats (the stem houses of old septs, or the matriarchs and patriarchs of other houses, as well as government ministers, senior monks, and admirals); the fifth, with its pronoun ārātù, is used only for the stem houses of clans and possibly for the Prime Minister (however, see below on graduating verbs). Higher levels did once exist, but are now strongly derogated, and their use would appear grossly insulting.

In general, it is permissable to refer to an individual by a pronoun one level away from what is appropriate – this is considered insulting in most cases (whether the level is degraded or inflated) (though see below), but is insulting in an acceptable way (it will provoke anger and disapproval if serious, but not outright retribution, and can be used sometimes in a jocular fashion). Using a level even further from what is proper may be seen as grossly offensive, but is more likely to appear idiotic, and this is only in practice done jocularly within very intimate relationships, and then only rarely.

Complicating the above, several of these pronouns have higher ‘grades’:  yòtuya and àituya become yàmatuya and then yàmātu and finally arayàmāntu; ranatuya becomes ōrānatuya and then ōndrānatotu; hòngātu becomes āndrahongātu. These higher grades remain within the same level, but are used in addressing somebody of particularly high status within that level. The number of addressees is also a factor, with higher-grade pronouns often used in addressing larger numbers of people.

First-person pronouns, meanwhile, are rather simpler: there are only nine commonly used. The two fundamental first-person pronouns are luò and shiru; the former is the default option for commoners and rural freeholders, while the latter is the default for nobles, as well as for the wealthier gentry; however, these defaults are often over-ridden by conversational contexts, with luò a humble and submissive pronoun and shiru an assertive and demanding one (although neither necessarily implies a true power or authority imbalance – shiru may be used, for instance, to show that an individual is taking responsibility for a situation, even among peers), while luò may be used to concede defeat in an argument.

Alongside these pronouns there are two pronouns that often supplant them. Bāya is a pronoun used by men (including kùnyi) with other men when there is no difference in class, power or authority between them – traditionally it is also used when men of higher rank address men of lower rank with whom they feel solidarity (a master to his manservant, for instance, or a ship captain to his sailors), provided they are not actualy issuing commands (when shiru would be used instead). Men may also use it when talking to their wives or sisters. Traditionally it is the only pronoun used by òro when talking among themselves. Women may also use bāya: either when talking to other women of the same class but lower status, or when assuming a male role as regards their sisters (kanuhà in particular will use it when talking to tanù), or one kanuhà talking to another, or a kanuhà talking to a male family member (though not when talking to a kùnyi), or when talking to a man of a lower class.

The counterpart of bāya is kàya. This is only used by women (including mahàuko but not kùnyi), and it is used only by noble women talking to women of equal or lower class, or by common women talking to noble women.

Bāya and kàya are primarily singular, but can also be used as exclusive plurals; however, the dedicated exclusive plural forms bāyatò and kayàto also exist to stress plurality. All four can only be used as plurals when all those included could legitimately use that pronoun themselves in those circumstances. Alternatively, shiru and luò can be used as exclusive plurals regardless of the details of the other participants, and shirutò is used to include a third party of particularly high station or respect (although a sufficiently high-status individual should merit a third person pronoun, not be relegated to the plural of the first person). All these exclusive plurals can also act as inclusive plurals when the listener is of markedly lower class, rank or station. Alternatively, nùruy is the inclusive plural for a listener of similar status, and wakūnda is the inclusive plural where the listener is of higher status.

With third-person pronouns, the situation is even simpler: there are five. Adar is used for inanimate objects; dashi is used with animate non-humans; taìru is used with humans; and taindrùto is an honorific. Third-person pronouns are not number-sensitive.

These third-person pronouns do not trigger directive syntax; nonetheless, they are generally used only in formal contexts, with pseudopronouns or anaphoric pronouns used otherwise.

Finally, an important caveat to all the above must be mentioned, which is the concept of graduating and degraduating verbs. These are a small number of verbs that shift their objects to a higher class (second-person tuya > yòtuya/àituya > ranatuya/kulatuya > hòngātù > ārātù; third-person taìru > taìndrutò, first-person unaffected) while shifting their subjects to a lower class (the same in reverse, and all first-person pronouns shift to luò), or, more rarely, that shift their objects to a lower class (reverse of graduation, but third-person taìru is shifted down to dashi, and dashi down to adar, and taìndrutò is shifted to the special pronoun ātatairù). Noteably, somebody who would otherwise be addressed with ārātù cannot be the object of a graduating verb, as there is no higher class to graduate to, and instead an alternative construction must be found.


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