Rawàng Ata: Politeness, II


Verbal personal agreement is comparatively simple. In discursive syntax, animate human subjects and objects trigger zero morpheme agreement affixes, except that female subjects of active dynamic verbs require the prefix ku-. This female prefix applies to kanuhà, tanù, and mahàuko, but not to kùnyi.

In directive syntax, the first-person subject prefix may be wa-, wanà-, wāta-, ba-, banà-, bāta-, ka-, kanà-, kāta-, ma-, manà-, māta-, kumà-, dān-, dāntā-, īnku-, koanà-, loka-, or lokanà-. Of these, the wa- series are used for inclusive plurals, while the others may be singulars or exclusive plurals. Ba- projects a male identity (it is not used by kùnyi); ka- projects a female identity. Ma- does not project a gendered identity, is favoured by kùnyi, and is also used when there is reason to avoid sexualising a situation (for instance, a man issuing commands to a woman will often prefer the more neutral and inoffensive ma-, to avoid seeming to usurp the place of her husband; likewise, women dealing with men outside the home may insist on ma- to avoid any appearance of flirtation or weakness). Bāta- and kāta- are forms used only by aristocrats, only when talking to their inferiors, and only in commanding situations; māta- is the corresponding neutral prefix, but is much less common, with men and women almost always using gendered prefixes in these situations, and kùnyi largely avoiding the register altogether – māta- is used mostly by mixed-gender groups, or implying the possibility of such a group. It is often used by officials claiming the shadowy plurality of ‘the nation’ and its government; it is a very formal and often very pompous prefix. Dān- and dāntā- are two more prefixes associated with command and high social station, usually reserved for clan or sept matriarchs or patriarchs, and government officials, or sometimes house matriarchs/patriarchs when exercising their authority; īnku- is a specifically feminine form for use by matriarchs when commanding. Loka- is used only by foreigners and members of ethnic minorities. Wāta- is the inclusive counterpart to māta-/bāta-/kāta-.

This leaves the diminutive forms. Banà- in theory projects the identity of a young or inferior male; in practice, however, it is only employed by women or children, usually by either kanuhà or kùnyi (never by mahàuko). It is meant to be endearing, and when used in talking to another woman it suggests that the speaker is taking a more male (i.e. executive) role without appearing an imposition or assumption. Kanà- and kumà- both project young or inferior female identities, and the differences between them are sometimes hard to pin down – in general, kanà- is the more feminine and endearing, while the emphasis of kumà- is more on being diffident; kumà- may be used by kùnyi sometimes, while kanà- almost never is, and, counterintuitively, kumà- may also sometimes by used by the hyper-masculine òro, particularly when showing affection to another òro or to a yajò. Lokanà- is a diminutive form to loka-, and is used by foreigners and members of ethnic groups when stressing their inferiority (and sometimes by Là when jocularly asserting their own ignorance or barbarism). Finally, koanà- is a humble suffix, used by members of certain unclean professions, and by anybody talking to somebody of far greater station or import, or when begging a favour.

Object suffixes are much simpler: -wa is used for inclusive plurals, -ma is used otherwise, except by those of particularly high status, who use –dān.

There are only three second-person prefixes: tu- for commoners, ōtu- for nobles (as with directive syntax, the status of rural freeholders is ambiguous), and angātu- is an honorific. The second-person suffixes are a little more numerous: -tu for commoners, –tutò for nobles, and -tuhònga as a petty honorific (often reflecting personal respect more than social status), plus –arahòngan as a higher honorific.

Third-person ra- is used for both common men and common women, āra- and kūra- are used for noble men and women respectively, and hamāra- and ōdahamāra- are honorifics; in suffixes, -ra­ suffices for all non-honorific uses, but there are three honorifics, -āruyan, –hasharuàn, and –ōndāndratōhāshangāhāmārānu, which is only used in extreme cases.

It should be noted that the use of graduating or degraduating verbs does not alter the appropriate agreement prefixes.

Animacy Hierarchy Effects

The animacy hierarchy is central to Rawàng Ata, including its ritualisation of social hierarchies. This is a ranking of all possible noun phrases by how likely they are to be agentive, and a set order is followed:

pronouns > nouns

Within pronouns, we have the order:

deictic pronouns > vocative nouns > anaphoric pronouns > demonstrative pronouns

And within each of these, we have:

noble > common

Within each of these groups, we have:

male > female

And then for each gender we have:

2nd person > 1st person > 3rd person

Meanwhile, within nouns, we have:

gods > male humans > other animates > inanimates

Within each of these groups, we then have:

proper nouns > pseudopronouns > mass nouns > common nouns 

This hierachy takes life in three primary ways: transitivity, barring, and deictic frame shifting. The transitivity limitation is simple: active transitive dynamic fluid verbs cannot have an object higher in the hierarchy than their subject. Thus, while it is possible to say:

Eg. 5      datta sakkunga kòmana
the sailor kicked the girl

It is virtually impossible to say:

Eg. 6      ?kòma kusakkunga dattama
?”the girl kicked the sailor”

This impossibility arises because sailors are assumed to be male, girls are female, and thus sailors cannot be kicked by girls, who are lower in the animacy hierarchy than men. The sentence is marked as questionable rather than outright false only because such a sentence would be taken as implying that the sailor was female – taken literally, this is grammatically impossible (sailors cannot be female – although women may sometimes for some reason help to sail a ship, this cannot make them sailors; contrariwise, a woman who really was a sailor clearly would not be a woman at all), but it may be a conceivable, if strange, way of insulting the sailor. (Referring to men as women and vice versa is not a typical insult among the Là, but it may be found insulting by particular men or women for personal reasons).

When such an animacy objection arises, the verb must become intransitive, putting the subject into the ergative. Such verbs typically denote failure or imitation, or aborted action, or possibly completed but ineffectual action:

Eg. 7      kòmaya kusakkunga dattama
the girl tried to kick the sailor
OR: the girl made as though to kick the sailor
OR: the girl seemed about to kick the sailor
OR: the girl ‘kicked’ the sailor but did not hurt him at all

In some cases, the exact nature of this ‘failure’ may be specified by changing the case of the object:

Eg. 8      kòmaya kusakkunga dattasi
the girl kicked out in the direction of the sailor (but did not make contact)

Of course, it is important to stress that these transitivity limitations are primarily grammatical, rather than semantic. They can therefore be circumvented by grammatical means, chiefly by raising the animacy of the subject by employing a pronoun:

Eg. 9      (kòma,) taìru kusakkunga dattama
(as for the girl,) she kicked the sailor


The above transitivity limitation is relative, applying between pairs of subject and object of differing animacy. Barring, on the other hand, is absolute. This is a limitation applying to many verbs that specifies a necessary animacy level for the subject and/or the object. Barring sets a level above or below which a subject or object cannot be – most common are +animate (inanimates cannot be subjects), animate- (only inanimates can be objects), and +male and -male (only men or only women/animals/inanimates can be subjects), but there are many other, rarer bars. The lumping together of women and animals is particularly problematic for speakers, given the high status of some women; there are accordingly some verbs that have pragmatically become reserved for animals, and some for women, while other times women are invariably referred to by pronouns to permit them to be subjects or objects of some particular verb. One effect of the barring process is to produce many twin or even triplet verbs for use with different animacies. For instance:

Eg. 10    datta wa naluma
the sailor ate the noodles

Eg. 11    kòma kuhumùna naluma
the girl dined on the noodles

Eg. 12    loyù ramala naluma
the rat gobbled up the noodles

Note that there are two kinds of prohibition here: grammatical and political. It is ungrammatical for the girl or the rat to be the subject of w-, but all three could grammatically be the subject of humùn- or mal-. It is merely a matter of politeness that girls are typically given their own verb, and that men use the verb they are entitled to. These politeness prohibitions are adjustable – it is quite common to make females the subjects of animals verbs, either affectionately or rudely, while men may be intentionally made the subject of non-male verbs to indicate that they are acting in a feminine/bestial manner. The grammatical prohibitions, however, are not so easily disobeyed.


Finally, animacy hierarchy shapes deictic centreing. The centre of deixis is by default the speaker, in discursive syntax, or the addressee, in directive syntax, but this is altered by the use of the frame-shift particule . The new deictic centre is the thing with the highest animacy according to the animacy hierarchy, with the complication that local nouns are inserted into the hierarchy immediately after pronouns, and topicalised nouns immediately precede pseudopronouns of equivalent class:

Eg. 13    kòma, duba loàku, aì lùtama datta sakkunga
as for the girl, at the bottom of the hill, the sailor kicked this ball here that belongs to her

Eg. 14    kòma, duba loàku, kò aì lùtama datta sakkunga
as for the girl, at the bottom of the hill, the sailor kicked that ball of hers that was over near the hill

Eg. 15    kòma taìru, duba loàku, kò aì lùtama datta sakkunga
as for the girl, at the bottom of the hill, the sailor kicked that ball of hers that was over by her


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