Rawàng Ata: a phonology sketch

I’ve been playing with Rawàng Ata – my constructed language with Austronesian inspirations – for many years now, but I don’t think I’ve ever properly sat down and described its basic phonology.

So, here’s a quick sketch: RA draft phonology sketch

(Since neither WordPress nor online forums seem great at respecting the elementary formatting necessary for this, I thought it would be easier just to make a .pdf of it)

Sorry in advance for any confusion in the document: one problem with this, as with all language, is that every part relies on every other part, so it’s never possible to lay things out in a completely logical order…


Rawàng Ata: Tags

Rawàng Ata makes extensive use of sentential ‘tagging’ – elements attached to the end of a sentence to indicate the illocutionary or pragmatic function of the utterance.

Rawàng Ata tags can be divided into two main kinds: indicative, which relate to truth and knowledge, and subjunctive, which relate to suggestions, desires and so forth.

Among the indicative tags, , wānìa, wāhā, wāraluìhā, māru, māruhà, ìur, iùrva,, nonìa, nomahà, nomāru, ìurno, fānìa, fāno and all indicate true and literal statements, and are used to disambiguate from exaggerations, fantasies, rumours and so on. These tags are broadly equivalent in use, though precise connotations differ, and vary between dialects and registers; many more tags are also found with this function in regional and occupational dialects – the above are only the more conservative and widely-found possibilities. Of these, the longer tags tend to indicate more ‘serious’ intent, and is the most formal; is the most common in contemporary speech, being ubiquitous. Ill-educated speech is often characterised by the over-use of .

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Rawàng Ata – prepositions


Rawàng Ata has a relatively simple system of prepositions.

The three most important locative prepositions are ko, and òa. These are by far the most used locative prepositions, and are all based on the concept of the ‘index-plane’, a hypothetical surface covering the earth. In most cases, the index plane is identical with the surface of the ground or of a large body of water, but certain classes of item are conceived of as beneath, and hence extending, that plane: trees (but not bushes), houses and huts, caves and large overhangs (artificial or natural), the internal volume of ships, the internal volumes of people and large animals (but not insects, etc) regardless of their location, the internal volumes of objects placed on the index-plane (such as boxes when on the ground, but not when on a cart), and the volumes created beneath or within certain bounding or enveloping objects (such as cages) placed on the index-plane — this also includes the areas beneath elevated houses. The plane also extends to include areas that are naturally inimical to life, whether or not they are contiguous with the main plane — for instance, volcanic clouds are included within their own conceptual planes. The definition of ‘inimical to life’ can be superstitious: fog, for example, is generally considered ‘interior’, despite its low lethality. Contrariwise, small streams are considered above the plane, as are rising floodwaters, although the status of slow-draining departing floodwater is variable.

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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.

Performance Arts Among the Là

Along with returning to Rawàng Ata this year, I’d also like to flesh out a little more of the culture of the people who speak it, the Là. And surely the natural place to begin such an account must be with… performance art. OK, so maybe that’s not actually an intuitive starting point, but I guess it’s as good a place as any.

By ‘performance art’, to clarify, I mean any artform based upon perf… OK, I guess what I really mean is those artforms where individuals behave in certain ways and that’s the art, distinct from those artforms (like painting, architecture, etc) where individuals shape the environment around them.

I’ve managed to end up with two different approaches to this topic: one a history, the other an art-by-art overview of the contemporary situation. Either could really stand without the other, and I’ve been going back and forth on which to post first, and whether to post both. In the end, I’ll post both, and I’ll start with the history. Those of you wanting more detail, it’ll follow in the art-by-art half of the series. The history section itself will have I think four posts. Here’s the first of them:


The First and Second Accord Periods (c.200-c.600aH and c.600-994aH)

The primary performative art in these early periods was dance. The function of dance was in turn largely ritual, and dance forms can be divided into solitary shamanic dance and collective communal dance.

Shamanic dances were performed without accompaniment of any kind – the shaman was expected to follow the rhythm in his head. These dances varied with the type of animal being negotiated with, and typically attempted to imitate the animal in rhythm and in distinctive movements. Typically, each dance would be broken into passages, the shaman adopting a frozen posture between passages as he recited shamanic poetry.

Communal dance, on the other hand, had a rich vocal and percussive accompaniment. Percussion was of two kinds: a simple regular beat struck out on wooden slit drums, and a more complicated rhythm created by the dancers themselves stricking together wooden sticks. Vocal accompaniment took the form of monotone, wordless chanting by spectators. Singers were divided into groups on the basis of pitch, and the different groups sung with different rhythms, to create a complicated polyrhythmic texture, the striking of the dancer’s stick representing points of contact between the conflicting rhythms. These dances, which were performed at all significant personal and communal rites of passage, in the open air, typically accelerated in pace over a period of hours, until only the fittest and most skilled dancers remained. Dance at this time was carried out by both sexes and a wide range of ages, with those too old, too young or too infirm relegated to singing (thus, as the dance went on and more dancers dropped out due to tiredness or inability to keep pace, the number of singers increased). These events were strikingly egalitarian, with rich and poor dancing together. These dances are known as manungàng, and would differ in style to match the ritual function of the occasion. During the Second Accord Period, personal ability in the manungàng became increasingly noteworthy, and some individuals began to be sought out by aristocrats for their dancing skill. Aristocrats increasingly favoured more complicated dances.

Poetry was a far less important art. Folk poetry of various kinds existed, often in the form of ritualised taunting, but these poems were never written down and rarely remembered, and were seen as a form of playful speech, rather than as a form of art. Most poetry was instead religious. The most important form of religious poetry was shamanic bargaining-poetry, in which, through words passed down from shaman to shaman, shamans sought to negotiate with animals. The success of these negotiations was often attributed to how correctly remembered the bargaining-poetry had been. Shamans viewed these words as the centre of their power, and guarded them jealously; they varied from shaman to shaman. Other religious traditions also employed ritual words – most prominently, the rituals of praise and appeasement directed at the old Antaremese pantheon of deities, but also chants associated with a variety of religions being imported from Gureha.

In addition to religious words, the Là brought with them and maintained several dozen long poems from their time in Antarem, which will be discussed in more detail later.

Music was primarily a matter of accompaniment to dance. However, a few other forms existed, with low prestige. Trumpets existed, but were not considered musical. The long, thin sarvarung transverse flute was played by a seated psychopomp while her apprentice held up the end by a fabric sling, to guide spirits into the afterlife. Rhythm was more important here than melody – the sarvarung lacks fingerholes, so pitch is determined only overblowing and is limited to the harmonic series. Reed instruments were known, with and without fingerholes, but were not standardised, and were considered a form of idle entertainment. More distinctive was the raò, an instrument formed from internodal sections of the culms of a bamboo-like plant, the ruàma. Pairs of close parallel incisions are made into the culm, creating narrow strips, which are pulled out from the side of the culm, with small wooden bridges inserted under them at each end, so that they may be plucked; in this way, the culm provides both the resonant chamber and the strings. In these periods, the raò, usually with three strings, was played for personal amusement, and by children, although in the later Second Accord Period it had also begun to be used as a teaching instrument to aid the practice of more complicated manungàng.


The Mèngitan and Angonāli Dynasties (994-1066aH), and the Petty Dynasties (1066-1158aH)

During these foundational dynasties, the increasing dichotomy between manungàng forms that had grown over the Second Accord Period developed into a complete schism. Popular dance continued as manungàng without qualifiers, and continued to be much the same as ever, though it increased somewhat in complexity over time. The new kings, however, favoured a form known as rāmayao manungàng, or simply rāmayao, indicating a royal dance. The rāmayao was notable primarily for its complexity, with hundreds of dancers divided into dozens of groups. Large ensembles of slit-drums were required to provide a rhythm; vocal accompaniment came from the dancers themselves, as well as from the audience, assisted (particularly in the later, wilder stages) by reed pipes and trumpets. The main sociological distinction, however, was that the rāmayao was performed by a professional royal troupe. During the Petty Dynasties, the rāmayao was simplified, yet became more common, as more and more nobles sponsored the art.

In this period, the old Antaremese long poems, which had long been remembered through popular retelling, began to be codified. Sometimes this took the form of writing them down – but the more important development was the establishment of bardic schools by the Mèngitan, charged with remembering precisely the classic poems, though the repertoire itself was not yet specified. At this time in history, very few were able to read or write, and writing was considered both alien and divine, unsuitable for the recording of folk tales.

Shamanic poetry and dance continued without change in this era, as largely did music.



Rawàng Ata (#14): Substantivisation of Verbs

Rawàng Ata possesses several constructions that allow verbs to be employed as nominal arguments. There are four rough categories  (although closer examination shows a more nuanced picture): concrete verbs, infinitives, action nouns, and deverbal nouns.

Concrete verbs are primarily used as independent verbs; however, they may also be used as the topic of a sentence, or as an argument of another verb:

Eg. 1      sakabàrban tawi kùnyika
ra-ka-bàrb-an tawi kùnyi-ya
3I-C3-sear-C fish kùnyi-ERG
the kùnyi seared the fish

Eg. 2      lakàbarban, kùnyika tawara kòma
là-ka-bàrb-an, kùnyi-ya tawa-ra kòma
MISS-C3-sear-C, kùnyi-ER see-3A girl
the girl saw the kùnyi, so we may suspect that the kùnyi seared it (Lit: as for its searing, the girl saw the kùnyi)

Eg. 3      sakabàrban tawi rahònda baryōngma
the searing of the fish burned down the mansion

Regarding the use of a concrete verb as an argument, two important restrictions must be made clear: first, the concrete verb may bring with it its own subject, which remains by its side, but may never bring with it its object or any other attached argument; and, second, the concrete verb cannot take overt case marking, which limits the situations in which it can be used.

It is also worth observing the compulsory agreement marking on the concrete verb, and its encoding of aspect. The use of concrete verbs is also limited by semantics – concrete verbs tend to be used for definite, perfective, often perfect, past tense, known events, and cannot be used for future or irrealis events.

One way in which these limitations can be overcome is through the use of infinitives. These are verbs that do not agree with any participant, and lack spatial and temporal specificity. They are formed by adding the suffix –àng to the verbal root: for instance, from rarawa ata, ‘they all come to agreement in behaviour amongst themselves’, derives rawàng ata, ‘to all come to an agreement in behaviour with one other’, or ‘determined convention’, as well as the name of the language.

Infinitives can be used for future and irrealis events, as well as for non-future and realis ones, although among those the decision not to employ a plain concrete verb may often be taken to imply a present-tense, imperfective, imperfect or previously unknown event. Furthermore, where concrete verbs are most often definite, infinitives may freely be indefinite.

Eg. 4      lakàbarban, nyakara kùnyi
the kùnyi smelled the searing

Eg. 5      barbàng, nyakara kùnyi
the kùnyi can usually smell searing

As with concrete verbs, infinitives cannot themselves take case markers. However, they  can be placed into a case with the aid of an ‘infinitive augment’. There are three infinitive augments, and they are allocated to verbs in a lexical and seemingly unpredictable manner. The presence of an augment by itself acts to further definitise the reference of the infinitive:

Eg. 6      barbàng

Eg. 7      uma barbàng
the searing

This augment takes noun cases as a proxy for the infinitive:

Eg. 8      umàjna barbàng
uma-‘jna bàrb-àng
for fear of searing

Eg. 9      umànga barbàng
in order to sear

The augment is also needed if the infinitive is to take an argument. This argument, semantically equivalent to the subject of a concrete verb, and in the direct case, comes between augment and infinitive.

Eg. 10    umànga tawi barbàng
in order to sear a fish


Infinitives, though lacking overt verbal markings, are still clearly verbs. Their meanings are invariably transparent and their derivation is entirely productive. They are also able to take verbal arguments, albeit with the aid of an augment.

Action nouns, on the other hand, are less straightfowardly verbal.  At first glance, they may appear only to be a subset of deverbal derived nouns. Action nouns are formed through several methods, in a non-productive way – although each method can generally produce an understandable action noun, not all these action nouns are commonly-used words; what’s more, the semantic derivation is often unclear or overly specific. They do not take typical verbal affixes, such as geographical deixis or aspect, and cannot be placed in the passive voice. Although they can refer to events, actions and states, they also frequently refer metonymously to results, agents, patients and the like.

Eg. 11    rawoyala
he constricts a passage

Eg. 12    woyalàka
the wharf-laden stretch of river (lit. the constriction (of the river))
OR: the wharfs on the river

Eg. 13    rahònda
he razes

Eg. 14    hondàka
ashes, ashy soil

The most important action-noun suffixes are -ana, -àka, -unda, -ùnga, and -umà. –ana is the most productive of these; –àka commonly derives results; –unda and –umà often derive ongoing, highly durative events; -ùnga is often more conceptual. These generalisations, however, are only generalisation.

Unlike most nouns, including most deverbal derived nouns, action nouns are subject to direct possession, which is to say that they take possessive prefixes. Alternatively, it could be said that action nouns are able to take subjects – as possessive prefixes and concrete agreement prefixes are identical, and indeed the ‘possessor’ in these constructs is usually the semantic object/subject, not a possessor:

Eg. 15    suhondàka baryōngya
the ashes from the razing of the mansion

Eg. 16    suwoyalàka uryoka
the wharf-laden stretch of the river

And, just as with concrete nouns, the semantics of the ‘subject’ are overridden by the presence of a first-or-second-person participant:

Eg. 17    angātuhondàka
your ashes (i.e. the ashes of your burnt body, OR the ashes you own, OR the ashes you made)

It is also striking that the –ana action noun forms closely resemble the –an concrete verbs, and in practice transformation into action nouns is one way to place an concrete verb into a case; noteably, although it is generally true that action nouns do not show aspect, it is possible to place transform aspect-marked concrete verbs into action nouns while keeping the aspect marking. Similarly, -ùnga action nouns have a parallel infinitive form in –ùng, less common, less productive, and less semantically transparent than –àng, and, occasionally, –àng infinitives may be transformed into –ànga action nouns. On the other hand, concrete verbs can at times be used to refer to the result of the action, rather than the action itself, or may even serve semantically as participles; infinitives are extensively used where other languages would employ nouns. It is possible, therefore, that this distinction, between verbal, inflectional and semantically predictable infinitives and concrete state verbs on the one hand, and nominal, derivational, and semantically unpredictable action nouns on the other, should be best considered a general guideline rather than an absolute qualitative distinction.

On the other side of action nouns like true deverbal derivative nouns. These are semantically even less predictable, are more likely to refer to concrete objects rather than processes, and unlike action nouns take indirect possession, which is to say that their possession cannot be mistaken for verbal agreement marking. However, all these generalisations have exceptions – in particular, derived nouns can sometimes take direct possession, giving them a more overtly verbal character.

Rather, then, than a clear qualitative distinction between nouns and verbs, it may be best to see Rawàng Ata as possessing a continuum of forms, from fluid state verbs on the one hand, through concrete state and infinitive verbs, to action nouns, deverbal derivatives, and finally to ordinary nouns.

The Concrete State
Verbal Morphology
Coördination of Clauses

Rawàng Ata #14: Core Alignment and Agreement

No, the #14 doesn’t mean there are 13 previous posts. It’s just a version number I thought I’d use to show myself which things are meant to be compatible with which other things…

[EDIT: darn. We’re not allowed to do interlinear glosses on wordpress, are we? I’ll have to put together a pdf or something, I suppose.]

The issues of voice and alignment in Rawàng Ata are complex. Understanding them must begin with a division of verbs into three kinds: dynamic, stative, and motive. In addressing these categories, it will further be necessary to draw a distinction between fluid and concrete state.

Dynamic verbs are most likely to have semantics of action, alteration, and imposition – they prototypically relate to one entity, the subject, behaving in a way that materially affects a second entity, the object.

The prototypical argument structure (and ordering) of a fluid dynamic verb is S-V-O. S, the subject, is unmarked (‘is in the direct case’); O, the object, is marked with the suffix -ma (‘is in the accusative case’; note that this suffix may also appear as -ba or -na, due to sandhi), unless the object has a first-person or transparent second-person referant. If neither participant is addressed in the first- or second-person, the verb agrees with the subject with one set of prefixes (‘discursive agreement’); if either participant is a first- or second-person, the verb agrees with the subject with a different set of prefixes, and the object with one of two sets of suffixes depending on whether the object is or is not a first- or second-person participant (‘directive agreement’).

 Eg.1    datta  sakkunga  kòmana
datta  sakkung-a  kòma-ma
sailor kick-DEI  girl-ACC
the sailor kicked the girl

 Eg.2       kòma    kusakkunga       dattama
kòma    ku-sakkung-a    datta-ma
girl   3F-kick-DEI      sailor-ACC
the girl kicked the sailor

   Eg.3       shilaì   radurukya   sabajma  kaò
shilaì ra-duruky-a  sabar-ma  kao
paper_scalpel    3A-pierce-DEI    pulping-ACC   flat_expanse
the paper-scalpel pierced the paper
N.B. sabar kaò is a set expression for paper

   Eg.4   ranatuya ōtusakkungawa  kàya
ranatuya    ōtu-sakkung-aw-a    kàya
you    2-kick-DEI-1EX     me[f.]
  you kicked me (a woman)
N.B. although the independent pronouns ranatuya and kàya may appear to be in the ergative case, this is not (synchronically) the case

However, there are deviations from this prototypical pattern. Most simply, the object may in some circumstances be given the suffix -ya instead (‘be placed in the ergative case’), typically to convey a partitive or metonymic implication. This has no wider ramifications. Likewise, the suffix may alternatively be -si or -ki instead (the ‘lative’ and ‘prolative’ cases). The use of ergative, lative or prolative cases without further ramifications will be called ‘quirky object’.

Eg.5       shilaì  rahàrta   bokki  lò
shilaì   ra-hàrta     boy-ki     lò
paper_scalpel    3A-carve-DEI      wood-PRO chunk
the paper-scalpel cut lightly into the surface of the wood

A deeper deviation occurs when the action described by the verb is insufficiently semantically transitive. In these cases, S is placed in the ergative case, while O may remain in the accusative case or else be transferred to the lative, prolative, avertive (the suffix -‘jnya) or benefactive (the suffix -‘nga) cases (this process is entirely distinct from the similar phenomenon of quirky object). In discursive agreement, the verb then continues to agree with S as before; in directive agreement, however, the verb only agrees with first- or second-person participants (and first- or second-person objects will be in the direct case).

Eg.6       shilaìya  radurukya  dattasi
shilaì-ya    ra-duruky-a     datta-si
paper_scalpel-ERG  3A-pierce-DEI    sailor-LAT
the paper-scalpel was thrust out toward the sailor

  Eg.7       kòmaya    kusakkunga  dattàjnya
kòma-ya  ku-sakkung-a  datta-‘jnya
girl-ERG   3F-kick-DEI   sailor-AVR
for fear of the sailor, the girl kicked out

  Eg.8       kòmaya   sakkungawa   kàya
kòma-ya  sakkung-aw-a  kàya
girl-ERG   kick-1EX-DEI  me[f.]
the girl kicked me (a woman)

Regardless of transitivity questions, prepositional phrases modifying the verb follow on from the core arguments:

Eg.9       kòma    kusakkunga    dattama   oà dà
kòma ku-sakkung-a    datta-ma   oa   dà
girl   3F-kick-DEI   sailor-ACC  on  deck
the girl kicked the sailor while they stood on the deck of a ship

These fluid dynamic verb phrases can be subjected to considerable reordering. Topical extraction can bring out any element in the ergative or direct cases:

Eg.10     kòma,   kusakkunga dattama oà dà
as for the girl, she kicked the sailor as they stood on the deck of a ship

Eg.11     kàya, kòmaya sakkungawa
as for me (a woman), the girl kicked me

This includes prepositional phrases; however, topical extraction of a prepositional phrase requires correlate-fronting within the comment-structure, redefining the scope of the prepositional phrase. Either S or O can be topicalised, but the verb cannot be fronted. Correlate-fronting with prepositional phrases is only one form of fronting; comment-internal fronting also occurs to show correlation with topics, and simply to show emphasis. Any item may be fronted, including prepositional phrases (which can correlate with topicalised phrases). Correlate-fronting moves the fronted item to the front of the comment clause; emphatic fronting need only move the item in front of all other items that have not been correlate-fronted

Eg.12     kòmaya, kàya sakkungawa
     regarding the girl – she kicked me (a woman)

Eg.13     kòmaya, sakkungawa kàya
    regarding the girl – she kicked me (a woman)

Eg.14     kàya, kòmaya sakkungawa
      as for me (a woman), the girl kicked me
        OR: as for me (a woman), my girl kicked me

Eg.15     kòma, shilaì radurukya   sabajma kaò
     as for the girl, her paper-scalpel pierced the paper

Eg.16     kòma, sabajma kaò shilaì radurukya
      as for the girl, her paper was pierced by the paper-scalpel

Eg.17     kòma, sabajma kaò radurukya shilaì
      as for the girl, her paper was pierced by the paper-scalpel

Eg.18     oà dà, kòma kusakkunga dattama
     on the deck of a ship, a (/the ship’s?) girl kicked the sailor

Eg.19     oà dà, dattama kòma kusakkunga
       on the deck of a ship, a sailor of the ship was kicked by a girl

Eg.20     oà dà, dattama kusakkunga kòma
     on the deck of a ship, a sailor of the ship was kicked by a girl

Eg.21     oà dà, aban baryōng, kòma kusakkunga datta
      on the deck of a ship facing a palace, a girl of that palace kicked a sailor

A fluid dynamic verb must have a subject, but need not always have an explicitly stated object (though failing to do so automatically renders the verb intransitive):

Eg.22     kòmaya kusakkunga
the girl kicked out

This situation can be reversed, however, by placing the verb into the passive tense. This creates a (by default) transitive verb in which the old object is treated as the subject. The agent need not now be stated; if it is stated, it takes the ergative. Passive fluid dynamics have a default S-V-O structure. Passive verbs agree with their subjects, although slightly differently from active verbs (in that feminines need not be agreed with).

Eg.23     kòma    sakkungata
kòma    sakkung-at-a
girl          kick-PASS-DEI
the girl was kicked

   Eg.24     kòma sakkungata dattaya
the girl was kicked by the sailor

First- and second-person arguments are treated just the same (i.e. semantic agents of passives are still in the ergative), but do trigger directive agreement:

Eg.25     kòma kurasakkungata kàyaya
the girl was kicked by me (a woman)

Stative verbs, in contrast to dynamic verbs, typically describe a condition, state, status, tendency, habit, or disposition of a thing. The hallmark of a stative verb is usually that the thing in question is not performing any specific, definite action at the time in question (though stative verbs can refer to habitual behaviours).

The typical syntax of a stative verb is S-V-O, just as with dynamic verbs, but S is typically in the ergative (regardless of transitivity), O is typically in the direct (i.e. unmarked) case, and the verb typically agrees with O via suffixes.

Eg.26     dattaya tawa kòma
      the girl sees the sailor

Eg.27     dattaya                tossasu                boy        lò
   datta-ya              toss-a-su             boy        lò
       sailor-ERG           break-DEI-3I       wood    chunk
the wood has been broken up by the sailor

Some complications can, however, occur. Sometimes the subject will instead occur in the benefactive, causative (-yàn), accusative, or lative case (‘quirky subject’). Topicalisations, and both correlate- and emphasis-fronting can occur, and prepositional phrases are also permitted.

Eg.28     dattayàn tossasu boy lò
      the wood has been broken up thanks ultimately to the sailor

Eg.29     boy lò, tossasu dattaya aban baryōng
    as for the wood, it’s been broken up by the sailor, opposite the palace

Stative verbs can omit the subject without trouble. They cannot, however, omit the object. There is no way to omit the object in fluid stative verbs (i.e. there is no antipassive voice).

‘Motive’ verbs are not limited to verbs of motion – they also include verbs of metaphorical or literal emission, among others. Motive verbs have only one core argument, and hence their phrases have the structure S-V-I. The subject is in the direct case, and the verb agrees with it through prefixes. I is an optional integral oblique, a prepositional phrase intimitely connected with the action, most often a destination, origin, or location; when an integral oblique is present, the noun governed by the preposition is placed into the locative (-òn), ergative or lative case. The meaning of prepositions in these integral oblique phrases may differ from their use elsewhere:

Eg.30     datta     luà      aban     bedùron
    datta     lua-a       aban     bèdur-òn
       sailor     swim-DEI       facing    ship-LOC
the sailor swam toward the ship

Eg.31     datta luà aban bèdur
    the sailor swam while opposite the ship

Eg.32     djajàng rahàdia taòtu kùolusi
    the djajang salivated at the thought of the meat

Any prepositional phrase may be fronted, to topicalise, to emphasise, or to correlate.

Eg.33  aban bèdur, datta luà
opposite the ship, the (ship’s?) sailor swam

  Eg.34     datta, aban bèdur luà
the sailor, while opposite the ship, swam

Motive verbs also have a passive-applicative form, in which the oblique argument becomes the subject. This leaves the preposition behind as a verbal motif. This is only possible with integral obliques (not other prepositional phrases), though they lose their case-marking in the process. The agent is then placed in the ergative.

Eg.35     bèdur, dattaya salùata aban
as for the ship, it was swum toward by the sailor

Eg.36     kùolu, djajàngya sahàdyata taòtu
    as for the meat, the thought of it was salivated at by the djajang


The above syntax deals with verbs in the fluid state. In the concrete state, dynamic, motive and stative verbs fall together. Here, the default word order is V-S-O; the verb agrees through prefixes with S; S is in the direct case; and O is in the ergative or locative case. When stative and dynamic verbs are placed into the concrete state, it is important to note that the argument acting as a subject in the fluid state acts as an object in the concrete.

Eg.37     rasakkungan        kòma    dattaya
ra-0-sakkung-an    kòma    datta-ya
3A-C1-kick-C                      girl          sailor-ERG
the sailor kicked the girl

   Eg.38     ranutawan    kòma    dattaya
ra-nu-taw-an    kòma    datta-ya
3A-C3-taw-C     girl          sailor-ERG
the girl was used to seeing the sailor

The object may be fronted to topicalise, or for correlation or emphasis. The subject, however, cannot be fronted, and the object may not be fronted to intervene between verb and subject.

Eg.39     dattaya, ranutawan kòma
as for the sailor, the girl was used to seeing him

  Eg.40     bèdur, dattaya ranutawan kòma
as for the ship, the girl was used to seeing one of its sailors
OR: As for the ship, the girl was used to seeing a sailor (but not the ship itself)

Either the subject or the object may be omitted, or both, although omitting the subject requires a particular agreement prefix.

Finally, there is one small complication with concrete state verbs: any first- or second-person participant is treated as the subject of a verb in the concrete state, is placed in the direct case (or dropped entirely), and is agreed with by the verb through prefixes. If the pronominal argument is the semantic ‘patient’ of the verb, the object will be marked with the ergative or locative case, as is typical; however, if the pronominal argument is the ‘agent’, the object will instead be marked with the accusative case. Where there are two first- or second-person participants, the second-person participant is the subject if present; if there are multiple participants of the same person, the higher status participant is the subject.

Eg.41     ratawan kàya dattaya
I (a woman) saw the sailor

     Eg.42     ratawan kàya dattama
the sailor saw me (a woman)

To summarise, a table may be helpful. Note that in the following the terms ‘agent’ and ‘patient’ merely denote the more and less agentive core arguments, and make no definite assumptions about threshold levels of agency (in particular, not all ‘agents’ as defined for the purposes of this table are considered to have agency as regards transitivity and animacy issues).

Dynamic Fluid Active Direct or Ergative; Subject With Subject, by prefixes (type 1 when discursive, type 2 when directive); also with Object by suffixes (type 2) when directive Accusative, Lative, Prolative, Avertive, Benefactive, or Ergative; Object; Optional
Dynamic Fluid Passive Ergative; Object; Optional With Subject, by prefixes (type 3 when discursive, type 2 when directive); also with Object by suffixes (type 2) when directive Direct; Subject
Dynamic Concrete Active Ergative; ObjectOR: Direct, Subject (if highest-ranking first- or second-person participant); Optional With Subject, by prefixes (type 3 when discursive, type 2 when directive) Direct; SubjectOR: Accusative, Object (when Subject position has been taken by a (higher-ranking) first- or second-person participant)
Stative Fluid Active Accusative, Benefactive, Causative, or Lative; Subject; Optional With Object, by suffixes (type 1 when discursive, type 2 when directive); also with Subject by prefixes (type 2) when directive Direct; Object
Stative Concrete Active Ergative; ObjectOR: Direct, Subject (if highest-ranking first- or second-person participant); Optional With Subject, by prefixes (type 3 when discursive, type 2 when directive) Direct; SubjectOR: Accusative, Object (when Subject position has been taken by a (higher-ranking) first- or second-person participant)
Motive Fluid Active Direct; Subject With Subject, by prefixes (type 3) Preposition + Locative, Ergative or Lative; Integral Oblique; Optional
Motive Fluid Passive-Applicative Ergative; Object; Optional With Subject, by prefixes (type 3) Direct; Subject
Motive Concrete Active Direct; Subject With Subject by prefixes (type 3 when discursive, type 2 when directive) Preposition + Locative, Ergative or Lative; Integral Oblique; Optional

Verbal Morphology
Concrete and Fluid States
Formation and Use of Cases

Co-ordination of Clauses
Possession (direct possessive structures appear superficially similar to verbal structures)