Excerpt from “Semantic Universals …”-last

(These are some final notes on the book Semantic Universals in Indian Languages by Anvita Abbi, which includes Chapter 4 and Conclusions chapter. All previous articles in this series can be seen here.)

Soliloquy: Now, I had big time troubles with chapter 4 – so I could not take much notes as I did not understand much. But, I will still try to write down what I understood. Reg my troubles, first, the examples were unclear about the phenomenon they are supposed to explain. Second, in each language, a different sentence was taken. So, I could not see what actually is being shown through those examples. Thirdly, the language used was way too academic for me (may be I should not complain about this part at least, but may be I can, because I am not a linguist!). Finally, in general, it appeared to me that the goals of this chapter were fuzzy.
(Disclaimer: All the above opinions are mine and only mine. As a reader, I have the right to say I had trouble understanding certain things in someone’s book!)

Enter the dragon:

Idea: “Languages of the South-Asian subcontinent do make a distinction between ‘subjects’ who act, do, or perform an action from ‘subjects’ who undergo, experience, have, become or any such phenomenon which is ‘out of control’ of the subject nominal”. The ‘non-performative’ kind of actions are mostly feelings like like/dislike, hunger, pain, etc., Now, as far as I understood, this chapter is a discussion on this aspect.
(Actually, they call even “thinking” non-performative but I am still wondering why!)

“… further points out an interesting paradox that these languages describe such subjective experience (which are a kind of internalized states and experiences) from an ‘external point of view’ that is by putting the experiencing subject in oblique case and either making the experience itself the grammatical subject or, less commonly, using an impersonal (and generally deleted) grammatical subject.”

I guess this means saying: “నాకు ఆకలేస్తోంది” for “I am hungry” instead of “నేను ఆకలితో ఉన్నాను”.

There are four sections in this chapter:
1. Non experiential constructions
2. Experiential constructions
3. Semantic Typology
4. Linguistic Encoding
5. Discussions on what is dative? what is subject etc.
(With some difficulty I managed to understand the first 3 sections.)

“A nominal element can be in possession of alienable or inalienable entities .. .. many of the South Asian languages mark the possessor NP distinctly from the non-possessor or agnetive NP”

The examples here were not so clear to me, but here is what I understood after a discussion through examples, with a friend who is not a linguist but the native speaker of a different language. (We just took the sentences mentioned here and checked how they look in our respective languages to understand what the author is suggesting)

So, if I say “I have two hands”, I say: “నాకు రెండు చేతులు ఉన్నాయి”/मुझे दो हाथ है (someone might also say: “मेरे को दो हाथ है”) ; But if I say – I have two umbrellas, I say – “నా దగ్గర రెండు గొడుగులు ఉన్నాయి/मेरे पास दो छाते है; (because hands are my inalienable possession unless I meet with a horrible accident.) Although its not mentioned here, there are fuzzy cases like: “వాడికి బోలెడు డబ్బుంది” vs “వాడి దగ్గర బోలెడు డబ్బుంది”. But the point is: “All the possessive constructions are translatable by “have” in English.”


I did not understand the rest of this chapter much, at least not as much that I could write my own notes. So skipping it. I am in urgent need of a refresher course on parts of speech and basic grammar 🙂

An excerpt from the conclusion chapter of the book:

“Our investigation into the semantic structures of expressives, echo formations, word reduplication, explicators, and non agentive subjects reveal a very significant aspect about the Indian languages and its users. It is mostly those semantic constructs which pertain to perceptive and sensory abilities of a human being that materialize in structural cognates. These abilities are predetermined by specific socio-cultural environment of the speakers of the region. We can ask ourselves that why don’t we find structural resemblances without parallel resemblances in meaning? Or why we don’t we find varying or different linguistic structurations for same or similar semantemes? Why five senses of perception manifest themself in expressives? Why passivity or out of control situation is encoded by oblique marking on the subject nominal? Or why inadvertent action is manifested in the use of an explicator? Surely, these are neither chance resemblances nor genetic inheritences. These are language contact induced phenomena, which, having crossed the barriers of history and geography, have sustained in the various speech communities over a long period of time.

What is obscure till date is the process of this diffusion and convergence. But what is transparent is the fact that in a language contact situation, many of the languages change drastically. Drastic enough to surprise any historical linguist. To him they might appear as ‘sister’ languages not being able to segregate historical affinity from areal affinity. Transparency is also reflected in the typology of these languages which undergoes a change and becomes like that of adjacent languages irrespective of the genetic or typological leanings of the latter.

The homogenized signifier-significant relationship that holds between diverse languages of India is a unique feature that reflects a nation with strong and stable multilingual community. Perhaps, it is in the interest of all of us not to have it disturbed by artificial forces like monolingualism and reduction in the domains of language use.”

I started reading Dr Peri Bhaskara Rao’s “Reduplication and Onomatopoeia in Telugu”, which on one hand is very interesting and on the other hand raises too many questions within me. Perhaps because its zooms in more into one language, which happens to be my language (with a different dialect), i am getting to notice things I did not notice while reading the chapter on same stuff in “Semantic Universals..”.

Anyway, end of story for this book. Interesting book which perhaps would have been better with some editing and proof reading.


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  1. >>A nominal element can be in possession of alienable or inalienable entities.
    >>“నాకు రెండు చేతులు ఉన్నాయి”, “నా దగ్గర రెండు గొడుగులు ఉన్నాయి”

    దీని గురించి కొంత ఆలోచిస్తే ఒక విషయం తోచింది. ఈ రెంటికీ తేడా alienable-inalienable అనడం కన్నా the state is temporary or permanent అనడం కరక్టేమో. ఉదాహరణకి:
    “అతనికి కారుంది” – “అతని దగ్గర కారుంది”. సాధారణంగా మొదటి వాక్యం owning a car అనే అర్థంలో వాడతాం. రెండోది ప్రస్తుతం అతని దగ్గర కారుందని చెప్పడానికి వాడతాం. ఎప్పుడూ యివే అర్థాల్లో వాడతామని కాదు కాని ఎక్కువసార్లు యీ అర్థల్లోనే వాడతాం. ఇక్కడ కారు alienable వస్తువే కదా? ఇలాంటిదే “అతనికి డబ్బుంది”, “అతని దగ్గర డబ్బుంది” కూడా.
    చేతులు, కాళ్ళు వంటివి permanent possessions కాబట్టి ఎప్పుడూ మొదటి తరహా వాక్యమే వాడతాం.
    ఇంగ్లీషులో – He has a car, He has got a car with him అనే వాక్యాలు పై తెలుగు వాక్యాలకి సమానార్థకాలని అనుకుంటున్నాను.

    temporary-permanent, alienable-inalienable ఒకటే అంటే గొడవే లేదు! 🙂

    alienable-inalienable అనే తేడా స్పష్టంగా కొన్ని సార్లు క్రియా రూపాల్లో కనిపిస్తుంది తెలుగులో:
    “అతను తన కారు కడుగుతున్నాడు”. “అతను (తన) చేతులు కడుక్కుంటున్నాడు”

    అయితే, “వాళ్ళు ఇంటిని శుభ్రం చేసుకుంటున్నారు”, “వాళ్ళు ఇంటిని శుభ్రం చేస్తున్నారు” – ఈ రెండు వాక్యాలూ వాడుకలో ఉన్నాయి! ఇంగ్లీషులో మాత్రం ఇలా రెండు రకాలు లేవు, అన్నిటికీ వాక్యాలు ఒకటే రూపంలో ఉంటాయి.

    • >>”అతనికి కారుంది” – “అతని దగ్గర కారుంది”. సాధారణంగా మొదటి వాక్యం owning a car అనే అర్థంలో వాడతాం. రెండోది ప్రస్తుతం అతని దగ్గర కారుందని చెప్పడానికి వాడతాం.
      – Oh, I did not know that! I think I use both of them interchangeably …thanks for the tip.

      >>దీని గురించి కొంత ఆలోచిస్తే ఒక విషయం తోచింది. ఈ రెంటికీ తేడా alienable-inalienable అనడం కన్నా the state is temporary or permanent అనడం కరక్టేమో.
      – According to the author’s definition and the examples she gave (from what I understood), alienable – something that can be seperated from us; inalienable – something that cannot be… she also spoke about the cultural differences in languages that consider family as alienable and inalienable etc.

      >>“అతను తన కారు కడుగుతున్నాడు”. “అతను (తన) చేతులు కడుక్కుంటున్నాడు”
      – Actually, I do not know if that is wrong, but “అతను తన చేతులు కడుగుతున్నాడు” seems familiar to me. I think some dialectical variation of Telugu uses that (or is it only modern youth who speak like that??) … i am not able to place it but I heard that sort of usages.

      Like I said, that chapter in general is poorly written and confusing (IMHO).

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