Friday, 6 April 2012

Some grammatical features of Inuktitut (pt. iii)

Revisiting the ergative marker in Inuktitut.

The ergative case, at least in Inuit languages, serves two main functions: to denote the subject (in transitive constructs) and possessor. I mentioned that 'possessor' function earlier, but now I want to talk a bit about the 'subject' aspect.

nattiqtara aktualuk
'the seal I caught is huge'

-the subject is not 'I' (ie, the pronominal ending - [-tara]) but the noun root 'nattiq'. The root may also be a verb:

isiqtara pivikittukuluk
'(the place) I enter is small'

but, again, the subject is not 'I' but the (transitive) verb root 'isiq'. It's as if the actor - 'I' - takes secondary function while the root (whether verb or noun) takes the primary slot.

tigumiaqtait qaiguk
'give me the thing you are holding'

or (in high abstraction):

hold+you+it give+you+(to) me

'you' (subject form for both first and second phrases), again, serve a secondary purpose while the root (the thing held) is the subject.

In mathematical terms, the pronominals are constants (ie, do not change) while the roots are variables (ie, change according to the situation or circumstances). But, as in mathematics, the structure is extremely rigid - meaning that, in ergative cases, the (primary) pronominal of the main (and second?) clause is always in a subject form (and no other). To carry the math analogy further: to non-Inuit speakers, the equations may not necessarily make much sense but the geometry and relational aspects of the phrasing will (consider the relational aspects of 'you'; 'it'; and 'me' above in their abstract and colloquial phrases - 'you' subject; 'it', 'me' object forms).

'I', 'you', 'me' - in highly simplistic terms - normally function as subjects/objects proper, but in the ergative cases of Inuit Languages they denote a requirement of an adjunct phrase to complete them (transitivity). The pronominal values of the ergative cases are embedded in the larger phrase structures and they denote that the phrasing is necessarily transitive.

In Subject-Verb-Object languages, word/phrase order is important but in a polysynthetic language, such as Inuktitut, the case is important. I could just as easily have re-organized the phrases above and the meaning would not have changed one iota. To some layperson, Inuktitut - in this respect - would appear to have "no grammar" (not an SVO structure in any case), but Inuktitut has a deeper structural integrity that obey and exhibit all mathematical/technical rules of language. Figuring out what these 'rules' are is a worthy subject of serious study.



  1. This is interesting stuff. Maybe you could answer a question I was asked the other day. Doesn't Inuktitut have other categories of spatial deixis than the SAE "here, there, and over there"? Along the lines of up/down, or visible/invisible?

    1. Hi uzza,

      Inuktitut indeed has a very extensive and sophisticated demonstratives set. The "pointing/locating" morphemes not only include up/down and visible/invisible but also denote whether the thing of interest is in relation to the speaker or the person being spoken to.

      The other interesting thing about this lexical class - besides having the only prefix [ta-] in the Inuit Language - also have its own set of case endings (to, from, in, etc.) not afforded to the other lexical classes.

      I wrote a paper on this class a few years ago now (and was asked again if I could write up on it) where I talked about the up/down; visible/invisible features and whether the thing pointed at was a complete unit or part/aspect of the thing spoken.

      This truly fascinating lexical class (demonstartives) is much, much richer, deeper and theoretically complex than first assumed (as I've come to realize). The particularity of the case endings and the allomorphic variations suggest something that historical linguistics may be able to reveal but I currently at a loss as to how to explain this beautiful process. Unlocking its secrets may be able to provide some insights into how irregular forms arise and/or how they're simplified. (I've already spent years on and off thinking about this thing; I sometimes don't want it resolved simply because it has a certain magic - like some sort of pons asinorum for linguistics neophytes)