Sunday, 19 January 2014

[-vunga] vs [-junga]

In linguistic analysis of the Inuit language there are quite a few unresolved issues such as the distribution of the verbal mood ending: [-vunga] and [-junga] – for simplicity's sake I'll just use the first person, singular pronominal ending because the only relevant segment in this allomorphy is the /v/ vs /j/ distribution.

For those who read this blog, you may be aware that I've written about this issue before. But, first, a few definitions:

(mutually exclusive) distribution: in linguistic analysis, the occurrence of one segment over another variant as determined by some phonological and/or morphological condition or rule;

first person, singular: in English this pronoun is "I";

mood ending: a grammatical function that specifies a quality and/or state of being (in this case, the distinction between a simple declarative "I see him" and subjunctive "I will see him")

allomorphy: in the Inuit language, only the first consonant of a morpheme (usually) changes to account for some phonological rule (isiqtunga "I enter"; anijunga "I exit") or – in the case of [-vunga] vs [-junga] – to denote a difference in grammatical mood.

In my various writings on this subject, I've claimed that the [-vunga] vs [-junga] has to do with "informal" and "formal" voice (most questions in Inuktitut begin with the segment /v/: [p], as in isiqpiit? "did you (just) come in?"; aniviit "did you (just) exit?") or in reporting an event that the listener has not experienced (asuillaak anivuq "and, as it happened, he came out"). These are all true (as far as I can determine).

But the conceptual commonality of these different grammatical functions is a distinction of what is technically called realis and irrealis moods.

The concept of the "irrealis" voice is defined in Wikipedia as: "...typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet occurred – the precise situations in which they are used vary from language to language..."

-here, I'd include the notion of an "action that has already occurred but was not personally witnessed by either the speaker and/or listener".

I once predicted that reading through the Nunavut Legislature hansards (transcripts of the proceedings) would tend to favour the [-vunga] variants over the [-junga] variants for the simple fact that the setting is not only "formal" but also that the inquiries that are "taken as notice" are promises to look into an issue, and/or the members' statements are reporting something either the speaker and/or the listener did not personally witnessed but whose truth of it is taken as factual.

The [-vunga] variation is, in other words, a "subjunctive" mood that differs grammatically from the declarative/indicative mood [-junga]. To drive the difference further between subjunctive and indicative moods, again from Wikipedia:

While most of the signs of the subjunctive suffix have been removed in Modern English, the change from was to were in the modern English subjunctive of to be also marks addition of a vowel sound to the subjunctive form, and as such represents an echo of the Indo-European optative marker of five thousand years ago. (

This wonderful ability to adapt language in order to retain subtle distinctions follows a principle of linguistics that all human languages are "equal" – ie, there is no such demonstrable notion that there are "unsophisticated" and "sophisticated" languages. In fact, any language – whether constructed or natural – will eventually find a way to communicate/convey the interior realities of the speaker to the listener – all with very high fidelity (ie, with equal "sophistication").

I had the honour of working with someone who had constructed with her friend a "secret" language. I never figured out (nor did I try – out of respect for her) what the speech actually meant, but the many examples I overheard suggested to me that these utterances actually held deeper meaning between the two friends.


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