The stretchiness of Oceanic possessive classifiers

The stretchiness of Oceanic possessive classifiers

In many of the Oceanic languages, if you want to talk about someone’s tomatoes you have to use a special word that tells you how the owner of the tomatoes intends to use them. These special words – possessive classifiers – centre around culturally important interactions. You can’t simply say ‘his tomatoes’ but have to say something like ‘his tomato [which he will eat]’ or ‘his tomato [which is on his land]’.

Here’s a couple examples from Vatlongos, spoken in Vanuatu:

Tomato an ‘his tomato [to eat]’
Tomato san ‘his tomato [growing on his land]’
Tomato nan ‘his tomato [for other purposes]’

What’s really interesting is that as there are so many languages within Oceania– around 500 – there is lots of variation in how speakers use the classifiers with various possessions. Some languages are really stretchy, in that a possession can occur with many different classifiers as long as the speaker can think of a plausible situation or context – just like in Vatlongos above. Other languages are less stretchy and somewhat sticky, in that a possession can only ever occur with one classifier. So, in North Ambrym (Vanuatu), as we will see more of below, the word for tomato would only ever be edible regardless of differing contexts.

As part of our project on Optimal Categorisation we tested speakers from six different Oceanic languages on how sticky and stretchy their possessive classifiers are. We looked at Merei, Lewo, Vatlongos, North Ambrym (Vanuatu), Nêlêmwa and Iaai (New Caledonia). Each of these languages has a different possessive classifier inventory, from 2 (Merei) to 23 (Iaai). In order to test their stretchiness, we created video clips of people interacting with different objects and asked the speaker to describe what was happening with reference to the person’s possessions.

Intended context: ‘he is drinking his water’

Intended context: ‘he is washing with his water’

Some of the contexts we wanted to test were a bit strange as we wanted to see if speakers would use the classifiers in the same manner for both typical interactions (like the videos of drinking and washing with water above) and atypical interactions (like eating coffee or drinking raw eggs!). This way speakers would be confronted with strange situations that wouldn’t normally occur in their culture (or anyone’s culture for that matter – seriously who drinks raw eggs anyway?).

Some people do like to drink raw eggs!

A well-behaved possessive classifier system should allow the same word used for a possession to occur with a different classifier depending on the various contexts.

For brevity’s sake let’s just look at two languages from our sample – Lewo and North Ambrym – spoken on the neighbouring islands of Epi and Ambrym in Vanuatu. With very typical interactions like drinking water and washing with water the speakers of Lewo changed the classifier to match the interactional context. For drinking water, all 20 speakers tested used the drinkable classifier along with the word for water. Similarly, for washing with the water, the vast majority of speakers, 16 out of 20, used the general classifier along with the word for water. This is pretty much what we expect from a well-behaved classifier system where a drinking context evokes the drinkable classifier, and a more general context evokes a general classifier.

What about more atypical interactions? – let’s compare the videos of someone eating eggs (typical) and the video of the man drinking eggs (very atypical!). For the speakers of Lewo all 20 used the edible classifier when talking about someone eating eggs. For the drinking eggs context only 9 speakers used the drinkable classifier, with the rest either using an edible classifier or the general classifier.

The classifier system of Lewo works well for typical interactions (stretchy!), but not so well for atypical interaction (a little bit stretchy and a little bit sticky!).

Now let’s compare Vatlongos to North Ambrym. For both the typical interactions of drinking and washing with water our 23 North Ambrym speakers gave the drinkable classifier. What? This is not what we expected! We expected that there would be a shift to the general classifier for the video of the man washing with water. North Ambrym is not behaving like an exemplary classifier system – it is much stickier than Lewo’s system.

What about atypical interactions? For the video of the person eating eggs, all speakers used the edible classifier, as expected. For the atypical drinking of eggs, 21 out of 23 speakers gave the edible classifier too! So a very sticky result with speakers using the same classifier regardless of the contextual interaction.

So what do our results show? That the classifier system in Lewo functions more like a well-behaved classifier system than North Ambrym’s does. Lewo’s classifier system behaves well in typical everyday situations, but not so well in atypical situations where speakers must make judgements on the fly. North Ambrym however, doesn’t look at all like a well-behaved classifier system. On the stretchiness-stickiness scale, North Ambrym is much more on the sticky side than Lewo is.

Lost in Translationː the Morph team’s top 10 untranslatable words

Lost in Translationː the Morph team’s top 10 untranslatable words

To celebrate the end of UNESCOs International Year of Indigenous Languages we thought we would take a look at some of the Indigenous languages that we are researching and present some of our favourite words. Now these words just aren’t any old words, they are words that can’t be directly translated into English using a single word and must be translated using a rather long-winded explanation. Each of these words offer unique cultural insights into the speakers of these languages. We will be skipping across the continents to all the exciting places where we conduct our research…

South Sudan and Ethiopia
Our first stop on our world tour of untranslatable words is to South Sudan and Ethiopia where two closely related West Nilotic languages are spoken – Nuer and Reel. The Nuer tribe is one of the largest ethnic groups in South Sudan with around a million or so speakers. Whereas Reel is spoken by around 50,000 speakers from the Atwot tribe.

The Nuer and Atwot peoples are traditionally pastoralists. Cattle play an important role in every aspect of the traditional life. The Nuer and Atwot also rely to some extent on horticulture for their living. They lead a semi-nomadic life style determined by the availability of pasture grounds.

Speakers of Reel in Juba, South Sudan

1. tɛ́ɛt ‘to claim something back that was previously given out for good’

The Nuer verb tɛ́ɛt roughly translates as ‘to claim something back that was previously given out for good’. It is used in the situations when an item has been given to someone for good but then later the item is being recalled back. For example, it is customary to give cattle to the parents of a bride. If, for some reason, the couple wants to separate, the cattle have to be returned before the woman can go back to her parents.

2. wé̤eer ‘search by parting something’

The next word comes from Nuer’s neighbours – The Reel speaking Atwot tribe. The verb wé̤eer translates as ‘search by parting something’. This word is used when the searching involves moving apart items that sit together densely as, for example, maize or bushes.

è-wé̤eer				dṳ̂t	old.grass.PL
‘S/he is searching by parting old grass.’

Moving on to Central Asia and to the largest landlocked country in the world. Kazakh is the national language of Kazakhstan, though also spoken in Xinjiang province of China and in parts of Mongolia.

3. Tusau Keser ‘the cutting of the tether’

One of the first Kazakh rituals that a child goes through is Tusau Keser (Тұсау кесер) – which means ’the cutting of the tether’. When a young Kazakh starts to walk, their parents organize a party and the child’s legs are tied together with colourful threads. This colourful tether is then cut to welcome the child to the next stage of their life.

It is believed that if the Tusau Keser ceremony is not performed, the child will be unlucky or have problems walking in their adulthood. In some parts of Kazakhstan they tie the legs with the fatty intestines of a horse, which – in case you were wondering – represents wealth!

The Tusau Keser ceremony

The beginnings of this ceremony lie in the pastoral culture of the Kazakhs. The legs of young horses and sheep are tethered in order to tame them and only cut when they are old enough not to wonder away from the rest of the animals. Therefore, the day an animal’s tusau ‘tether’ is cut is meant to be the beginning of a new life stage.

4. Süyinshi ’be happy’
Süyinshi (сүйінші) literally means ’be happy’, but this word is used only in one specific situation. If something really great has happened to someone and they want to share the good news with their friends, they have to shout süyinshi before telling everyone the news. What’s great about this word is that when someone shouts süyinshi, the friends get to ask for any kind of present they want from the person shouting süyinshi. Normally this mini ritual starts with friends asking for houses, cars or livestock, and then ends up in the pub where the vodka is bought for the friends instead.

On the other side of the Caspian Sea in the Caucuses lies Dagestan where one of the SMG’s favourite languages lies – Archi. With only around 1300 speakers, Archi is considered an endangered language.

5. biční ‘lower corner of a sack or bag’

Not only are the Archi people famous for their lamb due to proximity of lush alpine pastures, but they also make rather beautiful bags called tus:əra. The lower corners of these handmade bags have a special term – biční. The corners of larger sacks, used for carrying grain, were the best place to hold on to upend and pour out the contents. The corners of the smaller bags are also embellished with rather beautiful tassles. What’s even more interesting about these corners is that one corner is called biční, but two corners are called boʒdo. Archi uses a different word form (known as a suppletive form) for the plural. This goes against the claim that suppletives are only used for frequently occurring words, with the lower corner of a bag probably not cropping up in many everyday conversations.

one biční, two boʒdo

These beautiful bags were originally used in everyday life, but nowadays they are reserved for traditional ceremonies. At wakes these bags are filled with traditional foods such as sweetmeats.

Skipping across to the South Pacific and to most linguistically dense place in the world – the archipelago of Vanuatu. The Oceanic language of North Ambrym, with around 5000 speakers, not only has interesting possessive classifiers but also a whole host of culturally specific and directly untranslatable words. The Ni-Vanuatu (people from Vanuatu) are self-sufficient farmers with plenty of land to grow yams, manioc, bananas and raise pigs.

6. fafar ‘to wipe your bottom on a tree trunk’

By far this is my favourite word from North Ambrym. if there are no suitable leaves around after doing your business in the bush it makes sense to use a tree trunk. Of course, not every tree trunk can be used for this sort of thing. Please avoid large and knobbly trunks – slender smooth trunks are advisable!

7. yangyangne ‘to shoot an arrow to follow its course in order to find a lost arrow’

Not paying attention when you were off shooting wild birds in the jungle with your arrows? Well shoot another one with the same power and in the same direction and make sure you pay attention this time and you may find your lost arrow. Bad golfers could probably use this trick to find their lost balls in the rough!

A bow and arrow from northern Ambrym

Now off to eastern Siberia and to the Tungisic language of Negidal which sadly only has a handful of speakers left.

8. un’i ‘be upset, get ill because someone ate in your presence and did not offer to share the food’


You should stay away from scrooges this Christmas as it would be a shame if someone ate a mouth-watering turkey roast with all the trimmings in front of you and did not offer you anyǃ Negidal speakers can also use this verb in other situations, not just for when people eat food in front of you. Un’I can be used for any unfulfilled desire which makes you ill, such as wanting to smoke a cigarette when there are none left or from wanting to see a close friend who is far away. The depression that you feel can be so great sometimes that it is said that you can die from it.

Seeing as Christmas is almost upon us what better place to end our untranslatable journey than in Lapland and the language of Skolt Saami. Skolt Saami is spoken in the far northeast of Finland with only around 300 speakers. Traditionally the Skolt Saami are reindeer herders, which is still important to this day. The Skolt Saami have many specific terms for their reindeer.

9. saʹmjaʹd ‘black reindeer’

The word sa’mja’d isn’t made up of the words for black and reindeer in the language and is a specific word that describes black reindeer. If you want to talk about reindeer in general then you would use puäʒʒ, and the word for black is čaʹppes.

10. čiõrmiǩ ‘one year old reindeer’

Only the strong survive in Lapland and there is even a special term for those strong young reindeer who make it through their first year.

With many words for the different types of reindeer we were hoping to find one that meant ‘reindeer with a red nose’, but sadly couldn’t find oneǃ

Merry Christmas from all of us at MORPHǃ

With thanks to Marina Chumakina, Tatiana Reed, Dávid Györfi, Tim Feist and Greville Corbett for their contributions.

Sense and polarity, or why meaning can drive language change

Sense and polarity, or why meaning can drive language change

Generally a sentence can be negative or positive depending on what one actually wants to express. Thus if I’m asked whether I think that John’s new hobby – say climbing – is a good idea, I can say It’s not a good idea; conversely, if I do think it is a good idea, I can remove the negation not to make the sentence positive and say It’s a good idea. Both sentences are perfectly acceptable in this context.

From such an example, we might therefore conclude that any sentence can be made positive by removing the relevant negative word – most often not – from the sentence. But if that is the case, why is the non-negative response I like it one bit not acceptable, odd when its negative counterpart I don’t like it one bit is perfectly acceptable and natural?

This contrast has to do with the expression one bit: notice that if it is removed, then both negative and positive responses are perfectly fine: I could respond I don’t like it or, if I do like it, I (do) like it.

It seems that there is something special about the phrase one bit: it wants to be in a negative sentence. But why? It turns out that this question is a very big puzzle, not only for English grammar but for the grammar of most (all?) languages. For instance in French, the expression bouger/lever le petit doigt `lift a finger’ must appear in a negative sentence. Thus if I know that John wanted to help with your house move and I ask you how it went, you could say Il n’a pas levé le petit doigt `lit. He didn’t lift the small finger’ if he didn’t help at all, but I could not say Il a levé le petit doigt lit. ‘He lifted the small finger’ even if he did help to some extent.

Expressions like lever le petit doigt `lift a finger’, one bit, care/give a damn, own a red cent are said to be polarity sensitive: they only really make sense if used in negative sentences. But this in itself is not the most interesting property.

What is much more interesting is why they have this property. There is a lot of research on this question in theoretical linguistics. The proposals are quite technical but they all start from the observation that most expressions that need to be in a negative context to be acceptable are expressions of minimal degrees and measures. For instance, a finger or le petit doigt `the small finger’ is the smallest body part one can lift to do something, a drop (in the expression I didn’t drink a drop of vodka yesterday) is the smallest observable quantity of vodka, etc.

Regine Eckardt, who has worked on this topic, formulates the following intuition: ‘speakers know that in the context of drinking, an event of drinking a drop can never occur on its own – even though a lot of drops usually will be consumed after a drinking of some larger quantity.’ (Eckardt 2006, p. 158). However the intuition goes, the occurrence of this expression in a negative sentence is acceptable because it denies the existence of events that consist of just drinking one drop.

What this means is that if Mary drank a small glass of vodka yesterday, although it is technically true to say She drank a drop of vodka (since the glass contains many drops) it would not be very informative, certainly not as informative as saying the equally true She drank a glass of vodka.

However imagine now that Mary didn’t drink any alcohol at all yesterday. In this context, I would be telling the truth if I said either one of the following sentences: Mary didn’t drink a glass of vodka or Mary didn’t drink a drop of vodka. But now it is much more informative to say the latter. To see this consider the following: saying Mary didn’t drink a glass of vodka could describe a situation in which Mary didn’t drink a glass of vodka yesterday but she still drank some vodka, maybe just a spoonful. If however I say Mary didn’t drink a drop of vodka then this can only describe a situation where Mary didn’t drink a glass or even a little bit of vodka. In other words, saying Mary didn’t drink a drop of vodka yesterday is more informative than saying Mary didn’t drink a glass of vodka yesterday because the former sentence describes a very precise situation whereas the latter is a lot less specific as to what it describes (i.e. it could be uttered in a situation in which Mary drank a spoonful of vodka or maybe a cocktail that contains 2ml of vodka, etc)

By using expressions of minimal degrees/measures in negative environments, the sentences become a lot more informative. This, it seems, is part of the reason why languages like English have changed such that these words are now only usable in negative sentences.