January 15, 2005

Subtle Distinctions

Claire Bowern at Anggarrgoon mentions an example of a grammatical contrast marked in a very subtle way. In Bardi, the transitivity of a verb is marked by the contrast between [n] and [ŋ] before [k]. A possibly even more extreme example occurs in Carrier:

  goh ʔʌji  "A rabbit is eating."
  gohʌji  "Something is eating a rabbit."

These sentences differ only in the presence or absence of a glottal stop at the beginning of the verb. Speakers of English find glottal stop very difficult to hear because for them it is automatic. In English, words that would otherwise begin with a vowel have a glottal stop inserted.

This glottal stop is the unspecified object marker. In the first sentence, it fills the object position, leaving the Noun Phrase goh "rabbit" to be interpreted as the subject. In the second sentence, with no glottal stop, the verb has no object marker. It must, therefore, have an overt Noun Phrase as its object. In this case, goh must be interpreted as the object.

You may have noticed that Carrier has [h] at the end of syllables. That isn't just a spelling convention; those are real [h]s. In the Southern dialects of Carrier the word for "okay" combines all of these difficulties. It is: [aʔah]. There's no glottal stop at the beginning, but there is an [h] at the end. To speak Carrier you have to get in touch with your glottis.

Posted by Bill Poser at January 15, 2005 12:17 AM