3 Dec 2007

A ramble about the Nostratic pronominal system, part 2

(Continued from A ramble about the Nostratic pronominal system.)

In my view, long-range comparative linguists who think that they have to make a really long list of highly tentative cognates to impress people are a dime a dozen. What seperates the wheat from the chaff is how structured and attentive to detail a theory is. A theory without a structure isn't a theory; it's nothing more than a tale heard at a local pub. Publishing drunken tales still doesn't make them theories.

So this is why I encourage people who are interested in this topic to first explore the Nostratic pronominal system because it's safe to say that if the premise of Nostratic has any truth to it, there should be an underlying pronominal system that explains the interrelationship of pronominal systems of later language groups that Nostratic is said to have begotten. We should be starting with these questions instead of putting the cart before the horse and comparing look-alike words by pure, directionless whim. Knowing how these pronominal systems are related to each other goes a long way to understanding the evolution of Nostratic and to finding more credible sound correspondences.

Now since this is all at the level of entertaining conjecture, I'll just spit out what I think, like the drunken bar patron that I am. Grab yourselves a drink too, my buddies! There is one interesting, recurring feature in Nostratic language groups that I notice: a suppletive system involving two very unrelated forms for each person. So for example, in Indo-European we have two sets of pronominal endings in use: the *mi-set (*-m, *-s, *-t) and the *h₂e-set (*-h₂e, *-th₂e, *-e). The former set was used for imperfective forms and the latter for perfective forms in most IE languages while in Anatolian it seems that verbs were inherently part of either a mi- or hi-conjugation class. We see in Uralic-Yukaghir, Chukchi-Kamchatkan and Eskimo-Aleut languages a shared theme of subjective-objective conjugation and again there are two different sets of endings that seem to be quite ancient (e.g. Hungarian 1ps -m & -k, 2ps -d & -l). Bomhard believes that Dravidian is also a Nostratic language but Dravidian uses quite different pronouns in the first and second person from the other Nostratic languages (*yān, *nīn) forcing him to reconstruct extra Nostratic pronouns just to account for them. In Afro-Asiatic languages, yet again, we apparently have two different sets (Middle Egyptian *anāka "I" > Sahidic Coptic anok versus Middle Egyptian *anāna "we" > Sahidic Coptic anon).

So I figure the best way to explain that is to propose a suppletive absolutive-ergative system for Nostratic as follows (note that my intention is to conjecture for the sake of discussion):

1ps*nu (> *mu)*hu

These pronouns might have optionally bore the suffix *-n for uncertain reasons. Absolutive pronouns are used for the agent of intransitive verbs and patients of transitive verbs while ergative pronouns are used for the agents of transitive verbs. As a result, we would expect to see the ergative and absolutive pronouns eventually attached to verbs as affixes in a new subjective-objective conjugation as I believe could have happened in a hypothetical ancestor of Indo-European, Altaic, Uralic-Yukaghir, Chukchi-Kamchatkan, Eskimo-Aleut and Dravidian. In Indo-European, a subjective-objective system could eventually evolve into the mi- and hi-classes of Anatolian IE because some verbs by nature are more apt to be either subjective or objective. It appears that an extra element *-e has been added to this absolutive set at an early stage of PIE, perhaps to use it for transitive verbs by marking it with a dummy object (nb. PIE *i- "he, she, it" and *e "here, there"). The same system can evolve into a contrast of imperfective and perfective as well because there is an implicit nuance of modal differences when dealing with subjective and objective conjugation as in the Siberian language called Nenets. Verbs lacking objects tend to convey a perfective sense[1]. The PIE 2ps in *-s can be explained by softening of final *-t in word-final position and the 3ps in *-t can be attributed to the attachment of the demonstative stem *to- to an originally vowel-final form long after. In boreal languages like Uralic-Yukaghir, Eskimo-Aleut and Chukchi-Kamchatkan, the subjective-objective system could have evolved into *-m versus *-ɣ and 2ps *-t versus *-n. This system also helps to explain what would have happened in Dravidian. Simply put, Dravidian could have opted to generalize the absolutive pronouns for both agents and patients of actions and thus PDr *yān < *yan < *ʔin < *hun "I (abs.)" and PDr *nīn < *nin < *nun "you (abs.)".

[1] See Pedersen, Zur Frage nach der Urverwandtschaft des Indoeuropäischen mit dem Ugrofinnischen, Memoires de la Société Finnoougrienne 67, pp.311-315, Helsinki. He discusses the derivation of PIE's so-called "perfective" endings from a pre-IE intransitive conjugation. Also Abraham/Kulikov (eds.), Tense-Aspect, Transitivity and Causativity (1999), pp.21-42, Amsterdam. Kulikov shows a relationship between imperfectives and transitives (and conversely between perfectives and intransitivity) using similar data from Yukaghir and Aleut.


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