Friday, 16 March 2012

Moten Part VIII: Surdéclinaison, Definition and Main Nominal Use

So the time has finally come for me to stop dealing with basic issues of language and to start talking about the truly interesting stuff! So far, I have talked about the morphology of nominals and verbs, about the syntax of simple and less simple sentences, and about particles and their uses. This is all very important, because it provides us the means to understand the cornerstone of Moten grammar, the one feature that gives the language most of its expressive power: surdéclinaison! Surdéclinaison is at its heart a very simple feature, but its consequences are numerous and far reaching, and its application can be complicated in some cases. For this reason, I have decided to split the discussion about this feature in two posts. In this post, I will define surdéclinaion, and explain how it is used with nouns, while in the next post I will focus on its use with verbs and on various specific uses that don't really fall in any general category.

What Is Surdéclinaison

Surdéclinaison is one of my main linguistic interests, so much that I devoted my LCC4 presentation to it. So if you want an in-depth discussion of what surdéclinaison is, I advise you to follow that link. It contains both the presentation material itself and a video of myself doing the presenting, as well as some further discussion. But if you're in a hurry, here's a quick definition of this linguistic phenomenon.

Surdéclinaison, as the accent on the first "é" shows, is a French grammatical term used mostly to describe a feature of Basque grammar, namely the ability one has in Basque to take an already inflected form (noun or verb) as basis for further inflection (warning: all those links point to information in French). As its literal translation "over-inflection" (well, rather "over-declension", but I'll use "over-inflection" here to keep it as general as possible) shows, it refers to the ability to stack inflection affixes on already inflected forms, something that in most languages is simply impossible or at least extremely rare (the closest thing one can find in English is non-standard double plurals, like "coatses" as a plural for "coat", or verbalised expressions like "he lowered his head", where "to lower" is a verb derived from the comparative of "low").

Basque is the only known language where this feature is used in a general fashion. Or at least "was the only known language", until Moten came along! Indeed, just as in Basque, in Moten it is perfectly normal to take inflected forms of nouns or verbs and inflect them again, to give them another function in the sentence. Of course, not anything goes, and as in Basque there are rules as to what can be or cannot be over-inflected, and the meaning of those new forms.

Surdéclinaison in Moten

Before we start discussing how surdéclinaison is used in Moten, I'd better first explain exactly how it is done. The principle itself is relatively straightforward, but it can still trip up people who confuse surdéclinaison with plain inflection.

As I wrote above, surdéclinaison is the ability to take an inflected form as the basis for further inflection. In Moten, this means taking an inflected nominal or conjugated verb (i.e. an auxiliary), treat it as an non-analysable stem, regardless the origin of this form, and inflect it as if it was an uninflected stem.

The consequences of this seemingly simple definition are far reaching. For instance, take the nominative singular definite form umpej: "the house". If you simply decline it in the genitive singular, the result is umpevi: "of the house". This is because when you decline a noun, you have to take into account the presence of the definite infix -e-, which always appears before the casual infix. However, if you want to over-inflect this form in the genitive singular (we'll see later why you would want to do this), you need to treat umpej as if it was a simple stem, and forget that the -e- is actually an infix! As a result, the over-inflected genitive singular of umpej is umbvej, which looks quite different from umpevi (which is actually good, since it means that surdéclinaison is easily recognisable).

As long as you don't forget this principle, you will be able to easily recognise over-inflected words, and you won't be surprised by their shapes. So keeping that in mind, let's start looking at which over-inflected forms exist, and at their function in the sentence.

Noun Modifiers

Way back then, I explained that Moten was very strict when it comes to noun phrases modifying other nouns. Basically, only a noun phrase in the genitive case can complete another noun. All other noun phrases, whether using cases or functional prefixes, can only be used as complements of verbs.

This is a restriction that is completely foreign to the English language, which happily allows expressions like: "the man with the red shirt", "wine from Italy" or "the vase on the table". In English, most prepositional phrases can happily complete both nouns and verbs. But since Moten doesn't have that freedom, how does one translate such phrases into it?

One way would be to convert such modifier phrases into relative clauses, i.e. render "the man with the red shirt" as "the man who wears the red shirt", "wine from Italy" as "wine that comes from Italy", or "the vase on the table" as "the vase that stands on the table". Those can easily be translated in Moten. Such a method has one drawback though: relative clauses are long modifiers, and may feel a bit too heavy to use in normal speech (especially since relative clauses must appear in front of the noun they complete in Moten). For instance, using this method to translate the short phrase "my house in France" in Moten results in the rather heavy gvaj Mofilansi izunlaj itos umpej (literally: "my house that is situated in France"). Not only is the result much longer than the original, having a full relative clause separating the head noun from its possessor is rather awkward. The rearranged Mofilansi izunlaj itos gvaj umpej is only marginally better, as it now looks like the relative clause is completing the possessor (the meaning of the phrase in such a case: "the house of the me that lives in France" is weird enough that listeners would probably just do a short double-take before understanding what the phrase is supposed to mean, but in other cases the choice might not be that clear). So, while this method is grammatically correct, it is not very useful in practice.

Luckily, Moten has a much lighter way to solve this problem: since only genitive phrases can complete a noun, inflecting other phrases in the genitive will allow them to complete nouns as well! So the solution is to take an adverbial noun phrase and over-inflect it in the genitive case (always singular). The result is a modifier phrase that can be used to complete a noun. So looking back at the example "my house in France", a much lighter (and much truer to the spirit of the language) way to translate it is gvaj Mofilanzvi umpej where the adverbial phrase Mofilansi: "in France" has been over-inflected in the genitive case in order to allow it to complete umpej. The result is much shorter than using a relative clause, and much less prone to misunderstandings. Here are a few more examples to illustrate exactly how it works:

Zanej luden kofuli ejuz ito: This ring is in gold (literally: "(someone) has made this ring with gold", using the instrumental to indicate the material an object is made of) -> Kofulvi zanej len amledan ige: This golden ring is new (literally: "this ring of gold is newly acquired". Here the instrumental kofuli has been over-inflected in the genitive to make it into a modifier phrase equivalent to the English adjective "golden". Using the plain genitive fulvi would have had another meaning, namely of quality: "gold-like". Note also the contrast between amla: "new, newly acquired" and odun: "new, newly built").

Mobazleo: At/in the city -> Mobazlevoj senodjem: The road in the city (with senodjem: "road, way").

Mobazledon: To/towards the city -> Mobazledvo|n senodjem: The road to the city (this example clearly shows surdéclinaison taking place: a noun already inflected in the accusative case gets inflected again in the genitive case).

Mobazlevoj: From the city -> Mobazlevoj senodjem: The road from the city (here the phonotactics of Moten result in the homophony between this and the over-inflected nominative form. It's not always the case, and anyway context usually clears that up. The important thing to remember is that using the over-inflected form is different from using the plain genitive form. Here, bazlevoj senodjem would mean: "the road of the city", i.e. "the road built in the city, which might then have been transported somewhere else").

Uzabda|n: For eight hours -> Uzabdva|n elejuz: An eight-hour-long sleep (this example shows that noun phrases without a functional prefix can also be over-inflected. Here, a noun phrase in the accusative case, with a temporal meaning of duration, is over-inflected in the genitive case, becoming the equivalent of an adjectival phrase in English).

Another common use of surdéclinaison with the genitive case is to form action nominal constructions. Action nouns are nouns like "singing" or "destruction" that are clearly derived from a verb and indicate an action. In English, they can also take complements that reflect the participants of a corresponding event or fact. For instance, the phrase "John's singing the anthem" is equivalent to "John sings the anthem", and the phrase "the enemy's destruction of the city" is equivalent to "the enemy destroyed the city". In English, such action nouns often keep some verbal characteristics, allowing for instance direct objects ("John's singing the anthem"), although in general the participants are shown using possessive constructions ("John's singing the anthem"). In Moten, the main category of action nouns are the infinitives. Those are pure nouns, so they cannot take direct objects as in English. Also, one cannot simply use the genitive case for the participants of the action (the genitive case in Moten is slightly more restricted in meaning than possessive constructions are in English). But this doesn't mean that Moten's infinitives cannot take complements that reflect the participants of the action. They can, and surdéclinaison is naturally involved.

Action nominal constructions are easy to build in Moten. Take a simple sentence, for instance muteson knama tamdun jo|zemde|n ito: "the sheep are eating some grass" (although muton: "sheep" sounds like the French word "mouton" of the same meaning, this is purely a coincidence, or at worst an unconscious borrowing from French on C.G.'s part. The word knama means "grass", but as a count noun, i.e. "a blade of grass". "Grass" as a collective item is normally translated using the plural knamsa. Here of course, the issue is mooted by the use of the indefinite tamun, which has no plural form. Finally, jo|zemej means both "to eat" and "to drink". Moten doesn't normally distinguish between the two activities). To convert this sentence into an action nominal construction:

  • Replace the verb with its corresponding action noun, i.e. its infinitive: jo|zeme|n ito -> jo|zemej: ingestion, eating or drinking.
  • Over-inflect the verb's arguments in the genitive case: muteson -> mutezvo|n (here the distinction between the over-inflected genitive and the plain genitive is clear: the plain genitive plural would have been mutefo|n); knama tamdun -> knama tamdvu|n.
  • Add the resulting modifier phrases to the action noun: mutezvo|n knama tamdvu|n jo|zemej: the sheep's eating of the grass.

The resulting noun phrase can be used as any other noun phrase in a sentence:

Ga mutezvo|n knama tamdvu|n jo|zemede|n ipelda|n ito: I'm watching the sheep eat some grass (literally: "I am watching the eating of some grass by the sheep").

Such constructions are not extremely common, but they are not rare either, and in any case it's nice to be able to recognise them.

Nominalisation of Noun Modifiers

So far, we have looked at turning generic noun phrases into noun modifiers. But what about the other way round? What about turning modifier phrases into generic noun phrases usable in any function in a sentence? There are many reasons to do that: to avoid repetition or stating the obvious, to shorten utterances, to form special expressions or euphemisms, etc. For instance, in English one can say that they are going to the grocer's, and everyone will understand that they are going to the grocer's shop. And when a child says it doesn't want to sit on its father's lap, but on its mother's, everyone understands it means it wants to sit on its mother's lap, without having to repeat the word.

In English, this is done by simply omitting the head of the noun phrase, letting context fill in the gap. In Moten, this is done the same way, by omitting the head of the noun phrase (including any adjective and determiner) and keeping only the genitive noun phrase. However, we still need a way to mark the function of the main noun phrase in the sentence. In English, this is done by keeping around the preposition that headed the original phrase. In Moten, this is actually done the same way, by keeping around all the inflections of the head. They are added to the already inflected genitive phrase. Since those inflections are affixes, the result is surdéclinaison once again! The effect is that genitive phrases can be inflected like any other noun, in definition, number, case and function. Here are some examples to illustrate how this works:

e|levo|n zanej: the woman's ring (zanej here is definite) -> e|leveo|n: the woman's (one) (the head is omitted, and since it was definite, the article is added to the genitive phrase as if it was a noun stem).

Badevi mose|zun jeksaj etok: (I) touched the dog's paws -> Badeve|zin jeksaj etok: (I) touched the dog's (ones) (here the head was in the accusative plural definite, so when it is omitted the genitive badevi is over-inflected in the accusative plural definite).

Telga di|levaj mumpedin ag!: Let's go to (my) mother's house! -> Telga modi|leveda|n ag!: Let's go to (my) mother's (here, besides the marks of the accusative singular and the article, the genitive phrase also takes the functional prefix mo- originally present on the head).

gvaj mjean: my cat -> gveaj: mine (this example shows that the equivalent of the English possessive pronouns is formed by over-inflecting the genitive of the Moten pronouns).

So any genitive phrase can be over-inflected in any definition, number, case and function accessible to common nouns. This even includes the over-inflected phrases described in the previous section! So one can do:

Mobazledon: To/towards the city -> Mobazledvo|n senodjem: The road to the city -> Mobazledveo|n: The one to the city.

I will go even further: any genitive phrase can be over-inflected in any case, including the genitive, which in turn can be over-inflected itself, including in the genitive, resulting in the ability to recursively over-inflect any genitive phrase! Here's an example:

e|levo|n zanej: the ring of the woman -> e|leveo|n: the one of the woman -> e|levevo|n: of the one of the woman -> e|leveveo|n: the one of the one of the woman -> e|levevevo|n: of the one of the one of the woman -> e|leveveveo|n: the one of the one of the one of the woman -> ... (I will stop here, as it gets silly very fast. Still, all those forms are perfectly correct grammatically speaking)

This usage of surdéclinaison is quite common in Moten, especially in everyday, informal language. And as we will see next time, it extends to more than just noun phrases.

What's Next

We have reached the right moment to stop for now. As I wrote at the beginning of this post, I decided to cut the discussion about surdéclinaison in Moten in two posts. Surdéclinaison is a simple notion, but its application can be complex, so I don't want to saturate people with too much information. And people who dread reading my ultra-long posts will be glad!

Next time, we will focus on the use of surdéclinaison with verbs. We will also look at more restricted patterns, as well as isolated cases of surdéclinaison that don't fall in general categories. Don't hesitate to comment on this post, especially if you don't understand something. I'll be happy to add more explanations if this post isn't clear enough. See you next time!