Function becomes meaning: The prefix tla- in Nawatl David Tuggy CILTA - URP SIL
Introduction: Functional linguistics There’s an important theoretical and cultural difference between two general linguistic frameworks of considerable influence. They may be called The Formalist framework The Functionalist framework What is the difference?
Introduction: Functional linguistics Scott Delancey (a functionalist) says that Formalists are not much interested in the question “Why?” For functionalists, that is the most interesting question. (Some formalists would probably disagree.)
Introduction: Functional linguistics Formalists and functionalists do seem to differ on where they look for explanations. Formalists look for explanations from within the linguistic system, and not from outside it. Some (e.g. Chomskyans) believe that the linguistic system is quite separate from everything else that goes on in our heads: it is a mysterious “black box” It can only be understood by looking at linguistic data in search of the best self-contained explanation (one based only on what is within the system).
Introduction: Functional linguistics Given this way of looking at language, it is sufficient and desirable to achieve an explanation based on the hypothetical nature (otherwise unknown) of the human linguistic faculty. One looks for evidence within languages which will let us understand more about the nature of the black box of the linguistic faculty. Whatever isn’t explained by the nature of this black box is of lesser interest to these theorists.
Introduction: Functional linguistics For another branch of formalist linguistics, there is no such thing as explanation other than description: “If the facts have been fully stated, it is perverse or childish to demand an ‘explanation’ into the bargain.” —Joos 1957, representing Bloomfield’s point of view.
Introduction: Functional linguistics Functionalists seek explanations in other areas. Delancey emphasizes two favorite explanatory engines of the functionalists: Function (motivation based on the use of language to communicate, on cognition, etc.) Diachrony
Introduction: Functional linguistics Paraphrasing: Why do we talk the way we do? Because it’s useful Because we’ve done it that way before The two explanatory engines of functionalism: Function Diachrony
Introduction: Functional linguistics Obviously and importantly, it is useful to talk the way we are used to talking So, Diachrony is also Functionally motivated We started talking that way because it was useful, and it generally keeps on being useful.
Introduction: Functional linguistics In other words, Functional motivation and Diachrony are not opposed or contradictory; rather they fit very well with each other.
Introduction: Functional linguistics Functional motivation and Diachrony often go in cycles: Functionally motivated changes are made. These changes are consolidated and become established habits of speech. These then form the background for new changes.
Introduction: Functional linguistics It’s useful to think of a language as a box of tools which we can use to communicate with. For a given communicative purpose you can always build a new tool, but It is likely to be expensive, difficult, and not all that helpful
Introduction: Functional linguistics You get better results (generally it is more Functional) taking an existing tool (one already developed Diachronically), even though it was made for a slightly different purpose, and use it for what you want to do.
Introduction: Functional linguistics You could invent a paint-can- opener from scratch, But you’re better off just grabbing a screwdriver and opening your paint can. You want to open a paint can:
Introduction: Functional linguistics But it works, And very quickly you can get used to using it that way. The screwdriver was not made for opening paint cans.
Introduction: Functional linguistics You want to unscrew a Torx screw So you go after it with your Philips screwdriver
Introduction: Functional linguistics The great thing about linguistic tools is that they automatically adapt themselves to their tasks. When you use your Philips screwdriver on Torx screws …
Introduction: Functional linguistics It turns into a Torx screwdriver … …without losing its ability to work on Philips screws.
Introduction: Functional linguistics Many linguistic forms come pre-adapted for several related functions.
Introduction: Functional linguistics And sometimes for rather different functions.
Introduction: Functional linguistics Some supermorphemes are Swiss Army knives. They have been used for so many things that they are impressively polysemic.
Introduction: Functional linguistics The phonological form is the handle of the tool. Every functional capability that it acquires is a new (polysemic) meaning.
Introduction: Functional linguistics This stands the “performance – competence” distinction on its head. Chomsky and others talk as if perfor- mance is best ignored except as it fitfully reflects the pristine platonic Competence, residing in the black box.
Introduction: Functional linguistics Here we are claiming that usage affects, to the point of determining, linguistic competence. Usage affects, in fact it determines, the shape of the lexical and grammatical tools in the linguistic toolbox.
Introduction: Functional linguistics Of course the shape of the tools very strongly affects how we use them. But we can and do stretch meanings by new usages
Tla - The prefix tla- in Nawatl (Nahuatl) is a Swiss Army super-morpheme. Its basic function is to let you avoid mentioning the object of a transitive verb.
Transitive verbs A transitive verb is like a light socket. It is obviously incomplete. Something is missing.
Objectless transitive verbs Leaving a transitive verb without its object is like leaving the light socket without its lightbulb
Objectless transitive verbs A verb like eat is an empty object socket. When you hear it you want to know what got eaten. But what if you as speaker would rather not say what got eaten?
Objectless transitive verbs Different languages have evolved different ways of responding to this functional need. In English you can simply not mention the object.
Objectless transitive verbs Instead of saying: “Adam ate the apple,” You can just say “Adam ate” and leave it at that.
Objectless transitive verbs If you do this often enough, the verb eat will change. It will stop being so important to specify the object. In Nawatl this tactic is not permitted. You have to name an object.
Objectless transitive verbs Another tactic is to look for a different verb which doesn’t require an object. You can say: “Adam dined (at 10 o’clock)” People will no longer expect to hear what he ate.
Objectless transitive verbs Other languages have an “antipassive” construction. Just as a passive lets you use a verb without mentioning its subject, an anti- passive lets you use it without mention- ing its object.
Objectless transitive verbs Not all languages have an antipassive. English doesn’t, nor does Nawatl. (Nawatl doesn’t have a passive either.)
Objectless transitive verbs Yet another tactic is to use a “cognate object”. The cognate object doesn’t tell you any more than you already knew. You can say: “Adam ate food.”
Objectless transitive verbs You can also use an object whose meaning consists in not saying what it is. You can say: “Adam ate something.” This would be an “unspecified object.”
Tla- This last strategy is the normal one by which Nawatl responds to this situation. Instead of a separate word “something”, Nawatl uses the prefix tla-. Tla- means (more or less) “something” s.t. = “something”.
Tla- Nawatl has a series of prefixes which mark verbal objects. Tla- is a member of that series.
Why would you use tla-? Why would you choose not to specify the object? There could be a number of functional reasons. Those reasons become part of the meaning(s) of tla-.
Why would you use tla-? Why would you refrain from specifying the object? Maybe: You don’t know what was eaten. Maybe the object was too small Or you couldn’t see it from where you were Etc. It doesn’t matter to you what was eaten, and you don’t think it will matter to your hearer either.
Why would you use tla-? Why would you refrain from specifying the object? Maybe: You and your hearer already know what it was. Your hearer could guess what it was. You want to hold back that information till a different part of the discourse, where it will have a bigger impact. You don’t want your hearer to know what it was.
Why would you use tla-? Why would you refrain from specifying the object? Maybe: The object is too scary to mention. The object is too gross to mention. The object is too holy to mention. It could be any of these reasons, or any combination of them.
Why would you use tla-? All these reasons affect why Nawatl- speakers use tla- And so tla- has adapted to such usages.
Prototypical tla- Sometimes you can’t specify any one reason as opposed to the others. With this form a hearer doesn’t know why the speaker chose not to specify the object. It could be for any of the reasons we have mentioned.
Prototypical tla- Activating any of these meanings will also activate the schema that includes them all.
Tla- ‘unspecified object’ These are the most common uses of tla- We unfortunately don’t have time to discuss them all. But notice the following paradox. Sometimes tla- indicates an object which is obvious in context, a highly topical object. Sometimes it marks an insignificant object, low in topicality.
Tla- ‘normal object’ Often tla- marks an object that doesn’t need specifying because it is the normal object. 1 What is eaten could not be, for instance, a rock.
Tla- ‘normal object’ Other examples:
Tla- ‘normal object’ What is normal? It depends on the culture:
Tla- ‘normal object’ Diagramming: The black arrows indicate full schematicity; the blue ones partial schematicity (or semantic extension).
Tla- ‘normal activity’ Very close to the idea of a normal object is the idea of normal or canonical activity. This notion shows up plainly when human objects are understood, but tla- is used anyway.
Tla- ‘normal activity’ Other examples:
Tla- ‘professional activity’ You often get the idea of doing the action as a duty or profession.
Tla- ‘normal activity’ In these usages tla- is no longer marking the object. But normally it intransitivizes its verb anyway. Still, it sometimes leaves the verb transitive.
Tla- ‘all over’ (meteorological) Tla- is often used in cases where it indicates that the verb’s effect is general. Many examples have to do with the weather. Two verbs we’ve already seen can take this interpretation.
Tla- ‘all over’ (meteorological) In this usage tla- also appears on intransitive verbs
Tla- ‘all over’ (meteorological) Other cases of tla- with intransitive verbs:
Tla- ‘unspecified subject’ Many of these cases of general occurrence could be taken as also being cases of ‘general /unspecified subject’. For example “it dawns” = “things appear”. “it gets green” = “things turn green” etc.
Tla- ‘unspecified subject’ In other cases this notion is even clearer.
Relationships among the usages of tla- Diagramming:
Tla- on non-verbal stems Tla- can appear on postpositions. Normally you expect possessive prefixes there.
Tla- on non-verbal stems Tla- exceptionally appears on nouns, in the position where you would expect a possessive prefix.
Tla- on non-verbal stems Somewhat more frequently, tla- shows up on adjectives, with the ‘general subject’ meaning.
The usages of tla- Relating all this to what we had seen before:
The usages of tla- The supermorpheme Tla- has many established usages, which are rather different from each other.
The usages of tla- Functionally motivated changes were established Diachronically.
The usages of tla- The result is the beautiful do-it-all morpheme that we find today.