Thursday, February 9, 2012

Marking indefinite NPs

I've been aware for a month or so that the specifier flowchart I had been using for a couple years is getting increasingly out of date with respect to indefinite nouns. I'm not sure whether I'm quite ready to rigorously define areas of usage along pragmatic lines, which I will need to do soon, but I would at least like to discuss some of the basic facts.

A note: for non-referential NPs, that is, NPs that do not refer to a real, identifiable entity in the world, the flowchart is basically still correct. Ko is used for abstractions, po for general classes, and po may optionally be deleted in object position as a form of object incorporation. It's the difference between a and hu that requires a revision.

For easy reference, I had defined this difference primarily in terms of discourse stage importance:

[If] the amount/quantity of the referent [is] indefinite, unknown, or irrelevant to the discourse [or it is] a mass noun that is not specifically bounded in some way [or it is] being mentioned without the intention of raising it to the discourse stage, [then use hu. Otherwise, use a for indefinite NP's].

Though some of the above might yield correct results by accident, I don't believe this is the best possible characterization of the difference between these particles. The partitive analogues in particular aren't particularly accurate or useful. We need to start, instead, from the understanding that hu is the closest natural-language equivalent of the existential quantifier () used in logic. As such, clauses containing hu can be glossed like this:

hu hili i ne ka talo
EXIST mouse FIN LOC DEF house
"there is a mouse such that is the case that this mouse is in the house" other words,
"there's a mouse in the house"

Or as an object,

ni si nae hu mina ia kali he amu leo
1SG PERF see EXIST woman AFF beautiful TIME morning today
"there is a very beautiful woman such that it is the case that I saw her this morning"
...or more naturally,
"there's a really beautiful woman I saw this morning"

Sentences that often need to be expressed with a cleft construction in English, as above, show up in Koa with just hu:

ni halu ko sano se hua
"there is something such that I want to say this thing to you"
...that is,
"there's something I want to say to you"

Or with a negated verb,

ni na halu ko sano se hua
"there is not anything such that I want to say this thing to you"
"there's nothing I want to say to you"

So what's the difference between this and the same sentences with a? It's subtle, and I'm pretty sure it's pragmatic rather than semantic. What's the difference in English between "there's a mouse in the house" and "a mouse is in the house?" Not to say that Koa usage will exactly mirror that of English, but the comparison might be instructive.

I need Robin Lakoff's brain to help me through this. My initial feeling about it is that it comes down to a question of existence versus discourse relevance. A clause with hu at base answers the question of whether the specified referent exists in the capacity indicated. A clause with a is asserting the same information, but simultaneously saying that there's some reason to care: perhaps, among other possible, reasons, because the NP is going to figure in the discourse later.

For example, returning to a frequently used sample sentence, suppose one is at a party and returns to one's glass of wine to find it empty. How do we express "Someone drank my wine!"?

Well, actually, I would probably cheat from the standpoint of this discussion and say

hi si ipo ka sahi ni
3P.INDEF PERF drink DEF wine 1SG
"someone/they drank my wine!"

But if I really want to use a structure parallel to that of English, I have two choices:

huka i si ipo ka sahi ni FIN PERF drink DEF wine 1SG
"there's someone/one of them who drank my wine"


aka i si ipo ka sahi ni FIN PERF drink DEF wine 1SG
"someone/one of them drank my wine"

The two involve rather different mental states. With hu, what we're primarily pointing out is that there, among the sea of party-goers, is some nefarious character who would stoop to drinking someone else's wine. One would expect the next step to be some kind of campaign of detection and/or persecution of the offender(s). With a, on the other hand, though the statement still identifies the existence of a culprit among those present, the sentence has a different purpose: perhaps to account for the utterer's emotional state of surprise, disappointment and/or disillusionment, or to comment on the nature of the world. One would expect his next step to be to go in search of replacement victuals.

(I would like to mention that it had never occurred to me before this morning that a word like aka should exist: I only ever had huka before. I'll have to figure out what the a counterpart of hua is: aa? Maybe aha?)

In terms of deciding which to choose on the fly in real usage situations, I think I'm going to need more specific examples in order to start distilling the guidelines. In the mean time, let's hang onto the previous definition in terms of discourse permanence, but throw out all the references to quantity and distinction between count/non-count nouns.

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