Monday, November 28, 2022

What's in a specifier?

There's no escaping it any longer: after decades of hemming and hawing, Koa's specifier system is just too damn complicated.

One might feasibly inquire what articles are doing in a putative IAL in the first place, and I've made a number of valiant attempts over the years (2010 and 2012, for example) to justify their existence by rigorously defining their use. Nonetheless, some inconvenient facts have been gently tapping on my shoulder recently, such as:

* Though theoretically beautifully defined, the system is so complex that the creator herself is often unsure of the best specifier choice in practice

* Specifier choice criteria seem to be much more detailed in pre-verbal (i.e. subject) position than post-verbally

* Following what you might call adjunct particles (ci he la lo me mo ne no o pe) there seems to be only a binary distinction -- definite vs indefinite -- which has never caused a problem

Indeed, going way, way back to basics, I have to confess that the most critical function of Koa specifiers is not in fact to elegantly plot fine distinctions on the axes of deixis, referentiality and discourse relevance, but probably just to help parse those predicates in the speech stream. As such, when preceded by one of those aforementioned adjunct particles, the primary work is already done and we can content ourselves with the pragmatic considerations that really matter: apparently only whether the NP in question is definite. Let's see, then, if we can reduce the system to a set of much simpler principles.

DEFINITE NPs are marked with ka when singular or optionally u when plural, unless:

* The NP requires being pointed at, whether physically or metaphorically, in order to be identifiable -- use ti/to "this/that"

* The NP is inalienably possessed by a pronominal referent -- use the relevant personal pronoun

* The NP is a name -- use le

INDEFINITE NPs are unmarked when preceded by another particle, or marked with a otherwise.

If you've been following the plot closely so far, you may have noticed that hu and po are conspicuously absent from the above taxonomy. I would in fact like to advance the theory that these have never been specifiers at all, but were mistaken as such because of their tendency to appear most frequently before unmarked NPs!

Let's start with the basic supposition that hu and po are in fact quantifiers, not specifiers: specifically ∃ and ∀, respectively. They can quantify indefinite NPs -- in which case there would be no article -- or definite ones, in which case they would be marked as described above. Examples of use, with both a logical and vernacular gloss:

po lulu i sihi
ALL flower VP plant
"for all flowers, it is the case that they are plants"
"(all) flowers are plants"

po ka lulu i puna
ALL DEF flower VP red
"for all of the flowers in a predefined set, it is the case that they are red"
"all the flowers are red"

hu lulu i puna
EXIST flower VP red
"for at least one flower, it is the case that it is red"
"a/some flowers exist such that they are red"
"some flowers are red," "there are red flowers"

hu ka lulu i puna
EXIST DEF flower VP red
"for one or more of a predefined set of flowers, it is the case that they are red"
"some of the flowers are red"

That seems clear and simple enough, but probably the thorniest area in the treatment of indefinite NPs has been in the choice between a and hu. For the last several years it's seemed that in practice the former is used for instantiated nouns -- real, specific things -- not yet raised to the discourse stage, whereas hu marked the NP as non-referential. Thus, heretofore:

1) ni mene la ko kou a tusi
1SG go DAT ABS buy INDEF book
"I went to buy a (certain) book"

2) ni mene la ko kou hu tusi
1SG go DAT ABS buy EXIST book
"for some book, it is the case that I went to buy it"
"I went to buy a (theoretical, not yet identified) book"

...but this is clearly far, far too fine a distinction to actually prescribe. Perhaps less elegant but more actually produceable by humans with competing resource demands beyond this single utterance:

1) ni mene la ko kou a tusi mao
1SG go DAT ABS buy INDEF book certain
"I went to buy a (certain) book"

2) ni mene la ko kou tusi
1SG go DAT ABS buy book
"I went to buy books, I went book-buying"

In fact ni mene la ko kou a tusi could potentially be interpreted in either sense according to context, and I think that's the important thing for me to accept here: that allowing context to play a role is not discarding all elegance or sophistication in this language.

Another place that things get confusing is around existential statements. What's the difference between these?

1) a lulu i ne ka masa
INDEF flower VP LOC DEF table
"a flower is on the table"

2) hu lulu i ne ka masa
EXIST flower VP LOC DEF table
"for at least one flower, it is the case that it is on the table"
"there's a flower on the table"

Semantically nothing at all, I think, but pragmatically these will have a different thrust. The purpose of (1) seems to be to communicate contextual information, whereas (2) is more concerned with the truth value of the proposition. If we really want to talk about existence and not truth value, I realized recently, we also have this option which is likewise vastly more human:

i me lulu ne ka masa
VP COM flower LOC DEF table
"there's a flower on the table"

or even

ka masa i me lulu (ne ta)
DEF table VP COM flower LOC 3SG
"the table's got a flower (on it)"

Hu is pretty straightforward for "some" in at least the quantifier sense of the English word, but note that there is a more periphrastic possibility as well:

hu lulu i puna
EXIST flower VP red
"some flowers are red" or "there are red flowers"

nai pi lulu i puna
some QUANT flower VP red
"some flowers are red"

So somehow or other that was actually pretty...easy? I'm almost a little nervous about it after all these years of fretting. I'll get back to you after I've tried it out in everyday usage.

Coming up next: if that's all clear now, maybe I can finally tackle how to say "something" and "nothing," a problem that has vexed me as long as I can remember -- this all came up right at this moment because I'm working on a bidirectional dictionary for my girls, and I couldn't figure out what to list as the generic translations!

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