Intro to Algonquianist terminology – Part 5 Obviative, theme sign, inverse

This is part five of a beginner’s guide to Algonquianist terminology with a focus on Mi’gmaq. Here’s parts one, two, three, and four. In this part, I talk about a few other Algonquianist terms that didn’t make it into the previous posts: obviation, theme signs, and direct/inverse.

Obviative/Proximate

The grammar wiki article for obviation is quite detailed, and Conor Quinn has a really good description of how obviation works here, which he calls “spotlighting” (start on page 5 about halfway down – section 3). To translate his terms, the “spotlighted” or more important person is the proximate, and any people not in the spotlight are obviative.

Obviation is indicated in Mi’gmaq by putting -l at the end of a verb (if the word ends in n, you put an extra -n there instead, making the /n/ sound longer). Obviation is also marked on the noun with the marker -al rather than just -l. The proximate (the “spotlighted” animate argument) is not marked.

For example, there are a couple possible ways of translating an English sentence like “Mary likes Peter”, depending on which one the speaker thinks of as more important at the time.

Mali gesalatl Pielal

“Mary likes Peter/It’s Mary who likes Peter/Mary, she likes Peter”

Mali

ges-

-al

-a

-t

-l

Piel

-al

Mary

like (initial)

transitive animate (verb final)

direct (theme sign)

3rd (person marker)

obviative

Peter

obviative

Malial gesaltl Piel

“Mary likes Peter/It’s Peter who Mary likes/Peter, Mary likes him”

Mali

-al

ges-

-al

0

-t

-l

Piel

Mary

obviative

like (initial)

transitive animate (verb final)

inverse (theme sign)

3rd (person marker)

obviative

Peter

Note: for more on direct and inverse theme signs, see below.

Theme Signs

Theme signs come between a transitive verb final and the beginning of person/number marking. A theme sign is sensitive to the animacy and transitivity of the verb, like a final, and the relative prominence of the verb’s arguments (explained in detail in Direct/Inverse).

The TI theme signs are more straightforward and mostly depend on the final that they follow: -m generally follows the TI final -at and -u generally follows the TI final -a’t and other vowels plus t. For example:

whole verb

translation

initial

TI final

theme sign

person marking

nemitu’n

you see it

nem-

-it

-u

-n

gesatm’n

you like it

ges-

-at

-m

-n

gesispa’tu’n

you wash it

gesisp-

-a’t

-u

-n

The TA theme signs include -a, -ugsi’, -i’li, and -u’ln and they depend on the characteristics of the subject and the object as compared to each other. This distinction is known as being direct or inverse, as discussed in the Direct/Inverse section below.

Direct/Inverse

In Algonquian languages, certain types of subjects are considered more “natural” than other types of subjects. For example, it is more natural to have a subject that is second person (you) than a subject that is first person (I, me), but either of these are more natural than a subject who is neither (third person, s/he/it). Within the third person subjects, the proximate one is the most natural as a subject, then the obviative, and least natural of all is inanimate things. Algonquianists call these relationships between different persons a Participant Hierarchy, based on the idea that the more likely something is to be participating in the conversation, the more natural of a subject it is. Here’s a summary, where most natural subject is on the left and least natural is on the right:

2 > 1 > 3 (proximate) > 4 (obviative) > 0 (inanimate)

The agreement markers tell you that, for example, there is a second person (you) and a third person (s/he) involved in the verb, but they don’t necessarily tell you which one is the subject and which the object. Instead, there is a second system of direct/inverse markers (Theme Signs) that tell you whether the relative ranking is natural or “direct” or the less natural “inverse” one. If the subject is left of the object in the hierarchy above, the verb is direct; if is the subject is right of the object in the hierarchy, the verb is inverse.

So, for example, gesalatl “s/he.proximate likes him/her.obviative” has the direct theme sign -a right before the third person marker -t and the obviative marker -l. It’s direct because it’s more natural to have a proximate subject and an obviative object. On the other hand, gesaltl “s/he.obviative likes him/her.proximate” has a null inverse theme sign right before the same -t and -l. It’s inverse because it’s less natural to have an obviative subject and a proximate object But it can’t be the case that the “third person” -t or the “obviative” -l indicates the subject or object in particular, because they are both present in both versions: the only thing that changes is the direct versus inverse theme sign.

Although this sounds relatively clear-cut, it is less so in actual practice. In practice, there are several different types of each direct and inverse marker, generally different ones for “local” and “non-local” relationships. Local relationships involve at least one first or second person relating to the verb, while non-local relationships don’t involve any first or second persons, only third persons (either inanimate, proximate, or obviative). Sometimes there are also various other inconsistencies: for example, the theme signs may change or become indistinguishable from person markers, especially in Mi’gmaq (if I recall correctly, I’ve heard that Cree has much more straightforward direct/inverse markers).

Wow, this is a lot

Yes. It is a lot. It’s taken me several years to get to a point where I feel like I can explain this, and even then there are parts that I had to look up as I was writing or am less sure about. I definitely don’t think anyone will learn all these terms in a single sitting, but hopefully this is a useful starting-off place for getting into the original literature or talking to Algonquianists.

If you’re learning the language, it may be helpful to learn some of these ideas and terms, depending on how you learn, but it’s not necessary and you can still be a good speaker and know none of them, just like you don’t have to know what a noun is to speak English. One way to approach it might be to learn a bit of the language, then look through these posts to see if anything catches your eye as helpful/interesting, then learn some more, then look through again to see if there’s something else that makes sense now, and so on.

One thought on “Intro to Algonquianist terminology – Part 5 Obviative, theme sign, inverse

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