Saturday, March 27, 2010

Inalienable Possession in the Jarawa Language

Nestled in the Bay of Bengal, between India and Burma, there is a cluster of archipelagic islands known as the Andaman Islands. Consisting of over 200 islands total, this territory is home to the Andamanese people, a collection of indigenous cultures that have been present in this location since pre-neolithic times, ca. 60,000 years ago. Four primary tribal identities are to be distinguished in the Andaman group.  There are the Great Andamanese tribes (a highly endangered group once consisting of ten distinct tribes that have more or less coalesced into one), the Jarawa, the Onge, and the Sentinelese.

First contact with most of the tribes has occurred within the last 300 years, but some Andaman groups, such as the Jarawa, have encountered mainlanders only very recently. The first contact with this tribe is believed to have been established in 1997. However, the Sentinelese tribe has yet to be successfully contacted by the Indian government, anthropologists or any other mainlanders. According to the testimonies of those who have tried to make contact, the Sentinelese violently reject contact with outsiders.

Andamanese linguistics is very important to the revitalization of indigenous languages whose population of native speakers is declining. Based on a demographics survey done twelve years ago, the Jarawa population had been reduced to 300, the Onge to 105, and the Great Andamanese to 40. Since then, at least one of the Great Andamanese tribes has gone completely extinct. This was the Aka-Bo tribe, whose last speaker died earlier this year.

Part of the urgency associated with preserving Andamanese languages is that relatively little is known about them. For example, there is still uncertainty about the basic historical relationships among these languages, and whether or not they can even be classified under one language family. Traditionally, all of the languages spoken on these islands are classified under the Andamanese language family, which can be divided into the Little Andaman Group and the Great Andaman Group. The former includes Onge, Jarawa, and presumably Sentinelese (though linguists haven't gotten to this one yet), while the Great Andamanese languages belong to the latter. However, a more recent study argues that Onge and Jarawa are typologically distinct from the Great Andamanese languages. Under this theory, it's proposed that Onge and Jarawa actually descend from Proto-Austronesian and that only the Great Andamanese languages can be classified under the Andamanese family. Ultimately, the decision of how to classify these languages has not yet reached conclusion.

However, one feature suggesting that all of these languages are in fact related is the way in which each treats a certain type of grammatical possession. Possession is a very broad linguistic domain that Chomsky includes in his theory of universal grammar. As such, we expect every human language to have some means of expressing notions of possession. In the same vein, we can also expect a great deal of variability in how possession is expressed across languages.

As a universal property of language, possession can be used for a wide range of ideas. Because of this, linguists sometimes come up with very generalized, abstract-sounding definitions of possession. For example, possession is often described as involving any relationship between two entities. Similarly, Chomsky defines the term as an "intrinsic connection" between entities.

There are many types of possession. One distinction that's commonly made across languages is that of alienable versus inalienable possession. An understanding of the alienability distinction is based on the notion that some entities in the world are perceived as capable of being separated from their possessors while others are not. Interestingly, there are categories that tend to be treated as inalienable across languages. These are things like body parts, kinship roles, relational spatial concepts (e.g. top and bottom), parts of a whole (e.g. branch), and physical or mental states (e.g. strength and fear). However, it's worth stressing that while these categories tend to be treated inalienably across languages, conceptions of inalienability are really much too variable in different cultural contexts for there to exist a universal model that simplifies the notion of possession so succinctly. In this way, possession may be thought of as culture-specific.

In addition to the categorical distinction between alienable and inalienable entities, languages also differ with respect to how they mark possession structurally. An obvious way of marking possession is to encode it directly onto the noun morphology. With reference to a familiar case, English uses something called a possessive clitic ('s - as in John's book) to indicate possession. Additionally, English makes use of the preposition of to indicate possession. However, English, like most other languages from mainland Eurasia, does not mark inalienable or alienable possession formally. For those languages that do mark the distinction, altering morphology at the noun phrase level is a common method. Furthermore, when morphology is used in this way, it's almost invariably the case that a language will leave inalienable nouns unmarked but alter the morphology of alienable nouns. However, this is not how Andamanese works.

In direct opposition to this tendency, the Andamanese languages mark the inalienable category morphologically but leave the inalienable category unmarked. In the Jarawa language, inalienable nouns are attached to a pronominal prefix that shapes, or specifies, its meaning. One prefix in particular functions by overtly indicating that the noun is inherently possessed by a human being. If the word is dissociated from the prefix, it breaks free from this relationship and takes on a different meaning. Most research claims the same phenomenon occurs in Onge and the Great Andamanese languages, though it's not as clearly documented as it is in Jarawa. For this reason, I will center my attention on possession in Jarawa.

Kinship terms and words for body-parts in Jarawa always take the personal prefix /ɤnɨ-/, indicating that they are inalienably possessed by a human. If attached to a noun beginning with a vowel, the terminal vowel of the prefix is dropped. Furthermore, inalienable nouns may take the genitive case, which requires an additional prefix. The following is a list of Jarawa kinship terms with their English gloss, which illustrate this phenomenon:
  • /ɤnɨ-kaya/ 'mother'
  • /mi-ɤnɨ-kaya/ 'my mother'
  • /ɤnɨ-mum/ 'father'
  • /mi-ɤnɨ-mumə/ 'my father'
  • /ɤnɨ-kɨʈa/ 'brother'
  • /mi-ɤnɨ-kɨʈa/ 'my brother'
In some instances, nouns of this type actually occur without the prefix, in which case they take on a meaning different from their inalienably possessed counterparts. Here are some examples of words for body-parts in Jarawa that illustrate this occurrence:
  • /odu/ 'head of an animal' 
  • /ɤn-odu/ 'human head'
  • /iyanbo/ '(elephant's) trunk' 
  • /ɤn-iyanbo/ 'man's nose' 
What's interesting about these particular examples is that each root word denotes the body part of an animal. But when either root is joined to the personal prefix, its meaning changes and becomes essentially the equivalent body part of a human being. Something else intriguing about these examples is that they appear to contradict the very notion of inalienably possessed nouns since they can occur independently of a possessive prefix. This is puzzling at first, but my guess is that the root functions on its own with a fixed meaning, but at the same time its meaning can (and must) be manipulated with the addition of a personal prefix when the speaker wishes to convey something that's considered to be intrinsically connected to a human being. Of course, the speaker's understanding of whether or not a noun has this intrinsic connection is part of the internal knowledge specific to Jarawa culture.

In sum, the concept of linguistic possession in Jarawa represents a unique way of viewing relationships within the natural world. Thus, we begin to see ways in which this language operates that are fundamentally different from our own cultural and linguistic perceptions. Considering that the Andamanese tribes have survived on the islands for 60,000 years, enduring isolation from the outside world until somewhat recently, there's reason to assume that their language has changed very little, or at least at a slower rate than others, since that time. If this is the case, then the language may be a gateway to understanding the human capacity for language at a much earlier stage. For this reason, it is important that Jarawa and the other languages spoken on the Andaman Islands be thoroughly researched and documented before they are lost forever.   


1 comment:

  1. Only took me two years and some months to find this article. It's informative, well-written and provocative. Many others have surely stopped in, read, moved on. Though I am about to do the same, just thought I'd express my appreciation before I go.

    The greedy ~ and blind ~ shove of the corporatist, postmodern, post-Cold War world is displacing and destroying the planet's heritage in the name of profiting from it. Fundamentally, when nothing is exempted from a pricetag and thus everything is for sale, nothing can be saved unless it can be shown to have no monetary value. So long as there is a means for exploiting the Andamanese and their resources for money, they and everything they have will slowly but surely be strip-mined until there is nothing worth exploiting left. It's a planetary process, and the only way to fight it is to do what is being done on this blog: take snapshots of what is being lost before it is gone.

    Thank you for taking the time to put your information and thoughts out where some might be enlightened by what you have to say.