24 July 2005

Subjects, Predicates, Actors, Undergoers

I wrote a comment on Simply Not Edible's blog regarding the English idiom "raining cats and dogs" a few hours ago. It just dawned on me how different languages encode the same event in different ways. I guess the linguist in me just started kicking in.

For example, the event of raining can be encoded in different ways. Let me illustrate this using the languages I know.

In English, it is expressed as IT IS RAINING. What is that subject, IT, for? It is a dummy subject. It has no referrent in the real world. It just happens to be there because the English language requires a subject for every sentence.

However, in Tagalog, it is expressed UMUULAN. Single word, no subject. It is a simple predicate inflected for progressive action, indicating "raining". So the English equivalent for this would be (It is) raining.

In Japanese, it is expressed as AME GA FUTTE IRU. Literally, it means "Rain is falling." Japanese has no verbs that pertain to raining, snowing, etc. All of these are treated as objects that fall from above. Thus, the translation "rain is falling."

Some other peculiarities that I've noticed...

Tagalog (a language of the Philippines) is a language that is very rich in inflection and affixation. One can simply attach an affix to a noun and make it into a verb. For example, take the borrowed word "mall", and make it "Nag-mall ako". It translates into "I went to the mall."

But the most amazing example would be "Nilanggam ang pagkain ko." "Langgam" is the noun for ants, "pagkain" is food, and "ko" is a first-person possessive pronoun. But simply adding the infix "-in-" to "langgam" which in turn produces "Linanggam" which in turn metathesizes into "Nilanggam" produces a very complex meaning. The sentence above means "My food changed into a state in which ants crawled on it." And all of these are accomplished simply by adding an affix to a noun.

Regarding the concept of number, most of us are used to having just the singular and plural distinction. However, in Chamorro (a language I encountered in Guam), there is a notion of dual. So there is a three-way distinction, singular, dual, and plural. So their world is either one, two, or three or more. It is really fascinating to see the differences in world view by looking into language.


  1. I say rainin' cats and dogs! Tho, not often.

    I say a lot of things in "southern slang" and realized many might not understand.

    One of my UK blog friends ask me what it meant when I mentioned I lived "out in the boonies" -- Do you know what that means?

  2. I didn't realise that "out in the boonies" is "southern slang". If I'm not mistaken, it means "in the hinterlands", or "somewhere away from urban civilization". Basically, in the countryside, or rural area. Correct me if I'm wrong.

  3. I guess we now know why you call yourself linguist-in-waiting. Nice.