As I learn interesting linguistic “stuff” this summer that I think non-linguistic people will understand, I’ll try to post some on here so you can join me in delving into the mysteries of God’s creativity in creating languages!
Me – you – him/her – proper name or family member (ex. Mom, Uncle) – any other person – animal – inanimate object.
That list above is the layman’s version of what is called the “animacy hierarchy.” It’s a weird thing that is shown in different ways in different languages. Let me give you just two examples: English and Navaho.
In English, it’s only the first three things on the list (me, you, him/her) that change based on the role they play in the sentence. Ex. “I gave the book to HIM, but HE gave the pen to ME.” You can’t say “Me gave the book to HE, but HIM gave the pen to I.” It’s just wrong. And that’s because those pronouns are on the left side of the list. One of the special rules about the animacy hierarchy is that generally if a language does “special stuff” (like how we have different forms of those pronouns) with something in the list, it generally does it to everything to the left of it on the list, too. Who knew?!?
(For those of you paying a lot of attention, though, you may notice that the forms of “you” don’t change, or at least I don’t think they do. That’s because English has, over time, lost distinctions in the “you”s that we have. Did you know that “thou,” “thee,” “they,” and “thine” used to be used for singular “you” (referring to just one person) and “ye,” “you,” “your,” and “yours” used to be used as the plural “you?” We just lost that distinction over time.)
The Navaho language does something very different with the animacy hierarchy. Do you remember the difference between the subject and object of a sentence? In the following two example sentences, the SUBJECT is the first thing mentioned, so “the boy” in the first sentence and “the horse” in the second sentence. The SUBJECT is the one “doing” the VERB. The OBJECT is the second thing mentioned in the sentence, so the thing that the VERB is “done to.”
The boy kicked the horse.
The horse kicked the boy.
For those of you who haven’t taken an English class for a long time, just think of the subject as the first thing mentioned in the sentence and the object as the second, since that’s generally how it works in English.
Anyway, let’s get back to Navaho and the animacy hierarchy. In Navaho, whatever is farther to the left on the animacy hierarchy has to be the subject of your sentence. So you could say,
“The boy kicked the horse,”
but you couldn’t say
“The horse kicked the boy.”
This is because the horse is an animal, and so farther to the right on the hierarchy than the boy, which is a person. Weird, huh?
So then how do you convey the message that a horse actually did kick a boy? You put it in what we call the PASSIVE, which means that you flip the sentence all around while still meaning the same thing. You’d say,
“The boy was kicked by the horse.” See? The boy is now the SUBJECT (it’s the first thing in the English sentence), but it’s the horse that did something. It’s like linguistic gymnastics to get it to follow the rules of the language.
Challenge: Try to write a story following this Navaho rule. Anytime that your SUBJECT is farther to the right on the animacy hierarchy than your OBJECT, switch it around to the PASSIVE so that it could be said in Navaho.
Here’s my story. If you’ll notice, it’s the boy who’s always the SUBJECT, not the frog:
One day a boy saw a frog. The boy was seen by the frog, too. The boy was happy to see the frog since the boy liked the frog. But the boy was not liked by the frog. The boy chased the frog and was eventually led by the frog all the way into the lake, where the boy couldn’t see the frog anymore. The boy was sad and wet and went home to eat some cookies. The end.