[An-lang] respect vocabulary

Alex Francois francois at vjf.cnrs.fr
Tue Nov 9 09:35:32 UTC 2004

Dear all,

In the northern islands of Vanuatu, the kind of addressees who most prototypically require the use of politeness are not so much highly-ranked personalities such as chiefs, but rather in-laws (my spouse's parents, my spouse's siblings, my child's spouse, and so on).

In that context, the linguistic aspects of politeness take various forms.  (Following examples are from Mwotlap, 1800 sp. in the Banks Is.)
  a.. One is the prohibition on name-calling:  it is taboo for me to utter the name of any of my in-laws, either when addressing them or referring to them (I will use kin terms or pronouns instead).
  b.. Another aspect is the use of honorific plural (cf. French tu/vous), or more precisely honorific dual, either in address or in reference to an in-law relative. For instance, I will greet my son-in-law using dual forms, saying (literally) "Good morning, you.2! Where are you.2 going?"
  c.. Finally, Mwotlap also makes use of two speech registers, especially on the lexical level (but also sometimes in the morphosyntax). These are named respectively /hohole vasapsawyeg/ 'talk informally, familiarly' vs. /hohole map/ 'talk respectfully' (etym. 'talk heavy'). 
  This is not restricted to in-laws, and in fact it is not as constrained as the systems in Samoa (and elsewhere) seem to be: that is, there is no specific context in which the use of the polite forms would be mandatory (as opposed to the name-calling taboo, which must be obeyed). 
  In particular, it is common to mix up the two speech levels in the same sentence. 
  For instance, if /in/ is 'drink' and /na-ga/ is 'kava', the familiar way to say 'drink kava' is /in na-ga/, and respectful ways to say the same may be either 
  /dolmweg na-ga/ (change on the verb < etym. drink = *dolom 'swallow' + -akin) 
  or /in nê-bêdilig/ (change on the noun, lit. kava = 'troubled water') 
  or /dolmweg nê-bêdilig/ (change on noun + verb), 
  or simply /wan/ (which is a specific respectful term for 'drink kava', with no monomorphemic equivalent in ordinary speech).
  These two registers are well developed, i.e.  one finds roughly a hundred or two lexical pairs (familiar vs. respectful) in the lexicon:  such notions as 'eat', 'child', 'father', 'breathe', 'bow down', 'make', 'big'. have equivalents in both registers. However it is not comprehensive: that is, you will find a lexical pair for 'big', but only one word for 'small' (no respectful term).

  In conclusion, the speech register contrast of Mwotlap may probably be described as being more flexible, less constraining than what can be found in more rigid, hierarchical societies. Rather than being narrowly linked to politeness and respect, speech registers in Mwotlap seem to play an essentially aesthetic role: the handling of register nuances helps appreciate, among story-tellers and orators, the best language connoisseurs. Finally, it just happens that the beauty of speech typically constitutes one of the privileged ways to indicate respect to one's addressee.
All the best,



Alex François
7 rue Guy Môquet
F - 94801  Villejuif
tel. prof.       +33 (0)
tel. priv./fax  +33 (0)
email  <Alexandre.Francois at vjf.cnrs.fr>
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