More on the Yahgan -nchi

jess tauber phonosemantics at EARTHLINK.NET
Fri Aug 1 09:36:13 UTC 2008

It's beginning to look as if the morpheme -nchi in Yahgan is some sort of marker of successful or attempted transfer or disruption of social loyalties, obligations, or 'unity' more abstractly. When used alone, without further case suffixes, it quite often appears in contexts where there is a disturbance of the peace- sedition, murder, riot, stirring up the masses, not observing customs, taboos, caused by agents creating the situation, in order to alter the social configuration in their favor- authorities, whether official or self-appointed, generally frown on this sort of thing. 

People in a culture have their particular beliefs and routines, laws, rights and obligations, depending on their positions within the system according to age, gender, faith, family, career, offices, ranks, etc. If nothing pops up, deadly daily dullness. Each link or bond ties one dynamically into a larger coherent and smoothly operating hierarchical social structure that gets you through your life without to many knocks, at least ideally. There may be tests and contests, choices of role-filling to be made when responsibilities aren't automatically doled out, but even these are often lawful, regulated, at least when in public and the authorities are around.

But plenty goes on outside this context too, where people become unbound by the usual rules because they don't 'work' for or apply to them- in their economic, social, religious, political or other activities or beliefs, needs, wants, or capacities. There is always a tension between the two poles along any given dimension- and it seems the borderlines between them are the domains of the morpheme -nchi. In the simplest constructions the marked party is given the opportunity either to break away from the conventional (perhaps to join a new set of conventions), or to return to it after a time away. In many instances we find the unexpected choice or outcome. Also there is often a sense that the routinized expectations and behaviors have been subject to a great deal of corruption, necessitating their overthrow and replacement by a newer, cleaner system, at least in the eyes of those promoting the latter. Social fabrics, like real ones, wear out, fray, and fall apart unless repaired, or need replacing.

Once this social flux is introduced into the depicted scene, -nchi does not need to be repeated, and other case-system elements may appear on the affected NP's, until a new disruption is being noted. Is it possibly some sort of mutated marker of discourse discontinuity? -nchi is also found on possessors in possessive constructions, and I'm starting to wonder whether in this context it marks alienability, even in some kinship terms.

Clearly, this usage isn't honorific in nature. Any pointers would be most welcome here. Thanks.

Jess Tauber
phonosemantics at

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