Honorifics, social obligations in differential case marking?

jess tauber phonosemantics at EARTHLINK.NET
Sat Jul 26 18:37:26 UTC 2008

Hi folks- I've recently resumed work on Yahgan, and have unexpectedly found a very frequently used (at least in biblical texts) system marking social rank establishment and change within case-marked nominals.

-nchi used alone marks object nominals whose referents have been 'given a leg up' the social scale, have been aided or assisted by someone with the power or knowledge to do so in other ways as well, thus creating an obligation.

Suffix -ikaia dative to the -inchi- marked form and it seems that now the marked NP is an equal or higher socially ranked entity for whom the agent is acting AS 'agent' in a relationship of mutual trust, allowing the lower ranked nominal to stand in for or represent the higher, marked one that fully empowers him/her to act in their behalf.

The system is complicated further by negation or terms referring to opposition, by possessives which invert the ranking, by whether the marked term is DO, IO, or oblique, and where it is found in the sentence, different orders in this differential object marking system being influenced by animacy, definiteness, etc., and altering the immediate interpretation of patient-hood in some instances (I almost wrote 'cases'.....)

What I want to know is how common is this type of thing in the languages of the world- I posted a variation on FUNKNET, and one respondent replied that it seemed like the honorifics in use in Japanese, Tibetan, and SEAsian languages.

Yahgan DOES have a smallish system of actual honorific terms, and makes all sorts of fine distinctions in kinship, friendship terminology, levels of feud vengeance obligation or level of protection from same by friends, relatives. Still, finding this social-rank type system in Yahgan was surprising, given the nomadic lifestyle preventing gatherings, and the lack of hierarchical social organization.

So, any other languages/families with similar grammaticalized usages? Thanks.

Jess Tauber
phonosemantics at earthlink.net

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