Cancellable predicates

An off-chance English comment about ‘drowning’ led to an opportunitistic question or two. It turns out that Bardi has the same sort of cancellable semantics in certain predicates that have been reported for some Asian languages.

For example, in English, the sentence “He killed the dog, but it didn’t die” cannot be true in any real world sense, because ‘kill’ implies that the person does actually die. But in a number of languages, the semantics of ‘kill’ are ‘cancellable’, in that the outcome of verbs like ‘kill’ can be ‘cancelled’ by subsequent sentences. This is true in Bardi too, for verbs like ‘die’ and ‘drown’. In Bardi there are sentences like ‘The kid drowned, but we pulled him out and he’s fine now.’


5 responses to “Cancellable predicates

  1. In Kriol, draun (from the English drown) has a different meaning from the English equivalent. i’m not 100% on this but I think it means more like ‘submerge’. Are you sure this isn’t the meaning Bardi mob are referring to?

  2. David Marjanović

    I regularly get this impression in English by misapplying German templates. Replace “killed” with “shot” in your example sentence, and I get a “does not compute” reaction till I remember that “shot” can mean angeschossen, “shot at”, and doesn’t necessarily mean erschossen “shot dead”*.

    * No “dead” in this word; the more or less lexicalised prefix indicates successful completion.

  3. Waawa, I wondered about that too, since the Bardi verb inggardij can mean ‘enter’ with a different preverb, but it works with ‘die’ and a few other verbs too so I think it’s real. Also, maybe we could argue that Kriol draun is cancellable too ? :)

  4. Claire I just finished transcribing a story where a white man shoots a gun and the kids fall over dead: “finished, lying there, not breathing, finished”. The speaker uses the English word ‘finish’ and says the rest in Yulparija. But then it turns out in the subsequent lines that the man shot two bullocks, not the kids, and he wakes the kids up by putting water on their heads and saying ‘They shot the bullock, not you”. But I think this use of ‘finish’ is done deliberately for dramatic effect – to make the listener temporarily believe that the kids were shot, as they themselves did! – so probably not quite the same as what you’re getting..

  5. Hi there,
    Just by chance these two nuggets came up over the weekend:

    1. A friend who is transcribing Manyjilyjarra oral histories expressed to me at a BBQ that she is puzzled by a story one woman tells about how she ‘drowned’ when she was young. Obviously she didn’t die!

    2. My partner, on his night at the local youth centre, observed that the word ‘bump’ is used in Aboriginal English both to mean ‘hit’ and ‘kill’ just like the local Indigenous language words e.g. puwa in Yulparija. These kids may not speak ‘language’ but they speak in their language’s semantics!

    I seem to recall someone explaining this as a semantic difference between English and our local Aboriginal languages such that the intent is the focus of the meaning in Yulparija ‘i.e. to inflict physical harm’, whereas the outcome is in focus in the English words ‘hit’ and ‘kill’ (because you can intend to ‘kill’ but only ‘hit’, and vice versa).
    This makes sense to me because I don’t think native-speaker listeners assume the outcome of death (in either the drowning or killing cases), and then allow it to be cancelled. Your example might suggest that the death or otherwise of the referent needs to be confirmed or it will remain ambiguous if the context allows. I wonder if the Bardi word for ‘drown’ can be used to describe the submerging of non-animate referents, so death cannot be a conclusion by the listener? If yes, then the outcome of death is not a presumption of the term itself (and thus cancellable) but of the context which it describes (and thus requiring confirmation).

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