(This is a guest blog by a student on Queen Mary’s Constructing a Language course, with an interesting philosophical angle.)
“there is a great difference between a mind and a body, because the body, by its very nature, is something divisible, whereas the mind is plainly indivisible. . . insofar as I am only a thing that thinks, I cannot distinguish any parts in me. . . . Although the whole mind seems to be united to the whole body, nevertheless, were a foot or an arm or any other bodily part amputated, I know that nothing would be taken away from the mind.” (Descartes 1980; 97).
The French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) believed that the mind and body are two radically distinct entities, each of which can exist by itself. He argued that they cannot be of same substance since the body, by nature, is always divisible and can extend in space, whilst the mind is invisible and neither limited by space nor matter. Existence depends on the causal interaction of both of these substances, giving rise to mental life. Nowadays, the theory remains a matter of debate and is viewed as a religio-historical phenomenon.
This concept of mind-body dualism inspired me to construct a language which distinguishes between these two entities. Before I started, I had to come up with speakers who would adapt certain aspects of this ideology into their culture, which is how I came across Animism. Animism shares a few properties with the concept of dualism; the spirit, which is believed to be a shadowy ghost-like duplicate of the body (Tylor 1871), can travel from place to place during sleep, trance, coma and death, and is therefore non-spatial. It suggests that everything including humans, animals and inanimate objects (e.g. plants, stones) have a spirit. After death, these ghost-like spirits can enter the body of another human, animal or object, which is why animism is said to describe the “social relationship with the material world” (Sillar 2009; 371) since animists build strong connections with their environment.
After my research, I came up with Papašajem, a language spoken by a fictional people with animistic beliefs. My language was influenced by my reading about the languages of the unrecognised (Adivasi) tribes of South India (Abbi 2008).
Papašajem is an agglutinative language and is a language isolate, meaning it does not have any ancestors. Like many other agglutinative languages, it has SOV order (Lehmann 1973). The name Papašajem, pronounced /papaʃaxɛm/, means ‘people of the earth’ and is derived from papa ‘people’, šaje ‘earth’ and the inflectional suffix -ɛm, which marks genitive case. Its morphemes consist of basic roots with up to two syllables, which can be extended with inflectional and derivational suffixes.
Speakers of Papašajem believe that the body and mind are completely different from one another, and therefore differentiate between material and immaterial entities. I chose to express these properties by creating a split pronoun system for the matter and spirit. Thus, speakers may refer to an objective entity, that is visible from the outside, or a subjective entity, which is invisible and only felt on the inside:
Though intangible, spirit pronouns cannot be used to refer to abstract nouns such as honesty, love and happiness, and are limited to material entities that are considered to have a spirit.
Verbs appear with subject markers that agree with the noun phrase and reflect person and number of the subject with corresponding suffixes:
Person agreement suffixes: Number agreement suffixes:
Many richly inflected languages allow a dropping of pronouns where the verb agrees with the nominative subject (Rizzi 1982). Though Papašajem displays subject agreement, it does not allow pro-drop since the subject marker does not reflect either of the pronoun systems presented above. It is therefore crucial for speakers to reference the subject to avoid ambiguity.
The minimal pair below shows how a change of pronoun would affect the meaning of an utterance. Note that both verbs have the same inflections, demonstrating why the pronoun cannot be dropped. I used the abbreviations MAT and SPRT followed by person and number marking to gloss the ‘matter’ and ‘spirit’ pronouns (e.g., MAT.2SG is an abbreviation for the second person singular matter pronoun).
- a. iko eshan he rabimad dikas joshmenjem
iko ɛʃan hɛ ʀab-im-ad dik-as jof-mɛn-jɛm-Ø
past night 1SG.MAT mountain-PL-LOC sheep-ACC see-PST-1-SG
‘Last night I saw a sheep in the mountains’
b. iko eshan hlx rabimad dikas joshmenjem
iko ɛʃan hɯx ʀab-im-ad dik-as jof-mɛn-jɛm-Ø
past night 1SG.SPRT mountain-PL-LOC sheep-ACC see-PST-1-SG
‘Last night my spirit saw a sheep in the mountains’
The pronoun systems differentiate between who actively carries out an action. The use of the matter pronoun in a. expresses the physical action of seeing with the eyes. With regards to the context in which the spirit pronoun appears (last night and see), the speaker refers to what they had seen in their dream experience.
Some verbs tend to be used more frequently with matter pronouns in the waking world such as physical action verbs, e.g. go, sing and sneeze, that are carried out physically:
2. dretsh sham vetünü sameshrajemashas
dʀɛtʃ ʃam vety-ny samɛʃ-ʀa-jɛm-aʃas
tomorrow 1PL.MAT island-DAT go-FUT-1-PL
‘tomorrow we will go to the island’
In the waking world, the use of the spirit pronoun is predominantly used to express feelings, thoughts and emotions:
3. tum so majas mazum tutjemashas
tum so maj-mɛn-as mazum tut-jɛm-aʃas
1PL.SPRT 2SG.MAT come-PST-2 because happy-1-PL
‘We are happy that you came’
The use of spirit pronouns can also express volition when something was done unwillingly.
Imagine the following scenario; you broke your mum’s favourite vase and you are scared to tell her the truth. You decide to lie to her by telling her it was not you who broke the vase, which in Papašajem, would look like this:
4. he belsham xetapmennetjem
hɛ bɛlʃam xetap-mɛn-nɛt-jɛm-Ø
1SG.MAT vase break-PST-NEG-1-SG
‘I did not break the vase’
The matter pronoun here is used to express that the vase was not physically broken by you, it must have been broken because of something or someone else.
Or, you decide to tell her the truth and want to express that it was an accident:
5. hlx belsham xetapmennetjem
hɯx bɛlʃam xetap-mɛn-nɛt-jɛm-Ø
1SG.SPRT vase break-PST-NEG-1-SG
‘I did not mean to break the vase’
This was just a brief insight into Papašajem, a language that challenges the Western materialistic worldview by creating immediate awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings, memories and environment. The language creates a living world infused with sentience and connects seen and unseen worlds.
Abbi, A., 2008. Tribal languages. In: Kachru, B. B. Kachru, Y. Sridhar, S. N., eds.
Language in South Asia, Cambridge University Press, New York, pp.153-174.
Bybee, J.L., 1985. Morphology: A study of the relation between meaning and form (Vol. 9). John Benjamins Publishing.
Descartes, Rene; Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, Donald A. Cress trans. (Hackett Publishing Co., Indianapolis 1980).
Lehmann, W.P., 1973. A structural principle of language and its implications. Language, pp.47-66.
Rizzi, L. 1982. Issues in Italian syntax. Dordrecht: Foris.
Sillar, B., 2009. The social agency of things? Animism and materiality in the Andes. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 19(3), pp.367-377.