Vol 1, No. 1 Spring 1997
Mark J. Alves
A number of problematic claims about the syntax 1 (the order and relationships of words in sentences) of several Southeast Asian languages 2 will be explored in the following discussion. Current Western linguistic frameworks 3 are ill-equipped to analyze many aspects of syntax in Southeast Asian languages due to pre-established European notions of grammar in human language. With the goal of progress in the area of cross-linguistic comparison and typological studies, this paper points out problem areas in typical Western analyses of Southeast Asian languages which include:
inadequate linguistic theories that continue to analyze these languages incorrectly despite the reality of Southeast Asian languages and other languages of the world
cultural misunderstandings based on pre-conceived Western notions of language and society
difficulties in teaching Southeast Asian languages, and
difficulties or inaccuracies in translation.4
The conclusion of this discussion is that linguists within the field of Southeast Asian linguistics have a responsibility to find ways of analyzing and explaining the syntax of Southeast Asian languages on their own terms while at the same time creating categories that work towards general cross-linguistic comparison.
Despite the progress in grammatical descriptions of Southeast Asian languages since the mid-nineteenth century, many linguistic aspects shared by Southeast Asian languages have not been included in Western theories. 5 Furthermore, when certain aspects of these languages have been considered, they have not been used in ways that reflect the grammar of Western languages. One clear case concerns research on Vietnamese. As noted by Thompson and Thomas: "Until recently , the Vietnamese language has been cast in a rather rigid and ill-fitting framework based largely on the structure of French." 6 Thus, both the frameworks for analysis and the analyses of Southeast Asian languages can be misleading, particularly if modern Western approaches that are steeped in a European and American tradition are used.
One reason for these problematic analyses is that translations have too often been used as criteria for determining the parts of speech and functions of words in Southeast Asian languages. The Chomskyan movement which often uses English translation for the analysis of parts of speech and sentence structure in languages other than English is particularly vulnerable to these problematic analyses. This movement claims that languages of the world are alike in their "logical form": he re essentially English syntax. The term "underlying form"-the base form from which other forms are derived-is very widely used by scholars trained in the Western tradition to refer to what they consider the real meaning of sentences in languages. Yet this concept is highly subject to culturally based judgments. The use of pre-determined notions of language that come from a tradition of prescriptive Western style grammars cause misunderstandings of the syntax of Southeast Asian languages, both conceptually (in theory) and pragmatically (in the application of these notions). The following discussion addresses a few noticeable areas: namely, pronouns, classifiers, and prepositions. 7
The functions and distributions of "pronouns" in Southeast Asian languages are quite different from those in European languages. 8 Only in some cases do their functions overlap with their Western counterparts. In Southeast Asian languages, "pronouns" tend to blur with common nouns and proper nouns. 9 Thus, Western translations of Southeast Asian "pronouns" may be inaccurate or at the very least awkward. Understanding these terms of address and their social importance can help deepen understanding of Southeast Asian culture.
The concept of a pronoun in Western terms is that of a word which substitutes for another noun to avoid repetition. 10 Consider sentence 1 where "she" is equivalent to "Samantha" from the preceding clause.
1) Samantha is a witch, but she is also a housewife.
European pronouns and their functions are generally transparent, another very important aspect of pronouns in Western grammar. Thus, we can tell from the form of the pronoun (e.g., "I", "me", "my") who did what to whom and to whom something belongs, as in sentence 2.
2) He gave his book to him.
Finally, pronouns cannot appear with modifying elements such as definite articles (e.g., "*the he"), 11 plural markings (e.g.,"*mes" to mean more than one "me"), or adjectives (e.g.,"*big her") except in certain pragmatic contexts (e.g., "Which 'he' are you talking about?"). 12
There are some significant differences between pronouns by the Western definition and Southeast Asian "pronouns." 13 These include the following:
(1) Southeast Asian "pronouns" are often derived etymologically from other nouns, especially from family terms (Table 1).
Though these terms of address are recognized by Western scholars, the notion of "pronoun" still persists in descriptions of Southeast Asian languages. In a statement about Thai terms of address, Huday claims: "Kinship terms and other noun s referring to relationships may also be used as pronouns." 17 Why should these terms be considered to be "used as pronouns"? If the tables were turned, it could be said that English uses pronouns to substitute for terms of address. Neither explanation truly shows that pronouns or terms of address are m ore basic or that one is derived from the other.
(2) Southeast Asian "pronouns" can be used with determiners (Table 2). 18
(3) The same "pronoun" in some Southeast Asian languages can be used for Western definitions of first, second, or third person. The translation of sentence 3 reflects these three equivalents.
(4) Whether addressing or referring to the speaker, the listener, or a third party, personal names can be used.
Overall, the "pronoun" systems in some Southeast Asian languages are largely systems of terms of address created from pre-existing nouns, typically having to do with common familial relations, in each respective language. 19 It might even be said that these languages do not have pronouns at all, but instead use various terms depending on the category within their social systems: social systems that require recognition of status, age, intimacy, and formality.
The consequence of misunderstanding these systems is significant. Translation into a Western language may require drastic changes or may simply result in the loss of the subtleties inherent in Southeast Asian languages. For European and American students of these languages, learning these terms of address and distinguishing them from actual pronouns (which do exist in Southeast Asian languages but with limitations) is crucial in order to function within Southeast Asian societies. For typological linguistic studies of languages of the world, the notion of "pronoun" and terms of address could benefit from alternative analyses.
There are a few genuine pronouns present in Southeast Asian languages which deserve further analysis. However, the system in the European tradition of first, second, or third person does not satisfy the parameters of personal reference in Southeast Asian languages. Some Southeast Asian linguists who have recognized the inadequacy of Western theories have proposed that the concept of "speaker" versus "listener" in conjunction with "plurality" is much more appropriate for describing Southeast Asian languages. In Table 3, the pronoun system of the Pacoh language 21 is listed, including (1) features of singular, dual (two persons), and plural (three or more persons), (2) whether or not the speaker and/or listener is included based on the speech context, (3) the Pacoh word, and (4) the rough English gloss. 22
This type of pronoun system (which is commonly seen in Southeast Asia among Mon-Khmer languages 23 and some Austronesian languages in the Philippines and Taiwan) represents a different and more complex view of human relations in speech than that seen in European languages. The complexity of this system is such that the analytical tools used in the We st may indeed be inadequate.
Another point to consider is that, for the third person singular form, Southeast Asian languages have a gender free form (note the translation for do singular/-speaker/-listener is he/she/it). The lack of such a form in English results in problems such as the choice of gender in formal writing, whether to use "he", "she", "he or she", "s/he", etc. In this way, the European languages, and thus their descriptive models, are lacking. This problem does not exist in virtually every Southeast Asian language. If a speaker of a typical Southeast Asian language wants to be explicit about gender, then terms of address that carry such meaning or simply overt indication of gender can be used. The European model is clearly inadequate for describing systems having this amount of complexity. Thus, it would be a mistake to assume that the Western model is adequate for making claims about universal grammar and typological studies relating to pronouns. 24
Classifiers, which function to note units in quantified noun phrases (combinations of nouns and numerals), are used throughout Southeast Asia. 25 In European languages, what most closely corresponds to classifiers are terms such as the English word "head" in the phrase "five head of cattle" or "stick" in "a stick of dynamite." However, there is no category "classifier" in the European tradition which has the same syntactic and semantic functions as those in Southeast Asian languages. Classifiers appear in differing positions, either before (Mandarin and Chinese) or after (Khmer and Malay) a common noun (Table 4).
Some linguists even consider the classifier to be a distinct part of speech which does not belong to any Western category. 27 This break from traditional approaches is a step in the right direction since classifiers have a chance of being noticed and accepted into mainstream Western linguistics. Unfortunately, part of the implicit criteria in this view is that, if something cannot be translated as a certain word class in a Western language, it cannot be classified within the Western framework. Thus, Western constraints are still being indirectly applied.
There are a number of problems with the above mentioned analysis. First of all, translation criteria do not necessarily determine to what part of speech a class of words belongs, nor does translation necessarily disprove that that class of words is something which does exist in other languages. Furthermore, classifiers are etymologically derived from nouns, often function as common nouns in the same language, and are closely related to nouns (Table 5).
The derivation of classifiers from nouns suggests that this class of words does possess a semantic nominal (pertaining to the quality of nouns) element. Classifiers also may occur with a numeral or other modifier alone (without a common noun), yet they s till constitute part of a noun phrase (Table 6).
Finally, the analysis of classifiers as a distinct part of speech which maintains a special position in syntax representations means that this word class would have to be added to the inventory of underlying representations of all human languages. 28 Even English in its underlying representation would have to have classifiers in all noun phrases that are lost in its surface representation.
That the head, the element to which other elements are attached and to which they are bound, of a noun phrase must necessarily be a noun is generally considered to be true. Assuming that the numerals in table 6 are not the head nouns, the only remaining element of those phrases are the classifiers. 29 Thus, according to the previous analysis, Southeast Asian languages and other languages with classifiers do not have some unique part of speech. They simply have a special subclass of words derived from common words that already exist in those languages. Again, the consequences of this approach can be seen in the areas of pedagogy, cultural understanding, and cross-linguistic comparisons and typology.
Research on prepositions in Southeast Asian languages has resulted in many differing analyses. Different linguists have considered words in this class to be prepositions, nouns, adverbs, or conjunctions. Consider the standard Western concept of prepositions. "Prepositions are words which show a relationship between a noun or pronoun and some other word." 30 As the term "preposition" suggests, prepositions are preposed elements. Positional relations come to mind when thinking about prepositions, such as "in", "before", or "inside". In standard introductory syntax texts, 31 the term "preposition" is never explicitly defined, but rather is referred to according to the traditional notion. These concepts and preconceived notions have wreaked havoc with descriptions of "prepositions" in Southeast Asian languages. 32 Again, the typical problem is the use of translations and semantic equivalents.
Various Southeast Asian linguists have done work to show that "prepositions" are rather different than what the traditional concepts suggest. 33 They have demonstrated that what typically translates as prepositions in these languages are actually nouns that indicate the position of the attached nouns (Table 7). Again, translations can be misleading. The relationships between locational nouns and their attached words in Southeast Asian languages are different from those in European languages, yet simple to understand when put into a different perspective. This perspective is gained when a number of Southeast Asian languages are included, not just one English translation of any one Southeast Asian language.
One interesting aspect of Southeast Asian languages is the way in which verbs and prepositions appear ambiguous. In some cases, verbs seem to be prepositions in what are called serial verb constructions (sequences of verbs), as in Table 8 which contains sample sentences, glosses, and rough translations.
In some languages, prepositions seem to function as verbs (Table 9). According to the translations, these apparent prepositions would be considered verbs. These words could also be considered prepositions which serve as predicates. 35 This study does not intend to answer what these words are. The point to consider is that, within traditional Western grammatical frameworks, the tools for analysis are inadequate, as the phenomena just discussed has not been incorporated into general frameworks and, in some cases, approaches in translation and language teaching.
Not all languages of the world are as blessed as English to have so much attention given by those in academic and popular realms around the world. A quick look over the indexes of major standard texts for Chomskyan syntax shows that the most commonly used languages are English, French, German, Spanish, and a few others, such as Polish or Welsh. 37 Japanese and Chinese (usually Mandarin Chinese) are used, though this is hardly worth applauding since Japanese is an economically privileged language, and Chinese in its many varieties is, after all, spoken by nearly a quarter of the planet's human population. In the two texts by Cook and Haegeman selected for this unscientific but still revealing review, no data from a Southeast Asian language, or for that matter any underprivileged language, was used to support claims of what is "universal" in human language. Thus, it is no surprise that the theoretical model tends to recreate representations of language like English or French. Hypothetically, if the current dominant theory of syntax had been developed in the Philippines or Cambodia, we might expect to see a very different kind of explanation for human language.
The tendency to rely on Western linguistic frameworks should result in the exposure of gaps in those theories, thus helping to improve the theories. This can only happen when linguists are willing to accept the data from the other languages and in terms not necessarily grounded in the Western tradition. This does not mean that the goal is to create grammars unique to every language of the world. Southeast Asian languages need to be considered both in their own terms and in a more general approach applicable to all languages. We should not impose preconceived notions of linguistic universals, yet we still need to have an explicit framework that allows for cross-linguistic comparison and more universal understanding.
What this paper has demonstrated is that there are still many gaps in our knowledge about language, and that these gaps have caused us to take the easy route: We use what we have the best we can. However, this does not mean we are right. We are in the middle of a constantly developing analysis. The ultimate goal for linguists who research languages in Southeast Asia should be to determine for themselves what the structures are in their languages. For the best results, the tools of analysis that they use must be in some way distanced from those set in the Western tradition.
1 Syntax is the study of the order of and relationships between words in sentences. Criteria for determining these matters differs depending on the theoretical approach one takes. Syntactic analyses dates back to Ancient Greece and India. Within the last half century, many new and diverging theories have arisen, though the most dominant theory was initiated by Noam Chomsky in the United States in the late 1950s. The Chomskyan movement revolutionized the field of linguistics, particularly in the area of syntax. As some theories gained popularity, their proponents became more dogmatic, considering theirs to be the only adequate syntactic theories. Dogmatic teachings are more likely to fossilize theory than develop it.
2 Southeast Asia here includes Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Southern China. The many varieties of Chinese are not traditionally considered to be part of Southeast Asia, but they are being included due to the massive influence of Chinese in Southeast Asia. Furthermore, all Chinese languages share many linguistic typological traits with the languages of Southeast Asia proper, though the southern varieties such as Cantonese, Hokkien, and Chaozhou, the three most common varieties in Southeast, share more similarities in phonology than northern Chinese.
3 The term "Western" applies largely to studies done within European countries and North America. However, the theoretical framework discussed most in this article has been developed largely in the United States, and has been adopted, problems and all, by linguists in countries around the world.
4 This study focuses on spoken language, as opposed to written language. Writing often differs from speech in ways that are beyond the scope of this paper. Spoken language is not considered to be inflexible, but rather it shows enough general patterns to allow speakers of a language to communicate with others, and it allows linguistic analyses to explain those linguistic patterns. It is the analysis and explanation of those patterns in spoken language which is the concern of this paper.
5 There are altogether five major languages families in Southeast Asia, including Sino-Tibetan, Austroasiatic, Austronesian, Tai-Kadai, and Hmong-Mien. Despite this tremendous variety of languages, there are many general linguistic and cultural similarities that the peoples of this region share, in part due to the complex and continuous contact between the various groups.
6 Lawrence Thompson and David Thomas, "Vietnam," in Current Trends in Linguistics, Vol. II, Linguistics in East Asia and South East Asia, ed. Thomas A. Sebeok (Prague: Mouton, 1967), 817.
7 Theoretical concepts and terms are kept to a minimum throughout this paper. Any specialized terms used in this paper will be explained briefly in the notes.
8 These two concepts of function (how a class of words is used) and distribution (the position in which classes of words can appear in sentences) are basic criteria for determining analyzable units in languages.
9 In the Western sense, "common noun" is the general term for nouns that have the fewest restrictions in their usage in sentences, while proper nouns, such as names or people or places, have a much more restricted distribution (e.g., They usually do not occur with definite articles, as in "New York City" which cannot appear with the word "the").
10 J.R. Bernard, A Short Guide to Traditional English Grammar (Sydney, Australia: Sydney University Press, 1975), 35.
11 The use of an asterisk indicates that a sentence or phrase is ungrammatical or unacceptable. More specifically, it means that this author believes that these sentences are impossible.
12 Pragmatics in language is more powerful than prescribed grammar or even personal judgments of grammaticality. It is almost always possible to find ways in which language can be used that go against the generally accepted norms.
13 Though some general claims may be made about many aspects of Southeast Asian languages, not all of the aspects considered in this paper are the same in every language. Nonetheless, there are enough shared features among these languages to be considered Southeast Asian areal features.
14 Naturally, following the point of this paper, the translations provided are intended only as rough equivalents.
15 Standard romanized orthographies have been used for convenience and consistency. This is arguably a slightly hypocritical act considering the point of this paper, but one that should not interfere with its claims.
16 "Malay" is a non-political term for both Indonesian and Malaysian as they are, in linguistic and historical terms, dialects of the same language.
17 Thomas John Huday, "Thai," in The Major Languages of East and South-East Asia, ed. Bernard Comrie (London: Routledge, 1990), 41.
18 Determiners, or demonstratives, are used to indicate the position of the discussed object in relation to the speaker or event, such as whether something is nearby or far away (e.g., this).
19 Chinese is the exception in this case. Chinese does have a system of pronouns that, though lacking case marking attributes, are more similar to the traditional European categories than those of the typical Southeast Asian language.
20 The term "person" refers to whether the speaker (e.g., "I"), listener (e.g., "you"), or other party (e.g., "she") is being addressed or spoken about.
21 Pacoh is a Mon-Khmer language (a language family that includes Vietnamese, Khmer, as well as dozens of other less commonly spoken languages throughout Southeast Asia) spoken by about 10,000 persons in the mountainous region of central Vietnam along the Vietnam/Laos border.
22 Saundra Watson, "Personal pronouns in Pacoh," Mon-Khmer Studies (1964), 81-97.
23 For a list of such languages, Robert K. Headley Jr., "Some considerations on the classification of Khmer," in Austroasiatic Studies Part I, eds. P.N Jenner, L.C. Thompson, and S. Starosta (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1976), 430-451.
24 The term "Universal Grammar" is very important in linguistic literature and particularly in the Chomskyan approach. Within that approach to linguistic study, the features of any single language are enough to make claims about the parameters, the "Universal Grammar", of any other language. "Universal Grammar" seems to this author to be a paradox: namely, using a single language (typically English) to explain "universals" about languages of the world.
25 The term "classifier" is used in linguistic literature in addition to other terms, such as "measure". For other discussion on classifiers in Southeast Asia, see P. J. Honey, and E. H. S. Simmonds, "Thai and Vietnamese: some elements of nominal structure compared," Linguistic Comparison in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. (London: University of London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1963).; Robert B. Jones, "Classifier constructions in Southeast Asia," Journal of the American Oriental Society 90, no.1 (1970): 1-12.; Benjamin K. T'sou, "The structure of nominal classifier systems," Austroasiatic Studies Part II, Oceanic Linguistics Special Publication, eds. P. N Jenner, L. C. Thompson and S. Starosta, no. 13 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1976), 1215-1248.; and Clark, Marybeth. 1989. "Hmong and Areal Southeast Asia," Papers in Southeast Asian Linguistics, Southeast Asian Syntax 11 (1989): 175-230.
26 Both the Malay and Khmer examples are the contracted forms to parallel forms. The use of classifiers in Malay, which more typically occur preceding nouns, is certainly more complex than the brief presentation possible in this paper. The point of this example is to show the syntactic similarities between Southeast Asian languages, not to argue for one inflexible viewpoint over another.
27 This author has encountered this opinion expressed by two Southeast Asian linguists, Eric Schiller, "Autolexical solutions to the problem of 'parts of speech' in Southeast Asian languages," in Papers from the First Annual Meeting of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society 1991, eds. Martha Ratcliff and Eric Schiller (Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University Press, 1992), 397-415; and Hung Tuong Nguyen, Personal Communication.
28 The notion of underlying representations is that languages have surface structures (that which is pronounced) and an underlying logical form. Thus, classifiers would have to be in the underlying representation of English and European languages, which is not a troubling notion but certainly an unnecessary one.
29 With the caveat that this author may be influenced by the Western tradition, in this author's opinion, the above mentioned data suggest that classifiers are nouns, though nouns of a special class having special syntactic restrictions and semantic functions.
30 Bernard, A Short Guide, 51.
31 Two such texts include Vivian J. Cook, Chomsky's Universal Grammar: An Introduction. (Great Britain: Page Bros Norwich Ltd., 1988); and Liliane Haegeman, Introduction to Government and Binding Theory (Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
32 Noted in Schiller, "Autolexical Solutions."
33 Three works that include discussion of preposition in Southeast Asian languages are (1) Marybeth Clark, "Hmong and Areal Southeast Asia," in Papers in Southeast Asian Linguistics, Southeast Asian Syntax (1989): 175-230; (2) Marybeth Clark and Amara Prasithrasint, "Synchronic derivation in Southeast Asian languages," in Southeast Asian Linguistics presented to Andre-G. Haudricourt, eds. S. Ratankul, D. Thomas, and S. Premisirat (Bankok: Mahidol University, 1985), 34-81, and (3) Kitima Indrambarya, "Are there prepositions in Thai?,"in Papers from the Third Annual Meeting of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society, ed. Mark Alves (Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University, Program for Southeast Asian Studies, 1995), 101-117.
34 Indrambarya, "Are there prepositions in Thai?," 110.
35 "Predicate" is a general term that refers to any event or state of being. This is another weak spot in the Western approach since verbs are most often considered predicates in European languages, whereas in Southeast Asian languages, nouns, "adjectives" (i.e., stative verbs), and prepositional phrases may serve as predicates in addition to verbs.
36 Maglalang 1996.
37 Cook, Chomsky's Universal Grammar; Liliane Haegeman, Introduction to Government and Binding Theory.