Things what I learnt in university today:

  • Nagamese, a creole spoken in Nagaland, has a language particle ‘ke’ that is only ever used to refer to an individuated animate object of a sentence

That… may not make that much sense to you. So! Brief refresher on sentence structure in English, followed by an explanation of what the above bullet point actually means, after the jump.

Sentence structure in English, in its most basic form, follows an SVO structure – subject/verb/object. (It should probably be noted that ‘subject’ and ‘object’ are frowned upon by some linguists when describing other languages, because it follows the mindset that other languages can be classified using English-related terms, which is obviously not the case.) In simple terms, the subject is what’s doing the action, and the object – if applicable – is what’s getting the action done to them. Very simple terms.

For an example, take the following sentence:

John ran.

This is a simple example of an intransitive sentence/verb (one that is sans object). The subject (John) performs the verb (he ran). Next, we have a transitive example:

John heard Xena.

John is still the subject, performing/undergoing the verb, ‘heard’. However, we’ve now introduced Xena, aka the object of the sentence. Sort of. See, subject and object are also problematic even in English, because, well… John’s not really doing anything. He’s hearing her, not listening to her. And Xena’s not having anything done to her, because John’s just hearing whatever noise she’s making. In something like “John hit Xena”, it’s a lot simpler, but a) that wouldn’t have allowed me to illustrate that point, and b) no-one could hit Xena. She’d kick his arse. At any rate, there are a bunch of words that can be thrown in there and still be correct, but that’s not the point.

In certain cases, the object is moved to before the subject:

Xena was ogled by John.

This is what’s known as passivisation. It also makes the lead-in to that sentence complete bull-hockey, since John is technically the ‘agent’ here, and can be thrown out of the sentence in what’s called the ‘agentless passive’ (as in “Xena was ogled”), which you can never actually do to a subject. Anyway, more on the fun of rearranging sentences later. The point is that by now you should know what a subject and an object are – the subject does it, the object has it done. Broadly. Onto Nagamese!

Have a gander at the following Nagamese sentence:

utu bhag ekta chota maiki saise – ‘that tiger a small woman saw’That tiger saw a small woman.

It’s pretty simple to see what’s going on there. Nagamese has the advantage of, while not being SVO, being SOV, which is easy to understand even with a word-for-word translation. In this example, my lazy arse has just made subject underlined, object italicised, and verb normal, because… well yeah. Now, look at the object – ‘a small woman’. What we have here is an animate noun, and one at the peak of the animacy scale. However, it’s not individuated. It’s just ‘a’ woman.

bhag chota maiki ke hunise – tiger the small woman heard The tiger heard the small woman.

And here we finally come to the point of this – the ‘ke’. You see it right there, thrown in after the object. What you may have noticed you don’t see, though, is any sort of word in front of ‘bhag’ that would mean ‘the tiger’. That’s because Nagamese doesn’t use a definite article (‘the’) on subjects in a sentence. It only uses ‘ke’ when it needs to define that there’s ‘the’ woman and not ‘a’ – that is, when it’s an individual woman, not just any.

It’s also worth throwing in that their word for ‘a’ is ‘ekta’, if you weren’t paying attention before. ‘Ekta’ is their word for ‘one’ (ek) plus a special suffix they use to make a number numerate a noun (-ta). This goes up the scale: ek+ta, dui+ta, and so on. This is another quirk of language we don’t have in English which I actually find really endearing, and just wanted to mention.

Why is any of this interesting?

Well, it’s not, probably. But when was the last time you learnt anything new about a foreign language? Yeah, that’s what I thought. It’s called education.

Minor update: I accidentally linked to the wrong page for Nagamese. The link should now head to a cool list of “survival phrases” posted on Confessions of a Linguist.