Saturday, November 30, 2013

O-Class vs. A-Class Samoan Nouns

Talking chief Lauaki Namulauulu Mamoe implores you to learn Samoan

If you take another look at the table of Samoan possessive pronouns I recently posted, you'll see that the fourth column from the left classifies possessive pronouns as either being o-class or a-class. The concept of noun class is a bit confusing for an English speaker, since English doesn't have an equivalent concept—so far as I am aware, at least.

There are many places that explain this concept as it relates specifically to Samoan—for instance, here, here, here, here, and here—but for the sake of this post, I'll draw from explanations of a cognate language, Hawaiian, that I have found particularly useful when applied to—and in some cases adapted for—Samoan.

Hawaiian language scholar Albert J. Schütz, in All About Hawaiian, observes on page 26 that, like Samoan,
Hawaiian also has two ways of saying 'my' (or any of the other possessives), depending on the kind of relationship between the possessor and the possessed. In one type, called INALIENABLE, the possessor has no control over the relationship, in the sense that he or she can neither begin it or end it. Inalienable relationships (marked within the possessive word by o) often involve body parts, innate qualities, parts of a whole, and kin at your own level (brother, sister, etc.) or above (parents, grandparents, etc.) . . .
Other than a few items of cultural importance (such as land, house, or canoe) or those that you have a spatial relationship with or close connection to (such as boats, vehicles, houses, or clothing) the relationship one has with most objects is ALIENABLE. Children, spouse, and grandchildren are also alienable, all marked by a or ā. [In Samoan we just use a.]
In Ka Lei Haʻaheo: Beginning Hawaiian, Alberta Pualani Hopkins further elaborates on page 74 that,
'O-category' things
1. If you have no control over possessing something, it is an 'o' thing: for example, older relatives, siblings, emotions, body parts. Note that nonliving things have no choice about owning things so they usually possess everything with 'o'-possessives.
2. If you can get in, on, under, behind, or wear something, it is an 'o' thing: for example, buildings, means of transportation, chairs, clothes.
'A-category' things
Anything that does not fall into 1 or 2 above is an 'a' thing. We talk about possessing 'a' things by substituting ā for o in the possessives you have learned . . .
There are many 'a' things: for example, husband, wife, children, grandchildren, teacher, student, book, food.
So, to take a few of the specific examples that Schütz and Hopkins give we can construct the following list of o-class and a-class nouns:

O-class NounsA-Class Nouns
my arm - ʻo loʻu lima
my brother - ʻo loʻu uso
my mom - ʻo loʻu tinā
my house - ʻo loʻu fale
my car - ʻo loʻu taʻavale
my shirt - ʻo loʻu mitiafu
my wife - ʻo laʻu āvā
my book - ʻo laʻu tusi
my pencil - ʻo laʻu penitala
my dog - ʻo laʻu maile
my friend - ʻo laʻu uō
my cell phone - ʻo laʻu selefoni

There are some few notable exceptions to the above rules. For instance, in Samoan a man's children are all o-class, whereas a woman's children are all a-class. A man's beard is also a-class, presumably because it's easily removed, though, curiously, the same isn't true for hair on the head, which is o-class.

The last exception that I'll point out is that the Samoan word for spouse, toʻalua, is o-class, possibly because the early missionaries were trying to teach the Samoans that spouses should be permanent or inalienable. The native Samoan words for husband, tāne, and wife, āvā, are both a-class.

And there you have it, a not so brief explanation of the different noun classes in Samoan. Of course, as always, you may leave questions in the comments if you need additional examples or clarification.

(Does anyone know how to center the above column headings using simple HTML?)

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