Monday, November 25, 2013

Samoan Possessive Pronouns

Looks complicated, but is actually easy, and more descriptive, once mastered
When I was teaching university-level Samoan language, my students seemed to have a hard time wrapping their heads around the concept of Samoan possessive pronouns. It's probably because when all are listed out it ends up as a table like the one above (though even I have simplified things a bit in the table, having excluded the abbreviated forms of some).

But take a closer look at the four right columns and a pattern should emerge: every singular definite possessive pronoun begins with an l, but the l is dropped for every plural definite possessive pronoun; every singular indefinite possessive pronoun begins with an s, but every plural indefinite possessive pronoun begins with ni.

Wow, the above sentence is probably one of the worst ever written!

But what's really going on here? The beginning of our possessive pronouns, whether singular or plural, definite or indefinite, exactly correspond to the way we use the Samoan articles, as I'll show below.

In English we use the articles a, an, and the. In Samoan it's just a wee bit more complicated because the articles can be singular or plural, definite or indefinite. I said complicated, but I think nuanced is a better term for what's going on.

See, in English a and an are without a doubt singular, but what about the? It goes either way; it can be both singular and plural. That's because we don't depend on the the to tell us when a word is plural, we just tag an s (or es) on at the end. So the plural for dog is dogs.

In Samoan, however, every word ends in a vowel, so we can't just add an s or es at the end of the word to make it plural. Maile (dog) can't ever be mailes (dogs) unless you're joking. Samoan depends on its articles to show whether a word is plural.

And here they are: le, --, se, and ni. And here's how to use them:

ʻO le maile means a dog or the dog, depending on the situation,

ʻO maile means dogs or the dogs (the lack of an article I indicated above with the --),

ʻO se maile means a dog,

And ʻo ni maile means some dogs.

"But," you protest, "le and se are being used to both mean a or an!"

Yes, and that's where it gets fuzzier still for us English speakers (who aren't linguists, including me), because we don't spend a lot of time thinking about whether something needs a definite or indefinite article. Sadly, in the years since the early 1800s, when Samoan and English first came into contact, the English way of thinking and using the Samoan articles has all but shoved aside the old Samoan way of doing things; or at least, that's what it looks like to me.

The indefinite articles (and, by extension, the indefinite possessive pronouns) are to be used when the existence of something can be called into question (Is there a dog?), or when the specific identity of something isn't important, as when I ask you for a dog—I don't care which dog you give me, I just want a dog, any dog. In these cases I'd use se maile for a dog, or ni maile for some dogs.

Pretty much in all other cases the definite articles should be used to express the dog or the dogs, le maile and maile (no article for the plural definite), respectively.

So even when I'm referring to a single dog, and in English I'd say a dog, which we normally think of as being indefinite, in Samoan I can use le because I have a specific, existing dog in mind.

There you have it, possessive pronouns with a bonus discussion of the Samoan articles.

Still confused? Leave a question in the comments.

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