Ugandan scholar examines depictive adjectives in Rutooro and English syntaxDate Released: Wed, 22 April 2015 09:38 +0200
Dr Bebwa Isingoma, a visiting researcher from Uganda, talked about the role of depictive adjectives in English and Rutooro, a Ugandan language, in a Linguistics Departmental Research Seminar on Tuesday 22 April. Isingoma is spending two months at Rhodes University, working on converting his PhD dissertation into a book. His visit is funded by the American Council of Learned Societies African Humanities Project.
Depictive adjectives are adjectives that say something about a state of a participant of an event during the event. They are not “compulsory” parts of the sentence, because can always be omitted without rendering a sentence ungrammatical. For example, in He bought the bike new, the word new is a depictive adjective, and if it is left out of the sentence, as in He bought the bike, the sentence is still completely grammatical.
There are significant differences between English and Rutooro when depictive adjectives occur in ditransitive sentences, in other words sentences where there are two noun phrases after the verb, a direct object and an indirect object. In English, a depictive adjective always describes the first noun of the sentence or the “patient” or object of a concrete action, not any of the other nouns. For example, in John told Mary the news drunk, the adjective “drunk” can only ever describe John, not Mary.
However, in Rutooro, depictive adjectives can describe other nouns. In Jooni akagambira Malia amakuru atamiire (a literal translation of “John told Mary the news drunk”), the word –tamiire (drunk) can describe Jooni (John) or Malia (Mary). In Jooni akabooleka vidiyo bajwahire (John showed them the video tired), the adjective jwahire (tired) describes “them”, not John.
Dr Isingoma explained that the difference between English and Rutooro (as well as other Ugandan languages, such as Luganda) is that in Rutooro, there are agreement markers which indicate what noun the adjective is describing. In the example above, the prefix ba- in bajwahire specifies that the adjective describes a third person plural noun, such as “them”, and not the third person singular noun “John”. English is not able to specify which noun the depictive adjective describes in the same way. In English, the meanings of the nouns determine which noun is described by the depictive adjective.
This contrasts with a claim made by a syntactician called Pylkkänen who thinks that the difference between depictive adjectives in English and many African languages is due to the fact that English has a syntactic category known as “low applicatives”, while the African languages have “high applicatives”. Dr Isingoma argued that this claim is based on wrong assumptions.