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Himalayan Linguistics is a free peer-reviewed web journal and archive devoted to the study of the languages of the Himalayas.

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Introduction to Special Issue 16.1

Introduction: The Grammatical Encoding of Space in Tibeto-Burman Languages

The current volume arose from a one-day pre-meeting workshop entitled “How Grammar Encodes Space in Tibeto-Burman” at the 48th International Conference on Sino-Tibetan Languages and Linguistics, which was held at the University of California, Santa Barbara in August of 2015.


Space in Lisu

Space is categorized and expressed in Lisu in all areas of structure, both nominal and verbal. Within the nominal system, there is a complex deictic system which differs between dialects and which has distinct fused locative forms, as well as a large set of spatial frame nominals, some derived from body parts, as well as directional suffixes and a spatial marker suffix; the ways in which these suffixes combine with nouns and noun stems differ slightly between dialects. There are also some general nouns for location in space and a spatial numeral classifier. Some of these nominal spatial forms are metaphorically extended to temporal, comparative and more lexicalized uses. Within the verbal system, directions of motion and types of location are expressed by lexically distinct verbs. As in most Ngwi languages related to Lisu, there is a morphosyntactically distinct set of dimensional extent stative verbs expressing spatial extension as well as temporal extent. There is also a set of posthead directional serial verbs. Finally, there are spatial adverbial forms productively based on the dimensional extent verbs.

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The Syntax and Semantics of Spatial Reference in Lamkang Verb

Lamkang, a Naga Kuki-Chin langauge spoken in Manipur state, India, has the following verbs  yung ‘fly, go downwards’; hang- ‘go up, climb’; hung- ‘go up’; vang- ‘come’; hei- travel, walk, move along’.  These verbs have been grammaticalized and are used as directional morphemes.  Lamkang speakers report that the correct use of directionals is one of the big stumbling blocks speakers of neighboring languages face when trying to speak Lamkang.  The ‘up’, ‘down’, and ‘across’ dimensions are clear.  But additional factors of social familiarity, distance and prestige, and metaphorical extensions into time, must be considered when indicating the direction of movement.  The venitive, as well, is used not only to mark a deictic center but also to orient a listener’s gaze.  To be truly fluent in Lamkang, one must utilize these multiple meanings.

Spatial Relations in Manange and Nar-Phu

This is an account of the forms and semantic dimensions of spatial relations in Manange (Tibeto-Burman, Tamangic; Nepal), with comparison to sister language Nar-Phu. Topological relations (“IN/ON/AT/NEAR”) in these languages are encoded by locative enclitics and also by a set of noun-like objects termed as “locational roots.” In Manange, the general locative enclitic is more frequently encountered for a wide range of topological relations, while in Nar-Phu, the opposite pattern is observed, i.e. more frequent use of locational roots. While the linguistic frame of reference system encoded in these forms is primarily relative (i.e. oriented on the speaker’s own viewing perspective), a more extrinsic/absolute system emerges with certain verbs of motion in these languages, with verbs like “come,” “go,” and certain verbs of placement or posture orienting to arbitrary fixed bearings such as slope. This account also provides some examples of cultural or metaphorical extensions of spatial forms as they are encountered in connected speech.

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How Grammar Encodes Space in Cogtse Rgyalrong

This paper presents the grammatical systems that are used for the concepts of space in the Cogtse dialect of Rgyalrong. Cogtse is noted for the way it lexicalizes a rich set of orientations (up-down, east-west, upstream-downstream) in terms of nominals, pronominals, verbs, and adverbials. Together with locative postpositions and the relator-noun construction, they constitute the three primary kinds of grammatical devices to incorporate notions of space. Despite the fact that Cogtse lexicalizes the intrinsic, relative, and absolute (based on the six orientations) frames of reference; no occurrence of ‘left’ and ‘right’ has been observed in the discourse data, spontaneous or preplanned. Speakers clearly prefer the absolute references that take the above-mentioned orientations as the basis. Finally, this paper illustrates from two socio-cultural perspectives how entrenched the orientation system is in Rgyalrong. The selection of semantically-dependent perfectivizer reveals the way Rgyalrong speakers conceptualize events in orientational terms; while the seating arrangement in the Rgyalrong house demonstrates that in assigning orientation terms to refer to various indoor spaces, cultural conceptions override natural geographical settings.

On the expression of spatial concepts in Lahu

Spatial/locative/directional concepts are sometimes highly grammaticalized in Tibeto-Burman,  notably in the Qiangic languages, which are famous for their systems of “directional prefixes” preposed to verbs to indicate the literal or figurative direction of the verbal event.

The Grammatical Encoding of Space in Yonghe Qiang

Like other languages of the Western Sichuan linguistic area, the Yonghe variety of Qiang has robust grammatical systems for spatial concepts. Within the noun phrase, there are specialized locative casemarkers for different degrees of distance of the object being located. There is also a set of locational nouns, which are structured based on an intrinsic frame of reference, at least for some speakers. In the verb phrase, there is a system of five existential verbs, four of which have locational semantics; choice of existential depends on containment and attachment, then secondarily on the animacy of the referent being located. There is also a set of eight directional prefixes. These have different discourse frequencies, reflecting different levels of prefix-verb collocation. In addition, the prefixes primarily occur in perfective clauses and imperatives; however, they are optional when an adverbial phrase is also used. Thus, the system approximates derivation rather than inflection. These patterns of distribution, together with comparative data from other Western Sichuan languages, suggest a grammaticalization pathway from directional prefix to perfective to imperative.

Directional Pre-verbal Particles in Hakha Lai

Hakha Lai is mainly spoken in Hakha and Thantlang areas, and their  vicinities in Chin State, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma).  It is also spoken in the adjacent areas of India and Bangladesh. Lai speakers are about 100,000 people. Lai is also used extensively as a second language by speakers of other Chin languages in the Chin Hills.

The data in H. Lai are transcribed in both standard orthography as well as a phonemic orthography developed and used when the first author was a consultant for a two-semesters long field method class (Fall 1997 – Spring 1998) conducted by Prof. James A. Matisoff at UC Berkeley.

H. Lai has five pairs of directional pre-verbal particles which describe the “where” of the participants and the “how” of the actions involved. This paper analyzes these deictic phenomena in terms of how the interlocutors behave in relation to position, distance, and movement, their diachronic origins, and their other functions.