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Title: The Proximate and Obviative Contrast in Meskwaki
Authors: Thomason, Lucy Grey
Keywords: American Indigenous Languages (Northern)
Algonquian Languages
Meskwaki - Grammar
Fox - Grammar
Issue Date: 2003
Publisher: University of Texas at Austin
Abstract: Meskwaki, an Algonquian language now spoken mainly in Tama, Iowa, makes a distinction between proximate (nearest, most central) and obviative (farther, peripheral) third persons. There are only two unbreakable rules governing which third persons are marked proximate and which third persons are marked obviative in Meskwaki. If the subject and object of a transitive verb are both third persons, only one of the two can be proximate; and if a noun is possessed by a third person, only the possessor can be proximate. Apart from these two unbreakable conditions, all factors governing the distribution of proximate and obviative in Meskwaki are matters not of morphology and syntax, but of pragmatics and discourse. I examine more than 50,000 lines of Meskwaki discourse and describe the patterns of proximate and obviative use that emerge from this corpus. I conclude that proximate marking always implies the presence of a non-third person observer, whereas obviative marking always implies the presence of a proximate; and that when more than one third person is in play, speakers use proximate marking to indicate who is most important, who is most affected, or whose perspective is being employed. I describe the sets of conventions that restrict proximate and obviative assignment, and describe how often, and for what purposes, these conventions are broken. I show how, in the vast area that lies outside of the reach of these conventions, speaker choice creates very different kinds of stories out of the same basic raw materials. The relative prominence of third persons is something that all languages mark in some manner and to some extent. However, few languages outside the Algonquian family make this marking explicit and ubiquitous. The explicit and ubiquitous presence of the prominence contrast in Algonquian means that certain options are open to speakers of Algonquian languages which are closed to speakers of all other languages. Equally, however, the ways in which prominence relations are handled in Algonquian potentially sheds light on what is going on in languages in which similar relations are more ambiguously marked. In examining the proximate and obviative system of an Algonquian language on a scale that has never been attempted before, I show two things. First, this largely untranslatable feature of the grammar has a far-reaching effect on the poetics and rhetoric of the language; and second, it is impossible to understand or accurately characterize the morphology of the proximate/obviative contrast without first understanding its use in discourse.
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