- South Hall 3605
Speaker: Joseph Brooks (UCSB)
Topic: The Linguistic Encoding of Reality: Realis/irrealis distinctions in Chini grammar and discourse
Reception: All are invited to a reception following the talk
The Linguistic Encoding of Reality: Realis/irrealis distinctions in Chini grammar and discourse
The starting point for this talk is what the grammar of a language might look like if it reflected its speakers' construals of situations according to reality, that is, what they expect and/or know about the realization of a particular state of affairs. Here I rely primarily on conversational data in Chini, a language of New Guinea, to describe how the multiplicity of realis/irrealis constructions in this language does exactly that. Realis/irrealis is distinguished in multiple parts of the verbal morphology and then again in the clause chain linkage enclitics. This distinction, far from peripheral in the grammar, can be seen as its most central organizing principle.
This study arrives on the linguistic scene in the midst of a debate on realis/irrealis that has been ongoing for the last two decades. Several scholars have challenged the typological validity of realis and (especially) irrealis, and have equally challenged whether such a distinction could possibly be of any functional use to the speakers of any language (Bybee et al. 1994; Bybee 1998; Cristofaro 2012; de Haan 2012; Exter 2012). Meanwhile, scholars working with data from languages of North America, the Amazon, and New Guinea have shown that there are in fact consistent functional motivations that explain the use of realis and irrealis in particular languages — something which permits deeper understanding of the cross-linguistic patterns, among other topics of theoretical importance (Roberts 1990, 1994; Chafe 1995; Mithun 1995; Elliott 2000; Klamer 2012; Michael 2014, Daniels 2015, among many others).
With that theoretical landscape in mind, I argue that realis/irrealis in the verbal morphology and chaining constructions in Chini have separate but interrelated functions based on principles of epistemic deixis. I do so through explication of data from the corpus and with a focus on a brief series of exchanges from one recording. The use of the inflectional constructions is anchored in a concept comparable to 'presupposability (or: knowability)' while that of the chaining constructions is anchored in 'expectability'. Roughly put, the grammar thus leads people to distinguish most situations expressed in the Chini language according to the following possibilities: [+presupposed, +expected]; [+presupposed, - expected]; [-presupposed, +expected]; [-presupposed, -expected]. Despite this key difference, the various realis and irrealis constructions have similar meanings wherever they are marked in the grammar. Realis situations are 'within view' in terms of the real, physical and social world of experience. Irrealis situations are 'out of view' in the world of alternative, imagined contingencies.