ARIA Spotlight: Tallis Clark

Tallis Clark's ARIA project: Grammatical Criteria in Malagasy External Possession

Over the course of the past two months, I have been investigating the properties of a particular type of possessive predicate, called External Possession, in Malagasy, an Austronesian (Malayo-Polynesian, Greater Barito linkage) language spoken largely in Madagascar. This project has been conducted remotely, through video-conferenced elicitation sessions with a native speaker of Malagasy, Vololona Razafimbelo. The data collected are all from her unless cited otherwise, and reflect what sentences she deems to be either grammatical or unacceptable.

External Possession is a broad term for a group of similar constructions found in many languages around the world, where the possessor and the possessum (the thing that is being possessed) are treated as separate units within the sentence, as opposed to Internal Possession, where they are not. Compare (1a) and (1b). In both, the doctor is the one who has possession over the hair, but in (1b) hair and the doctor are found within the same unit. (1c) shows that English may also encode a similar meaning with a specific verb have.

    1. [The doctor] is brown-[hair]ed.
    2. [The doctor’s hair] is brown.
    3. [The doctor] has [brown hair].

Malagasy, like English, is able to use similar constructions to split the possessor and possessum into different phrases. These formations are highly specific, and often form idioms. There are a number of examples of compounds of this type in the literature which my consultant found unacceptable or incoherent. In comparing the three strategies of possession (External, Internal, and have-possession, corresponding to (1a,b,c) in order), it is clear that there is a distinction between expressing possession and expressing experience or involvement. External possession expresses the experience of possessing an adjective-modified item, while possession with a verb manana (analogous to English have) expresses ownership or control.

The goal of this research was to investigate how the possessive interpretation arises without any overt element that denotes External Possession Constructions, and to explain what differentiates it from the other extant possession constructions. This fact was investigated both in terms of the structure and meaning of such utterances. As a secondary objective, in undertaking this project I attempted to gain a better understanding of the literature of the field and the formal methods of linguistic fieldwork.

Despite the obvious difficulties in performing fieldwork that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought, the across-the-board switch to remote platforms has made it possible to engage meaningfully with the academic community. As such, during this project, it was possible to hold a weekly reading group on Malagasy with international participants. This reading group met regularly for twelve weeks over the summer, and featured the presentation of recent and forthcoming work as well as deeper discussion on the foundational literature of Malagasy.

I was lucky enough to continue the elicitation of novel Malagasy data with an experienced language consultant. This opportunity to collect first-hand data, and not have to rely on the judgements of past works (which were ultimately not fully reliable when tested by Ms. Razafimbelo), was crucial in gaining an accurate understanding of this phenomenon, as well as to understand the variation of judgements that can be found in natural language.

The online format required for every aspect of the project also brought unique challenges. The most pervasive of which was that the remote medium lacked the casual connections between peers that I was used to. Being removed from the faculty and peers was an alienating experience. All-important meetings were covered online, but the inability to be in the same physical space gave the whole internship an oddly distant aspect.

Engaging with the literary world of syntax and semantics exposed how much there is to learn of practical theoretical tools. I spent the first month educating myself on the typed lambda calculus used widely in semantics. The threshold between a basic education in syntax/semantics and the variety of theoretical sources used in the literature was challenging, but vital to gaining a fuller understanding of the field. The basic theory of lambda calculus remains crucial to my understanding of previous work on this subject.

The opportunity to conduct fieldwork research, especially at a time when a lot of direct fieldwork has been curtailed, was invaluable. At this early point in my academic career, I am truly lucky to be able to engage with the field and with the fundamental methods of gathering new data in this way. The experience of this type of research has offered me real insight into the methods, practices, and doctrines of the field of linguistics. I would like to thank the Faculty of Arts for their generous funding of my ARIA project.

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