Predicate = Topic Structure In Tagalog Sentences

Titser ang….

Imagine a Tagalog speaker in the act of uttering a sentence, beginning with those words.  Not having yet uttered the noun phrase that is about to come after the ang, the speaker hasn’t yet come to the topic — what the utterance is about.  So far we, the speaker’s audience, have no handle on any definite person or object being talked about — this will come a bit later, after the ang noun phrase.  What we can reasonably guess, though, is that the person being talked about is identical with some member(s) of the set titser, i.e., the set of teachers.  (We can guess that, that is, if we are familiar with the notion of sets.)  To use the database theorist C.J. Date’s terminology,  we already know that the person, whoever he or she is, putatively belongs to the type titser.

Titser ang babae.

If the speaker’s utterance has not misfired — if his confidence is not misplaced that we will know whom he is talking about — then at the utterance’s conclusion we, his audience, will have identified from the context which person is being talked about.  The context can be either perceptual (say, the person has just walked into the room) or spoken (the person, say, was previously mentioned in conversation).  The identification is something happening at the pragmatic level.  (Warning:  I have recently picked up just enough linguistics to be a danger both to myself and to society at large.  I am now able to persuade myself that I can distinguish between the pragmatic, semantic, and syntactic levels of an utterance.)  Assuming the statement is true, we now know which member of the set of teachers is being talked about.  So the utterance has the effect of:  [Do I need to cash out this ‘has the effect of’?]

I embraced the summer dawn

One member of {A, B, C…} = this particular woman. (Where A, B, C … are members of the set of teachers.)

I embraced the summer dawn

I advance this analysis of Titser ang babae in an attempt to cash out the linguist Paz Buenaventura Naylor’s claim that the canonical Tagalog sentence (comprising predicate on the left + topic or ang phrase on the right) is an equality.  Consider the following English sentences, identical with or almost the same as the examples Naylor uses:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Teacher = the woman.

Beautiful = the man.

Left = the woman.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

These express in English the force of:   [Can I get away with the metaphor ‘force’?]

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Titser ang babae.

Maganda ang lalaki.

Umalis ang babae.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

At first sight, Naylor’s claim is, I think, more intuitive in the case of Titser ang babae than it is in the other two cases. How is beautiful equal to this particular man?  What could that possibly mean?  Likewise, how is left (as in ‘left the room’ ) equal to this particular woman?  But if we cash out thse equations as:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

One member of {A, B, C…} = this particular woman.  (Where A, B, C, etc. are particular teachers.)

One member of {A, B, C…} = this particular man.  (Where A, B, C… are particular beautiful objects or people.

One member of {A, B, C…} = this particular woman. (Where A, B, C…are particular people ((or animals, or anythings else with agency)) who have left some place, e.g., a  particular room, a city, a country.) [Can I get away with restricting ‘left’ in the third example to leaving a particular place, as opposed to a job, a wife, a party, and so on?]

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

… then the equality becomes much more intuitive in the case of the second and third examples.

If, like me, you like to think in terms of wildly undisciplined, not completely respectable pictures and metaphors, picture at the start of the utterance — Titser ang…. — a crowd comprising all the teachers in the world.  [How strict do I need to be in specifying this set?]  Our view of each teacher is fuzzed out or grayed out so that no teacher can be distinguished from another.  The utterance completes:  Titser ang babae.  The moment the utterance is understood, our view of one teacher in the crowd resolves itself.  We now clearly see one particular woman who is a teacher.  Likewise, gather in one’s imagination all the beautiful objects or people…and all the entities with agency who have just left a place…..  The same picture we used in the case of  Titser ang babae applies, mutatis mutandis, to the other two utterances.  When the utterance completes, our fuzzy picture gets resolved, and a particular beautiful man (Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It or even in The Tree Of Life) appears, or a particular woman (Marlene Dietrich, say) who has just left this particular room.  Brad Pitt pops into view.  Marlene Dietrich pops into view.

The equation makes sense now in these two latter cases because one particular gets identified with another particular when we utter the sentences.   ‘This particular thing (veiled at the start of the utterance) is identical with that particular thing (known to speaker and audience through the context, i.e., pragmatically). ‘

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

∃x ∈ titser: x = ang babae.

∃x ∈ maganda: x =  si Brad Pitt.

∃x ∈ umalis: x = si Marlene Dietrich.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

We make sense of the claim that the canonical sentence in Tagalog has a predicate = topic structure when we regard not just titser, but also maganda and umalis as names of sets.  One member of each set equals an entity named in the topic that has been identified pragmatically.  This will also start to make sense of Naylor’s intitially counter-intuitive claim that in Tagalog what look like verbs are actually nouns, i.e., names.

To use an even less respectable conceit (‘conceit’ used here as in the sense it is applied to the technique used by English Metaphysical Poets), it is as if we identified an unknown star in the morning with an already identified Evening Star.  The ang phrase codes old information:  we already know the Evening Star is the planet Venus.  The predicate codes new information:  we now know, by the end of the sentence, which bright object showing up in the morning is in fact identical with the Evening Star is in fact identical with the planet Venus.  It is as if something like this were happening with every Predicate = Topic Tagalog sentence….

All right.  Enough of strained metaphors … although this one at least lets me picture the function of the Tagalog predicate as coding new information and the Tagalog ang phrase as coding old information.  And lets me picture ‘start of utterance’ (morning) with ‘completion of utterance’ (evening).

*****

When I first started suffering under the delusion that I had some grasp of how Tagalog works vs. English, I pictured the canonical Tagalog sentence as a weighing scale:  one puts the predicate on the left side of the scale, then places the topic, the ang phrase, at the right side of the scale so that now the two sides are completely balanced, are completely level.  I contrasted this with the standard English sentence, say “The man threw the ball” which is “transitive” — i.e., energy flows into the ball from the man, energy gets transmitted from the man to the ball.

This first picture contrasting with the second was my first Aha-Erlebnis regarding Tagalog.  Balance and equality vs. transmission.  This Aha-Erlebnis gained strength when I encountered Naylor’s claim that the canonical Tagalog sentence has a Predicate = Topic structure, though I did not completely understand what that equation meant in the cases of (ostensible) adjectives and verbs.  (I say ‘ostensible’ because Naylor persuasively argues that the ‘verbs’ at least are really nouns — on the syntactic level — in Tagalog.)  I submit that we can understand this this equality by thinking in terms of sets, i.e., of types.  The canonical Tagalog sentence works, as it moves from start to completion, first, by restricting the range of things possibly being talked about to members of a set, then by changing the status of one object of that set from ‘currently unidentified’ to ‘identified’  by equating it with an object known from the context by the time the utterance completes to be the object being talked about.  Typically, that object, coded by the topic, constitutes old information of some sort:  everyone has seen Brad Pitt enter the room, for example, or he has been talked about previously.  And typically, the predicate codes new information, or information that hits one with a renewed force that calls for a likewise renewed predication: Brad Pitt is beautiful.  ∃x ∈ maganda: x =  si Brad Pitt.  Maganda si Brad Pitt.

UPDATE (12/10/2011):  Beiged out a metaphor that is, while still useful to me as unfinished lumber, is likely to be confusing to anyone else.  Tried to clarify the concluding sentence in red.

UPDATE (12/14/2011)  Added the ∃x ∈ <<name of set>> statements.

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About Cliff Wirt

I am a banking DBA with various and sundry interests, including art, poetry, philosophy, music, languages, relational algebra, database administration, and blueberries. Don't forget the blueberries. Some of these interests tie in in surprising though usually tangential ways with database theory. Even the blueberries. I have published one article in a Philosophy Journal, and I have one painting in a corporate collection (housed in what used to be the Amoco building in Chicago). According to 12andMe, my paternal haplogroup is I2, my maternal H5. The Neanderthal percentage of my ancestry is 3%. My most famous ancestor is William Wirt (from whom I get my last name, though possibly not my Y chromosome), who defended the rights of the Cherokees before the Supreme Court, and ran for President in 1832, carrying one state. My homepage is at http://www.cliff-engel-wirt.com. My FaceBook page is at https://www.facebook.com/cliffengelwirt. My LinkedIn page is at https://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=4298877&trk=nav_responsive_tab_profile_pic. View all posts by Cliff Wirt

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