Friday, April 13, 2012

Consensus, the Navajo, and Fourth-Person Pronouns

Posted by on Fri, Apr 13, 2012 at 12:46 PM

The quote below is from Language and Art in the Navajo Universe by anthropologist Gary Witherspoon—who was a teacher of mine—published in 1977. This passage made me think of some of the fretting—and mockery—in the press about Occupy and its political/decision-making process and unusual way of using language: the "mic check," the repetitions, etc.

Navajos believe that each person should have the right to speak and act as he pleases, so long as his intentions are not malevolent or his actions harmful to others. Desirable and ethical behavior on the part of others is hoped for and even expected, but it is never demanded or required. Coercion and control are always deplored in interpersonal and intra-group relations. Downs described this attitude as a belief in the "inviolability of the individual."

... In intra-group relations no individual, regardless of position or status, has the right to impose his will on the group. Likewise, the group does not have the right to impose its will on the individual. Unanimity is the only acceptable basis of collective action. Although a system of majority rule has been imposed on the Navajos for half a century, the extent to which the principle of unanimity continues to pervade almost all social and political deliberations is amazing. In searching for a key to the Navajo social system, Shepardson and Hammond came upon the phrase bila, "it's up to him," which is heard so frequently among the Navajo...

The reluctance to avoid even the slightest appearance of attempting to speak for or control the actions of others is also significantly marked or expressed in Navajo grammar and linguistic behavior. A Navajo never addresses another person by name or speaks the name of another person when he is present... Beyond this practice of not using names in address, there is a separate person (called the Navajo fourth person by Hale and others) in the conjugations of all verbs which is primarily used in reference to states and actions of people who are in the presence or within hearing distance of the speaker.

The Navajo fourth person is also used when speaking about something in the hypothetical sense. It has an impersonal, indirect, and nonspecific connotation, and thus is politely used when talking about someone in the presence of the speaker. The impersonality and indirectness of this fourth person permits the speaker to avoid any appearance or implication that he is trying to speak for or control the actions of another person.

Imagine English with a fourth-person pronoun. Me, you, it, and... ?


Comments (16) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment

Not a perfect match, but it is sometimes used that way. Often used with hypothetical terms such as were, could, would.
Posted by modrachlan srarmons on April 13, 2012 at 1:08 PM · Report this
Backyard Bombardier 2
@1: Was going to say the same thing.

There is something quite similar in French with the use of on. It conjugates in the third person but is one step further removed from il or elle. Strictly speaking it refers to a hypothetical individual but in practice it serves as a nuanced way to distance the speaker from a proposed action "On pourrait dire...", one could say, with a Gallic shrug.
Posted by Backyard Bombardier on April 13, 2012 at 1:26 PM · Report this
The impersonal shows up in English all the fucking time. For example "It rains."
French: "Il fait beau."…
Posted by Central Scrutinizer on April 13, 2012 at 2:09 PM · Report this
@3 - Navajo society is matrilineal and property, including the flocks, horses and trucks, generally is owned by the women, who allow the men to ride/drive, etc. When Navajo marry, the groom goes to live with the bride's family/clan.
Posted by Calpete on April 13, 2012 at 2:16 PM · Report this
TVDinner 6
That's fascinating. Hell, we don't even have a plural "you" in our language. We have a long way to go before making it tow fourth person.
Posted by TVDinner http:// on April 13, 2012 at 2:22 PM · Report this
y'all - you

all y'all - you (plural)
Posted by fairly.unbalanced on April 13, 2012 at 2:54 PM · Report this
Unregistered User 8
Posted by Unregistered User on April 13, 2012 at 3:13 PM · Report this
Sorry to dump on your teacher, Brendan, but this is the kind of horse-hooey that makes linguists roll their eyes so hard their eyeballs hit the top of their skulls and give them a concussion.

Witherspoon may have his facts correct about Navajo culture; he may have his facts correct about Navajo grammar. But the two probably have sod-all to do with each other. For some examples of how attempts to connect grammar and culture are almost always wrong, start with these:………

For more, on the Language Log website you can click on "Categories," select "Language and Culture," and browse.
Posted by Margaret L. on April 13, 2012 at 3:19 PM · Report this
Before anyone gets fancy with interpreting an external culture's pronouns, maybe they should join the modern age and use gender-neutral pronouns in academic papers?

Also @9, that's news to me. I think the Lacanians, the Saussurians, and the Levi-Straussians (that's an ugly form) would really strongly disagree with your links. Hell, Habermas would disagree with that claim in some fundamental ways. This isn't a settled dispute in the realm of anthropology, philosophy, psychology, or social politics. I doubt it's as settled as all that in linguistics.
Posted by zobot on April 13, 2012 at 3:34 PM · Report this
Sachi 11
@6, "you" _is_ the plural form. The singular is thee and thou.
Posted by Sachi on April 13, 2012 at 3:52 PM · Report this
@10: Actually, analytic philosophy, cognitive psychology, and linguistics are all pretty much unanimous that links between language and culture/thought have been way overblown, and the vast majority of them are (provably) false. The exceptions, which are the focus of serious and careful research, tend to involve spatial or numerical cognition, which do seem to scaffold off of language.

Anthropology, sociology, and continental philosophy have yet to get on the clue bus about this. Part of the reason they are so behind-hand is exactly the behavior you demonstrate -- appealing to self-styled authorities (as if we're supposed to be persuaded because Saussure said it from his armchair) rather than looking at actual data.

Posted by Margaret L. on April 13, 2012 at 4:08 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 13
@1 @2 exactly.

However, it is very hard to write a book in French using such non-gender words. I remember when Elizabeth Vonarburg tried it. Still have the painting of her cat from the convention where she won an award for it.

@11 correct. You can still see the root in the German from which we got it.
Posted by Will in Seattle on April 13, 2012 at 4:43 PM · Report this
Free Lunch 14
"[forth-person pronoun] really sucks. No no no - I didn't mean YOU. Did I SAY I meant you?"

And here they say Seattleites are passive aggressive!
Posted by Free Lunch on April 13, 2012 at 7:08 PM · Report this
johnnie 15
Posted by johnnie on April 13, 2012 at 8:12 PM · Report this
The fact that we don't have a separate grammatical form for this doesn't mean that we don't have conventions. For example, it's actually pretty rude to refer to a person by name in their presence in English (at least where I come from - as I was brought up, if you have something to say *about* someone, you should say it *to* them), but they do it all the time in Chinese, and it freaks me out.
Like L. Margaret says above, the presence or absence of a grammatical feature doesn't say much at all about a culture.
Posted by Phil H on April 14, 2012 at 2:16 AM · Report this
michijo 17
Indian languages are quite advanced. I once had a discussion about Mayan languages being extremely regular with a Guatemalan. We were talking about them as related to Esperanto, a supposedly regular language intended to be the international language, which nevertheless has many irregularities and copies French. I felt that, after studying micmac, a maritime north american language, that Indian languages could be adapted and transformed into an international language, or at least a common language for all people in the Americas to speak. It would sort of honor the Natives, and we could discuss things in a neutral language with people in latin america. Here are some micmac verb forms:
Posted by michijo on April 15, 2012 at 9:00 PM · Report this

Add a comment

Commenting on this item is available only to registered commenters.