The Great Clouseau Vowel Shift—Tel Monks SpecGram Vol CLXIII, No 4 Contents How Linguistics Got Her Groove Back—Gunnr Guðr Entgegenlächeln

Directional Source-Marking and Enumerated Utterance Syntactophoric Replacement in Notso Yi

Keith W. Slater
Kunming Botanical Gardens

Yi languages are famous for belonging to the Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan family and also for having minimally distinctive names, including Nasu, Nusu, Nosu, and Nisu. About twenty minutes’ walk from my home on the outskirts of Kunming (Yunnan Province, China), I recently discovered a new Yi group, the Notso. Although I could walk to their village, I have instead been employing my patented Slater Method® of linguistic fieldwork to investigate their language via Skype and SMS. The results of my six-week study have been striking. Once again, the Slater Method® has turned up a major new discovery about the nature of evidential systems, this time simultaneously revealing a hitherto-unknown type of grammatical change.

Like all Yi languages, Notso has a complex system of postverbal clitics, particles and other satellites, which indicate tense, aspect, modality, directionality, evidentiality, and assorted pragmatic insults. With respect to this system, Notso is just a garden-variety Yi language.

To this typically Yi inventory, however, Notso adds an impressively elaborated system for marking the source of information, which grammaticalizes quotative source and which is in the process of completely replacing all utterances in the language.

Notso is a society rich in philosophers, and sometime in the haze of prehistory, one such thinker pointed out to the community that there are hardly any novel utterances. As the philosopher herself put it, “it’s pretty much all been said before.”

To represent this truism linguistically, Notso innovated an elaborate system for indicating who said what, and the circumstances under which they said it.

As has been shown, Yi languages grammaticalize the directions up and down, which are highly salient due to the proclivity of their speakers to follow herds of goats around on mountain slopes for many hours each day. Notso used this directional distinction to replace its existing quotative/reportative markers. The resulting system requires that every utterance be marked (in final position) for three semantic vectors: original source, number of repetitions, and most recent source.

Original Source Marking (OSM) recalls the first time that an utterance was ever made, as far as can be remembered. This marking does not tell, however, who first pronounced the utterance. Rather, it indicates whether the person who did so was facing down, up, or laterally, when the utterance was made.

Following the OSM, there is a second particle slot, in which the speaker indicates the directionality of the previous utterer; that is, that utterer who immediately preceded himself. This is Previous Source Marking (PSM). Again, the choices are up, down, and laterally.

In between these two markers, the speaker indicates how many times this particular utterance has occurred in the past. This is done with a simple number, and we may refer to it as How Many Times Uttered Marking (HMTUM).

The word order of this system, thus, looks like this:

(1) (Utterance) OSM + HMTUM + PSM

Here are a couple of typical examples (schematized, with English translation, to save the space that interlinearization would require).

(2) (The goat is on the mountainside [24 particles]) up 8,555,003 down

(3) (What does it look like I’m doing? I’m eating a potato [48 particles]) laterally 999,999,999 laterally

Naturally, these examples were collected in situ; the numbers and the final directional source markings would be different in every subsequent use of these utterances; the number goes up each time the utterance is used, and the final deictic varies depending on the previous use.

The reader familiar with linguistic notation may have noticed that the utterances in (1)-(3) are all enclosed in parentheses, and this observation leads us to the fascinating new type of language change which is occurring in Notso.

The utterances themselves, it turns out, are optional. Because of the elaborate and specific nature of the Source Marking deixis, this sequence alone is sufficient to uniquely identify nearly all Notso utterances. Thus, in the vast majority of cases, the actual utterance is omitted, and only the OSM + HMTUM + PSM sequence is actually pronounced.

Thus, in this historical process, grammatical forms, occurring in unique sequences, are replacing all of the content morphemes in the language.

In contrast to run-of-the-mill grammaticalization, which trivially involves bleached content morphemes being converted into grammatical forms, this is a form of anti-grammaticalization, whereby grammatical morphemes are becoming content morphemes, referring (in constructions) to entire utterances, and summarizing the history of those utterances’ use in the community.

Previous studies of deixis in Yi languages have tended to rehash the tired facts of logophoric pronouns. In this study, we have seen that Notso outdoes its linguistic kin by creating a deictic system in which entire utterances are referred to. This process, we have seen, instantiates a tendency which we may call “enumerated utterance synctactophoric replacement.” No doubt similar processes will be discovered in other languages, now that I have alerted fieldworkers to the possibility of such systems.

It is hoped that future research on the Yi group may bring to light other fascinating deictic phenomena, and that this particular study will further popularize the Slater Method® of linguistic fieldwork.


Gerner, Matthias. 2002. Predicate Compounding in the Yi Group: the continuum of grammaticalization. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

Thurgood, Graham and Randy J. LaPolla, eds. 2003. The Sino-Tibetan Languages. London: Routledge.

Walters, Susan & Atqi Ndaxit. 2006. Existential clauses in Nosu Yi texts. Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area (LBTA) 29(1). 127-147.

The Great Clouseau Vowel ShiftTel Monks
How Linguistics Got Her Groove BackGunnr Guðr Entgegenlächeln
SpecGram Vol CLXIII, No 4 Contents