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An Interdisciplinary Journal of the Language Sciences

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Volume 37, Issue 3


Face vs. empathy: the social foundation of Maithili verb agreement

Balthasar Bickel / Walter Bisang / Yogendra P Yādava
Published Online: 2008-02-20 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/ling.37.3.481


Maithili features one of the most complex agreement systems of any Indo-Aryan language. Not only nominative and non-nominative subjects, but also objects, other core arguments, and even nonarguments are cross-referenced, allowing for a maximum of three participants encoded by the verb desinences. The categories reflected in the morphology are person, honorific degree, and, in the case of third persons, gender, spatial distance, and focus. However, not all combinations of category choices are equally represented, and there are many cases of neutralization. We demonstrate that the paradigm structure of Maithili verb agreement is not arbitrary but can be predicted by two general principles of interaction in Maithil society: a principle of social hierarchy underlying the evaluation of people's “face” (Brown and Levinson 1987[1978]), and a principle of social solidarity defining degrees of “empathy” (Kuno 1987) to which people identify with others. Maithili verb agreement not only reflects a specific style of social cognition but also constitutes a prime means of maintaining this style by requiring constant attention to its defining parameters. In line with this, we find that the system is partly reduced by uneducated, so-called lower-caste speakers, who are least interested in maintaining this style, especially its emphasis on hierarchy.

About the article

*Correspondence address: Prof. Dr Walter Bisang, Institut für Allgemeine und Vergleichende Sprachwissenschaft, Johannes-Gutenberg-Universitaät Mainz, Jakob-Welder-Weg 18, D-55099 Mainz, Germany.

Received: 1998-08-05

Revised: 1999-05-04

Published Online: 2008-02-20

Published in Print: 1999-05-01

Citation Information: Linguistics, Volume 37, Issue 3, Pages 481–518, ISSN (Online) 1613-396X, ISSN (Print) 0024-3949, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/ling.37.3.481.

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