syntax and a change of heart

July 21, 2009 § 2 Comments

You might think we are fashion obsessed here at *b-ling*, but here is another interesting t-shirt ripe for analysis:

 We love TShirts web

image from

I am particularly interested in the expression we ♥ te reo.   Here we have an English subject pronoun, a Maaori object NP and a logograph representing the verb love/aroha. Disregarding the symbol for a moment, this is an interesting example of  code-switching. Presumably this expression is interpretable to most New Zealanders, but as a linguist I would like to analyse the syntax of this statement. Numerically the number of Maaori words outweighs the number of English words, and technically ♥ belongs to neither language.

The Maaori Noun Phrase is perfectly formed –  it has a preposed determiner, te, but no other modification. The same goes for the English NP acting as the subject here.  Syntactically though the sentences looks like it is modelled on English. The subject is the first element in the sentence, which follows the S(ubject) V(erb) O(bject) basic order for English rather than the VSO ordering typical of Polynesian languages. Both languages, however, have objects in the last place in sentences so we might think at first glance that the presence of Maaori lexical items suggests a switch to Maaori syntax. This is possible, yet one vital element of Maaori grammar here is missing. Objects are usually introduced by the particle isignalling the role of the NP as the object. If a switch in language really was occurring here we would expect the phrase to read we ♥ i te reo.

I would like to dwell for a moment on the English subject pronoun. We  is the only option for the 1st person plural in English, but this is not the case for Maaori

  • māua ‘the two of us’
  • tāua   ‘the two of us’

These are the dual first person pronouns. The difference between them is important. The first refers to the speaker and one other person. That other person is not the listener, i.e. the person being addressed. For this reason this form is referred to as an exclusive as it excludes the listener. The other form, tāua,on the other hand could be glossed as you and me as long as we understand that only one person is being addressed. As the listener is included in the meaning of this ‘we’ we can call it the first person inclusive dual.

An inclusive exclusive distinction must be made in the plural forms

  • mātou  we  plural exclusive – me and some other people but not you the listener/s
  • tātou  we inclusive plural – me  and others who are not listeners and all of you listeners.

So the choice of pronoun for ‘we’ in Maaori is very important. It lexicalises a number of different types of ‘we’ that English does not distinguish in the pronominal system but needs to be disambiguated by listeners. So for example, if we substituted the English ‘we’  in  we ♥ te reo with mātou, we would be telling readers of the t-shirt that the wearer and associates support the Maaori language but that possibly the reader does not. Substituting tātou  for ‘we’, the t-shirt wearer would be speaking on behalf of the t-shirt readers.

The choice of heart is also interesting. It is easy to interpret this as a symbol of emotional attachment.  After all, In English we speak from the heart, get heartbroken, and downhearted. Just recall the advertising around February 14 and you will see the connections of hearts and love is strong … in our culture.

Maaori too seems to use the heart as the seat of emotion. Here are some expressions from the Ngata dictionary:

  • ngākau pouri             the blues, downhearted
  • ngākau hari               cheerful
  • ngākau whakawiri   hard-hearted

The dictionary illustrates the meaning of ngākau as follows:

ngākau He ngākau aroha tōna.
heart She has a kind heart.

But there are other words for heart. Manawa can refer to both the organ and be used in expressions describing emotions and characteristics of people much in the same way as ngākau.  Other dictionaries though list another meaning for this term. The Williams Dictionary (7th Ed) gives the primary sense of ngākau  as

  • ‘vitals, viscera, with the comment  (It is questionable whether it should be applied to the physical heart).

The second sense returns us to the metaphorical:

  • heart, seat of affections or feelings,  mind

Perhaps then the seat of affections in Maaori where either the heart or the intestines – or a generalised internal organs of the torso – there are many terms in Maaori that utilise puku ‘stomach’ as well, pukuaroha ‘sympathetic’, for example.

English too, has not always used the heart as the location of emotions and desires –  From the Oxford English Dictionary online

  • 1832 LYTTON Eugene A. ii, I am a man that can feel for my neighbours. I have bowels{em}yes I have bowels.
  • 1537 CRANMER Let. to Crumwell Misc. Writ. (Parker Soc.) II. 348 Your good mind to~wards me concerning my debts to the king’s highness, which of all other things lieth most nigh unto my stomach.
  • 1697 DRYDEN tr. Virgil Georgics III, in tr. Virgil Wks. 108 When Love’s unerring Dart Transfixt his Liver

If the emotions have been zooming around the body in both Maaori and English language  cultures for a while now, I will leave you to ponder what apppropriate symbols could be use to replace the ♥ on the t-shirts!



§ 2 Responses to syntax and a change of heart

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