Rikker Dockum presents at SEALS

August 6, 2018

PhD candidate Rikker Dockum presented at the 28th meeting of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society (SEALS), where he discussed his fieldwork on Khamti, a language spoken in Myanmar and India. Rikker has spent a substantial amount of time in the region documenting various languages, as he conducts his dissertation research on tone systems in Tai-Kadai, a family of languages that includes Khamti and Thai.

Rikker’s presentation at SEALS investigated the concept of word order. Different languages around the world arrange the words of a sentence in different ways. For example, English has subject–verb–object (SVO) word order: the subject comes first, then the verb, then the object. Japanese, on the other hand, has subject–object–verb (SOV) order: the subject comes first, then the object, then the verb. Other languages may combine different kinds of word orders. For example, sentences in Spanish usually follow SVO order, but when the object is a pronoun, the sentence follows SOV order instead. Since most Spanish sentences follow SVO order, we consider Spanish to be an SVO language, and we consider the SOV sentences to be exceptions to the rule. The following examples illustrate what these various kinds of word orders look like.

  • English (SVO): John saw Mary.
  • Japanese (SOV): Jon wa Mearii o mimashita. (John Mary saw.)
  • Spanish (mixed): Juan vio a María. Juan la vio. (John saw Mary. John her saw.)

The question of Khamti word order is a subject of ongoing debate. In the past, Khamti sentences were predominantly SVO, but SOV sentences have become prevalent in modern times. While SVO clearly seems to be a “default” word order for Spanish, scholars disagree on whether the default order in Khamti is SVO or SOV. Some say that the language was originally SVO, but has fully transitioned to being an SOV language. Others say that the default word order really is SVO even in the present day, and that the SOV order results from rearranging words to emphasize various parts of the sentence. To shed new light on this issue, Rikker compiled a list containing thousands of sentences by gathering various texts in the language and interviewing Khamti speakers in Myanmar. He found that sentences with both the SVO order and the SOV order appear throughout the data. However, when talking with native speakers, Rikker found that many community members consider SVO word order to be a distinguishing feature of the Khamti language. On the other hand, speakers often see SOV word order as the result of influence from Burmese, the official language of Myanmar, which happens to be an SOV language. These observations present an interesting case study of how word order in a language may be influenced by other languages spoken in the same geographic area.

The 28th meeting of SEALS was held from May 17 to 19, 2018, at the Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. The program and abstracts are available on the conference website.