Colorado Research in Linguistics
Colorado Research in Linguistics -- ISSN 1937-7029

Volume 23-1, 2012

Arapaho Demonstratives in Interaction: Grammatical Pointing

Richard Sandoval

Abstract for paper presentation at the SSILA (Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of America) Summer Meeting 2011


Pointing is a gestural activity that is “dominated by the deictic component,” as phrased by Kendon (Gesture, 2008:205). Thus, points have pragmatic utility in their visual complementation of deictic expressions, especially regarding demonstratives (e.g. “That color fits you,” said while pointing to a person’s red hat). I find for Arapaho demonstratives, however, that pointing also serves a more grammatical function.

Cowell with Moss Sr. (The Arapaho Language, 2008) describe the three fundamental Arapaho demonstratives and their place-deictic functioning as follows. A proximal/distal distinction is made by proximate nuhu’ and obviative nehe’ (‘this’) vs hinee (‘that’). These forms also signal referent definiteness (i.e. there are no definite articles in Arapaho). The authors find the distinction between the deictic and definiteness functions to be somewhat weak. This account is based on the analyses of monologue transcripts.

However, Enfield (Language 79 (1):82-117) establishes that the place-deictic nature and interactional utility of such demonstratives necessitate an analysis based on face-to-face interaction. From this perspective, I use Cowell’s ELDP Arapaho Language Conversational Database (i.e. a video-based corpus of interactions amongst native Arapaho speakers) to analyze the Arapaho demonstratives; I find the following gesture-based formal component to the deictic/definiteness distinction of Arapaho demonstratives.

When a point temporally punctuates its demonstrative (nehe’ below) the function is deictic, as the initial relation is instantiated between the physical context and a referent (hisei below). In this example, a woman is pointed at as she is introduced into the discourse (the point is temporally indicated by its preparation ~~ and full form ***).

~~~~******
Oh huut nehe' hisei nii-niiteheib-einoo
and here DEMS woman REDUP-help-3sg/1sg
And here is this woman, she is helping me.

When a point punctuates the referent mention (nookhoosei niibei'i below) of a demonstrative, the function is definite (i.e. the point is already established and is now part of the referent’s discourse identity). In this example, taken from a later part of the discourse of the prior example, the same woman (of the prior example) is given definite status.

~~~*****
nehe' nookhoosei niibei'i ceniinonoon-eihi-t hinono'eitiit.
DEMS Sage Sing be.fairly.good-DESCRIP-3sg Arapaho language
Singing Sage is pretty good at Arapaho language.

Although Dixon (Studies in Language 27 (1):61-112) mentions that vocal stress serves to make a similar definiteness/deixis distinction for German demonstratives, these Arapaho findings are rather important for understanding the grammatical role that gestural resources might play. Furthermore, as Arapaho speakers often draw from the rich gestural resource of Plains Indian Sign Language [PISL], the grammatical nature of their pointing is underscored by the suggestion of Davis (Hand Talk, 2010:151) that the same type of pointing action is a grammatical PISL resource for non-speaker pronominal reference.

Richard Sandoval is a PhD student in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Colorado, Boulder.   He can be reached at Richard.Sandoval@Colorado.EDU.

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Colorado Research in Linguistics is the working papers journal of the Department of Linguistics at the University of Colorado.


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