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#3850: DeGraff expands on Lamour's comments re "se bon ki ra" (fwd)

From: Michel DeGraff <degraff@MIT.EDU>

Lamour is absolutely right that the "se ... ki ..." construction is quite
common in Haitian Creole.  This construction (which exists in many
languages) has attracted quite a bit of attention from linguists, who refer
to it as a `cleft' construction.  (Even I, with my `phonetically incorrect'
Creole, have examined the semantics of some of these constructions for my
dissertation research and in a later paper --- all this while waiting to be
taken safely to the real and pure Creole.)

Lamour gives good examples of the "se ... ki ..." clefts and a
straightforward synopsis of this construction:

> 1. se okap ki pwo`p... 
> 2. se bondye ki gran...
> 10. se datignav ki fanbre...
> a comparaison and contrast exercise will first reveal that all 10
> utterances partake of a number of common features such as:
> -the presence of the paired construction 'se... ki'...
> -a noun interposing 'se' and 'ki'...
> -an attribute or a verb follows 'ki'...

As Lamour notices, what we find between "se" and "ki" is a NOUN (or, more
appropriately, some structure that is built out of a noun).  The question
now is whether "bon" can by itself function as a noun?  We can try some
tests on the distribution of "bon" to check this.

Compare say "Okap" and "bon":

We can say: "Mwen renmen Okap" (= English "I like Cape-Haitian") --- no big
deal, "renmen" does take nouns as complements (to wit: "Mwen renmen Ti
Mari" --- "Ti Mari" is also a noun, or a proper name).

But can we say: "Mwen renmen bon" (= English "I like good" literally) ?  

Contrast with say: "Mwen renmen sa ki bon" where the complement "sa ki bon"
is a (pro)noun somewhat like "that" in "I like that which is good".

In my native ears, "Mwen renmen sa ki bon" sounds acceptable while "Mwen
renmen bon" sounds unacceptable.  I'd like to hear other native judgements.

Similar contrasts exists between other (bona fide) nouns and a word like
"bon".  For example, bona fide nouns can easily be used as subjects:

"Okap toujou fe` ke` m kontan" (= "Cape-Haitian always makes my heart
happy" literally)

But can we say:

"Bon toujou fe` ke` m kontan"  (= "Good always makes my heart happy" lit.)

Again, compare with: 

"Sa ki bon toujou fe` ke` m kontan" (= "That which is good always ...")

The former ("Bon toujou...") is unacceptable, the latter ("Sa ki bon...")
is acceptable.  

So here too there seems to be a preference to only have bona fide nouns in
subject position:

It seems, on a first approximation, that "bon" (by itself) cannot really
behave as a noun, and therefore cannot occur in subject and object
positions.  "Bon" seems rather to have rather robust adjectival properties,
and when used by itself it seems to resist being shifted to the category
noun.  Thus the contrast above between "bon" and "sa ki bon".  But it also
looks like that being able to function as noun and as subject is a
pre-requisite to be used between "se" and "ki" in the "se ... ki ..."

So, can "bon" really be a subject?  I myself do not feel as comfortable as
Lamour in accepting and producing "Bon ra", probably for the same reason
that I reject "Bon toujou fe` ke` m kontan".  (Again, compare: "Sa ki bon
toujou fe` ke` m kontan".)

In any case, for me, "bon", as an ADJECTIVE, seems uncomfortable in the
subject position, while "se bon ki ra" is built out of a (pro)NOUN and is
comfortable as subject.  This is, of course, an approximation, but I hope
to have given an rough outline of what may be going on here, at least in my
own `phonetically incorrect' Creole.

Now, as an exercise for Creole speakers, compare:

"Se bon ki ra"


"Se sa ki bon ki ra"...

One important methodological digression: 

Of course, there's always the possibility that a proverb, being a somewhat
formulaic expression, may enlist some frozen pattern which is not
grammatically common in the language.  In fact, I wouldn't be at all
surprised if "se bon ki ra" like some other proverbs would come into
existence as self-conscious play on language, the kind of play that doesn't
care much about the grammatical rules that hold elsewhere in the language.

Thus, my original question: Are native speakers aware of such a proverb and
what do they think of the construction?  So I am most grateful to Lamour
for his comments, and I'd love to hear from others.  In fact, it would be
extremely interesting from a linguistic perspective if sentences like "se
bon ki ra" were widespread and productive.  That would mean that there is
something quite interesting going on here that may require further research
in the syntax of the cleft constructions and in the nature of adjectives
and/vs nouns in the language.  And I hope that we can be taken safely into
such research on the real and pure Creole.

In the meantime, what must we do with reports of linguistic `evidence' by
someone who can categorically claim that "Mambo IS phonetically correct"
and that "Bon Mambo Racine Sans Bout Sa Te La Daginen" means "Good Mambo
Roots Without End Who Was Already There, of Guinea"?  Obviously such a
person is not able to correctly perceive the phonetic reality of the `real'
Haitian Creole.  Being able to CORRECTLY perceive what Creole speakers say
is a prerequisite to reporting accurate Creole data.  This is true for
research in ANY language: the famous linguist Edward Sapir has some
memorable quotes and anecdotes on the empirical perils facing language
researchers who are not EXCEPTIONALLY FLUENT in the language being
examined.  As mentioned by Lamour in a previous message, one native's
language can be a distorting filter in processing a non-native language
that one doesn't speak fluently, and this is exactly in line with Sapir's
observation.  So I'd be extra cautious in extrapolating from judgements
reported by observers who can't even make the "phonetically correct"
distinction between "mambo" and "manbo".


P.S.  Dear Mr. Xavier: Thank you for your wise words.  I am only retiring
from debates that I feel are becoming unproductive.  I humorously mentioned
Corbett's relief because of private exchanges he and I had on certain
debates that tend to get into endless circles...  As of what I consider
"unproductive": Recall for example that Poincy made ambitious allusion to
the advent of post-Newtonian physics (!) with respect to his own criticism
of linguists.  But you'll note that the scientists who improved upon
Newtonian physics had read AND understood Newton's theories.  This is a far
cry from some of the `exchanges' here are where some are still
mis-interpreting terms as basic as "language" and "literacy" and calling
"frivolous" or "incorrect" linguistic principles that they haven't even
examined, and even less so understood.  This is the sort of `debates' that
I find least worthwhile.  I am afraid that such debates are anti-thetical
to sound education, constructive exchanges and any honest desire to learn.
Then again, beauty is the eye of the beholder...
MIT Linguistics & Philosophy, 77 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge MA 02139-4307
degraff@MIT.EDU http://web.mit.edu/linguistics/www/degraff.home.html