LINGUIST List 10.826

Fri Jun 4 1999

Sum: Proximate/Obviative

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. by way of Wayles Browne, Proximate/obviative

Message 1: Proximate/obviative

Date: Wed, 26 May 1999 15:24:21 -0400
From: by way of Wayles Browne <>
Subject: Proximate/obviative

The following query was posted in LINGUIST 10.720:

As is well known, some languages, notably some American Indian
languages, discriminate two kinds of verbal third person, namely the
proximate and the obviative. One can compare the Latin iste vir and
ille vir 'that man'.

A constructed Latin example would be iste vir curri-X versus ille vir
curri-Y for 'that man run-s', where X and Y represent different
desinences on the finite verb.

What happens if the proximate and the obviative are coordinated within
the subject NP? Does the finite verb take the desinence corresponding
to the proximate or to the obviative? I refer again to the theoretical
Latin example: iste vir et ille vir curri-Z; what shape does -Z take?

What category wins if the subject contains the proximate/obviative AND
the first or the second person? Latin: iste vir et ego curri-Z; ille
vir et tu curri-Z.

Is the proximate or the obviative the less marked category of the two?

Via Wayles Browne I have received replies to the above query which -
printed - comprise 35 sheets of paper (including some repetition of
the same mail)! The replies can be summarized as follows:

Several respondents point out that the comparison with the constructed
Latin examples is questionable, seeing that some languages can express
iste vir and ille vir in the proximate as well as in the obviative.

Several respondents point out that, in some languages at least, for
pragmatic reasons, the coordination of a proximate and an obviative
within an NP does not obtain.

The respondents unanimously express the belief that the proximate is
the less marked third person, and the obviative the more marked third
person. If a language does have NP's conjoining a proximate and an
obviative, such an NP as subject triggers verbal agreement with the

The respondents point out that any third person conjoined with a first
person will be first person plural. Any third person conjoined with a
second person will be second person plural. Obviative third persons do
not get conjoined in this way.

Several respondents have mentioned other related phenomena, mostly
meant as caveats, which will not be summarized here. Several
respondents suggest suitable literature about the phenomena under

I have summarized only those aspects of the replies that are relevant to my
basic problem, which is: Does verbal agreement with a subject NP (containing
two different conjoined verbal persons, say a first and a third person) work
one way if a language possesses two third verbal persons (say a proximate
and an obviative), and in another way if a language possesses just one
third verbal person? The replies that have reached me through LINGUIST show
that no such difference exists, barring the specific behavour of the
obviative, which behaviour influences verbal agreement indirectly only.

My cordial thanks for everybody's kind help.

Janez Oresnik, Ljubljana, Slovenia, Europe.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue