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Point of View and Empathy

From:Christopher Bates <chris.maths_student@...>
Date:Friday, September 29, 2006, 13:26
This is a cross post from the ZBB, about a subject that I've spent the
last day or so obsessing about. :)


So I've been thinking a lot about Point of View and Empathy ever since
it briefly came up in a conversation I was having by email with Thomas H
Chappell. I also thought that it might be an interesting area of
experimentation for a conlang... a project to make a non-insane,
non-sexist version of Laadan.
In Person, Anna Siewierska links logophoricity and long distance
reflexives as being related to point of view (in particular,
logophoricity is a way of keeping the original speaker's point of view
in indirect speech). For instance, she gives these examples from
Japanese of long distance reflexives:

(a) Yamada wa kare o nikunde iru onna to kekkoniste simatta
Yamada TOP him ACC hating is woman with marrying end up

(b) Yamada wa zibun o nikunde iru onna to kekkoniste simatta
Yamada TOP self ACC hating is woman with marrying end up

"Yamada ended up marrying a woman who hated him"

Anna Sierwierska quotes Kuno as saying:

Semantically, these two sentences are different in that while (80a) is a
sentence in which the speaker gives an objective description of what
happened by placing himself at a distance from Yamada, (80b) gives the
impression that the speaker is omniscient and has identified himself
with Yamada. The latter sentence ordinarily implies that Yamada knew at
the time of marriage the woman he married hated him, or that he later
came to know it.

Closely linked to POV is, I think, the point in space-time that acts a
referent point. Devices or uses that may, IMO, reflect a change of POV are:

(i) "relative" tense (or rather, tense not relative to the present),
that is, use of tense markers relative to a contextually specified time
and location rather than the current time and location. This occurs in,
for example, Barbareño according to Mithun in "The Languages of Native
North America".

(ii) "relative" location (for lack of a better term). That is, words
like "come" or "go" usually situation motion relative to the current
location of the speaker, but in English and many other languages they
may also locate motion relative to some contextually specified location.
I am unsure if all, or even the majority, of languages allow this, or
whether any language has special verb forms or morphology to mark the
different between speaker centric current place motion vs motion
relative to some other time and place

There are also various other factors (in fact, most things in
linguistics) that could potentially involve point of view. An issue that
occured to me in English is which referent, exactly, secondary
predications of emotion are attached to. For instance:

the king left the room disgusted

seems to me to ordinarily require that either the king's or the room's
point of view is adopted. If I try adding "bloody", which, as a
perjorative, normally indicates a positive lack of empathy, then the
first reading is blocked for me at least:

??the bloody king left the room disgusted (the king was disgusted)

the bloody king left the room disgusted (the room was disgusted)

It seems to me that giving the emotional state in this way requires
empathy more generally, and often the point of view of the entity
exhibiting the emotion to be adopted. English does not present, in this
situation, any easy, fairly minimal way of indicating the speaker's
emotions when their point of view is adopted as narrator. For instance:

the king left disgusted

CANNOT be read as "the king left (I was disgusted)". The other obvious

the king left disgustingly

is too action orientated; that is, it is the manner of the king's
departure which might disgust the speaker, rather than the sentence
simply specifying the speaker's state during (because of) the departure
itself. Generally, in English, one must use an unwieldy construction for

I was disgusted that the king left


I was disgusted when the king left

This also has the unfortunate sideaffect of foregrounding the emotion
and backgrounding the event, which is not at all what we intended (the
leaving should be the foregrounded event). There are languages which
have morphology or particles specifically to specify the speaker's
attitude towards an event. According to Payne, Mapudugun has such a
system of verb morphology:

(a)θalílaenew "He/she didn't greet me"
(b)talílaenew "Poor me; He/she didn't greet me"
(c)t̪al̪íl̪aen̪ew "That fool didn't greet me"

However, these seem to have the opposite problem: they are fixed as
speaker orientated, rather than being relative to the point of view
Finally, a Papuan language Oksapmin actually has verb morphology to mark
point of view adopted during an event:

"they have just killed it" (their viewpoint)

"they have just killed it" (someone else's view)

This is apparently used to great effect in telling stories, but it is
unclear what other categories are affected by a change in the viewpoint
I am very interested in what devices languages use to mark a new POV,
and to what extent grammaticalized marking can be adjusted to conform to
the new POV rather than the speaker's point of view. English, for
example, for the most part does not permit relative tense, and seems to
have unreliable and limited structures at best for marking a new view
point, or describing things from that viewpoint. I have heard it
suggested that the proximate-obviate distinction in some Amerindian
languages and the Triggers of Tagalog are related to viewpoint and
empathy, although I am not sure I am convinced by either argument.
What do you all think?


Another thing often correlated with Empathy and POV is use of pronouns
vs other forms and even possession. For instance, the following examples
or similar seem to be given in many books:

John's brother hit him (John's POV is adopted)
Bill hit his brother (Bill's POV is adopted)
Bill hit John (neutral POV)

In the top two, one of the participants is anchored or specified in
terms of the other.


In Japanese also the choice of verb forms may reflect empathy in some
cases according to "The Science of Linguistics in the Art of
Translation" (Google Book Search). The following examples are given:

"(3.17) Consider a situation that can be described as follows:
[23] Taroo helped Hanako
The same situation can be described in Japanese in at least the
following three ways:
[24a] Taroo ga Hanako o tasuketa
Taroo SUBJ Hanaka OBJ helped
[24b] Taroo ga Hanako o tasukete yatta
Taroo SUBJ Hanaka OBJ helping gave
[24c] Taroo ga Hanako o tasukete kureta
Taroo SUBJ Hanaka OBJ helping gave

Example [24a] represents an objective description of the situation, and
because of this, it is seldom used in colloquial speech. In [24b], yatta
(subject centred) is used as the matrix verb, coupled with the
continuative form tasukete "helping" of tasukeru "help". This sentence
represents the speaker's empathy towards Taroo: namely, it shows that
the speaker is describing the event by placing himself closer to Taroo
than Hanako. On the other hand, in [24c] the non-subject centred verb
kureta is used. This sentence represents the speaker's empathy with
Hanako: it shows that the speaker is describing the event from Hanako's

So Japanese seems to have various limited ways of marking empathy and
POV, including choice of verb and long distance reflexives.


Sai Emrys <sai@...>