Tuesday, October 19, 2010

If Zamenhof had been Cree

In the last few days there has been a few posts on the conlang-l list about conlangs based moribund or dead languages. Since Native American languages were named, it reminded me of thoughts that have rolled around in my head from time to time over the last year or so.

I don't really deal in auxlangs, but it a moment of musing it occured to me that the only real chance one has of being widely adopted in the U.S. is if Native Americans one day get sick of conducting their inter-tribal business in English and decide they need something else. No existing Native language would probably really work for several reasons. First, an auxlang should be a lot easier than a natural language to learn, and there not a single Native language easy enough to reasonably fill the auxlang role. Second, there would be political problems — there are standing tensions between some tribes, some of which go back very far indeed. For example, there are probably very few Hopi or Navajo who would be willing to learn each other's language (you can google their land dispute on your own).

I'm not actually going to concoct a North American Native auxlang, but I offer here some of my thinking about how one might go about such a thing, with a few hints of what this might look like were I to do so.


Easier — not Easy. Any NAN-auxlang would have to take into consideration the fact that large numbers of Native Americans are now monolingual English speakers, but I don't think a goal should be to make the language familiar to speakers of European languages. There are very widespread areal features in North American languages, and as much as possible these should be drawn on in creating the language. I would, for example, include regular conjugation of verbs, very probably by prefixing. I've been using WALS to verify commonalities in N.A. languages.

The Stock. Taking inspiration from Lojban, as a practical matter I'd draw on the largest language families — Na-Dene, Algonquian, Uto-Aztecan, Siouan and Iroquoian. The Salish family might belong in there, too, as well as Kiowa-Tanoan and Muskogean. For the many isolates, we'd have to rely on areal similarities.

Phonology. A simple, 4 or 5 vowel system. I would, sadly, omit tone, and, more happily, nasalization.

For the consonants I would at the very least include /p/ /t/ /ts/ /k/ /s/ /n/ /m/ (maybe only one nasal) /w/ /y/ /ʔ/ /h/ (which could be [h] or [x]) and /l/. I would probably include /ɬ/. That's less common the further east you go, but occurs even in the Muskogean family. I was prepared to omit ejectives at first, but now I think I'd consider including them. Thanks to Na'vi, I know that most L1 English speakers can learn them pretty easily, and they really extend pretty far east, too.

I'd keep syllable structure simple or at most moderately complex, allowing, say, syllable onsets to have /w/ or /y/ as a second element (if not, I'd add /kᵂ/ to the base inventory), maybe a nasal coda. Accent strictly initial or final.

Grammar. In favor of Esperanto's gender system, I'd differentiate by animacy. I'm still not sure if I'd include 4th person/obviation mechanics.

Rather than tense, the verb would be more preoccupied with aspect, by regular suffixing. A future tense adverb might sneak in.

Nominative-accusative alignment, but no case marking. Subjects of verbs would be person prefixes; not sure about objects, but I could be talked into putting those into the verb, too.

Plenty of North American languages have some sort of classifier system. I'm not sure that I'd add those, or if I did it'd be a very simple and regular system, attached to numbers only (i.e., I would regretfully lay aside the verbal encoding that goes on in so many languages).

At the very least, reportative evidential. Maybe inferential.

I probably would include adjectives as a word class, maybe with special marking for predicate adjectives.

Haven't decided on word order, probably SVO with SOV a strong contender.

Vocabulary would be churned through some automatic system to find any mnemonic cross-family similarities there might be, and ensure equal representation.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Old High Coochy-Coo

Of those few conlangs that reach a pretty well-developed state (beyond 1500 words or so, a reasonable corpus), a good number will have well-defined formal and literary registers. Part of this is probably yet another lingering influence of Tolkien, though for most people a literary conlang may be the first they encounter. In my own Vaior I created syntax and a good dose of parallel vocabulary for fairly common words used only in the poetic register (raie was the normal word for star, emme poetic), as well as poetic syntax (animate direct objects of perception verbs are in the genitive, not accusative).

One thing I've never seen in a conlang is baby-talk. How different cultures talk to children isn't exactly universal. Some people don't talk directly to children until they have something interesting to say back, without apparently causing developmental problems. But it's a pretty common practice. What I would not have suspected, until I read about it a few days ago, is that it is fairly common for people to use baby talk — or something much like it — when speaking to animals.

A few things are common to baby talk —

  • Reduplication is very common (in my own family, a bottle is either a ba or a baba).

  • Much wider pitch range, and a tendency to stay in higher registers.

  • Simplified grammar (not a surprise).

  • Vocabulary that exists only in the baby-talk register ("binkie" for "blanket"; in Nootka, paapash "eat!" for adult ha'ukw'i).

  • Particular patterns of phonological deformation (not exactly simplification, but nearly so).



The word deformations are most interesting to me, and in Native American languages dovetail with some interesting things that happen in story telling registers. In Cocopa, for example, the onset consonant of stressed syllables is turned into a /v/, while other consonants are fronted. Adult kwanyúk "baby" becomes kanvúk. Cocopa uses a very similar register with animals, with different informants finding the register appropriate for speaking to cats, dogs, horses or even chickens. In this register, every word gets a palatalized lateral fricative, /łʲ/, inserted or substituted into every word.

In Quileute certain prefixes might be used when speaking to people with particular characteristics, /s-/ for a small man, /tł-/ for someone who is cross-eyed. But certain characters in traditional stories also have their language altered in particular ways. Raven prefixes /ʃ-/; Deer prefixes /tłk-/ and turns all sybilants to laterals. Coyote, of course, speaks inappropriately and often in highly distorted ways all over the West.

One of the great things about using formal registers is that it becomes that much easier to be rude and impolite. So I was delighted to read that in Nootka, the word deformation for Raven — /-tʃx-/ inserted after the first syllable of the word — is also used to speak of greedy people. But not to their face.

I'll have to try out some of this in some future project.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Bixwá Verb: Part the Third

If the multiple layers of affixing on the verb stem aren't enough, there are also three slots for preverbs in Bixwá. The idea for these comes from the Algic/Algonquian languages. In those the preverbs are actually affixes, too, but in Bixwá these are separate words. I did this for two reasons. First, Bixwá has more phonetic flexibility at the end of a word than it does at internal syllable codas. Second, I didn't want to deal with noun incorporation — inanimate direct objects come between a verb and its preverbs, while inanimates do not.

Tense and Mood



The leftmost preverbs have to deal with tense, sequencing and mood. The tense preverbs aren't much used, though the future, ivi is most likely to be seen of the bunch. Much more frequent is wil, which indicates sequencing, "and then, and next" and the like. Two of the preverbs are involved in conditional sentences, which I will save for a different post.

Adverbial One



After the tense and mood preverbs come a set of preverbs with various adverbial senses. One I pilfered from, I think, Wiyot, is diwáa on arrival:

bené-lwildiwáaho-xod
3SG1SG-DATnexton.arrivalPFV-speak
Then when he arrived he spoke to me.


Another good one of this set is haaz, which indicates senses like in vain, it isn't so, it didn't really happen. In the perfective, it indicates a thwarted expectation:

haazho-síis
in.vainPFV-rain
It was supposed to rain (but didn't).


One of this set, sa' has branched out into interesting territory. It's base meaning is of proximal deixis, in time, place or discourse, here, thus, there. It has developed to also assert narrative integrity, asserting that the statement fits into the conversation. This is useful for propping up unexpected information.

bewilsa'áka-nka'a-ho-dal
3SGthenthusbook-ACCby.hand-PFV-toss
Then she threw the book (really!).


Note in the example above the location of the direct object, ákan. If she had tossed something animate, it would occur before wil.

Adverbial Two



This is a more motley set of adverbial senses, and I anticipate more appearing over time. Many of these describe path and location: cháa for horizontal motion, kwee apart, separating, zót away, but more exotic senses appear as well, such as e'ar leaving a detectable trace or path.

jó-nézha'oho'-áán
PL-1backunwillinglyPFV-go
We returned against our will.


One of my current favorites is chaash, which says that an action took place out in precipitation,

koivichaashmi-'o'éé
2SGFUTin.weatherIPFV-labor
You will be working in the rain/snow.


The exact nature of the weather will depend of course on the season. I have also been giving metaphorical extensions to some of the simpler senses. For example, ta'ii means to completion, fully, to exhaustion, but has been extended to be practically a marker of attitude, conveying weariness.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Bixwá by Foot

Right now both Bixwá and Tsrai are in a phase of moderate vocabulary growth. I'll ponder a few days, the bang out a few dozen words in a short time. Apart from creating a number system (which I always dread), creating vocabulary is always the most trying task of language creation for me.

As part of my campaign to avoid orthogonality, I have been making an effort to use analogy more. This has lead in interesting directions with the instrumental prefix zu-, which has the base meaning of by foot, with the foot. For example, tik means fall (over), and zu-tik means to knock over by foot (remember, using the instrumental prefixes always results in a transitive verb).

I decided that zu- could also be used to indicate mob violence of some sort, by way of the idea of trampling or stampeding over people. For example, from dó'a rule, custom, tradition, we get zu-dó'a impose a political or social regime on people. From there I went to zu-bayí subjugate, oppress from bayí endure, tolerate.

A few days ago zu- completed its march into the political realm when it encountered gísa be silent. With help from the detransitive suffix -óó I got zu-gísa'óó self-censor.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Gallimaufry

Na'vi


I've managed to get myself on a panel for a local con this fall to chat about the science of Avatar. In theory, I'm there to talk about language. We'll see how many people in the audience are interested in that.

Tsrai


Tsrai now has nice set of postural verbs. I'm still thinking about the semantics of these, especially in verb chains, but I'm ridiculously pleased to be able to say this,

weor-tablasrabbëdzwai
3SGdrink-PSTbeerget.horizontalhappen
He drank so much beer he ended up on the ground.


Inspiration


I recently got myself a copy of The Languages of Native North America by Marianne Mithun. What an astonishing diversity of languages this continent used to have. Language inventors will find so much inspiration in this book.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Bixwá Verb: Part the Second

In the previous post on Bixwá's verb system, I talked about grammatical affixes, aspect and valency. This post will cover affixes that are more lexical, though the direction prefixes are used for some aspectual refinements. The verb so far:

Aspect - STEM - Voice


Instrumental Prefixes


I got the idea for the instrumental prefixes, once again, from Native languages of North America, though not Athabascan for a change. Instrumental prefixes are fairly common in unrelated languages across a wide area, from Haida in British Columbia to the Siouan languages of the plains. The Bixwá set is larger than some, but is by no means the largest.

The instrumental prefix comes to the left of any aspect prefix. The instrumental prefix will be separated from the verb stem by any aspect prefix, and I use a dash in the lexicon as a reminder, ró-má read (from ró- by/with words, language and see).

In Bixwá the instrumental prefixes can cover a range of meanings, not all of which are really instrumental. For several of them, such as kwí- by thought, by contemplation, by planning, the significance can be pretty metaphorical, as in kwí-'ééz rage from ééz burn.

All verbs with instrumental prefixes are transitive (a habit sometimes seen in natural languages with these). Any noun stem is converted to a verbal meaning when taking one of these prefixes.

A lot of fun lexical derivation can go on with these:

olo-'éke bore someone to tears olo- by falling, by dropping, éke head
olo-míír to cast a shadow, shade something olo- by falling, by dropping, míír shadow, shade
nóó-ját write nóó- by color, by dye, ját sign, mean
ró-nó'ó interrupt someone speaking ró- by language, speaking, nó'ó to break off
thahe-nó'ó burn, cauterize something off thahe- by fire, heat, nó'ó to break off
xaa-nó'ó cut off xaa- by edge, by blade, by arm, nó'ó to break off
bii-vích spit something a distance bii- by mouth, vích to take flight, to enter the air
thahe-vích to rise into the air from heat thahe- by fire, heat, vích to take flight, to enter the air



Direction and Mode


To the left of any instrumental prefix come the direction prefixes. Most of the time they are oriented to the speaker, but the focus of orientation can shift in a narrative. Bixwá has the usual set, chu- for away from the speaker and ní- towards the speaker. These give direction to basic verbs of motion, such as áá which without other marking can mean either go or come.

These prefixes interact with the aspect prefixes to give some refinements. With stative verbs (which do the job of adjectives in Bixwá), chu- with the perfective ho- gives the inchoative, né chuhochis I got sick (from chis to be ill, weak). With any verb type, ní- with the conclusive perfective isii forms the experiential perfect,

maaákaní-ró-'isii-má
ISGthatbookaway-by.language-CONCL.PF-see
I have read that book


The prefix lii- is a deictic marker that situates the action in some communications technology, usually some online social sphere. It goes into the same slot as the direction prefixes. Rarely it can co-occur with one of them, and will be to the left, but more likely it will drive any direction prefix away.

jónéová'lii-ho-xod
1PLtogetheronline-PFV-speak
We talked together.


The Verb Template



After all of that, the full template for verb affixes is:

Direction - Instrumental - Aspect - STEM - Voice


Next I'll cover the preverbs, which will always occur before the verb complex I've given above. They're not counted part of the affix chain, since their phonology precludes their use as prefixes.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Bixwá Verb: Part the First

In general I devote a lot of loving attention to my languages' verb systems. Nezhan, the sketch that led to Bixwá, produced things like this:

né-wíi-x-máá-di
1sg.SUBJ-NO.CONTROL-2sg.OBJ-see-PFV
I happened to catch sight of you.


This was a little too much like Athabascan languages, so I pulled back a bit. I no longer cross-reference the subject and direct object in the verb, but I still manage to pack a lot into the verb. Like Nezhan — and the Athabascan languages — a great deal of the verb's morphology is by prefixing, though Bixwá does mark valency and control changes with suffixes.

The Verb Stem



Most Bixwá root verbs are single syllable roots, though two-syllable roots are also well-represented. There is a small set of common transitive verbs which have two forms, one for animate direct objects, one for inanimate direct objects. For example, is see for inanimate DOs. For animate DOs, you must use deezh.

kora-ndeezh
1SGdog-ACCsee.AN
I see a dog.


áka
1SGbooksee.IA
I see a book.


Note that inanimate direct objects often do not take accusative case marking. A sentence like né áka deezh, using an animate verb with an inanimate direct object, would be an outright error, not implying anything.

Transitivity



Bixwá is quite fastidious about verb transitivity, and requires overt marking to covert valency. The detransitive suffix is (')óó. The transitive suffix, which is also the causative, also makes an animacy distinction in the direct object, with -(')azh for inanimates, -(')azhe for animates. These suffixes have the additional effect of converting any noun they are attached to into a verb, as in báá'óó be angry from báá anger.

After much going back and forth, I finally decided to give Bixwá a passive. Unlike the English passive, though, it can only be used when there is no agent at all. If the agent is named, you have to use a focus construction in the active. A stem is made passive with the circumfix di-V-e, though the final -e part has various realizations if the verb ends in a vowel. Again, animacy must be considered: né dideezhe I am seen, not *né dimáa.

Aspect



There are three layers of prefixes for the verb, and that's not including the raft of obligatorily pre-verbal particles. The innermost set, that will always occur immediately before the verb root, marks aspect. There are six aspect prefixes, the imperfective, the perfective, the habitual, the inceptive, the continuative and the punctual (or conclusive) perfective. Note, though, that there are other aspects available (in particular, the inchoative for stative verbs) that involve a mix of aspect prefixes and other verb morphology. I'll cover those in a later section.

a'ékobe-nho-deezh
Q2SG3SG-ACCPFV-see
Did you see him?


belé'é-zatánéne-xod
3SGvery.much-extremelyHAB-speak
He always talks too much.


Coming Soon



Next time I'll talk about the powerful and very common instrumental prefixes as well as the direction and mode prefixes, before moving on to the complexities of the preverbs in yet another post. In the last post (four in total), I hope to talk about the ways I've used combinations of prefix types and the preverbs for refinements of aspect, syntax and pragmatics (discourse effects).

Thursday, July 15, 2010

In the Shadow of Tolkien

When I was about 16 or 17 I happened to run across a copy of The Monstors and the Critics, a collection of essays by J.R.R. Tolkien. Much of it is devoted to English literature, but it also includes the essay The Secret Vice, about constructing languages. So, I got exposed to a manifesto in defense of this hobby at a fairly impressionable age.

A few years ago I noticed that I had somehow not only inherited from Tolkien a justification for the hobby of creating languages, but my languages seemed to reflect a world view1 to which I myself do not subscribe. In particular, my languages tended to be technophobic, if not actually indulging in the Romantic Weltschmerz that afflicts Tolkien's Elves, and my languages, even ones I never publish, tend to be remarkably chaste and polite. I've been trying to get away from these tendencies, especially the technophobia which was quite entrenched for a long time.

I have not been content to simply add words like "computer" and "cash machine" to my languages, but I've played with various ways of integrating technology, especially communications technologies (i.e., computers), into the language in a more fundamental way. One sketch language from a few years ago, Onju, had six noun classes, one of which was for things humans build and related tools, and one was just for e-things. The class marking was partially lexical, and you could take word for "tree," sor which normally fell into the ër plant class, and drop it into the e-thing class giving orí sor, which refers to any of the branching abstractions computer science people call "trees."

Onju was set aside due to some design flaws, but many ideas were recycled into Nezhan. Nezhan dropped the classes, but did include a demonstrative pronoun set just to describe things online, with lhidhaal effectively referring only to an online representation of a human being, what's usually called an avatar. Plenty of natural languages include derivational affixes you can tack onto a verb to mean "go somewhere in order to VERB." In Nezhan, I had that, but also -mál which meant "go somewhere online in order to VERB."

Nezhan was also quickly abandoned, but is the direct ancestor of Bixwá. Bixwá picks up the "go online to X" verb affix (-lobi), but did not import the online deixis markers. Instead, any verb can be situated in an electronic, communications or virtual environment with the verb prefix lii-, which falls into the same slot that verbal direction marking goes.

jó-néová'mi-'omí
PL-1togetherIPFV-hang.out
We were hanging out together.


vs.

jó-néová'lii-mi'-omí
PL-1togetherONLINE-IPFV-hang.out
We were hanging out together (online).


I've had less obvious success in getting rid of the air of Victorian discretion from my languages. Even the language I've worked on the longest, Vaior, has very little in the way of cursing. I tend to add vocabulary by semantic field (one idea leads to another). Just last week I finally added a little sexual vocabulary to Bixwá, and I actually used the Latin mons veneris in one definition! I don't swear a whole lot in my daily life, but I certainly do from time to time — what Unix sysadmin does not? — and once in a blue moon I can indulge in some pretty serious vulgarity. I like to save it for special occasions, for more impact. I have no philosophical reason to exclude these from my languages.

The biggest difficulty in cursing language is that it's as much a matter of culture as language. Modern English tends to stick with sexual and other biological terms, but in some places blasphemy is still the way to get really angry (I'll always remember a Spanish curse involving the 24 testicles of the Apostles). In this one matter I haven't ever followed Tolkien — I don't create cultures to go with my languages. I've always been more interested in my languages for my own purposes, but sometimes it is easier to get over some language design questions with at least the hint of a culture to go with it. Vaior got a vague cultural dusting to help it along. I suppose Bixwá may too, eventually. I'd rather not resort to English just to curse.


_____
1I misspelled that word view the first time through.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

How to handle Tsrai compounds?

I tend to worry about lexical expansion early in the creation of a language. It's entirely possible for me to have several bits of derivational morphology tested and ready before I've even started seriously with, say, the verb system. I favor rather complex derivational systems (see the madness of Vaior's derivational system), but in Tsrai I'm trying to be more restrained. So, there will be much more compounding using root words and little or no bound morpheme use. I'm currently thinking I'll follow the Vietnamese practice, and write each element of the compound separately.

Since Tsrai so far has been head-initial for noun phrases, it seems best to use head-initial compounds (although the typology on this isn't so clear-cut). The big question now is — how to mark plurals? Since most noun plurals are marked with the suffix -ne, do I tack that onto the compound head, or the full phrase? What if the head noun reduplicates for plurals? Using syur person (pl. sisyur), véu study; inspect:

syur véu student (person-study)
?sisyur véu students?
?syur véune students?


Right now I'm leaning toward sisyur véu, but I'll worry about this for a few more days before deciding. Hopefully it won't take as long as Bixwá's relative clauses took — I worried about that for longer than a month before making a decision.

And I'm not even ready to worry about verb compounds. Do they keep the same headedness pattern? Right now I'm inclined to make N-V compounds follow that order, verb last, dli word, ba see:

?syur véu ba dli a student reads
?syur véu dli ba a student reads


And verb compounds will have the same puzzle for plurals. Again, for now I'm inclined to make the plural and tense marking go into the original V element, wherever it ends up in the compound.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Embracing Redundancy, Ambiguity and Nonorthogonality

Even though I have never created an auxlang (i.e., an auxiliary language, like Esperanto), there are still certain habits its easy for conlangers to fall into which seem to be more suited to auxlangs. The longer I create languages, though, the less I'm willing to tolerate some of these things.

The first habit is efficiency, the avoidance of seemingly redundant things, such as multiple forms of agreement. No human language is perfectly, or even partially, efficient. Indeed, redundancy in a spoken language is a positive benefit, since language happens in a noisy medium. Nonetheless, nearly all my languages avoid certain features. For example, I typically use either strict head marking or strict dependent marking. Rarely do I allow overlap, which is somewhat unusual.

At this point Bixwá is not going to chage in this regard, but I decided in Tsrai that I will mark the plurality of the subject in both the subject and the verb.

Gad kóis A man sleeps
Órói këskóis men sleep (reduplication for the verb, and the plural of man happens to be irregular, órói)


This double-marking of plurality is quite redundant — but also quite common in human languages.

The second habit is the tendency to avoid ambiguity. In beginning (or engineered) conlangs, this commonly presents itself in the form of perfectly identifiable word classes. Every derived adverb in Esperanto, for example, ends in the same letter, -e. In Láadan all the speech act morphemes begin in the letter b-. In one of my earlier languages, Mavod, all the tense markers begin with the sound sh-, and other word classes exhibit the same patterning. I've been getting away from this habit, which I now find rather dull, and in Bixwá I have evidentials I would once have felt slightly uncomfortable about and avoided. They are suffixed to the clause, usually landing on the verb:







-aazh obvious, "of course, as we know"
-sh direct perception
-xw supposition, inference
-jin report
-jíín report from untrusted source


Only the two report evidentials show any family relationship. Further, there are plenty of verb stems that end in -sh and -xw, a situation I would once have avoided.

The third habit I call "orthogonality," which presents itself in multiple guises. I'm abusing the mathematical concept of orthogonality, but by this I mean the tendency to ensure maximal distinctiveness in whatever feature we happen to be working on at the moment. For example, we might mark all tenses using the same morphological pattern, or we might fill out all the possibilities of tense and aspect if we've decided a language needed that. Some natural languages do work this way, but plenty do not. Navajo, for example, is most preoccupied with marking aspect rather than tense. Nonetheless, it does have a future. For Tsrai, I've decided the verb has only past and non-past tense marking.

In Bixwá I have deliberately mixed aspectual marking among different sorts of morphology. For examples, the aspect "begin to" is marked with the aspect prefix koo-, but if you want to talk about a stative verb (what English uses adjectives for) entering a state, one uses a mix of the perfective prefix ho- and the outward direction prefix, cho-. For example, jed is be cold. To say "it got cold," you use chohojed (cho-ho-jed out.away-PRF-be.cold).

I have also mixed up certain matters of syntax and pragmatics in different places in the language. For example, Bixwá does have some conjunctions that work as in English, but it also has some preverbs that do jobs much like conjunctions (preverbs are mostly adverbial particles that must occur in a fixed relationship to the verb, and which don't participate in other morphology). For example, the preverb wil indicates continuation, "then, and then, next,"

Né wil kora-n ho-deezh.
1SG PREVERB:then dog-ACC PFV-see.
And then I saw the dog.


I have also grabbed the preverb sa', thus, there, at that time, for a discourse function — it asserts narrative integrity, that the statement is related to the current discourse. This is useful when something surprising or unexpected is being said, but I find I use it a lot in any narrative. I've also grabbed the preverb jééx, which carries "emerging, up and out" ideas, to be yet another way to indicate an inceptive or inchoative sense for transitive verbs (distinct from the stative verb cho-ho- pairing).

Some years ago Jesse Bangs posted to the conlang mailing list The Conlanger's Rant, which suggested among other things conlanging schools and conlang criticism, himself being a devotee of the "naturalistic" school. Along with a lot of conlangers, I was rather turned off by this idea. Among other things, I've never aimed at perfect naturalism in a language. I certainly had no desire to belong to a Naturalistic School of Language Creation, and still do not. But my tastes in how a language I'll find interesting ought to be constructed have changed, with the surprising result that I've been pulled more in the naturalistic direction, not from a desire for naturalness, but from boredom.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Taste of Bixwá

One idea I keep coming back to in my conlangs due to a throw-away notion from one of the Dune books of Frank Herbert. In Dune Mesiah, he refers to mirabhasa languages:

They were using a mirabhasa language, honed phalange consonants and joined vowels. It was an instrument for conveying fine emotional subleties. Edric, the Guild Steersman, replied to the Reverend Mother now with a vocal curtsy contained in a sneer - a lovely touch of disdainful politeness.


Now, it's never been clear to me what a phalange consonant is supposed to be. Regardless, I've made several attempts at my own personal mirabhasa. I've never really succeeded. For Bixwá I decided not to focus on emotional subtleties per se, but to combine a sensitivity to social and political power (of all sorts) as well as a substantial set of words to allow a speaker to make complex commentary on what is being said.

The sound system of Bixwá owes a lot to Athabascan languages — the apostrophe really is a glottal stop, e is [ɛ] and the accent marks a high toned vowel. I avoided the "joined vowels" Herbert mentions.

I'm out of control


The first way Bixwá obsesses over power dynamics is in the pronouns. Plenty of languages have the idea of a "control" feature in verbs. For example, "I caught sight of him" can just be a low control variant of simply "see." On the other hand, "look at" can be a high control version. Bixwá pronouns encode control, but specifically social control, and always of the speaker. For example, the neutral control first person singular is , while the low control version is nawe and the high control version is thón:

né chaash zuho'áá'óó I walked out in the weather (of my own will)
nawe chaash zuho'áá'óó I walked out in the weather (due to circumstances outside my control)
thón chaash zuho'áá'óó I walked out in the weather (entirely of my own accord)

(The preverb chaash indicates an action was performed out in snow or rain.)


Without further context it's not clear how much the speaker of nawe considers themselves to have been forced or obligated. They could have been ordered out by their boss, or their sweetie may just have decided they wanted hot buttered rum and it seemed prudent to go out to get the ingredients. So, the social control can be pretty slight.

There are neutral, low control and high control variants for first, second and animate third person pronouns.

Editorializing freely


The other thing Bixwá does is allow a speaker to comment in some detail about how they feel about the state of affairs they are describing. This is handled with what I'm calling "commentary particles" these days (not only has the idea been revised often over the last few years, but so has the name). They are in many ways quite like ideophones. In particular, they are "syntactically aloof" — they don't participate in most of the heavy morphology Bixwá otherwise favors, and they can be added to or removed from a statement without changing the meaning of the propositional content at all. They are so like ideophones that I recently decided to give them morphology to let them be used as ideophones.

Normally a commentary particle comes before the constituent being commented on:

Kája eme nél mixod He was speaking to me.

(né-l 1sg-dat, mi-xod impf-speak)


Here the commentary particle kája says the speaker finds something boorish, rude or imposing about the state of affairs. The word after it, eme is the low control variant of the 3rd person animate pronoun (remember: control is with respect to the speaker), so I've given the additional spin that I'm being spoken to boorishly by someone who has some degree — perhaps slight — of social control over me at the time. On the other hand, you could use the commentary particle iyé instead of kája, which would indicate amorous intent on your part with respect to whoever eme is.

Bixwá's normal word order is SOV, but a commentary particle may follow the verb to comment on the entire state of affairs, without singling out any particular constituent,

Maa áka nél dan ye láá I don't have that book

(maa that, áka book, né-l 1sg-dat, dan not, ye exist; the verb ye with the dative indicates possession instead of a verb "to have")


Here the particle láá indicates the speaker thinks there's nothing to be done about the situation.

The commentary particles have to go into a statement. If you want to utter one on its own, to comment on an event or something just said, there is a way to produce predicate ideophones using reduplication (you can see the rules for that morphology in the grammar).

Káajokája! How rude!
Áa'iyé ooh-la-la! (or whatever you say on seeing an attractive person)
Láasholáá (some expression of profound resignation)


Though these reduplicated forms can take subjects, they are also pretty syntactically aloof. They don't don't take any morphology, including aspect marking, and they aren't used with adverbs. They are words for the moment or context immediately at hand.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Birth of Tsrai

The World Atlas of Language Structures is just a wonderful way to spend hours. One thing I realized while reading some articles is that in my years of conlanging I have systematically avoided using certain features of language that are very common across the world. I tallied up a list in my mind of things I've avoided, and sure enough, the outlines of a new language started to appear — Tsrai.

I have only rarely used reduplication, a process that is ubiquitous in natural languages. For Tsrai, I decided to use reduplication to indicate number, as a marginal process for nouns but the most common way for verbs.

I strongly favor very simple sound systems for my languages. Even if I have a large inventory of sounds, I keep the syllable structure quite simple and open, at most allowing resonant codas. So for Tsrai I've decided to use a moderately complex system, with a few more complex onset types allowed. This means my decision to use reduplication has resulted in some hefty tables of behavior. Of course, a recent exposure to Squamish may also have something to do with that. The big question was how to reduplicate syllables with complex onsets. I decided that since the second element of any complex onset is either an approximant or a resonant, to impose sound changes similar to Ancient Greek for such reduced syllables. For example tyar reduplicated is tityar (< *tytyar).

Other tendencies of the sound system are inspired by the Nobiin language.

I tend to favor VSO or SOV languages, so Tsrai is solidly SVO. I am also very fond of case marking, but for Tsrai I've gone isolating, using word order for syntax. I've taken inspiration from Yoruba and Vietnames (also SVO languages) and used certain particles to mark focus for fronting behavior, as in —

Lë ba gad dai I see this man.
Gad dai fë lë ba I see this man. ( is the focus particle)


I decided to step away from my aspect obsession. Verbs are marked only for tense — a past vs. non-past distinction only in verb morphology — letting adverbs and verb auxiliaries take up the slack.

I briefly considered using some sort of ablaut change in verbs to make ergativity a lexical category, a la Classical Chinese. But that got too messy for other plans for the language, so I tossed it. The idea may reappear for transitivity matters.

I do want to include verb chaining, but this presents some interesting design questions. At the moment a verb's form may be changed in two ways. First, reduplication for plural subjects, as in këskóis from kóis sleep. Second, it may take the suffix -ta to indicate past tense. The suffix is prone to assimilation, so that the verb varag choose, select may appear as vëvarag (pl.), varakka (past) or vëvarakka (past pl.). The syntax questions right now for verb chaining are (1) do all verbs need to be marked for number and tense and (2) if not, would the first or the last verb set the number and tense for everyone else in the chain.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Airenen! Sózil! Howdy!

I've been inventing languages for a long time. The first one happened after my first encounter with Latin. I was probably 14 or 15. I never really stopped, though there have been slow times when other things occupied my time. For example, work on Vaior, the only language of mine other people have tried to learn, pretty much stopped when I got focused on Ancient Greek. But even then, I might create a quick sketch of a language on a few scraps of paper while awaiting to be called for the tender ministrations of a dental hygienist.

Recently I've been involved in the community of people trying to learn Na'vi that exploded after the film Avatar came out. For the first time in my life I was seeing people eager to know about verb aspect and ejective consonants. I like to encourage that sort of thing, so I've been happy to help them. This has also resulted in me getting back to language invention of my own. Rather than fill my old blog, currently mostly devoted to ancient Greek, I decided to start a new blog just for my conlanging musings. Creating languages is a pretty obscure hobby, and not a populous one, but I hope there will be a few people who find my agonies of deciding between different ways to form relative clauses interesting or instructive (if only as a caution).

Right now, as I start this new blog, I have two quite different projects in development. The first, Bixwá, bears many signs of my recent attempt to learn an Athabascan language, Navajo, along with a few Algonquian touches. It is much further along, and right now is mostly in the arduous vocabulary-creation phase, though much syntactic fine-tuning remains. The second, Tsrai, is what happens when I decide to deliberately step away from old habits, with a little help from the WALS, and create a SVO language with no declensions and more features common across the world's languages.

From time to time I suppose I'll comment on the odd political or social developments among conlangers.