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.


  1. I've checked a little Tsrai myself, and I must say it is intriguing. I like the phonology, and also I've been always very fond of Ancient Greek and its reduplication tactics, so, go for it!

    It's funny because I recently worked in a conlang which used reduplication too, but in a quite different manner, to mark plurals and also for the present continuous in verbs.

    About the questions... do you mean in such sentences as "I need to eat" and so on? Or "I wanted to go for a walk"? I think I could help you given that my native does this kind of things. You could go two ways, either making the first carry the specifics (person, tense, number) and the following in infinitive or you could use a kind of particle or auxiliary for the kind of verbs that need such a construction:

    ie.: (it is needed) I eat = I need to eat.

    Or something like that. I hope I helped with the ideas!

  2. Well, in "I need to eat" situations you normally let the modal verb handle all the tense/aspect work. In most languages an infinitive is a paired down sort of verb in that regard. But verb chaining is a bit different, with things like "I catch, cook, eat fish" for "I caught a fish, then cooked it and ate it." Also, many of Tsrai's prepositions are going to be verbs, too.

    Right now I'm leaning toward having the first verb set the tense and number.

    Sorry it took so long for your comments to appear. I forgot to set an email address for me to get moderation notices. I've updated that.