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.

6 comments:

  1. I like this very much. It's great to see some Bixwá in full use. I like the idea of the control being implied in the language, that gives a lot of tools to "convey fine subtleties" as the description said. I would take it that "phalange consonants" would mean something like consonants in very structured packages, some kind of CVCV or CVC-CVC being "honed" together. But I like where you are getting here.

    One question I have is... I thought the "control" implied in pronouns was meant for "this is I did purposefully" and "that was out of my control" but then you use it to establish hierarchy between speakers... how can those two concepts coexist?

    I would think that in "Kája eme nél mixod" he's speaking to me but has no control over it, wether he just likes to talk incessantly or because he was told to talk to me. How do you reconcile this with the hierarchy marker in the pronouns?

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  2. The "I did this purposefully" idea is encoded in verbs, and has no social element in it. So, the verb suffix -tu marks a purposeful action, as in:

    Né usí-n má-tu
    1sg this-ACC see-PURP
    I look at it

    Strongly [-control] actions take the suffix -koó, and means something like "happened to, by accident," or the like:

    Né usín mákoó
    I happen to see it, I catch sight of it.

    But the "control" idea encoded in the pronouns is entirely social, and potentially hierarchical. It is also centered entirely on the speaker. So,

    Kája be nél mixod "He was speaking to me incessantly" — no control matters.

    Kája be nawe mixod "He was speaking to me incessantly." Here I've used the [-social control] version of the first person pronoun. You could say this when you are forced somehow to be in this situation, but it's not the speaker that is forcing this upon you, even if s/he is being annoying.

    Kája eme nél mixod "He was speaking to me incessantly." Here I've used the [-social control] 3sg pronoun, where it's still the speaker's control that's diminished. I don't bother to use nawe for because eme has made the social control dynamic clear.

    It's important to note that the social control variations do not match perfectly to the verb control ideas. In particular, they refer to situations and relationships, and will not necessarily mean that a particular act in a sentence was controlled. For example,

    Idíikwe nawe nó-jó-voori-n okwí
    tomorrow 1POSS-PL-friend-ACC hang.out
    I will see my friends tomorrow.

    While the above use of nawe could indicate that your friends were pressuring you into this meeting, but it could also just mean you feel an internal social obligation.

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  3. Ok, I thought pronouns marked the "accord" because of the examples above:

    nawe chaash zuho'áá'óó
    I walked out in the weather (due to circumstances outside my control)

    compared to:

    thón chaash zuho'áá'óó
    I walked out in the weather (entirely of my own accord)

    Also it's confusing the terminology you say "strong control" when it has no control and, for instance you said:
    "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."

    Shouldn't this be "higher control" albeit not the highest?

    How would you then tell apart such sentences as:

    1. I hang out with him. (of my own accord and I'm hierarchally higher, as if I'm his boss)
    2. I hang out with him. (because of circumstances beyond my control, and I'm still his boss)
    3. I hang out with him. (of my own accord and he has control over me, maybe because he's my boss, or close to the boss)
    4. I hang out with him. (because of circumstances beyond my control, and he's still the boss)

    How would these variations be to have a better picture?

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  4. Shouldn't this be "higher control" albeit not the highest?

    This is a philosophical issue — the social "control" feature is always conceptualized in relationship to the speaker alone. So, even if eme represents high social control in the referent of eme, it more relevantly represents low social control (actual or perceived) in the speaker.

    Káakaxw! I messed up the last example in my previous post. The verb for "associate, hang out with" is omí, not okwí. So, for your sentences.

    1. Thón ben omí. Note that to use the social control pronoun implies that the control element is relevant in some way. I could also say né ben omí for exactly this situation if the control element wasn't especially important for the situation at hand.

    2. Nawe ben omí. Even if you're the boss, you can be under social constraints.

    3. Né ben omí. If social control doesn't matter here, then use the neutral pronouns. These pronouns don't encode social status, even though status will sometimes have control elements.

    4. Nawe ben omí. Note again, the "circumstances beyond my control" must be social in nature.

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  5. Great! I think now I understand the whole concept. So it establishes hierarchical order when used in transitive and ditransitive verbs and accord when intransitive? Or so it would seem.

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  6. You shouldn't think of these in terms of hierarchy, but of social control and obligation. It's entirely possible for someone high on a social scale to still have obligations and duties imposed on them from below. The social control pronouns are sensitive to the situation at hand, not long-term political and social power arrangements.

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