Monday, December 17, 2012

At least...

Among the easiest things to smuggle into a conlang from one's native tongue are discourse particles and phrases. I recently had reason to think about the phrase at least, which means at least three distinct things.

First, it is used to set a lower limit on some statement about degree or scale. It is easiest to see with numbers, but has a wide range of uses beyond that. Adding the tag "if not more" is often a good diagnostic test for this use,

  • I saw at least five [if not more].
  • She has invited at least Sarah and James [if not others].
  • He's at least slightly depressed [if not seriously so].

The second sense is evaluative. It selects a particular part of a larger state of affairs and marks it as something the speaker expects everyone to see as positive,

  • At least I got an A-.
  • At least she didn't ask me out.

The last sense I've seen called "rhetorical retreat." You identify the source of your information but step back from committing to its reliability,

  • Mary is at home – at least I think so.
  • Mary is at home – at least that's what Sue said.

If you have a conlang with a single word or phrase for "at least" and it means all three of these things, you've accidentally slurped up whole a little corner of English.

Monday, October 22, 2012

New Thesaurus

Yet another version of the Conlanger's Thesaurus. The most interesting change is on the last page, which has a semantic map of the diminutive. Thanks to Alex Fink for bringing this excellent semantic map to my attention.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Conlanger's Thesaurus: new version

Version 1.5 of the Conlaner's Thesaurus is out. It has mostly minor changes: a few more grammaticalizations, some minor tweaks in the parts of speech, and some clarifying suggestions others have offered.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Kahtsaai: Distributive Portmanteau

So, while I sit here with a plumber working on my shower, I finally pulled the trigger on a change I've been thinking about for a while for Kahtsaai. One of the slot-one prefixes for verbs is -na'a- which marks distributed or widespread activity. Thinking about common uses for a while, I decided it needed to merge with two of the person prefixes for subject, he- (3 inanimate) and hááí- (3pl. animate).

The resulting portmanteaus are he'a- and háá'ya-, giving such fun as he'a'ánméín It's going to be hot (everywhere) (I hear), and háá'yawósénats they were running around everywhere.

That change only took a week to commit to.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Recent Developments in Kahtsaai

In the last few months I have been focusing almost entirely on Kahtsaai vocabulary, and allowing that to drive any tweaks to the grammar. At this point, I consider the skeleton of the grammar complete, wanting only a lot more detail for certain sections.

The Imperfective

For most of its life Kahtsaai has had a single primary verb of motion, , which was usually marked with either the trans- or cis-locative prefix to distinguish go and come. This turns out to be typologically very rare, which was fine, but I finally started to find it annoying, so I added aas come. The form kóh-ló is still available for come, but it cannot be used when the speaker means "right here where we're talking now," which is aas's core meaning.

At the same time aas was coming into being, I was getting a bit annoyed about the regularity of the imperfective marker, -na. I did not want to add massive irregularity, but it just wasn't sitting right all by itself. So, I added a small number of verbs which take the imperfective in -rá/-réí. The choice between the two forms depends on things like stem syllable weight and compensatory lengthening after certain assimilations, but for practical purposes should be considered irregular. In a last act of randomness, I seriously modified aas, giving it an imperfective of saréí. Finally, an imperfective in -rá becomes -réí when the adverbial suffix -ne/-hte is added, always resulting in -réín. This parallels the -na > -naan change.

I have confined the -rá/-réí forms to intransitive verbs of motion ("come," "flow"), location and posture ("stand," "hang") and weather ("lightening"). I don't expect that to change. Right now only thirteen verbs have this new imperfective. Probably a few more will enter this class over time, but I doubt it will be too many.

Postpositions and Verbs do the Frame Dance

I recently added the postposition -próh. It is imagined that at one point in its history it covered certain meanings one expects of the dative, but by about, say, a half a millennium ago it was confined to marking the experiencer of certain verbs of emotion or judgement. For example, léíkou means insipid, flavorless, boring. With -próh one can say someone is bored,

That bores me.

The postposition now also marks the judicantis role, that is, the person in whose judgement a statement holds true.

To my father, this is a waste of money.

In thinking about the core uses for -próh an interesting commonality has developed, where a stative verb takes the "detransitive of causative" marking -ríi-se and is then used with -próh to mark the induction of some state in a person. For example, láhme means "be angry, be unpleasant," but rather than taking the causative for "to anger," instead this -ríi-se form is used, tápróh yoláhmeríise he made me angry. I'm expecting to see more of the construction X-próh Vstative-ríi-se in the future.

Finally, I have started thinking more about the frames of new and existing vocabulary, and making sure I have examples covering expected uses. One result of this is that the postposition -por, "seeking after, wanting," is now used mark the ultimate goal for purposive action. For example, the verb móka means "trick" or "deceive." The postposition -por marks the goal of the deception if that is expressed,

He tricked us for the money.

This week makes me want to give into the "40 words for snow" syndrome, and create a rich vocabulary to describe my own emotional state when experiencing 95-100F days and very high humidity. I'm also trying to think up a good way to express "at stake, on the line," as in the phrase, "when your life is at stake." This is a subtle one.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Thesaurus 1.4

A new version of the Conlanger's Thesaurus is ready. It has a few more maps, a few more grammaticalizations, and some subsections on classifiers, demonstratives and a few useful implicational hierarchies for verbs.

I've been tidying up some parts of Kahtsaai vocabulary as a direct result of working on the thesaurus, which is a nice side effect.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Kahtsaai: Intensives and Content Questions

Version 1.3 of the Conlanger's Thesaurus is out. It has a few more polysemy maps, a few more grammaticalizations, and an addition to the final section with some notes on the typology of content question words ("who, what, when," etc.). The semantic map I got from "thread" was suitably and ironically tangled.

Some of the work on the Thesaurus has motivated me to make a few refinements to Kahtsaai. The biggest change is that I made some changes to question words. In English and the rest of the Indo-European family, we're used to content question words being obviously related in some way. In English, they all start with wh-, and in the Romance languages with qu-/c-. But it turns out this pattern is very rare in the world's languages, which may have completely unrelated roots for their core set of question words. So, I irregularized Kahtsaai a bit, with *ye'wei where becoming táá, and *ye'pas why becoming łouh.

Related to the question words, I have started to fill out the range of indefinites a bit. In particular, there's now an affix on the question words to mark a free choice indefinite ("pick any one"),

Pick anything.

Additionally, it struck me that I didn't yet have a way to indicate intensives, I myself did it. In quite a few languages, those are related to the word for body. I didn't feel like using the full noun for body, tsire. Instead, I took the inspiration from the morpheme used in noun incorporation for body, which is -s(i)-. I expanded that a bit, to -ssi', which must be possessed:

The soldier himself saved the children.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Generating Semantic Maps

One of the central features of the Conlanger's Thesaurus is the cross-linguistic semantic maps. For the first version of the Thesaurus I used those I could find in public linguistics journal articles. But it occurred to me I could come up with some of these on my own.

First I came up with some straightforward software to manipulate lists of definitions to produce the semantic maps automatically. I wasn't actually expecting this approach to work out so well right away, but my initial assumptions and model turned out to work pretty well.

The biggest problem has been finding good dictionaries to work with. All too many online dictionaries — and not a few printed ones — are simply lists of words with single-word definitions. This is not a great way to get at polysemy. However, over the last few days I have managed to find enough good dictionaries online to make me confident in the cross-linguistic (and cross-cultural) polysemy maps I've been creating.

The code is explained at Generating Cross-Linguistic Semantic Maps. At the bottom of that page is a list of core words around which I have generated maps. Even if you cannot understand the Python programming language, you can see the list of languages and meanings I have used in the links that end in .py. The maps are images of the common polysemies.

There have been two big surprises to me in these maps. First, "face" can refer to the blade of a knife in two utterly unrelated languages (Turkish and Inupiaq). Second, I was surprised how often "sweet" can refer to what English speakers consider other flavors, especially "salty."

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Conlanger's Thesaurus

In the last year or so I have been thinking about writing a piece of software which would spit up a skeleton dictionary which I could fill in with a new language being created. The point was to help me get out of certain lexical ruts, while still creating a language that would be more or less internally consistent. I gave up on that project, but one side effect was a lot of reading about recent work in lexical typology. I found the semantic maps especially interesting as tools for conlanging. I've collected a bunch of that work in A Conlanger's Thesaurus.

The core of that document is a word list, lightly edited, but mixed in whenever possible are cross-linguistic semantic maps, to prod thinking about new possibilities for words that don't simply reproduce the semantic boundaries of languages I already know. There are still a lot of gaps, but this seems a good start.

The last two pages have some dense but very interesting semantic maps relating to matters most people would consider grammatical rather than lexical. But there's a lot of interesting stuff there, too. Whenever possible I have included links to free, online papers and articles which discuss the maps in much more detail, so people can hunt down details if they are moved to do so.

If you know of cross-linguistic maps I have missed, please let me know. I'm sure I'll be updating this document from time to time as I run across new work.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Kahtsaai: a year old

I just noticed that the document sketch.pdf in my Kahtsaai directory is dated to April 23, 2011, meaning I just missed Kahtsaai's birthday. Taking a quick look at that sketch, it's interesting how much of the basic character of the language was firmly settled in just three not-very-dense pages with a whopping 20-word vocabulary.

For example, the conjugation table of subject and object prefixes is very similar, with the biggest change being the addition of several conditioned variants for the third person inanimate object, and the indefinites (thank you, Nahuatl). The sound system is completely unchanged, which shows serious restraint for me. The inchoative went from being a suffix, -píí to an aspectual prefix, -yé'-. The verb chain got a new slot just for those aspectual and adverbial prefixes.

I somehow derived an entire system of deixis from the single word hó'owa, thus.

Amusingly, the clause-final discourse particle łaai, undefined in the sketch, was briefly turned into the word yes, but now again sits without definition. It was used in the phrase, "s/he will make tea łaai." I suppose I really should find a meaning for it, given it's seniority.

It's at 973 lexical entries, including sublemmata. Perhaps I can spend the weekend getting that up to 1000.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Agreement of What?

I recently ran across this page about transitivity. Section six, "Problem Cases," mentions two languages in which it appears that the verb transitivity is cross-referenced on other constituents in the clause, in particular, adverbs and noun phrases acting adverbially. The first of the Shipibo-Conibo examples has two other elements in the clause so marked, Jain-xon-ra there-TRNS-EV and xobo-n-xon house-LOC-TRNS.

I don't think I'm going to be using this feature any time soon, but some people might find it alluring.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Art and Conlanging

If you listened to the out-takes from the most recent Conlangery Podcast you heard an out-of-context quote from an experience I had in college. I went to a show of performance art pieces put on by art students. One of the episodes involved a man walking out on stage with a boom box, turning on some industrial music, stripping naked and proceeding to duct-tape sausage to himself.

From time to time, both on the show and off, Bianca and I have amused ourselves by imagining how various schools of art would map to styles of language invention. But now I think we've been going at this backwards. There is nothing intrinsically confusing about an earnest, naked gentleman with kielbasa affixed to his person. The problem is that no one in the audience knew what language he was speaking. If he had passed out a grammar and lexicon first, the audience would have some idea of what he was trying to say.

So, my current idea is that conceptual art is actually a form of conlanging. People just don't realize it yet.

Maybe I can get a paper in Social Text about this...

Sunday, January 8, 2012

And ACADEW, too: Tsolyáni

While some of us invented our first languages without any idea others might indulge in this hobby, most of us come to it through exposure to some other conlang. Esperanto was the most likely for a long time, and many, many of us create languages in the Mirkwood-deep shadow of Tolkien's languages. Somewhat more recently, Klingon may be the first taste of invented languages, and now Na'vi and Dothraki are bringing a few to the hobby.

I don't remember if I had seen Esperanto when I started creating my first languages — puny relexes of English with hybrid German-Latin grammars, including the dative case before I even know what one did with it. The deepest influence on my languages, however, come from an author who never invented a single language, Frank Herbert.

When Herbert needed non-English touches, he grabbed historical human languages and made modest sound changes, largely to accommodate his editors, I'm sure. Arabic infuses the books (CHOAM = OPEC), and Romani makes a regular appearance. He even grabs Ancient Egyptian once. But Herbert's thinking about language is deeply influenced by General Semantics. In particular, he was always worried about the ways our use of language conceals from us our assumptions about the world. I don't think he ever has a character say, "the map is not the territory," but he might as well have.

Herbert was also preoccupied with how far human capabilities could be extended without the aid of advanced computing technology. The Butlerian Jihad was necessary to wipe computers and AI from his science-fiction world to allow him to explore this. (As a side note, how on earth are the psychotropics used through the works, of which the Spice is but one, not technologies?) Herbert imagines a future in which the ruling classes use many, many languages. Even the soldiers have to master the battle language of the House they work for. (Conlang as impenetrable code has been used by more than one language inventor, I'm sure.)

The language that haunts me to this day is mentioned in Dune Messiah. It is mirabhasa:

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

Now, I have never figured out what phalange consonant is supposed to be. I'm guessing he misremembered "pharyngeal" from perusing Arabic, but one never knows.

In any case, I have tried through the years my own variations on a mirabhasa language, with different focuses. The results are often fiendishly complex and not very usable. Then I step back and try something daintier, only to find it falling short of my own ideas about such a language. Herbert took the best course in never attempting to create the language, instead bringing it into the scene as a way to allow him to comment on the political, social and power dynamics of a conversation between four very powerful groups. I, however, keep trying.

I recently hunted down copies of M.A.R. Barker's two-volume documentation on the Tsolyáni language. I have the second printing of it, published in 1981, somewhere between two and four years before I undertook the construction of my first little languages. It is a shame it is not more well-known. It has far more complete than any of Tolkien's languages, more interesting and naturalistic than Esperanto, and easier to learn and better described than Klingon. The grammar is full of examples. A precis may be found here.

Tsolyáni, naturally, has three separate ways to encode emotional and social judgements about discourse topics — two on the nouns, and one on the verbs.

First, nouns may take "general attitude prefixes," which encode personal judgements, though the same slot takes a few prefixes locating a discourse topic in time (the accents are primary and secondary stresses),

  • shàrzakási "the captain whom I somewhat humorously despise" (kási "captain")
  • chiqèkbásrim "the comically inept man" (básrim "man")
  • hoqòkólumel "the future emperor" (kólumel "emperor")

Second, nouns may take "general attitude suffixes." While the prefixes above encode one's personal opinions, these mark general assessments. So, korùsskási "the captain whom I despise and hate" vs. kásigakoi "the (widely) hated captain." From the grammar, "... contains a large number of suffix elements (or perhaps 'secondary compounding stems?') which denote "objectively held" attitudes toward the noun. These items describe the status, rank, size, and other clearly perceptible qualities of the noun — including emotional attitudes towards the noun which are shared by others besides the speaker" (3.160).

Finally, verbs may take "attitude prefixes" containing "some twenty to thirty members." These indicate the way an action is performed in the opinion of the speaker,

  • ramissúm "to slay in a contemptible fashion" (missúm "slay")
  • lüchyiráu "to pilfer" (yiráu "steal", lüch- "to act in a petty, miserly, cowardly fashion")
  • tludímlal "to strike fanatically" (dímlal "strike, hit")
  • bashtaskótl "to advance loyally" (taskótl "to advance as an army")

So, here is Mr. Barker using techniques in the 1970s it would take me a good 20 years to get to myself. Tsolyáni is a good example of why conlangers should study (or at least read the grammars of) as many different kinds of languages as possible. Barker's dissertation was a grammar of Klamath, and he is clearly quite familiar with Nahuatl.

While it might have been nice to know about Tsolyáni when I was younger, I'm not sure how likely it is I would have been to able to keep the grammar when I was a kid. It has drawings of naked slave-ladies on the front cover of both the grammar and the dictionary.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Perceiving ANADEW

One feature of Láadan that always struck me as odd was how it handled perception. There are no verbs for see, hear, taste, etc., rather there is a single verb láad perceive, which is used with an instrumental noun to clarify.

I hear you.

I was never clear what effect Elgin was aiming at with this, and it has always struck me as unnatural. I should know better, but if you had asked me last week if this would occur in a natural language, I would have said, "no." But no, it does occur — in one language, Kobon.

Kobon is known for having a very small number of verbs — on the order of 100, of which about 20 get regular use. It achieves clarity by combing the verbs with nouns, adjectives and adverbs. So, eye perceive for see, ear perceive for hear, etc. It heads off into territory even Láadan wouldn't enter, with sleep perceive for dream (Láadan ozh).

I really should know better by now.

Some people might enjoy A universal constraint on sensory lexicon, or when hear can mean 'see'? (PDF).