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).