Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Words of Immiseration

You never know what's going to lead your conlang to new grammar.

More than a month ago I was reading a bit by and about Hannah Arendt, and I realized Kílta was lacking a few bits of vocabulary I'd need if I wanted to convey some thoughts on my reading. In particular, I was looking to be able to describe ways in which communities and societies immiserate and even kill people. In particular, I was struck by the notion of entire populations being essentially ignored to death (refugees, mostly, come in for this sort of treatment).

But to say someone has been ignored to death is actually a fairly complex bit of grammar. The to death part here is a resultative secondary predicate. I had been considering secondary predicates ("I painted the wall red," for example) in Kílta for a while, and had some notes from a little research I had done on the topic, but hadn't committed to anything yet. If I wanted my immiserable expressions, I'd need to make a decision, to go with secondary predication, or pick some other method. Not all languages use secondary predication, after all.

In the end, I decided to use secondary predication, and picked a slightly unusual (but attested) way to do this: an adverb immediately before the verb can be interpreted either as a manner adverb or as a secondary predicate. Given Kílta's love of argument dropping, some ambiguity is possible, but I try not to let potential ambiguity stop me, especially if I can convince myself context will clear things up (most of human communication is context, anyway). At any rate, here's an example:

Tërta si mámui tëlpo.
meat ACC soft.ADV cook.PFV
They cooked the meat (until) soft.

The secondary predicate here is the adverb form of the adjective mámin soft.

Postpositional expressions in the shape [N mai] (the lative), can also be used preverbally as secondary predicates:

Këchar në vós mai këkíno.
government TOP plague LAT ignore.PFV
The government ignored its way into a plague.

Note here that, while in standard English secondary predicates can only refer to the object, in Kílta the subject (or topic, as here) can also take secondary predication. For more possibilities and subtleties of Kílta secondary predicates, see the grammar (section 10.6, as of July 2020).

So now I had constructions for secondary predication, but I did not just create a schematic way to handle all these expressions of immiseration. While Kílta is not a rigorously naturalistic conlang, I do consider plausibility an important part of its esthetics. A too tidy chart always makes me wince a bit. In any case, in a few places result converbs are used rather than secondary predication. That said, I did concoct a small number of rather specific adverbs for use as secondary predicates.

For example, I already had the word ína outcast, exile, pariah. I needed an adverb for this, and decided to use an "archaic" derivation to produce an unused intermediary form *ísa which was then turned into the adverb ísui in the way of an exile, outcast, and as a secondary predicate, into exile:

Ámatulásilur si ísui pëcho.
refugee.PL ACC into.exile oppress.PFV
They oppressed the refugees into exile.

On the other hand, I simply conconcted a new root adverb, méstë, which means something like harming the household or family. It turned out to be surprisingly easy to find uses for this outside secondary predicates.

Vós në méstë memúlo.
plague TOP harming.family CIS.arrive.PFV
The plague reached us, harming the household.

As a secondary predicate:

Símur në mélá si méstë túkwilo.
3PL TOP parent.PL ACC harming.family humiliate.PFV
They humiliated the parents until the family took harm.

Finally, I needed to death. I did not simply want to use the verb die or some expression too like English here. Kílta already has a strong association in other expressions of os dust with the entropic effects of time, and it was only a little stretch to push this into dying territory. I used a special locative adverbial derivation, which means down(ward) to, giving ostorë:

Avur në ámatulásilur si ostorë këkíno.
1PL TOP refugee.PL ACC to.death ignore.PFV
We ignored the refugees to death.

Not the lightest topic, to be sure, but I've now filled out a parts of a sadly useful semantic field, and acquired a useful piece of new grammar as part of the bargain. On my phone I have a document that's just an ever-growing list of expressions I want to add to Kílta. Most of the time I get new words out of this, but once in a while a whole new corner of grammar appears.

Monday, July 22, 2019

But then I took an aversion to the knee: constructions and collocations

I've been on a Construction Grammar (CxG) kick for a while now. I gave a talk about using it as a creative tool at LCC7. We talked about it on a recent Conlangery episode (Conlangery #140: Word Classes with William Croft). I don't want to go into great detail here, but the fundamental difference between CxG and the usual grammatical theories we're familiar with is that in CxG a construction is any pairing of form and meaning. In CxG, your grammar and your lexicon are not separate things — they're all constructions. Examples:

  • morphemes: pre-, -ing
  • word: and, sleep, peanut
  • complex word: daredevil
  • schematic complex word (partially filled): [N-s] (regular plurals)
  • idiom: give the Devil his due
  • schematic idiom: jog memory
  • ditransitive: Subj V Obj1 Obj2 (e.g., he gave her a book)
For conlanging, the most exciting thing about uniting lexicon and syntax into constructions is that everything that can happen to words can happen to all constructions: polysemy (have several meanings), grammaticalize, undergo semantic shift historically, appear and disappear as a fad (think "I did it because reasons"), etc., etc.

One very important feature of words is that they tend to have friends — words they appear with more often than chance or even semantics would suggest. Often these pairings mean something more than just the combination of the parts. For example, "dry land" is not simply land that is dry. It is used to contrast to bodies of water. Think also of: confirmed bachelor, insist firmly, seriously ill, etc., etc. These collocations (as they are called) are also a kind of construction.

I heard an English turn of phrase recently that go me thinking about collocations. I'm going to work out the associations and collocational restrictions a bit, with some help from Google. But this is not just an analysis of English. Think about using things like this in your own conlangs.

The schema is: Take (a/the) X to Y.  Now, this can be used as simple expression with an obviously compositional (non-idiomatic) meaning: I took the book to work. But things get interesting when we make specific selections for X and Y.

For example, if for X we pick a bladed object, and Y is some normal target for activity with that object: he took a razor to my beard; Thomas Jefferson took a scalpel to his copy of the gospels; [Girl] took a machete to this kid's car and completely just smashed it.

The word razor is in this, and from there it seems that other grooming tools can be brought into this construction: She took a razor to my hair, and it looked good at first; Ellen DeGeneres took a trimmer to Julian Edelman! she did use a diffuser but then also took a comb to my hair.

Another line of development, again seemingly related to cutting implements, is tools: the Fire Department took a Ax to the trunk and windows; on the last week of lab a lab technician took a saw to the top of the cadaver's head and removed his brain as a final organ for study in our lab; the aftermath of a carpenter bee infestation can look like a deranged carpenter took a drill to your property just for the fun of it. And then this use seems even to spread to stapler, and from that to other adhesion methods: it feels like someone took a stapler to my left eyeball; I took glue to my wanton collection, pasted together each part of each story and tried to make the edges fit; we took some pictures of a "DADS INN" (the sign obviously a Days Inn until someone took duct tape to it).

Perhaps yet another development of either the blade sense or the tool sense, weapons can be used: in the early part of the campaign, Baker took a bazooka to an entire ridge of enemy forces assaulting his company. Interestingly, when I looked for take a shovel to, most clear examples of this construction when the shovel was being used offensively, though not always: I took a shovel to the tawny daylilies that doubled in number every year; 7 grammar mistakes that make others want to take a shovel to your face.

From here there's a an interesting development where if X is a ballistic item and Y is a body part, the subject of the expression is on the receiving end of the action, always bad: McCarthy stepped in front of President Reagan, and took a bullet to the chest but made a full recovery; he took a mortar to his chest, and he was cut off behind enemy lines; he took a baseball to the face this weekend, but temporarily stayed in the game; "I used to be an adventurer like you, but then I took an arrow to the knee."

Finally, there is a completely different development, an interpersonal reading where certain nouns of liking and aversion are used to indicate an inchoative sense: He took a liking to his new neighbor; that's why Biggie took a like to them, because they lived what they rapped about; Laura took a shine to her at the interview and offered her the job; she took a dislike to me after a small argument over my political beliefs; I remember a race of lispers, fine persons, who took an aversion to particular letters in our language.

Here's a map of what I think is going on semantically:

There are probably some senses I have missed. This is probably an over-rich example of constructional flexibility. Regardless, it's worth thinking along these lines when developing vocabulary and idiom for your conlang.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Derivation of the Day: tëtúmot

For Kílta, tëtúmot sauce, via intensive reduplication of the verb tuëmo pound, and the object noun suffix -ot.

Korka vë tëtúmot në kwilë chesëtin no.
(wal)nut ATTR sauce TOP too salty be.PFV
The walnut sauce is too salty.

Korka is by default a walnut, but is used in other nut terms generically.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Quantitative Verse References

Over time I've collected a few references to quantitative verse forms from different poetic traditions. The primary feature of these systems is that syllable weight is the defining measure of verse, rather than patterns of stress or syllable counting.
I'm sure there are some traditions I'm missing.

I've never successfully created a poetic system for one of my conlangs. Though Kílta has vowel length, it looks like syllable counting will be the way to go for it, but there are still plenty of experiments to work out.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019


After several years of slow work, I think Kílta is far enough along that I don't mind other people seeing the documentation: Kílta (PDF via Dropbox).

The thing I'm most pleased with this is that the dictionary is so large, and has so many examples. I've been on a pro-examples kick for quite a few years, but this is the first language I've worked on where nearly every word has an example sentence, often more than one. As of the day I write this post, Kílta has:

  • 1158 headwords
  • 166 sub-headwords (idioms, light verb constructions, etc.)
  • 1592 definitions on the above
  • 1924 examples for everything
That said, there are still a handful of words I didn't bother to give examples to, but as I notice them and non-idiotic examples present themselves I'll add them. The main benefit to a good example is that it helps nail down the semantics more clearly. If I really cannot come up with an example that clarifies the meaning at least a little, I'm liable to skip it a bit, though some examples created for other words may end up in a definition, even if it isn't terribly clarifying.

A good chuck of Kílta's semantic development is created with a desire to avoid obviously compositional meaning. So, in addition to the many examples, a good number of "idioms," there are sections on conceptual metaphor, as well as the introduction of a small bit of vague supernaturalism which permits even more idiom construction. Check out the definition of virka stomach for an example of me having fun developing idioms. Once you create one or two of these, more suggest themselves over the years.

For most of Kílta's life I have kept a very short and almost always dull diary in the language. This is an amazing tool for grammar and lexical development. But you have to be prepared to write a lot of tedious things at the start, or you'll just overwhelm yourself. Talking about the weather can, with a little grammatical imagination, be a great testing ground for: conjunctions and other sequencing constructions, thinking about tense, thinking about coreference, thinking about those parts of discourse that expose a speaker's feelings about what they are saying, report clauses, counterexpectation, etc., etc.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Lexember 31st: unëho, "be satiated"

The final word for the 2018 Lexember season is unëho /ʔu.ˈnə.xo/ be satiated. It is most used with expressions of consuming, generally as a converb,

Ha në sanët unëho.
ha në san-ët unëh-o
1SG TOP eat-CVB.PFV be.satiated-PFV
I've eaten enough.  Or, I'm full.

Ton në ilët unëho tul?
2SG TOP drink.CVB.PFV be.satiated.PFV Q
Have you had enough to drink?

But it can be used alone,

Ronuin në vurun unëho më.
aristocrat TOP when be.satiated.PFV NEG
Aristocrats are never satiated.

Singular nouns with the topic marker can be used to refer to a class.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Lexember 30th: tëlpeka, "oven, furnace"

Today's word, tëlpeka /təl.ˈpe.ka/ oven, furnace, is related to the word tëlpo to cook.

Tëlpeka mai chan si salki re.
oven LAT dish ACC put.IMP PART
Put the dish into the oven.

Ën tëlpeka në asíkal si atenkëlat harno tul.
ën tëlpeka në asíkal si atenk-ël-at harn-o tul
this furnace TOP metal ACC melt-CAUS-INF be.able-PFV Q
Can this furnace melt metal?

There is a lot of interesting lexical typology, metaphor, and idiom around cooking, but I haven't yet concocted any connections from those to this word.

Words of Immiseration

You never know what's going to lead your conlang to new grammar. More than a month ago I was reading a bit by and about Hannah Arendt,...