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If Zamenhof had been Cree

In the last few days there has been a few posts on the conlang-l list about conlangs based moribund or dead languages. Since Native American languages were named, it reminded me of thoughts that have rolled around in my head from time to time over the last year or so.

I don't really deal in auxlangs, but it a moment of musing it occured to me that the only real chance one has of being widely adopted in the U.S. is if Native Americans one day get sick of conducting their inter-tribal business in English and decide they need something else. No existing Native language would probably really work for several reasons. First, an auxlang should be a lot easier than a natural language to learn, and there not a single Native language easy enough to reasonably fill the auxlang role. Second, there would be political problems — there are standing tensions between some tribes, some of which go back very far indeed. For example, there are probably very few Hopi or Navajo who would be willin…

Old High Coochy-Coo

Of those few conlangs that reach a pretty well-developed state (beyond 1500 words or so, a reasonable corpus), a good number will have well-defined formal and literary registers. Part of this is probably yet another lingering influence of Tolkien, though for most people a literary conlang may be the first they encounter. In my own Vaior I created syntax and a good dose of parallel vocabulary for fairly common words used only in the poetic register (raie was the normal word for star, emme poetic), as well as poetic syntax (animate direct objects of perception verbs are in the genitive, not accusative).

One thing I've never seen in a conlang is baby-talk. How different cultures talk to children isn't exactly universal. Some people don't talk directly to children until they have something interesting to say back, without apparently causing developmental problems. But it's a pretty common practice. What I would not have suspected, until I read about it a few days ago,…

The Bixwá Verb: Part the Third

If the multiple layers of affixing on the verb stem aren't enough, there are also three slots for preverbs in Bixwá. The idea for these comes from the Algic/Algonquian languages. In those the preverbs are actually affixes, too, but in Bixwá these are separate words. I did this for two reasons. First, Bixwá has more phonetic flexibility at the end of a word than it does at internal syllable codas. Second, I didn't want to deal with noun incorporation — inanimate direct objects come between a verb and its preverbs, while inanimates do not.

Tense and Mood

The leftmost preverbs have to deal with tense, sequencing and mood. The tense preverbs aren't much used, though the future, ivi is most likely to be seen of the bunch. Much more frequent is wil, which indicates sequencing, "and then, and next" and the like. Two of the preverbs are involved in conditional sentences, which I will save for a different post.

Adverbial One

After the tense and mood preverbs come a se…

Bixwá by Foot

Right now both Bixwá and Tsrai are in a phase of moderate vocabulary growth. I'll ponder a few days, the bang out a few dozen words in a short time. Apart from creating a number system (which I always dread), creating vocabulary is always the most trying task of language creation for me.

As part of my campaign to avoid orthogonality, I have been making an effort to use analogy more. This has lead in interesting directions with the instrumental prefix zu-, which has the base meaning of by foot, with the foot. For example, tik means fall (over), and zu-tik means to knock over by foot (remember, using the instrumental prefixes always results in a transitive verb).

I decided that zu- could also be used to indicate mob violence of some sort, by way of the idea of trampling or stampeding over people. For example, from dó'arule, custom, tradition, we get zu-dó'aimpose a political or social regime on people. From there I went to zu-bayísubjugate, oppress from bayíendure, toler…

A Gallimaufry

Na'vi
I've managed to get myself on a panel for a local con this fall to chat about the science of Avatar. In theory, I'm there to talk about language. We'll see how many people in the audience are interested in that.

Tsrai
Tsrai now has nice set of postural verbs. I'm still thinking about the semantics of these, especially in verb chains, but I'm ridiculously pleased to be able to say this,

weor-tablasrabbëdzwai3SGdrink-PSTbeerget.horizontalhappenHe drank so much beer he ended up on the ground.

Inspiration
I recently got myself a copy of The Languages of Native North America by Marianne Mithun. What an astonishing diversity of languages this continent used to have. Language inventors will find so much inspiration in this book.

The Bixwá Verb: Part the Second

In the previous post on Bixwá's verb system, I talked about grammatical affixes, aspect and valency. This post will cover affixes that are more lexical, though the direction prefixes are used for some aspectual refinements. The verb so far:

Aspect - STEM - Voice

Instrumental Prefixes
I got the idea for the instrumental prefixes, once again, from Native languages of North America, though not Athabascan for a change. Instrumental prefixes are fairly common in unrelated languages across a wide area, from Haida in British Columbia to the Siouan languages of the plains. The Bixwá set is larger than some, but is by no means the largest.

The instrumental prefix comes to the left of any aspect prefix. The instrumental prefix will be separated from the verb stem by any aspect prefix, and I use a dash in the lexicon as a reminder, ró-máread (from ró-by/with words, language and see).

In Bixwá the instrumental prefixes can cover a range of meanings, not all of which are really instrumental.…

The Bixwá Verb: Part the First

In general I devote a lot of loving attention to my languages' verb systems. Nezhan, the sketch that led to Bixwá, produced things like this:

né-wíi-x-máá-di1sg.SUBJ-NO.CONTROL-2sg.OBJ-see-PFVI happened to catch sight of you.

This was a little too much like Athabascan languages, so I pulled back a bit. I no longer cross-reference the subject and direct object in the verb, but I still manage to pack a lot into the verb. Like Nezhan — and the Athabascan languages — a great deal of the verb's morphology is by prefixing, though Bixwá does mark valency and control changes with suffixes.

The Verb Stem

Most Bixwá root verbs are single syllable roots, though two-syllable roots are also well-represented. There is a small set of common transitive verbs which have two forms, one for animate direct objects, one for inanimate direct objects. For example, is see for inanimate DOs. For animate DOs, you must use deezh.

kora-ndeezh1SGdog-ACCsee.ANI see a dog.

áka1SGbooksee.IAI see a b…

In the Shadow of Tolkien

When I was about 16 or 17 I happened to run across a copy of The Monstors and the Critics, a collection of essays by J.R.R. Tolkien. Much of it is devoted to English literature, but it also includes the essay The Secret Vice, about constructing languages. So, I got exposed to a manifesto in defense of this hobby at a fairly impressionable age.

A few years ago I noticed that I had somehow not only inherited from Tolkien a justification for the hobby of creating languages, but my languages seemed to reflect a world view1 to which I myself do not subscribe. In particular, my languages tended to be technophobic, if not actually indulging in the Romantic Weltschmerz that afflicts Tolkien's Elves, and my languages, even ones I never publish, tend to be remarkably chaste and polite. I've been trying to get away from these tendencies, especially the technophobia which was quite entrenched for a long time.

I have not been content to simply add words like "computer" and &quo…

How to handle Tsrai compounds?

I tend to worry about lexical expansion early in the creation of a language. It's entirely possible for me to have several bits of derivational morphology tested and ready before I've even started seriously with, say, the verb system. I favor rather complex derivational systems (see the madness of Vaior's derivational system), but in Tsrai I'm trying to be more restrained. So, there will be much more compounding using root words and little or no bound morpheme use. I'm currently thinking I'll follow the Vietnamese practice, and write each element of the compound separately.

Since Tsrai so far has been head-initial for noun phrases, it seems best to use head-initial compounds (although the typology on this isn't so clear-cut). The big question now is — how to mark plurals? Since most noun plurals are marked with the suffix -ne, do I tack that onto the compound head, or the full phrase? What if the head noun reduplicates for plurals? Using syurperson (…

Embracing Redundancy, Ambiguity and Nonorthogonality

Even though I have never created an auxlang (i.e., an auxiliary language, like Esperanto), there are still certain habits its easy for conlangers to fall into which seem to be more suited to auxlangs. The longer I create languages, though, the less I'm willing to tolerate some of these things.

The first habit is efficiency, the avoidance of seemingly redundant things, such as multiple forms of agreement. No human language is perfectly, or even partially, efficient. Indeed, redundancy in a spoken language is a positive benefit, since language happens in a noisy medium. Nonetheless, nearly all my languages avoid certain features. For example, I typically use either strict head marking or strict dependent marking. Rarely do I allow overlap, which is somewhat unusual.

At this point Bixwá is not going to chage in this regard, but I decided in Tsrai that I will mark the plurality of the subject in both the subject and the verb.

Gad kóisA man sleeps
Órói këskóismen sleep (reduplicati…

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

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 tab…

Airenen! Sózil! Howdy!

I've been inventing languages for a long time. The first one happened after my first encounter with Latin. I was probably 14 or 15. I never really stopped, though there have been slow times when other things occupied my time. For example, work on Vaior, the only language of mine other people have tried to learn, pretty much stopped when I got focused on Ancient Greek. But even then, I might create a quick sketch of a language on a few scraps of paper while awaiting to be called for the tender ministrations of a dental hygienist.

Recently I've been involved in the community of people trying to learn Na'vi that exploded after the film Avatar came out. For the first time in my life I was seeing people eager to know about verb aspect and ejective consonants. I like to encourage that sort of thing, so I've been happy to help them. This has also resulted in me getting back to language invention of my own. Rather than fill my old blog, currently mostly devoted to anci…