Wednesday, July 28, 2010

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-má read (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. For several of them, such as kwí- by thought, by contemplation, by planning, the significance can be pretty metaphorical, as in kwí-'ééz rage from ééz burn.

All verbs with instrumental prefixes are transitive (a habit sometimes seen in natural languages with these). Any noun stem is converted to a verbal meaning when taking one of these prefixes.

A lot of fun lexical derivation can go on with these:

olo-'éke bore someone to tears olo- by falling, by dropping, éke head
olo-míír to cast a shadow, shade something olo- by falling, by dropping, míír shadow, shade
nóó-ját write nóó- by color, by dye, ját sign, mean
ró-nó'ó interrupt someone speaking ró- by language, speaking, nó'ó to break off
thahe-nó'ó burn, cauterize something off thahe- by fire, heat, nó'ó to break off
xaa-nó'ó cut off xaa- by edge, by blade, by arm, nó'ó to break off
bii-vích spit something a distance bii- by mouth, vích to take flight, to enter the air
thahe-vích to rise into the air from heat thahe- by fire, heat, vích to take flight, to enter the air

Direction and Mode

To the left of any instrumental prefix come the direction prefixes. Most of the time they are oriented to the speaker, but the focus of orientation can shift in a narrative. Bixwá has the usual set, chu- for away from the speaker and ní- towards the speaker. These give direction to basic verbs of motion, such as áá which without other marking can mean either go or come.

These prefixes interact with the aspect prefixes to give some refinements. With stative verbs (which do the job of adjectives in Bixwá), chu- with the perfective ho- gives the inchoative, né chuhochis I got sick (from chis to be ill, weak). With any verb type, ní- with the conclusive perfective isii forms the experiential perfect,

I have read that book

The prefix lii- is a deictic marker that situates the action in some communications technology, usually some online social sphere. It goes into the same slot as the direction prefixes. Rarely it can co-occur with one of them, and will be to the left, but more likely it will drive any direction prefix away.

We talked together.

The Verb Template

After all of that, the full template for verb affixes is:

Direction - Instrumental - Aspect - STEM - Voice

Next I'll cover the preverbs, which will always occur before the verb complex I've given above. They're not counted part of the affix chain, since their phonology precludes their use as prefixes.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

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:

I 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.

I see a dog.

I see a book.

Note that inanimate direct objects often do not take accusative case marking. A sentence like né áka deezh, using an animate verb with an inanimate direct object, would be an outright error, not implying anything.


Bixwá is quite fastidious about verb transitivity, and requires overt marking to covert valency. The detransitive suffix is (')óó. The transitive suffix, which is also the causative, also makes an animacy distinction in the direct object, with -(')azh for inanimates, -(')azhe for animates. These suffixes have the additional effect of converting any noun they are attached to into a verb, as in báá'óó be angry from báá anger.

After much going back and forth, I finally decided to give Bixwá a passive. Unlike the English passive, though, it can only be used when there is no agent at all. If the agent is named, you have to use a focus construction in the active. A stem is made passive with the circumfix di-V-e, though the final -e part has various realizations if the verb ends in a vowel. Again, animacy must be considered: né dideezhe I am seen, not *né dimáa.


There are three layers of prefixes for the verb, and that's not including the raft of obligatorily pre-verbal particles. The innermost set, that will always occur immediately before the verb root, marks aspect. There are six aspect prefixes, the imperfective, the perfective, the habitual, the inceptive, the continuative and the punctual (or conclusive) perfective. Note, though, that there are other aspects available (in particular, the inchoative for stative verbs) that involve a mix of aspect prefixes and other verb morphology. I'll cover those in a later section.

Did you see him?

He always talks too much.

Coming Soon

Next time I'll talk about the powerful and very common instrumental prefixes as well as the direction and mode prefixes, before moving on to the complexities of the preverbs in yet another post. In the last post (four in total), I hope to talk about the ways I've used combinations of prefix types and the preverbs for refinements of aspect, syntax and pragmatics (discourse effects).

Thursday, July 15, 2010

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 "cash machine" to my languages, but I've played with various ways of integrating technology, especially communications technologies (i.e., computers), into the language in a more fundamental way. One sketch language from a few years ago, Onju, had six noun classes, one of which was for things humans build and related tools, and one was just for e-things. The class marking was partially lexical, and you could take word for "tree," sor which normally fell into the ër plant class, and drop it into the e-thing class giving orí sor, which refers to any of the branching abstractions computer science people call "trees."

Onju was set aside due to some design flaws, but many ideas were recycled into Nezhan. Nezhan dropped the classes, but did include a demonstrative pronoun set just to describe things online, with lhidhaal effectively referring only to an online representation of a human being, what's usually called an avatar. Plenty of natural languages include derivational affixes you can tack onto a verb to mean "go somewhere in order to VERB." In Nezhan, I had that, but also -mál which meant "go somewhere online in order to VERB."

Nezhan was also quickly abandoned, but is the direct ancestor of Bixwá. Bixwá picks up the "go online to X" verb affix (-lobi), but did not import the online deixis markers. Instead, any verb can be situated in an electronic, communications or virtual environment with the verb prefix lii-, which falls into the same slot that verbal direction marking goes.

We were hanging out together.


We were hanging out together (online).

I've had less obvious success in getting rid of the air of Victorian discretion from my languages. Even the language I've worked on the longest, Vaior, has very little in the way of cursing. I tend to add vocabulary by semantic field (one idea leads to another). Just last week I finally added a little sexual vocabulary to Bixwá, and I actually used the Latin mons veneris in one definition! I don't swear a whole lot in my daily life, but I certainly do from time to time — what Unix sysadmin does not? — and once in a blue moon I can indulge in some pretty serious vulgarity. I like to save it for special occasions, for more impact. I have no philosophical reason to exclude these from my languages.

The biggest difficulty in cursing language is that it's as much a matter of culture as language. Modern English tends to stick with sexual and other biological terms, but in some places blasphemy is still the way to get really angry (I'll always remember a Spanish curse involving the 24 testicles of the Apostles). In this one matter I haven't ever followed Tolkien — I don't create cultures to go with my languages. I've always been more interested in my languages for my own purposes, but sometimes it is easier to get over some language design questions with at least the hint of a culture to go with it. Vaior got a vague cultural dusting to help it along. I suppose Bixwá may too, eventually. I'd rather not resort to English just to curse.

1I misspelled that word view the first time through.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

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 syur person (pl. sisyur), véu study; inspect:

syur véu student (person-study)
?sisyur véu students?
?syur véune students?

Right now I'm leaning toward sisyur véu, but I'll worry about this for a few more days before deciding. Hopefully it won't take as long as Bixwá's relative clauses took — I worried about that for longer than a month before making a decision.

And I'm not even ready to worry about verb compounds. Do they keep the same headedness pattern? Right now I'm inclined to make N-V compounds follow that order, verb last, dli word, ba see:

?syur véu ba dli a student reads
?syur véu dli ba a student reads

And verb compounds will have the same puzzle for plurals. Again, for now I'm inclined to make the plural and tense marking go into the original V element, wherever it ends up in the compound.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

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 kóis A man sleeps
Órói këskóis men sleep (reduplication for the verb, and the plural of man happens to be irregular, órói)

This double-marking of plurality is quite redundant — but also quite common in human languages.

The second habit is the tendency to avoid ambiguity. In beginning (or engineered) conlangs, this commonly presents itself in the form of perfectly identifiable word classes. Every derived adverb in Esperanto, for example, ends in the same letter, -e. In Láadan all the speech act morphemes begin in the letter b-. In one of my earlier languages, Mavod, all the tense markers begin with the sound sh-, and other word classes exhibit the same patterning. I've been getting away from this habit, which I now find rather dull, and in Bixwá I have evidentials I would once have felt slightly uncomfortable about and avoided. They are suffixed to the clause, usually landing on the verb:

-aazh obvious, "of course, as we know"
-sh direct perception
-xw supposition, inference
-jin report
-jíín report from untrusted source

Only the two report evidentials show any family relationship. Further, there are plenty of verb stems that end in -sh and -xw, a situation I would once have avoided.

The third habit I call "orthogonality," which presents itself in multiple guises. I'm abusing the mathematical concept of orthogonality, but by this I mean the tendency to ensure maximal distinctiveness in whatever feature we happen to be working on at the moment. For example, we might mark all tenses using the same morphological pattern, or we might fill out all the possibilities of tense and aspect if we've decided a language needed that. Some natural languages do work this way, but plenty do not. Navajo, for example, is most preoccupied with marking aspect rather than tense. Nonetheless, it does have a future. For Tsrai, I've decided the verb has only past and non-past tense marking.

In Bixwá I have deliberately mixed aspectual marking among different sorts of morphology. For examples, the aspect "begin to" is marked with the aspect prefix koo-, but if you want to talk about a stative verb (what English uses adjectives for) entering a state, one uses a mix of the perfective prefix ho- and the outward direction prefix, cho-. For example, jed is be cold. To say "it got cold," you use chohojed (cho-ho-jed out.away-PRF-be.cold).

I have also mixed up certain matters of syntax and pragmatics in different places in the language. For example, Bixwá does have some conjunctions that work as in English, but it also has some preverbs that do jobs much like conjunctions (preverbs are mostly adverbial particles that must occur in a fixed relationship to the verb, and which don't participate in other morphology). For example, the preverb wil indicates continuation, "then, and then, next,"

Né wil kora-n ho-deezh.
1SG PREVERB:then dog-ACC PFV-see.
And then I saw the dog.

I have also grabbed the preverb sa', thus, there, at that time, for a discourse function — it asserts narrative integrity, that the statement is related to the current discourse. This is useful when something surprising or unexpected is being said, but I find I use it a lot in any narrative. I've also grabbed the preverb jééx, which carries "emerging, up and out" ideas, to be yet another way to indicate an inceptive or inchoative sense for transitive verbs (distinct from the stative verb cho-ho- pairing).

Some years ago Jesse Bangs posted to the conlang mailing list The Conlanger's Rant, which suggested among other things conlanging schools and conlang criticism, himself being a devotee of the "naturalistic" school. Along with a lot of conlangers, I was rather turned off by this idea. Among other things, I've never aimed at perfect naturalism in a language. I certainly had no desire to belong to a Naturalistic School of Language Creation, and still do not. But my tastes in how a language I'll find interesting ought to be constructed have changed, with the surprising result that I've been pulled more in the naturalistic direction, not from a desire for naturalness, but from boredom.

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.

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,...