Skip to main content


Showing posts from 2011

Misunderstanding Láadan

With the help of a Christmas gift card, I got myself a copy of From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages, which was released in November of this year, from Oxford University Press (emic review). It's a collection of academic papers about various language invention topics. See the review for more details.After I read the introduction, the first thing I did was go to the index to look for languages I know about. Láadan gets two mentions (in the index it is misspelled Láaden, but the page numbers point to the right place). In chapter 8, Suzanne Romaine's Revitalized Languages as Invented Languages, page 215, we get this lengthy paragraph,A similarity of purpose and motivation drives inventors of all new languages, whether in the real or fictional world. The perceived need for them arises from dissatisfaction with the current linguistic state of affairs. Recognition that language can be used for promoting or changing the social, cultural, and political order leads…

Kahtsaai Vocabulary: -(i)rwa

Learning a language represents training in the delusions of that language.1 I am a great collector of lexical derivation methods. I ran across one a while ago — I wish I could remember where — which I immediately grabbed for Kahtsaai (PDF). This resulted in a minor lexical upheaval, but I'm very fond of the results.The form is -rwa after vowels, -irwa after all consonants except r, l and ł, in which case it's just -wa. For now, it is only attached to verbs. It produces stative verbs meaning that something has the characteristic of causing or permitting the verbal action. That's a bit obscure. Some examples make it clearer:łeitfear, be afraid ofłeitirwascaryweirbe sickweirwacontagiousposétrust, believepóserwatrustworthy, believabletááítgo to someone for help; seek sanctuarytááítirwamessed up or dangerous beyond one's ability to cope with aloneSome of the resulting words are similar to English nouns in -able, but most are not. It seems very useful, and is so far do…

Natlang Inspiration: Navajo WOD

I sometimes worry that I get too enthusiastic with derivational morphology. Then I read things like this, from The Navajo Verb System: an Overview, by Robert W. Young, and I feel like a derivational slacker. It's a long quotation (pp. 57-59), but it's worth it.Note that in Athabascan linguistics, a "classifier" has nothing to do with the usual linguistic sense of that word, but has to do with transitivity. The null classifier is noted with Ø.The "run" verbs provide classic examples of crystalized metaphor."Singular-run" verbs are derived from a root WOD (Perfective Stem), the base meaning of which is "flex, bend." With Ø-Classifier the Verb Theme ØWOD is produced and this Theme, in combination with adverbial 'ahá-: apart, derives the Verb Base 'ahá-øwod with the meaning "bend apart, become disjointed," as in shigaan 'ahááwod: my arm became disjointed (bent apart). With Ł-Classifier the "bend" theme is…

Kahtsaai: the Irresultative

I recently ran across a line in reference to the mass of British politicians suddenly turning on Murdoch, "if you strike at the king you must kill him." That, and the slides from LCC4 about Dothraki, reminded me I needed to tackle the irresultative for Kahtsaai.

The irresultative is a bit of an odd beast — is it an aspect? lexical aspect? mood? Some languages are quite sensitive to telic irresultatives, such as Finnish which uses an irresultative construction for verbs of emotion, so that direct objects are marked with the partitive instead of the accusative. In English we have various ways to mark a failed attempt, such as the example above, "strike at someone," or the ever-popular, "she was talking at me."

For Kahtsaai, I'm less interested in lexical aspect, but wanted a way to encode an action that didn't quite work out, or didn't quite meet expectations. The most interesting formal marking for this I've been able to find is in Tarian…

Kahtsaai Word of the Day: Keilo'éík

Ok, so I'm not going to start a series on Kahtsaai words just now, but I thought I'd share this one...

When I arrived home today I noticed that the poor, ratty poppy I planted two years ago finally outpaced the bunnies and produced a single bloom. I decided Kahtsaai needed a word for "poppy," and I immediately thought of the vivid Homeric simile, when Gorgythion is hit by an arrow,

μήκων δ᾽ ὡς ἑτέρωσε κάρη βάλεν, ἥ τ᾽ ἐνὶ κήπῳ
καρπῷ βριθομένη νοτίῃσί τε εἰαρινῇσιν,
ὣς ἑτέρωσ᾽ ἤμυσε κάρη πήληκι βαρυνθέν.

His head fell to the side, just as a poppy, which in a garden
is weighed down with fruit and the rains of spring,
so his head nodded to the side, weighed down by his helmet.

(Please forgive the Old High Translationese. It is an occupational hazard of even the amateur classicist.)

So, the Kahtsaai word for "poppy" is keilo'éík, from keilsoldier, fighter and éíkhead.

Kahtsaai: Devising a Practical Orthography

All of my conlangs that do now or ever have existed are written in the Latin alphabet. I have from time to time tried my hand at inventing scripts, but the results are never satisfying. One of the first attractions to me about foreign languages was not the languages themselves, but the writing systems. I gave myself an intense early education in calligraphy in several scripts, which makes me a harsh judge of invented writing systems. I rarely find a conscript beautiful, or at least harmonious, and this applies doubly or triply so for my own. So, I'm stuck with Latin.

All my early languages aimed at a phonetic representation. Thus I was rather shocked the first time I encountered Dirk Elzinga's wonderful Tepa, which spells things like [tuɣu] as tuku and [yɨška] as yɨyka. But now that I've spent a lot more time staring at Native American languages — including plenty in the Uto-Aztecan family, which seems to be the inspiration for Tepa — I've come to appreciate phon…

A Little Kahtsaai

I've been churning through sketches and modifications in the last year, resulting in the current rather full language, Kahtsaai. A lot of the work is based on Bixwá, which in turn was the outcome of several sketches. It became clear that Bixwá was getting cognitively unwieldy for my purposes, so I stepped back. I generalized some of the ideas a bit. In particular, I ditched the instrumental prefixes in favor of full-on noun incorporation, with instrumental significance one use available for that (Mithun's type IV NI). This cleaned things up a bit.

I dropped case marking altogether, with one marginal exception. Semantically inanimate nouns are marked when they are the subject of a transitive verb. The verb subject prefix for an inanimate noun is also different. So, in both case marking and verb conjugation, inanimates follow an ergative alignment (mostly), while animates are nominative-accusative:

he-nop3IN-fall.overit fell over

kí-tá-nop-im3IN.TRANS-1SG-fall.over-CAUSit k…

Addicted to Dependency-marking

The cycle of revisions I've been working on in the last year and a half or so is winding down to a fixed set of features that I really like. But I have found there's one thing I've had a hard time giving up: case marking. A hefty chunk of what I'm aiming for is inspired by various areal features of North American native languages, where case marking (and dependency marking in general) is not exactly common.

Removing cases gives me deep anxieties, even though I know intellectually a language is perfectly capable of working fine without them, even if you have a nonconfigurational syntax. I spent part of today working through the behavior of applicatives, and have finally reassured myself multiple objects without overt marking can work just fine. Thinking about reasonable discourse situations, rather than concocted grammar puzzles of the sort one finds in old Latin textbooks, is a better guide to where real ambiguities can arise.


In January of this year a Frenchman working under the pseudonym Frédéric Werst had a book published, Ward : Ier-IIe siècle. I first heard about it at Language Hat. It's a historical anthology of the Wards, an invented people, in an invented language, Wardwesân. I figured my library of conlang grammars (Láadan, Esperanto, Klingon) could use some Gallic company, so I ordered the book. It finally arrived, and I thought I'd give a quick overview of the language a bit. I haven't yet had time to read the main body of the text too much — my French is rusty, and literary French is much harder going for me than technical French — but I'll grab a few examples from it for analysis.

Sound System

The vowels are a, ā, e, ē, o, ō, i, y and u. Long ā has regional variantions, pronounced either [œ] or, apparently, as a long /a/ (ou commme un â français très marqué). For /e/ and /o/ sounds the ones with the macrons are tense, those without are lax, e [ɛ] ē [e], o [ɔ] ō [o]. The y

A cute little word

I have in the last few months been spending more time working on natural languages. In particular, a treasure trove of documents on Uto-Aztecan languages has been interesting. Unfortunately, the English translation of Michel Launey's "Introduction to Classical Nahuatl" keeps having its release date pushed back. I look forward to getting my hands on that. Most Nahuatl textbooks in English currently available make the old-fashioned philological approach I learned Greek with look like progressive language pedagogy.

As an experiment, I started working on a new language back in October, not using my normal methods of notebook-then-webpage, but straight into LaTeX. The results certainly look more impressive once the major sections start to fill out. The cross-referencing is nicer, too. I think I need to work on a few more style tweaking macros. In any case, the language, Tsariku, started off as a cross between inspiration from Uto-Aztecan languages and ancient Greek. H…