Archive for the ‘grammar’ Category

Detail #401: Finite verbs, infinitives and …

Wednesday, September 9th, 2020

I have recently taken to writing longer, even more typologically informed posts that sit around in my drafts folder waiting to be finished. One such post will be about infinitives and related forms.

My original intent with the post was a bit less ambitious than it now is, and the original ideas I set out to give a context for now seem to fit better in a separate post altogether.

Let us consider finite verbs and infinitives. This is a very simple two-way split. Could we turn it into a three-way split?

It's of course easy to write a half-assed description in a grammar that says something like "this form is half-way between a finite verb and an infinite verb" - but half-way along what dimensions? What dimensions even separate the two kinds?

It turns out infinitives vary a lot from language to language, and not all languages even have them. However, one could possibly design the verb system in such a way that there are forms with different properties, and the verb forms form three or four clusters.

Maybe one could even get rid of the notion of a finite verb with some clever decisions, and instead distribute the properties that generally characterize a finite verb to two or three other verb forms that have to be combined in order to achieve a properly finite VP?

Of course participles, verbal nouns, converbs, coverbs, conegatives, gerunds, forms that just get called "infinitive III" or the like, etc have a lot of different coordinates in "verb property space" - and these may not even be uniform from language to language or even dialect to dialect - and sometimes, they even come close enough to finite verb space to cross over that line. 

The challenge for a conlanger, as I see it, is getting distinct clusters. Once my post on infinitives is done, I may write a follow-up that attempts coming up with some way of mapping "verb form space" onto three clusters (or four) in "verb property space".

Detail #400: Converbs and Alignment-like phenomena

Thursday, September 3rd, 2020

Converbs are essentially verb forms that have some form of adverbial use. In some way one could also say they are "cases for verbs". They often mark things such as "condition on which the main verb depends", "action that was enabled by the predicate", "action that enabled the predicate", "... preceded ...", "... followed ...", "... coincided with ...", etc. There is a lot of possibilities with converbs, and I may write a post going into some of that later on.

However, let's think a bit about the relationship between the converb and the main verb. We can divide all sentences in the world into two types:

  1. No converb is present.
  2. One or more converbs are present.

We can imagine a system with a handful of different converbs, maybe the following:

  • conditional
  • simultaneous
  • in order to
  • as a result of
  • until the end of
  • from the end of
  • temporarily doing

What if a clause with no converb usually does not mark its predicate verb with the usual finite markers, but with one particular converb's forms, thus giving us a slightly "ergative-like" pattern, where "normal verb inflections" are ergative, and that particular converb is "absolutive"? Maybe there can be two converbs that can have that "absolutive" role, with a differential morphology thing going: maybe "simultaneous" usually just means "happens", whereas "temporarily" means "habitually or on-and-off".

We can consider other factors also that trigger which pattern is used: maybe some persons take the regular finite verb, or inanimates take some of the converbs for predicates except if there's some "real" converb present?

Free Genitive and Construct State in Eḥeiθymme

Tuesday, September 1st, 2020

Daniel Quigley received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin – Madison in 2018, and attended graduate school at the Universiteit Utrecht in the Netherlands from 2018 to 2019, where he graduated from the UU Honours College. Beginning in the fall of 2020, he will be attending the graduate school at the University of Wisconson – Milwaukee. Daniel is a worldbuilder with particular interest in the contact and interactions of dissimilar languages, cultures, and technologies. His science fiction creative works tend towards the hard end of Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness, and his fantasy fiction tends to feature very soft magic systems.


This paper is an overview of the Free Genitive and Construct State in the constructed language Eḥeiθymme im Ajjad Eḥðeirymme Amran. This is done with frequent reference to the Semitic languages, which exhibit these methods for genitival relationships. This presentation follows: an overview of the construction; adjacency, prosody, and definiteness of the Construct State; a syntactic treatment of the Free Genitive and the Construct State relative to the Semitic; semantic relationships of the elements of the Construct State; a brief historical outline of the Construct State.

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Detail #399: Some notes on pro-verbs

Saturday, August 22nd, 2020

One of the things conlangers come up with every now and then - and which really do exist, even - are the verbal equivalents of pronouns.

I am not sure whether there is any "formal" definition of such a pro-verb that is very specific - I figure linguists recognize them when they see them, and I doubt there's much actual formal need, usually at least - to study these as a category of verbs.

I imagine it might be common in languages to have different types of "do" - maybe distinguished by a variety of factors: aspect, transitivity, expected type of result. Like pronouns, I find it likely that pro-verbs would not be "entirely normal" verbs - but rather of the kind that can be auxiliaries (much like pronouns can be determiners) and may be defective (like pronouns may) or have richer systems of inflection (like pronouns may). However, "do" altered along those dimensions is not the only possible pro-verb.

An obvious type of pronoun to look into is the demonstrative pronoun. "What you this.verb" - what is this that you are doing?, "you this.verb any result" - 'does doing this have any result'. Demonstrative adverbs ('thus', 'like this') could of course also reasonably be verbal: thus.verb.imperative: do thus!, [like this].verb.interrog: like this?, 'you thus.verb.interrog? I always this.verb!" - "do you do like that? I do it this way."

Another obvious one is the interrogative verb - essentially "what are you doing", though one could also imagine that "how" could  be an auxiliary - in which case a nice system with the demonstratives of manner emerges.

One could of course go further and go for the indefinite pronouns: nothing, something, anything. Here, I recommend reading the post on the typology of indefinite pronouns! "What.verb.2sg?" "Nothing.verb.1sg". "Just anything.verb.imp!", "They something.verb.past.3sg".

Other indefinite pronouns and determiners - like 'other', 'whatever', 'this, that and the other', 'either', 'none', 'neither', could easily lend themselves to verbs.

For a further twist, how about relative verbs? One could of course use them as markers of subclauses in general - an auxiliary that always occurs in a relative subclause - but one could also imagine them as a way of introducing relative subclause-like information about a verb.

bats fly which.verb.3pl birds also
I tired am which.verb.1sg always in the evenings
And finally - possessive pronouns. I imagine these would be a bit like the "yours"/"mine"/... variety of English possessive pronouns, and signify "the action you/I/ doing. In this case "stop.imperative mine.verb.infinitive" would mean "stop imitating me/doing what I am doing". "Mine.verb.imperative" would mean "imitate me".

There's of course tons of ways in which these could be extended with normal verbal affixes, imagine
"she always knew pre-mine.verb.participle"
she always knew what I was about to do

"he always re-theirs.verb.participle"
he always redoes what they do
These are but some ideas related to this topic. I am not sure including all of them in a conlang would be a good idea, but a nice subset with some nice extensions and quirks could be pretty cool.


Friday, August 14th, 2020

It seems I haven’t updated since November 2019. My excuse: 2020. Yeah.

Two things, both having to do with Kēlen.

I found this video in April, thanks to Vestboy Myst.

And then a few days ago John Quijada sent me a link to this:

And I figured I better put them somewhere where I could find them again, like this blog!

In other conlanging news, I am playing around with the beginnings of what might maybe become a new language eventually.

Stay safe!

Detail #398: Evidentials in Reasonable, but Unusual Places

Wednesday, August 12th, 2020

Evidentials appear in many languages of the world. Many languages have them as an integral part of the verb morphology, but a slightly more limited distribution is not entirely inconceivable. I have been thinking a bit about what particular types of words and constructions may be likely to attract evidential marking. I make no claim as to completeness.

 Such, thus.

Such and thus are interesting - they're partially adjectives/adverbs, partially demonstratives. Basically shorthand for "like that" or "like this". Some languages have the same levels of deixis for their correlate, such as Swedish "så(da)n där/så(da)n här" which perfectly maps onto den här/den här. "Så här", "så där" basically provides two forms of 'thus' with a deictic distinction.
So, with these, some types of statements may actually invite evidentiality.


Particularly conjunctions that introduce subclauses.

The copula.

Certain adjectives and nouns relating to status in the eye of the law

criminal, murderer, etc, but also possibly statuses that aren't directly connected to culpability: heir-to-be, engaged, bastard


Detail #397: Discourse Particles as … Auxiliaries, Subjects, Objects, and other Decidedly Non-Particly Words

Friday, August 7th, 2020
So, discourse particles are a thing that have decidedly been given a stepmotherly treatment in English. A similar disdainful view does exist in Swedish, even though it'd seem Swedish does have more dedicated discourse markers than English does. By 'dedicated discourse marker' I mean a word that cannot also be used in other ways.

As an example of the disdain I am talking of, when the Swedish pop-sci linguistics magazine Språket ('Language') published an article about discourse particles, the discussion in a variety of online language groups was decidedly hostile, people saying this was the final drop re: that magazine, people thinking it dumb that someone defend such frivolous words, etc.

I believe this disdain for them, this view of them as something to be avoided and even scorned, as a sign of low intelligence or lack of education is something that may affect the willingness conlangers have to use them in interesting ways.

I am not saying we share the prejudice, I am saying the prejudice just subtly steers us away from thinking about them, in part because there's less material about them.

So, how about changing their word classes to something more respectable?

1. Auxiliaries
Pretty much what it says on the tin. However, one can imagine some further twists: maybe they also entirely replace some verbs, such as copulas. They might "cut across" verbs depending on a variety of factors.

Imagine, for instance, a verb "hæm" that replaces "have" in the case of first person subjects with an NP after, but 'are, is' in the case of other persons:
I hæm a solution -> oh, I have a solution
you hæm a teacher -> oh, you are a teacher
I hæm eaten already -> oh, I have already eaten
you hæm eaten already -> oh, you have already eaten
These could also be secondary-rank auxiliaries or primary-rank ones - depending on how they act in combination with other auxiliaries.

2. Anti-auxiliaries and second-rate auxiliaries
An anti-auxiliary would force any other verb to behave like its auxiliary, and then trigger word order such as that of aux + subordinated verb.

3. Subjects
A discourse particle acting as a subject will of course push every other argument down, possibly such that subjects become indirect objects, objects maybe stay as such (or can be demoted to obliques), and indirect objects either are demoted to direct objects or obliques.

4. Object, indirect objects
Similar to the previous one. In the case of (di)transitive verbs, you get some kind of demotion of the actual (indirect) object.

6. Some kind of sliding NP
These would pick the first free slot - subject, object, indirect object,  (or maybe io and o switch places in the hierarchy), or some kind of olbique. These could have some kind of "stopping point" which they won't be demoted past, and from that point on they cause the effects described above.

7. Adjectives
An adjectival discourse particle would mark congruence with nouns, or at the very least have the syntactical properties of an adjective. Maybe they could even be used as complements of verbs, i.e. an adjective that means 'yeah, sure' and behaves adjectivally:
The yeah-sure.neut car.neut was on fire
yeah, sure, the car was on fire

the car.neut that burned down was
yeah, sure, it was the car that burned down!
8. Clitics
I am just mentioning clitics to exhaust the low-hanging fruit.

Designing an Artificial Language: Transitivity

Saturday, August 1st, 2020

Rick Morneau is a long-time language creator who lives in rural Idaho. In the early 1990s, he wrote a series of essays on language design that proved to be quite influential in the early language creation community. Their quality has endured since their original publication, and continue to be read and enjoyed by language creators the world over.


This essay discusses how changes in transitivity are accomplished among natural languages, and how the apparent flexibility of a system like that of English is not only uncommon, but also not really flexible. For a much more thorough treatment of transitivity, read the monograph Lexical Semantics.

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Words of Immiseration

Tuesday, July 7th, 2020

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 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 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.

Conlang Courses Around the Globe

Wednesday, July 1st, 2020

Jessie Sams is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Stephen F. Austin State University. She generally teaches courses rooted in linguistic analysis of English, though one of her favorite courses to teach is her Invented Languages course, where students construct their own languages throughout the semester (she was even able to get Invented Languages officially on the books at SFA with its own course number). Her research primarily focuses on syntax and semantics, especially the intersection of the two within written English quotatives; constructed languages; and history of the English language and English etymology. In her free time, she enjoys reading, hosting game nights with friends, baking (especially cupcakes), and, of course, conlanging.


This is an attempt at a comprehensive list of the various constructed languages courses offered at the university level throughout the world. As courses are added, readers are encouraged to share information with the author, so that the list may be updated.

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