Archive for the ‘grammar’ Category

Dagurib: The Copula

Saturday, October 28th, 2017
Out of the three Ćwarmin-Ŋʒädär branches, the Dagurib branch (being the smallest, and even omitted in the main name of the family) has copulas appearing most frequently in speech. In addition, the copulas feature prominently in a variety of constructions.

The Dagurib branch has been somewhat eager at acquiring prefixing morphology, as can be seen from the body-part prefixes in use on many verbs. However, another set of prefixes appear on copulas and related verbs (a list can be found at the end of the post). These can co-occur with body prefixes, and some of the combinations even have been somewhat lexicalized.

They convey a form of semantic congruence with the copula. This at times permits the complement to be omitted. Existential use of the copula can also take these.

Most are monosyllabic, with a few exceptions. A large handful are not even syllabic, but there's only one monosegmental example, viz. t-. If the t- forms a cluster that is not permissible word-initially, a vowel will be inserted. Here are only some examples. This class is not entirely closed, and sometimes parts of adjectives are sucked into this construction.
'good', 'beneficial', 'advantageous' (from the point of view of the speaker)

'good', 'beneficial', 'advantageous' (from the point of view of the subject)

'more than [one of the complements]'

'pleasant' (from the point of view of the speaker)

'bad', 'disadvantageous', but also used with negations of neutral or good complements.
'exceedingly, intensely, possibly to a detrimental degree'

incompletely, partially, inconsistently, uncertainly.

factually mistaken, misshapen, lightly 'bad'

morally wrong, detestable. strongly 'bad'

unknown, but assumed to be of some quality; often used with questions. Sometimes reduplicated to mark a lack of quality. This also has the dissimilated form ulur-/ülür- appearing.
scary, dangerous, raging

large, reputable, strong (also metaphorically of spices)

cold, sharp (of knifes)

coarse, unpleasant, bitter, sour, poisonous

sick, weakened, hurt, damaged, insulted, dying, frail, broken,

The root of the usual copula in Dagurib is -wav-. However, other copula-like verbs exist:
-köbs- seem (by reputation, by reason, or by general impression)
-ints- seem (by visual inspection)
-ʊlk- become
-odu- remain, keep being
-nʊdu- cease being
-wyor- be considered, be held to be, be esteemed to be
-südr- be expected to be
-nımb- resume being
Some lexicalized combinations exist, and these retain traces of vowel harmony at times:
uzganʊdu- - to repent
üzints- mislead (takes dative 'object')
mökints- stink (previsouly, ints- more generally indicated 'seem (by any sense')
tʊtsnʊdu - when used of trees, signifies the yearly loss of foliage; when used of flowers kept for their beauty, the loss of flowers.
tʊʊlk, tʊgawulk - of fruits and grain and vegetables, 'to mature', with the -ga- morpheme basically encoding whether it's the speaker or some other NP who is in possession of the produce.
ofnʊdu - to mature, to grow up
turxʊlk -
sanımb -
a verb denoting the onset of winter
kärʊlk - to get beard growth

A Question of Alignment III: Definition of Terms

Wednesday, October 25th, 2017

In this series of blog articles—taken (more or less) straight from the current working draft of chapter 5.4 of the new grammar for better visibility and as a direct update of an old article (“Flicking Switches: Ayeri and the Austronesian Alignment”, 2012-06-27)—I will finally reconsider the way verbs operate with regards to syntactic alignment.

The terms ‘subject’, ‘topic’, and ‘focus’ were already used a number of times above, but it seems advisable to sketch out working definitions in order to preclude confusion before continuing to look at how Ayeri fares with regards to some of these notions. As we will see, all of subject, topic, and focus relate to different ways in which the relative prominence of certain NPs is raised; subject and topic are also closely related to each other. It ought to be noted that while LFG treats topic and focus as grammaticalized discourse functions outside of the argument-structure frame of a verb, it treats the subject as both a discourse function and an argument function; topic and focus, on the other hand, must be identified with a corresponding argument function, for instance, SUBJ or OBJ (Bresnan et al. 2016: 99–100).


First things first, the subject can be defined in a variety of ways, and maybe especially because the notion of a subject is so basic, Comrie (1989) notes that if

linguists were invariably in agreement in stating which noun phrase, in each construction in each language, is the subject, then we could, perhaps, accept this inter-subjective agreement, and devote correspondingly less energy to trying to find an explicit definition of subject. However, it turns out that, in a wide range of cases, this inter-subjective agreement is lacking. (Comrie 1989: 104)

Dixon (2010) defines a subject as “the entity about which something is affirmed or denied” (76). He goes on to explain that, ignoring copula clauses like ‘We are tired and thirsty’, every language has two varieties of clauses, intransitive ones, where the verb has just one core argument, and transitive ones, where the verb has two core arguments. A basic definition based on this is given by the chart in (1).

    1. nominative–accusative alignment (S/A—P):

    2. ergative–absolutive alignment (S/P—A):

The chart in (1) shows the definition of the notion of subject for both nominative–accusative languages and ergative–absolutive languages. Languages of the world differ based on how they prefer to treat the two nominal relations of a transitive verb in relation to intransitive verbs: they may have a strong preference to either treat the agent (A)—the entity that prototypically acts in some way—or the patient/undergoer/theme (P)—the entity which is prototypically affected by the action in some way—the same as S, the sole argument of an intransitive verb. In the former case, the language is said to have NOMACC alignment (1a) (S/A is the ‘nominative’ subject), whereas in the latter case, the language is said to have ERGABS alignment (1b) (S/P is the ‘absolutive’ subject). Comrie (1989) illustrates this difference with an example from Chukchi, which we will here contrast with English:1

  1. Chukchi (adapted from Comrie 1989: 104):

While English treats the actor of the intransitive sentence (2a) the same as that of the transitive one (2b)—both sentences use I in the nominative—Chukchi appears to use a different pronoun for the actor of the intransitive sentence (3a) than the actor of the transitive one (3b)—absolutive ɣəm versus ergative ɣəmnan, respectively. At least in Standard English, it would be ungrammatical to use the pronoun me in place of I in (2b), since me can only be used for first-person objects of the verb, but not for subjects of transitive clauses.

However, Comrie (1989) also urges to consider that grammatical relations and their representation in morphology are not always as clear-cut as in the example above. While he characterizes the prototypical subject as the intersection of agent and topic as far as cross-linguistic evidence is concerned (107), he also points out that subjects do not necessarily have to unite all the properties typically associated with them (110). This seems to be the case with Tagalog, for instance, as observed by both Schachter (1976) and Kroeger (1991), and may considerably complicate making a definitive statement.

Moreover, Comrie (1989) points out that statistically, languages of the world show a strong preference for NOMACC alignment, possibly due to the fact that human perception values actors as more relevant to discourse than patients, which is why actors are far more likely also to be pragmatic topics (120). Yet, though, dominantly NOMACC-aligned languages may show a bias towards an ERGABS treatment, for instance, of resultative constructions. On the other hand, dominantly ERGABS languages show a bias towards a NOMACC treatment, for instance, of addressees of imperatives (116–119).

According to Carnie (2013), from the point of view of constituent structure (which is key in Generative Grammar), a subject is conventionally understood as a “DP that has the property indicated by the predicate phrase. What the sentence is about. In most sentences, this surfaces in the specifier of [the tense phrase]” (221). However, as we have seen above, this notion is challenged by languages such as Tagalog (Kroeger 1991: 225). What Carnie (2013) refers to in terms of constituent structure is basically indicated by (4). For systemic reasons, Carnie (2013) refers to a DP subject which serves as the specifier of a TP. This corresponds to the subject NP and the IP here. Unlike GG, LFG treats tense as a semantic feature, not as a functional head with a fixed position in constituent structure, hence the difference in labeling.

LFG defines a subject function, SUBJ. Which argument of the verb the subject is mapped onto is understood to be based on the relative prominence of the subject argument along some dimension compared to other arguments. For instance, NOMACC languages prefer the semantically most prominent available role of a verb’s argument structure, ERGABS languages instead pick the argument most affected by the actor’s action, and active languages focus on the argument in control of the action (Bresnan et al. 2016: 95–96). The mapping between grammatical functions like SUBJ and the lexical components that make it up also does not need to be a one-to-one correspondence, since LFG allows for the distributed exponence of grammatical features like in the example of Warlpiri in (5). The only condition is that grammatical functions be uniquely defined within their minimal f-structure (Bresnan et al. 2016: 45). As (5) shows, multiple NPs in different positions in the constituent structure may feed semantic information to a single function defined by the argument structure of the verb.

  1. Warlpiri (Bresnan et al. 2016: 325):

The subject role θ̂ is defined at least in the context of English as “the most prominent semantic role of a predicator” (Bresnan et al. 2016: 330). Furthermore, Bresnan et al. (2016) devise two a-structure features, [± o] (objective) and [± r] (restrictive). According to this classification, SUBJ is assigned the features [– r, – o], since the subject is not restricted to a certain semantic role, nor needs to have a semantic role.2 Also, subjects do not complement transitive predicators like objects do, so they are not ‘objective’. Bresnan et al. (2016)’s lexical mapping theory assumes that all languages have subjects, which goes counter to Schachter (1976, 2015)’s claim that subjects are possibly not universal (Bresnan et al. 2016: 330–331).


The notion of topic refers essentially to who or what a longer stretch of conversation is about. Givón (1983) defines the topic of a ‘thematic paragraph’—as he calls a coherent unit of discourse above the level of a single sentence—as “the continuity marker, the leitmotif” (8). The topic is thus

the participant most crucially involved in the action sequence running through the paragraph; it is the participant most closely associated with the higher-level “theme” of the paragraph; and finally, it is the participant most likely to be coded as the “primary topic”—or grammatical subject—of the vast majority of sequentially-ordered clauses/sentences comprising the thematic paragraph. (8)

This indicates that topic and subject are closely related concepts, as already mentioned above in reference to Comrie (1989). Languages employ various means to indicate topics; right- and left-dislocation, as known from English, or topic-marking particles as in Japanese and Korean, are only two among many possibilities (Dixon 2010: 174).

Topicality also interfaces with definiteness in that chain-initial topics may be definite (already introduced into discourse) or indefinite (newly introduced into discourse), while chain-medial topics and chain-final topics are always expected to be definite (Givón 1983: 10). Dixon (2010: 171) adds that topic NPs are coreferential with arguments of clauses immediately preceding or following the current clause. Moreover, the strategy of passivization (in NOMACC languages) or of antipassivization (in ERGABS languages) exists, among others, in order to keep a certain discourse item persistent in the highly topical subject position even if it would otherwise be the object of the clause. This is related in turn to the notion of syntactic pivot in clause coordination (172).


Regarding the definition of focus, Dixon (2010: 174) only mentions contrastive focus, which basically raises the prominence of a certain NP within a single clause. It is not necessary for the focussed NP to be coordinated with another NP by ‘or’. Dixon (2010) also warns that focus is often confused with topic. Perhaps this is in part also, as Bresnan et al. (2016) mention, due to the fact that English may use the topic position for either topic or focus under certain circumstances (98):

  1. Q: What did you name your cat?
    A: ROSIE I named her. (Rosie = FOC)

The answer to a wh-question is considered focused, so Rosie in (6) is the focus in ‘I named her ROSIE’. However, in the example above, Rosie is fronted, which following Givón (1983), constitutes a disruptive action used to establish a new topic of conversation: left-dislocation in languages with rigid SVO word order such as English is typically associated with low topic continuity, and left-dislocated NPs can be found most often as initiating a topic chain (32).

  • Bresnan, Joan et al. Lexical-Functional Syntax. 2nd ed. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2016. Print. Blackwell Textbooks in Linguistics 16.
  • Carnie, Andrew. Syntax: A Generative Introduction. 3rd ed. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2013. Print. Introducing Linguistics 4.
  • Comrie, Bernard. Language Universals and Linguistic Typology. Syntax and Morphology. 2nd ed. London: Blackwell, 1989. Print.
  • Dixon, Robert M. W. Methodology. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print. Vol. 1 of Basic Linguistic Theory by Robert M. W. Dixon. 3 vols. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010–12.
  • Givón, Talmy. “Topic Continuity in Discourse: An Introduction.” Topic Continuity in Discourse: A Quantitative Cross-Language Study. Ed. Talmy Givón. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1983. 1–41. Print. Typological Studies in Language 3.
  • Kroeger, Paul R. Phrase Structure and Grammatical Relations in Tagalog. Diss. Stanford University, 1991. Web. 17 Dec. 2016. ‹›.
  • Schachter, Paul. “The Subject in Philippine Languages: Topic, Actor, Actor-Topic, or None of the Above?” Subject and Topic. Ed. Charles N. Li. New York: Academic P, 1976. 493–518. Print.
  1. In English, you is the same for both singular and plural as well as subjective and objective case, which is why I replaced it with the unambiguous her in (2).
  2. This ought to make Kroeger (1991)’s analysis compatible to LFG as well.


Sunday, October 22nd, 2017

An extreme vowel harmony system that makes you use only one kind of vowel in your whole life.

Detail #357: A Syntactically Split Alignment

Sunday, October 22nd, 2017
Most split alignment systems only have split alignment in the case marking, and not really in the underlying syntax.  The split often also either correlates to the TAM of the verb, or to certain grammatical persons. I don't recall seeing any other actual cause of an alignment split, and I would really be interested in hearing about any other triggers for it.

However, that's not what I am writing this post about. This post is about a split in syntactical alignment based on a semantic distinction among verbs. I further find this particular split rather likely to occur.

The particular thing I'd think would cause an intransitive subject to align with an object syntactically is existentialness. Verbs such as 'exist', 'be' (when used existentially), be found, be seen (maybe), be attested, etc all seem to lend themselves well to prefer an ergative syntax.

The most obvious phenomenon to investigate would be gaps, and we can easily imagine a language where
berries exist and I eat
would parse as
berries exist and I eat [them]
however, we can then expect that coordination over many VPs should also yield ergative patterns:
berries existed and I saw and ate and tasted sweetberries existed, and I saw and ate [them] and [they] tasted sweet
This should not be permitted when all verbs are just 'plain vanilla intransitives'
*the berries were tasty and I saw and ate and tasted sweet
*the berries were tasty and *I saw and *ate and *I tasted sweet
Of course, when multiple VPs are chained like this, the later the existential verb appears, the harder parsing correctly will be. For this reason, the language might either forbid existential verbs to be on the right hand of coordinations, especially after more than two or so,  or have some kind of 'de-existential' form that is semantically, but not syntactically existential. (This could be achieved by reusing some other thing from the language - maybe force quirky case existential subjects? maybe use usually non-finite verb forms? maybe have the usual existential verbs lack congruence, but forcing congruence on them turns them into 'regular' verbs?

Ćwarmin Geographical Terminology

Friday, October 20th, 2017
Ćwarmin covers a relatively large area of plains, with some mountain ranges at the edges of the area, and a few hills and the occasional mountain dotting the plains. Two oceans also touch the plains. Due to the distances involved, the words for the ocean differ, as do the words for 'waterfall', which for obvious reasons only really occur at the mountaineous edges of the area.

Bodies of water:
sućma - lake
ləkir - swamp
wire - the ocean (northern word)
kaśku - the ocean (southern word)
telin - the coast (northern word)
sterim - the coast (southern word)
It is to be noted that the southern and northern words for the oceans are not 'names' – the same word would be used by a northerner (or a southerner) regardless if he's seeing the southern or northern ocean, or even some other ocean altogether.
sasra - river
sasruta xamku - waterfall (river-gen fall) (southeast)
kaluta xamku - waterfall (water-gen fall) (northeast)
sasruta korsa - waterfall (river-gen jump) (west)
ontas - ditch, small river
savar - travel upriver by barge
sivir - travel downriver by barge

insə - a place fit for wading

apśuta - rapids, from the verb apśun - to splatter, splash

kalak - the left side of the river as seen while looking downriver
perək - the right side of the river as seen while looking downriver
kaŋud - plains

nile - a 'depleted' area of pasture
micni - an area of pasture, regardless if still abundant or depleted
məcən - move towards areas suitable for pasture in winter
mocon - move towards areas suitable for pasture in summer
eŋmər - a large grassy area
leśśe - a small area with grassy vegetation, or a part of an eŋmər
rende - an area with bushy vegetation
leśen - to graze, to cause to graze, to lead to pasture
falsuc - desert
ŋormo - an area strewn with rocks
ŋoron - to pick rocks (for building with)
ŋor - stone

miker - a low, lengthy hill
miken - to travel along the crest of such a hill
mokan - to travel across multiple such hills
śorka - woods
śoran - to bewilder, to cause to be lost, to confuse
nunto - plains of permafrost
nunun - to be frozen
ərtər - cultivated land, from Bryatesle 'ırtız', acre.
ərtən - to cultivate
rogos - moor
bənel - marsh
sildil - quagmire
sildilin - to quake
rab - valley
kup - peak
kupon - to reach
walgor - mountain
walgrona - mountain range
fośtor - volcano
fośton - to explode (with anger), to erupt, to eject fire

parsu - glacier

kuruk - salt plain
kurmu - salt lake

egəd - road, naturally easily traversable path
egdin - to create a path
Among the verbs we find three interesting pairs here, savar/sivir and məcən/mocon and also miken/mokan. These are just three among many sets of lexemes that would seem suggestive of some kind of ablaut system. Similar hints exist in other ĆŊ languages as well.

A Question of Alignment II: ‘Trigger Languages’

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017

In this series of blog articles—taken (more or less) straight from the current working draft of chapter 5.4 of the new grammar for better visibility and as a direct update of an old article (“Flicking Switches: Ayeri and the Austronesian Alignment”, 2012-06-27)—I will finally reconsider the way verbs operate with regards to syntactic alignment.

The notorious term ‘trigger language’ comes up in discussions on Conlang-L as early as 1995, where it may well have originated as an established term in the fictional-language community for what will be described below in brief. That is, I have not been able to find any earlier mentions of the term ‘trigger’ as referring to an alignment system in the archives; other mainstays of the fictional-language community, such as the ZBB, were established only about a decade later. In a message dated December 16, 1995, John Cowan writes that he wants “to propose a reform of Radilu, to make it use the Tagalog concept of a trigger” (Cowan 1995). By his definition, this entails that

each clause contains one noun phrase which is not marked for case, but rather has a distinct marking called the “trigger marker”. […] The verb carries a marking (which of course looks nothing like the noun case markers) that tells the true case of the trigger. […] This involves changing the name of “nominative” and “accusative” to “actor” and “patent” [sic], since there is no longer a “subject” or “object” as such. Of course, word order is free (Cowan 1995)

He also notes that “Usually the trigger is definite (Tagalog doesn’t have articles)” (Cowan 1995). Essentially, it seems that the motivation for Cowan’s system is that the ‘trigger’ indicates that a certain NP is definite. As we will see further on, this is similar to how Tagalog marks one of its relations on the verb, with that relation being definite. Things are more complicated in reality, though. Especially the claim that Tagalog lacks subjects and objects is problematic. However, the term ‘trigger’ seems to have currency in that, for instance, Schachter (2015) chooses it explicitly to refer to the “non-case-marked argument” (Schachter 2015: 1659). In a parenthetical remark he adds that some

previous treatments have referred to the argument in question as the topic and some as the subject. However, as will become clear below, each of these labels appears to carry some inappropriate connotation, making a netural term like Trigger seem preferable […] There also seems to be good reason to reject the term focus. (Schachter 2015: 1659)

It may be noted that term ‘focus’ is used in Schachter and Otanes (1972), the main reference grammar of Tagalog. What is interesting in comparing Schachter (2015)’s and Kroeger (1991)’s respective analyses of Tagalog’s syntactic alignment is that both make the same observation in spite of coming to opposite conclusions: Tagalog is ambiguous as to whether the subject notion is vested in the NP whose role is marked on the verb or the actor, since certain syntactic constructions typically associated with subjects apply to either or both. While this ambiguity leads Schachter (1976, 2015) to ultimately conclude that Tagalog lacks a single unified relation which can be analyzed as a syntactic subject,1 Kroeger (1991) reaches the opposite conclusion by performing further tests and taking a functionalist rather than purely structuralist perspective. Thus, he concludes:

  • “Tagalog has a well-defined grammatical subject” (225). What Schachter (1976) lists as evidence against are special cases which can be explained by the high semantic and pragmatic prominence of actors more generally (Kroeger 1991: 225). Tagalog basically applies the the notion of a logical subject distinct from the syntactic subject to some constructions, though the syntactic subject is more important overall (36).
  • “grammatical relations are defined independently of phrase structure” (225);2
  • “patients can become subjects even when the agent is expressed as a direct (non-oblique) argument of the verb” (225).
  • “Subject selection in Tagalog does not work by demotion or suppression of thematically more prominent arguments. Rather, all arguments seem to be equally eligible for mapping onto the subject relation” (226).

Kroeger (1991) also provides evidence based on statistics and examples that the marked-for relation, which he classifies as being in the nominative case according to his hypothesis that it is the syntactic subject, is neither especially salient in terms of pragmatic topichood, nor does it show signs of carrying pragmatic focus specifically. He finds that rather, nominative marking works independent of discourse functions (56 ff.). All things considered, the term ‘trigger language’ is probably ill-fitting, not just for Ayeri.

The tests for typical properties associated with grammatical subjects which Kroeger (1991) performs partially extend those presented in Schachter (1976). Moreover, his conclusions build on a more modern, functionally oriented approach than Schachter’s. For this reason, I will follow Kroeger rather than Schachter. Either way, in order to compare what is going on in Ayeri, we will have to test verb agreement, syntactic pivot, relativization, control of secondary predicates, raising, and control.3 First of all, it will be helpful, however, to define some terms which will be used in the discussion further on.

  1. Cowan (1995)’s sketch may be based on Schachter (1976). Curiously, Schachter (2015) does not acknowledge Kroeger (1991) at all, nor does he refer to any other research more recent than 1985. The reason may be that Schachter retired in the early 1990s, as the UCLA linguistics department’s Department history suggests.
  2. This point especially may be a problem for generative theories of syntax.
  3. The tests which Kroeger (1991) dismisses as irrelevant to determining subjecthood in Tagalog have been omitted here if they were also not profitable to answering this question for Ayeri. The same goes for a number of tests which are specific to the grammar of Tagalog and thus have no application in Ayeri.

Detail #356: Case, Gender and Copulas

Thursday, October 12th, 2017
In some languages, some complements of copulas can be in non-nominative cases, e.g. in Russian and Polish where they sometimes are in the instrumental case. A situation where such a thing could make sense in a language could be when there is some form of perceived gender disagreement between the complement and the subject, e.g. situations like 'she is a soldier', and this could make sense in a language even if the language lacks grammatical gender. However, I guess it would make most sense in a language with a grammatical gender system, whenever that gender system provides a mismatch.

A Question of Alignment I: Typological Considerations

Wednesday, October 11th, 2017

In this series of blog articles—taken (more or less) straight from the current working draft of chapter 5.4 of the new grammar for better visibility and as a direct update of an old article (“Flicking Switches: Ayeri and the Austronesian Alignment”, 2012-06-27)—I will finally reconsider the way verbs operate with regards to syntactic alignment.

Verbs govern the relations of the various phrase types to each other and they are thus central to the formation of clauses. Just from looking at the numerous examples given both on this website and in the grammar, it should be clear that Ayeri’s preferred word order is verb-first, which opens up a few typological questions—first and foremost, whether Ayeri actually has a verb phrase, or in terms of generative grammar: whether it is configurational in this regard. Ayeri definitely has a constituent structure as far as NPs, APs, PPs, etc. are concerned. However, due to VSO word order, it is not obvious whether verb and object actually form a VP constituent together, since V and O are not adjacent to each other. Since Ayeri marks topics in terms of morphology, it will also be necessary to discuss how this mechanism works and how it relates to the notion of the subject.

A discussion of subject, topic, and configurationality is interesting also in that Ayeri’s syntactic alignment was originally inspired by the Austronesian or Philippine alignment system, though then under the term ‘trigger language’ which is itself not unproblematic. Tagalog, an Austronesian language of the Malayo-Polynesian branch, spoken mainly in the Philippines (Hammarström et al. 2017: Tagalog; Schachter and Otanes 1972), usually serves as the academic poster child in descriptions of Austronesian alignment. Ayeri departs from Tagalog’s system in a number of ways, though, and probably towards the more conventional. Austronesian alignment is not necessarily the best model to liken Ayeri’s syntax to. It will nonetheless be informative to compare both systems based on the work of Kroeger (1991, 1993), who provides an analysis of Tagalog’s syntactic alignment roughly in terms of the LFG framework and describes some heuristics which may be helpful in establishing what is actually going on in Ayeri. As mentioned in a previous blog article (“Happy 10th Anniversary, Ayeri”, 2013-12-01), I started Ayeri in late 2003—then still in high school and not knowing much about linguistics. Of course, I had to go and pick the one alignment system which has long been “a notorious problem for both descriptive grammarians and theoretical syntacticians” to the point where it “sometimes seems as if Austronesian specialists can talk (and write) of nothing else” (Kroeger 2007: 41).

As mentioned above, Ayeri’s unmarked word order gives the verb first, and then, in decreasing order of bondedness to the verb, the phrases which make up the verb’s arguments: subject (agent), direct object (patient), indirect object (dative), followed by adverbials in the genitive, locative, instrumental, and causative case. Ayeri’s basic word order is thus VSO, a trait it has in common with about 7 % of the world’s natural languages according to Dryer (2013). Regarding word order typology, we can declare the generalization in (1), which is consistent also with word order in other areas of the language, where the head precedes the modifier. The head is here represented by the verb, the modifier by the object—like English, Ayeri is a VO language, thus. In addition to this, however, Ayeri regularly puts the verb as the head of the clause itself first.

    1. Order of subject, object and verb: VSO
    2. Order of verb and object: VO

It is commonly assumed that languages have a subject which occupies a certain position in the constituent structure—the predicate—and which commands a constituent jointly formed by the verb and its dependents—the predication. An SVO sentence in English thus very generally looks like in (2) (compare the examples in Bresnan et al. 2016: 101–111).

However, Ayeri is a VSO language, so the question arises how the basic constituent structure should be diagrammed in tree form, since V and O are not adjacent. As an initial hypothesis one might assume that they cannot form a unit together, since S somehow stands in between the constituents it is supposed to command. A very first stab at diagramming would probably be to come up with a flat, non-configurational structure, all but lacking a VP, as shown in (3).

  1. ?

Such a structure, though, does not do Ayeri justice in that, for instance, right-node-raising of a subject and object NP together is possible, so there is evidence that they form a constituent subordinate to the verb. NP–XP constructions where XP is not a maximal projection of a verb also exist in isolation, so NP and XP are probably contained in a small-clause constituent S separate from the verb. The verb in the initial position furthermore shows inflection, so one might rather construe it as an I⁰, projecting an IP, which frees up VP for other purposes while we can use IP to govern both Iʹ and S. In fact, such a structure is basically the conclusion Chung and McCloskey (1987) come to for Irish, which is also a VSO language (4a). Bresnan et al. (2016) give the chart in (4b) for Welsh, equally a VSO language (also compare Dalrymple 2001: 66, sourcing Sadler 1997). Kroeger (1991) suggests the two structures depicted in (4c) for Tagalog, based on the suggested constituent structure for Celtic languages.

    1. Irish (Chung and McCloskey 1987: 235):

    2. Welsh (adapted from Bresnan et al. 2016: 134):

    3. Tagalog (Kroeger 1991: 131):

What all of these c-structures have in common is that the inflected verb appears in I⁰, which is a sister of S. S, in turn, is a small clause containing the arguments of the verb. In the cases of Irish and Welsh, however, there is a VP sister of the subject NP which itself does not have a head, but contains the object NP as a complement. In the case of Tagalog, S is non-configurational, that is, while XP may contain a non-finite verb, the subject and object NPs are on equal footing.

Bresnan et al. (2016: 129–138) inform that the phenomenon of the verb ending up in a different head position (V⁰ apparently moves to I⁰) in (4b) is commonly known as ‘head movement’, except that LFG is built specifically without any movement. Since LFG is based on the assumption that all nodes in a syntactic structure are base-generated, that is, that there are no transformational rules generating the surface structure from a deeper layer of representation underneath it, there cannot be a trace of V left behind in VP. LFG avoids empty categories, as there is no information contained in an empty node. The functional information provided by the verb is not lost, however, it is merely now provided by the verb in I⁰. Essentially, the Welsh example does not violate endocentricity, since the finite verb in I⁰ still forms the verbal head in the functional structure representation of the clause. With regards to constituent structure, V⁰, if present, c-commands its NP sister; both V⁰ and NP are dominated by VP:

    1. Exhaustive domination (Carnie 2013: 121):

      “Node A exhaustively dominates a set of terminal nodes {B, C, …, D}, provided it dominates all the members of the set so that there is no member of the set that is not dominated by A and there is no terminal node G dominated by A that is not a member of the set.”

    2. C-command (Carnie 2013: 127):

      “Node A c-commands node B if every node dominating A also dominates B, and neither A nor B dominates the other.”

The AVM in (4b) shows that the contents normally found in V⁰ are provided by the head of its equivalent functional category, I⁰. I⁰ and VP are said to map into the same f-structure (Bresnan et al. 2016: 136). Endocentricity still holds in that IP dominates all nodes below it, thus also I⁰ and the object NP. In addition, I⁰ c-commands its sister node and all of its children, hence also the object NP. As Bresnan et al. (2016) put it: “X is an extended head of Y if X is the Xʹ categorial head of Y […], or if Y lacks a categorial head but X is the closest element higher up in the tree that functions like the f-structure head of Y” (136). For our example, replace X with I⁰ and Y with VP in the second half of the quote: I⁰ is the closest element higher up in the tree that functions like the f-structure head of VP, which itself lacks a categorial head.

The analysis of the sentence structure of Celtic languages shows that VSO languages do not automatically need to be considered ‘non-configurational’ and lacking a VP if the notion of extended heads is accepted. In any case, tests need to be performed to see whether one of the analyses presented in (4) holds true for Ayeri as well. However, this will not be in the scope of this series of blog articles.

  • Bresnan, Joan et al. Lexical-Functional Syntax. 2nd ed. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2016. Print. Blackwell Textbooks in Linguistics 16.
  • Chung, Sandra, and James McCloskey. “Government, Barriers, and Small Clauses in Modern Irish.” Linguistic Inquiry 18.2 (1987): 173–237. Web. 11 Aug. 2017. ‹›.
  • Dalrymple, Mary. Lexical Functional Grammar. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2001. Print. Syntax and Semantics 34.
  • Dryer, Matthew S. “Order of Subject, Object and Verb.” The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Eds. Matthew S. Dryer and Martin Haspelmath. 2013. Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2017. ‹›.
  • Hammarström, Harald et al., eds. “Language: Tagalog.” Glottolog. Version 3.0. Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2017. ‹›.
  • Kroeger, Paul R. Phrase Structure and Grammatical Relations in Tagalog. Diss. Stanford University, 1991. Web. 17 Dec. 2016. ‹›.
  • ———. “Another Look at Subjecthood in Tagalog.” Pre-publication draft. Philippine Journal of Linguistics 24.2 (1993): 1–16. Web. ‹
  • ———. “McKaughan’s Analysis of Philippine Voice.” Piakandatu ami Dr. Howard P. McKaughan, 41–. Eds. Loren Billings and Nelleke Goudswaard. Manila: Linguistic Society of the Philippines and SIL Philippines, 2007. Print.
  • Sadler, Louisa. “Clitics and the Structure-Function Mapping.” Proceedings of the LFG ’97 Conference, University of California, San Diego, CA. Eds. Miriam Butt and Tracy Holloway King. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications, 1997. Web. 12 Aug. 2017. ‹›.
  • Schachter, Paul and Fe T. Otanes. 1972. Tagalog Reference Grammar. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983. Google Books. Google, 2011. Web. 6 Nov. 2011. ‹›.

A Number and Numeral-Related Thing in Sargaĺk and Dairwueh

Sunday, October 8th, 2017
There's no need for a language to have a 'perfect' analogy to the word 'both' (despite the fact that it exists in several subfamilies of European as well as in several Uralic languages, and these are only the ones I've been able to verify that they are not direct cognates or derivatives of the lexeme for 'two'). However, Sargaĺk manages to double that, by having two words with similar meanings but different morphosyntactical behaviours as well as slight differences in meaning.

In Sargaĺk, two is yor. 'Both' is either vrir or lyəs. Vrir takes a formally singular noun after it:
There are some complications: vrir does not distinguish the absolutive and pegative. For nominative or pegative nouns, it is always itself unmarked, but has the pegative singular marker on the main noun. For all other cases, the noun is in the singular case, and vrir takes the singular oblique case congruence:
Lyəs however, takes plural congruence with all cases and the main noun too is consistently plural. As subjects the verb for both of lyəs and vrir take plural congruence, except if vrir is used with certain words like 'hands', 'eyes', 'ears', 'nostrils', 'scissors' or 'the side of a boat'.

Both of these can also be used as pronouns, much like English 'both'. They can also be used for a dual reflexive construction which can be used with any subject numbering two, regardless of morphological number.

The semantic difference lies in the extent to which the two referents are seen as separate units ('lyəs') or a concerted group ('vrir')

In Dairwueh, a cognate of vrir exists, ŋrəz. This particle has a few uses that have developed out of an original meaning of 'both': in NPs it goes before any number to mark 'all N of', but without any explicit number present it signifies 'both'. In numeral complements it serves to mark the number as that of a group, rather than as a number of independent individuals.  This it also does with plural, indefinite determiners and pronouns, thus:
they aresix
They are (a group of) six.
they aresix
they number six, there are six of them, (but as individual things)
ŋrəz is the only 'numeral' in Dairwueh to take case. It roughly follows the plural paradigms:
nom: ŋrəzo
acc: ŋrizna
dat: ŋrizit
gen: ŋriŋa / ŋridin
loc-instr: ŋriŋa / ŋrider
nom: ŋriri
acc: ŋrizar
dat: ŋrizit
gen: ŋrizin
loc-instr: ŋrizar
nom: ŋrəza
acc: ŋrəza
dat: ŋrizit
gen: ŋrizit
loc-instr: ŋriŋa

Conlanger Lore: Lists of Cases|Tenses|…

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017
This isn't quite a piece of 'lore', but it's a common enough thing in conlang descriptions. I will also have to mention some notable, very thorough exceptions.

Conlangers, even fairly far into developing a language, sometimes are happy just to list the cases, tenses, etc, without ever really describing their use. This betrays, in my opinion, a very naive (or essentialist, or whatever) view of what such things - cases, tenses, aspects, etc - are. This post will focus on cases, because they illustrate the problem fairly well.

One point I like to drive home is that names like 'accusative' are but labels, and the accusative of one language does probably not behave like the accusative of another. (For a scholarly source, see this.) They are not the same case except by virtue of having the same name. Yes, the prototypical use may be the same, but the prototypical use may be but one of the many uses of a case, and might not even be the primary use in practice – see, for instance, the plural genitive in Russian.

The naivety that I accuse this of showcasing is simply the notion that labels for grammatical things are somehow rigid references: all datives are the same, all accusatives are the same, all past tenses are the same, etc. This is far from the case. The dative of German, and the dative of Icelandic, to pick two very closely related datives are distinct cases. Despite sharing a name and even a historical origin, they are not the same case; yes, they share some properties - including some of their most frequent uses, but they also have several differences. For one, they don't go with the same prepositions (and of course, what I am saying about cases also applies to prepositions - 'in' in different languages differ!). Secondarily, they appear as quirky case subjects or objects with different verbs. Thirdly, being a quirky case subject (or object) is not quite the same thing in Icelandic as it is in German.

Looking at other languages with a dative, we find even more of a divergence between them. We also find that things sometimes go by different names but would fit very well in that category - e.g. the Finnish allative. As a sort of mid-conclusion: names can be both one-to-many and many-to-one, i.e. many things can carry the same names yet be quite different things, and many similar things can have different names.

As for non-case things, even pretty obvious categories like grammatical number may present a similar trap: the singular vs plural distinction is not the same in all languages – a trivial example would be things in general. Some languages prefer generic nouns to be singular, some prefer them to be plural, some seem to accept both ways by different ways of delineating them (e.g. lexically determined vs. influenced by grammatical context vs. other things.)
Tenses, moods and aspects, obviously, can present even greater differences.

To get back on cases, I would like to point to some good descriptions of case systems or even just locative systems that I feel avoid falling in the trap of 'just being a list''. Examples include Salmoneus' description of the locative adpositions of his Rawang Ata. Yes, this isn't about a case system per se, but functionally equivalent so you better just tolerate my use of it as an example.

A good example of doing a rather no-frills case system right is Carsten Becker's Ayeri. Some of the interesting stuff there appears in the interaction of case, transitivity and pragmatic concerns.

And a very naturalistic, alt-historiy Slavic case system is presented by Martin Posthumus in his Novegradian.

Of course, I am vain enough to toot my own horn here: I think there's some merit to my descriptions of my conlangs' case systems as well. The Bryatesle case usage description is fairly in-depth, but even then somewhat incomplete (see I, II, III, IV, V, and VI).  Dairwueh has a short, but sweet description that attempts to analyze the cases in terms of abstract features. Ŋʒädär too has a nice description in the same style.

Sargalk and Cwarmin still have not gotten that treatment, but it'll happen soon enough.