Archive for June, 2015

Detail #178: An Indefinite Pronoun (weaving a typological mess)

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015
Consider utterances such as
"Ouch, I got something in my eye"
"Something made a noise, and it kept me up all night"
Now, in some circumstances, the identity of the referent is relevant to the further context (as per expectations that speakers learn while acquiring the language). In some circumstances, however, the identity might be entirely irrelevant - tiny particles you get in your eye, things that make noises, etc.

Such things could have a separate pronoun - one that is simply an indefinite, "antitopical" pronoun, which I will call the 'inconsequential'. Reusing the same pronoun in an utterance of roughly "paragraph"-length would indicate it's the same thing being referred to (but that still, it's identity is not all that interesting, though the continuity of its identity is maintained). Switching the referent to a more topical pronoun requires explicitly stating something like 'itinconsequential was [NP], itregular was' or some other construction along those lines.

Now, what other things could we weave around this concept? Maybe indefinite pronouns do not trigger third person congruence on verbs – but since only subjects (or only subjects and objects) have congruence on verbs, the pronoun has existed for other constituents, and been generalized to work as a subject as well. This could well lead to it having some morphological gaps - i.e. no case distinction between subject and object, and even possibly less. Of course, this might indicate that the language usually does have those cases, at least in the pronominal system.

(This of course is only an indication as to what kinds of questions we ask, rather than as to actually meaningful things about the language).

Further though, this might have some use for other purposes - Navajo has a possessive prefix that is somewhat similar in meaning, which is used to permit using inalienably possessed nouns even without specifying a possessor, i.e. shizé'é: my father, azhé'é: someone's father, a father.

So, this could easily extend into that kind of construction as well. 

As for getting no congruence on verbs, this could lead to a situation where a noun marked as object gets subject congruence (and the object congruence is omitted altogether), so the language essentially forms passives by 
subject: itinconsequential object: Noun, acc Verb: [subj: congruence with Noun]
Having both a case system AND subject and object congruence is not very common, as far as I can tell (some languages of Beringia and northernmost North America excepted), so it might just happen that this is somewhat typologically messed up. Let's instead go for the following solution: itinconsequential and other indefinites lack subject congruence, but not object congruence. In the case of no object congruence being present, the object has been promoted to syntactical subject status (while the indefinite has been demoted to unmarked oblique), whereas indefinite object congruence of course tells us that the subject is the regular noun.

A VP in which one indefinite object congruence is present, as well as an indefinite pronoun - and nothing else - the only interpretation is that the indefinite pronoun is the subject, and the indefinite morpheme on the verb is the object. Thus, "something acts on something" is distinguishable from "itinconsequential acts on something", but "something acts on something" is indistinguishable from "something acts on itinconsequential", and same goes for "itinconsequential acts on something/itinconsequential". The loss of these distinctions does not seem all that worrying, though.

Mna mawönuwti nalamme

Monday, June 29th, 2015

Don’t throw your blood upon my knife.

imageimage image image image image image
mna mawönuwti nalamme
möna ma’ö ‘önu ‘öti nanö hamö ‘öme
NEG throw blood GEN/2 on knife GEN/1
Don’t make me kill you.

Grammaticalization Paths: Comparative Construction from Dough

Saturday, June 27th, 2015
I've been thinking a bit about neat grammaticalization paths, spurred on by hearing of a language where the development of the meaning of a particular word went something like
wood > stick > tool > [forgotten steps] > something like a perfect aspect marker
happened. Similar things probably have happened in loads of languages.

I propose the following path:
dough (noun) > swell (verb) > overflow, exceed, for instance wrt the size of a container
One of the common ways of comparisons to be formed is the exceed comparative, for which gives the following example:
Duala (Ittman 1939: 187)
nin ndabo e kolo buka nine
this house it big exceed that
'this house is bigger than that' 
So, seems rather possible that a noun for dough (or even more generally, some suspension of gunk in liquid, which then turns into 'dough') could become a verb for comparative constructions.


Leon Stassen. 2013. Comparative Constructions.
In: Dryer, Matthew S. & Haspelmath, Martin (eds.)
The World Atlas of Language Structures Online.
Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
(Available online at, Accessed on 2015-06-27.)

Ittmann, Johannes. 1939. Grammatik des Duala. Berlin: Reimer. (Not a direct source, but quoted as quoted by Leon Stassen - in this context it is not to be taken as an absolutely certain statement about the Duala language, but as an example of the kind of structure discussed. I find it highly likely it is an accurate description of Duala, but the relevance it has in this post is just as an illustration - even if it were a completely misanalyzed sentence, it would fulfill its function in this context. tl;dr - take it as an example, if you really want to know things about Duala, go to a more direct source than my post.)

goat is vuhutz (revisited)

Saturday, June 27th, 2015
vuhutz = goat (noun) (Some things Google found for "vuhutz": a rare term; user names; a gaming character name; occurs on a number of Chinese webpages; somewhat similar Hutz is an unusual last name)

Word derivation for "goat":
Basque = ahuntz, Finnish = vuohi
Miresua = vuhutz

My previous Miresua word for goat was hauvo, which was an alphabetic scramble. This new word better resembles both the Basque word and the Finnish word.

The word goat doesn't occur in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, but it occurs three times in Through the Looking-Glass. Alice encounters a number of talking animals in Through the Looking-Glass.
A Goat, that was sitting next to the gentleman in white, shut his eyes and said in a loud voice, "She ought to know her way to the ticket-office, even if she doesn't know her alphabet!"

Possession in Dairwueh

Thursday, June 25th, 2015
Verbal possession in Dairwueh's already been described, but nominal possession has not been described this far. There's a number of small complications, but other than that, nominal possession in Dairwueh is fairly straightforward.

Normally, the genitive goes immediately after the noun,  although sometimes they're to the right of a demonstrative, or to the left of an indefinite pronoun - i.e. DET noun2.gen  noun1 = "this/that noun of gen's", "noun2.gen INDEF noun1" = "no/any/some noun1 of noun2's". The default interpretation of noun1 noun2.gen is that noun1 basically is definite.

Topicalizing possessors generally is done by fronting the possessor, inflected for genitive, and adding a possessive pronoun in front of the possessum. Intensifying the possessor can also be done with a similar

Personal possessive pronouns go before the noun, generally in the same syntactical position as determiners. The same reshuffling with determiners occur as with other genitives.

Dairwueh's interrogative pronouns have a tiny complication, viz. there are distinct feminine interrogative pronouns, although the masculine pronouns can be used for gender-neutral questions. This means if the person posing the question expects the answer to be a female, he will ask with the feminine interrogative pronoun. However, when the expected answer is an inanimate feminine or masculine noun, the inanimate interrogative pronoun is used.

Interrogative Pronouns in Dairwueh and Bryatesle

Thursday, June 25th, 2015



Bryatesle, despite lacking a genitive, has a possessive interrogative pronoun as well,
which is positioned phrase-initially in the NP.


Dairwueh has an odd detail going on, viz. it has an actual gender distinction going on in its interrogative pronouns

animatefeminineinanimateplur anim.plur. inan.

The possessive pronoun stems are
masc: atov-
fem:- ativ-
neuter: siŋa (uninflected for congruence)
plur anim: atev-
plur inan: siŋa

We can see certain similarities between these two sets, and in fact they are among the most clear cognate sets between Dairwueh and Bryatesle.


Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

Use the word “zɪgʔʌzɪgʔa” to mean “a type of lover who works hard to fit in with your life, because they love you so much and are willing to put in effort to make your relationship work,” that is usually untranslated. Known mostly from a translation of a traditional poem in your conlang. Taken from the earlier translation, because I could not find the latest, “Prithee, canst thou tell me what thou desirest? What thine heart truly desireth?// By my troth! I will tell thee what I long for, what in my deepest soul I long for.// I pray, willst thou tell me what thou art thirsting after, what in thy deepest bosom, thou art thirsting after.// I want a, I want a// I really, really want a zɪgʔʌzɪgʔa


Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

A three-dimensional logographic script, for use for four-dimensional beings. Some characters have elements enclosed in a box, similar to Chinese 圆 . 

It is opaque (not wireframe) and has question marks on it. Common characters with this radical include “coin”, “mushroom”, and “flower”.


Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

A writing system composed of pairs of organic bases, attached to a polymer of sugar and phosphate.

Ćwarmin: Bryatesle and Dairwueh loans

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015
Due to extensive contact between the three languages, Ćwar min has an extensive set of loans of different ages from Bryatesle and Dairwueh as well as their ancestral languages. Ćwar min, however, differs in certain significant ways from Dairwueh and Bryatesle:
  • vowel harmony
  • fixed initial stress (with loans, however, that is only slowly enforced)
We shall look at words of somewhat varying age.

pəktən < proto-dairwueh pak'təyn "hundred"
bičər "wheel" < proto-bryatesle 'bitars "wheel"
učuśan "plow" < proto-bryatesle ɨketr'sa- "plow"
gukula "viceroy" < proto-dairwueh  'gutkələ- "pay tribute"
sicə "vinegar" < proto-bryatesle sɨl'tse "wine"
Ćwarmin has been fairly conservative over time, with few consonant changes. However, we do find that words have generally changed to accomodate Ćwarmin vowel harmony.
More recent words have not necessarily changed in that way:

cixkan  "write" < dairwueh tsihkal "write numbers (in an accounting situation)"
dunvali < dairwueh dunvali, kingdom
re'sepaŋ < dairwueh re'sepank, criminal
te'buvu< bryatesle te'buxu, cake
In some recent loans, vowel harmony has begun spreading from the stressed syllable onwards (obtaining in some idiolects forms like resepəŋ pro resepaŋ). Stress tends to remain unmoved for a few generations, but since stress is fairly solidly word-initial in Ćwar min, each generation tends to increase the number of speakers who moves the stress to word-initial. Sometimes, they also fix the harmony, sometimes not, so you find idiolects anywhere along the line of te'buvu > 'tebuvu > 'tobuvu or 'tebivi.

Morphologically, words like dunvali often lose their final vowel in inflected forms, thus obtaining forms that are uniform as far as harmony goes for all other forms but nominative:
dunvali - dunvalutu (the kingdom), dunvaluc (kingdom.acc), dunvalututa (of the kingdom).
However, words like resepaŋ, the harmony either follows that of the closest stressed syllable (secondary stress is strong enough for its vowel harmony class to win out), or the rightmost remaining syllable:
re'sepaŋuc, resepaŋamca, ... but also
re'sepaŋ, resepaŋemce
depending on which of these approaches have won out in the particular idiolect spoken by our informant. Both approaches may coexist for any speaker, and may be lexically conditioned or even by sentence-level prosody.