Archive for August, 2017


Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

Create a conscript inspired by complicated road intersections - some of the ones here may be a good example.

Update on the Grammar Writing Process IV

Saturday, August 26th, 2017

Grammar writing has gone slowly again for the past couple of weeks, which is mostly due to reading up on things. I have now arrived at discussing verbs, which are the most complex part of speech since they are at the head of clauses—not just structurally, but also functionally. Important questions right now are:

  • What evidence is there for a constituent S which holds all the verb’s arguments besides the fact that verbless clauses exist complete with predication?
  • Is there a VP in hiding? This requires performing tests on constituency as well (there is a way to say does so as well, so there should be a VP even if the verb word itself is the head of the superordinate IP).

I assume that Ayeri’s basic sentence structure looks essentially like this:

The sentence 'Ang konja Yan pahiley' ('Yan eats a cookie') charted in terms of LFG

And then, there are some further questions which I’d like to answer:

  • Austronesian alignment gave the impetus for Ayeri’s strategy of marking one certain NP on the verb, however, after reading Kroeger (1991) it became clear to me that there are strong differences between the real thing and what I have. This is mostly due to not consistently following the original model but falling back on structures familiar from German and English. Thus: what is a so-called ‘trigger conlang’ of which Ayeri is supposedly a prominent example,1 and how is Ayeri actually positioned in this regard?
  • In consequence, how does Ayeri deal with more complex sentence structures, for instance, involving raising and control, as opposed to what Kroeger (1991) describes?
  • Ayeri basically grammaticalizes topic marking by way of agreement morphology. How (un)typical is this with regards to typology? (e.g., see Li and Thompson 1976 for something very old and basic)
  • Does the way in which Ayeri deals with topicalization have any effects on binding? Topics are supposed to operate outside of the functional hierarchy which Bresnan et al. (2016) propose as an important factor in pronominal binding.
  • Since I’ve been trying my hands on an LFG-based analysis, how do verbs behave regarding assigning roles in argument structure? (Dalrymple 2001: 203–215, Bresnan et al. 2016: 329–348)

To be honest, when I started working on Ayeri in 2003, I would not have understood a word of what Kroeger (1991) writes, so it was basically clear from the beginning that there’d be large inconsistencies with regards to the intention of playing around with Austronesian alignment. The thing is, besides Tagalog’s infamous marking of the ang phrase’s role on the verb (actor, goal, direction, beneficiary, etc.), whatever that phrase is syntactically, It also has effects on raising, control, and binding, which I have long ignored out of a lack of knowledge and awareness of these grammatical processes. Even when I tried to come to terms with Ayeri’s syntactic alignment in an often-clicked blog article in 2012, I applied some of the tests discussed there only mechanically, without actually understanding what they’re about.

It also may be noted that Kroeger (1991) analyzes It as the subject because of consistencies with syntactic traits usually associated with subjects, though with the added complication that it’s not fixed to its conventional position as the specifier of VP.2 You can also see It variously analyzed as focus or topic, which is terribly confusing especially when you don’t know a lot, and this confusion was a major impact on what I ended up with in Ayeri. It will also be necessary, thus, to look at whether the logical subject and the syntactic subject in Ayeri coincide. My gut feeling is that they do, which would make Ayeri more similar, in fact, to analyses of the basic clause structure of Celtic languages such as Welsh or Irish (compare, for instance, Chung and McCloskey 1987, Sadler 1997, Dalrymple 2001: 66, Bresnan et al. 2016: 130–138).

  • 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.
  • Kroeger, Paul R. Phrase Structure and Grammatical Relations in Tagalog. Diss. Stanford University, 1991. Web. 17 Dec. 2016. ‹›.
  • Li, Charles N. and Sandra A. Thompson. “Subject and Topic: A New Typology of Language.” Subject and Topic. Ed. Charles N. Li. New York: Academic P, 1976. 457–485. Print.
  • Sadler, Louisa. “Clitics and the Structure-Function Mapping.” Proceedings of the LFG ’97 Conference, University of California, San Diego, CA. Ed. by Miriam Butt and Tracy Holloway King. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications, 1997. Web. 12 Aug. 2017. ‹›.
  1. The oldest message on Conlang-L (itself the oldest conlanging group on the internet I’m aware of) which uses the term ‘trigger’ to refer to case/voice marking I could find is by John Cowan, dated December 16, 1995. The archives 1991–1997 seem to only survive archived by the Wayback Machine anymore. Search for the time stamp, “Sat Dec 16 13:09:06 1995”, on the linked archive page to read the message.
  2. This is probably not much of a problem for the likes of LFG or HPSG, but likely more of a problem for generative grammar.

A Question of Attestation

Friday, August 25th, 2017
Does anyone happen to know of any split-S language, where it is the noun, rather than the verb, that decides what case the intransitive subject takes?

Unrelated idea: split-S-like with regards to dechtichaetiativity.

Detail #355: Nouns with Inconsistent Gender

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2017
Consider a typical IE-style gender-case fusional system. In such a system, individual words could be exceptional and behave as members of one gender with regards to some forms, but another with regards to other forms. This might lead to any number of interesting consequences down the line.

In many languages, the case system is inconsistent between genders: different genders or numbers may conflate some cases; alternatively we can think of this as one gender distinguishing more cases than another. Sometimes, however, multiple genders overlap in such a way that over some 'area' of the case system, no particular gender has more case distinctions than another, they just split the case system in different ways, e.g.

gender 1gender 2gender 3
case 1-A-C-E
case 2-A-D-F
case 3-B-D-E

Here, we have a clear three-case system, with only two distinctions ever made. In fact, even if we eliminated one of the genders from this system, there'd imho be a sufficient reason to consider there to be three underlying cases in this language.

Now, a noun could exceptionally manage to behave like gender 1 with regards to case 1, like gender 2 with regards to case 2, and like gender 1 with regards to case 3. Maybe there's a whole slew of cases where it behaves exceptionally. Maybe it's only a certain combination of number and case that triggers the exception.

However, let's consider a different part of this: pronouns. Consider a language that has different roots for different gender referents. Potentially, we could have, say, gender 1 roots taking gender 2 morphology with nouns like these (or vice versa).

An Intermission

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017
I have been moving, and otherwise busy. Posting will soon return to its usual frequency. The computer and internet are finally unpacked. Yay.


Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017

Phonosynthesis: your conlang’s phoneme inventory increases when it’s sunny. There are separate day and night registers meant to accommodate this change. During a solar eclipse, people get confused because they don’t know what register to use.


Friday, August 18th, 2017

Noun classifiers based on the colour of an object.

Creative Commons

Monday, August 14th, 2017
Just wanted to let everyone know that I am putting Conlangery under a Creative Commons Attribution – Non-commercial – Share-Alike. This means that you are free to copy, distribute, remix, and create derivative works from the show, so long as you give attribution, your work is not commercial in nature, and you also use a... Read more »


Thursday, August 10th, 2017

Create a conlang for a race of animate trees, that use human-shaped diagrams to represent language phylogeny.

Conlanger Lore: Free Word Order and Case

Monday, August 7th, 2017
There is a very common notion bandied about on conlanging groups online that free word order and case go hand in hand. This leaves out a significant chunk of the truth. I did mention this as an example in the previous conlanger lore instalment, but this goes deeper into this particular issue, and looks at some of the things people do not often know.

1. There are languages with case that do not have particularly free word order. German is one of them.

2. There are languages without case that have rather free word orders. For instance, Swedish has more free word order than German despite lacking case on nouns.

More extreme instances exist, for instance among the overwhelmingly isolating languages of south-east Asia, but I picked Swedish and German as they are fairly familiar, SAE languages where the freedom of word order and presence of case contradicts the 'received wisdom' in the conlanging community.

However, there are a few particular reasons why this particular piece of wisdom annoys me: it ignores the wealth of variation there is among human languages. Several other strategies of disambiguation exist!
A. Noun Class Congruence
A strategy that is common in Sub-Saharan Africa is having a bunch of noun classes, and congruence with those on the verb:
Nounclass 1 Nounclass 2 Verb(subject congruence=class 1)(object congruence=class 2)
With such a system, it is clear how shuffling the location of the nouns and the verb do not affect understandability, except when the nouns are of the same class. Such things do occur, but will be discussed further down simultaneously with similar ambiguities in other languages.

B. Animacy Hierarchies
In a language where subject- and object-disambiguation is guided by animacy hierarchies, a noun that is higher on the animacy hierarchy is assumed to act on a noun lower in that hierarchy. This in part, I am convinced, guides the disambiguation when OVS word order occurs in Swedish. Usually, the hierarchy in most languages is something like 1 p > 2 p > 3p animate > 3p inanimate, but quirks exist: apparently, some languages have second person outrank first person.

Another important fact is that it's possible for verbs and nouns to somehow be associated: bears are, for instance, more closely associated with the subject position of 'roar' than bags are. These are not even necessarily lexical facts but rather physical facts we know about things. So, if we take a sentence like this key opens that lock, even if we cut it up into three slips of paper on which the phrases 'this key', 'that lock', 'opens' are, a random anglophone can with several nines of probability assign the nouns to their correct roles.

This seems to be a grammaticalized state of affairs in many languages - to the extent even that if the subject and object are the unexpected way around, even with explicit case marking you'll sometimes get people parsing it as though the speaker made a mistake in case marking rather than parsing it as referring to an unlikely situation.

Even in languages with case marking, situations where case does not help disambiguate the situation may exist - and sometimes in such languages, this does not negate free word order. In Finnish, the plural object and the plural subject take the same marker, -t, in telic, positive, (etc) clauses. Even then, I regularly hear and utter sentences where the subject and object are displaced from the canonical SVO order.
C. Animacy Hierarchies with Inverse/Direct Alignment
The previous system does not really permit for changing the subject and object except maybe with some complicated work-arounds. Inverse/Direct alignment simplifies this by having a 'voice-like' marker that simply tells whether the higher or lower noun in the hierarchy is the subject. This is not strictly speaking a voice, since it does not affect the transitivity of the verb.
The other part we have to look at is free word order. Sometimes when some speaker of some language points out that their language has absolutely free word order, they will, in one post deny the idea that their language's free word order expresses anything, while maintaining that it does express something that just can't be expressed in words in another post, etc. Generally speaking, word order tends to have some kind of significance, though this significance can be pretty difficult to express and maybe even harder learn to get right for a second-language speaker. However, difficulty of formalizing/expressing a thing is not the same as that thing not existing. Thus, it seems people are quite confused as to what free word order generally even signifies.

Conclusion: Don't buy the hype re: case enabling free word order, it's not the only option. Also, don't just go and say 'this language has free word order', plz tell us what the language does with its free word order.