Archive for March, 2020


Sunday, March 29th, 2020

A conculture that can understand ideas inexpressible in its native conlang, because the conlang has no word for “Sapir-Whorf.”


Saturday, March 28th, 2020

A conlang with polypersonal agreement, but only for statements you’re sure many people agree with.


Friday, March 27th, 2020

Make a logographic script entirely based on IKEA diagrams.

Detail #393: A Way of Marking Imperatives (and possibly optatives and jussives and the like)

Wednesday, March 25th, 2020
In some languages, there's congruence. Sometimes, this congruence also applies to, say, complements.

Some languages have vocatives!

Now we get the spin: imagine a language with a non-zero marked vocative, and congruence on verbal complements. Now, the next step could be forming the imperative by having an (implicit) secondnd person vocative, and some non-finite verb taking vocative congruence on it.

Next step: specifying the vocative subject would naturally be parsed as third person (or first person) imperative, and those easily become optatives or jussives instead.

Detail #392: A Twist on Adpositions

Thursday, March 19th, 2020
I recently mentioned I have been fascinated recently with the notion of adpositions that take two arguments. However, an even odder twist occurred to me, and is inspired by a detail in Biblical Hebrew! (N.B: This construction apparently does exist in modern Hebrew as well, but some cursory research indicates it's not as common as some other constructions.)

The preposition that inspired me is 'between', in Hebrew בֵּֽינְ (bayin). The thing is, when you have two or more NPs, the preposition is doubled (though with a conjunction), essentially producing a structure like this:
between a rock and between a hard place
From an Anglocentric p.o.v., this would seem almost nonsensical. Indeed, 'between' seems a contender for a preposition that requires more than one argument (semantically, albeit not syntactically).

However, an adposition that either requires a non-singular object or coordination with another prepositional phrase opens some interesting doors: what if there were adpositions that require coordination either with some other adposition or an adverb?

Let us imagine a preposition that marks stretches in time. I will write it 'prep', for now. Examples that illustrate its use. Words that in English straddle the line between adverb and noun will here be strictly adverbial, and be marked by asterisks.
prep summer and prep winter: from summer to winter
today* and prep sunday: from today to sunday
prep morning and tomorrow*: from the morning to tomorrow
However, in situations where the same noun stands for both end points, the preposition has to be doubled:
prep and prep mornings
from morning to morning

Real Language Examples: Discongruence in Swedish

Wednesday, March 18th, 2020
One reason I am taking many examples from Swedish is the fact that most readers know English. (How's that for an understatement.) The grammar of Swedish is in many ways very similar to English. Sure, the morphology differs in many ways - but  the number of things morphologically expressed does not differ by any great amount. In simple terms: it takes very little work to explain a basic part of Swedish grammar to someone who knows English and is interested in linguistics.

Finnish or Russian will take more effort.

So, now that's out of the world, let's go to the topic of the day: congruence and discongruence. Turns out Swedish can be said to have a few different discongruences:
  1. Gender discongruence in verb phrases with copulas. This communicates some information about how the noun and adjective relate but is strongly restricted as to when it can be used. 
  2. Gender discongruence with the masculine -e, which sometimes can be used with reference to gender-neutral nouns that are known to refer to a woman, in certain circumstances.
  3. Definiteness discongruence, alternatively not really a discongruence but something that looks like it.
  4. Two adjectives that have a weird orthographic quirk that causes a seeming failure to mark congruence, but in most speakers' intuition and reading do mark congruence.
  5. Adjectives that conflate some or all forms
  6. Adjectiveswith morphological gaps.
In addition, we will look at the curiosity of "liten" and "små", a suppletive adjective whose cognates in English should be fairly obvious.

We shall begin by surveing the Swedish congruence system with regards to adjectives and determiners.

The Swedish gender system
Swedish has a gender system that can be described as follows:
[neuter]    vs.    [masculine, feminine and common]
The masculine, feminine and common mostly take the same congruence markers, with -e being a somewhat restricted masculine marker (-a can almost always replace it, though).

A similar gender system has emerged in some other Scandinavian languages and in Dutch. Many Swedish and Norwegian dialects retain the three-gender system of old Norse (and proto-Germanic, and Indo-European ...). What happened in Swedish, Danish, some Norwegian and Dutch is that inanimate nouns were ousted from the masculine and feminine genders, but were not welcomed into the neuter gender. A new "common" gender was formed. In the North Germanic languages, the common gender therefore shows some similarities with the masculine and feminine genders. However, it also shows some similarities with the neuter gender (e.g. sharing the genitive pronoun 'dess', and having de- as the root for the pronouns, det being neuter, den common, c.f. masculine and feminine han and hon).

The Swedish noun phrase congruence system
In the noun phrase, articles and pronominal determiners always inflect for the gender of the noun:
en bil, ett hus, en man, ett tak. (A car, a house, a man, a roof).

With indefinite nouns, adjectives take similar suffixes:
en röd bil, en grön bil, en gammal bil (a red|green|old car)
ett vitt hus, ett grönt hus, ett gammalt hus (a white|green|old house)
en röd man, en grön man, en gammal man (a red|green|old man)
ett rött tak, ett grönt tak, ett gammalt tak (... roof).

Most pronominal determiners also take the same markers
någon röd bil (some red car)
något vitt hus (some white house)
ingen röd bil (no red car)
inget rött hus (no red house)
en annan röd bil (another red car)
ett annat rött hus (another red house)
vilket rött hus (which red house)

The plural has the suffix -a, and usually no article:
röda bilar
röda hus
röda män
röda tak
Pronouns take similar -a forms: några (some, any), inga (no), andra (others), vilka (which). The -a forms for pronouns are only used in the plural.

The -a-marker has a secondary role, though: adjectives in definite noun phrases. The North Germanic languages have definite article suffixes: bil-en - the car, hus-et - the house, hus-en - the houses, björnar-na - the bears. With some exceptions, one cannot just put an adjective before a definite noun - it requires a definite article to the left as well:
den nya, röda bilen (the new, red car)
det stora, vita huset (the big, white house)
de stora, vita husen

In German, noun phrases have an even more complex system than Swedish, with strong, weak and mixed adjectives behaving slightly different depending on whether the noun is preceded by one set, another set or no set of determiners. Case is also taken into account when selecting which suffix to use. Next up, we'll see the part of the grammar where Swedish is more complex than German.

The Swedish verb phrase congruence system
In German, adjectives with verbs like 'to be' and 'to become' are very easy: they just go in their most basic form.
Das Haus ist alt.
Der Mann ist alt.
Die Frau ist alt.
Die Männer sind alt.
Here, Swedish has a complication: the gender or number affects the adjective:
Huset är gammalt. (The house is old.)
Mannen är gammal. (The man is old.)
En kvinna är gammal. (A woman is old.)
Kvinnan är gammal. (The woman is old.)
Somliga män är gamla. (Some men are old.)
Männen är gamla. (The men are old.)
This holds regardless of the definiteness of the subject.

1. Congruence breaking with copulas
Common gender mass nouns, nouns denoting a material or abstract nouns in an indefinite, 'generic' type of reference often take neuter adjectives as complements of the copula, although this is not mandatory.  Examples:
Koppar är dyrt just nu.
Copper is expensive(neut) right now.
Ärter är gott.
Peas are tasty.

N.B. These examples are all taken from Svenska Akademiens Grammatik.
Koppar is a singular, common gender noun, so by the usual congruence rules, you'd get 'dyr'. Ärter is plural, so you would expect 'goda'. The aforementioned Svenska Akademiens Grammatik states that the likelihood of using neuter adjectives is lower the more of a 'description of function OR subjective evaluation' the statement is, and higher the more of a physical property it describes. 'Ärter är goda' does deviate from this, but again, this seems to be somewhat probabilistic statement.

Another use is when a noun can be replaced by a VP with 'have', 'give', 'get' or similar with the noun as the or object:
Kostym är snyggt.
Suit is good-looking
implicitly '(having a) suit (on) is good-looking.'
2. Congruence breaking within the NP
Previosuly, I described the distribution of three adjective forms: the unmarked, the -t and the -a form. There is a complication with the -a form: sometimes it can be replaced by the -e form, but this is almost entirely optional. The -e form normally can be used with masculine singulars. Ignoring that particular freedom is entirely possible for a competent speaker, and so there's no need to learn it. You could say 'den kompetenta läkaren' (the competent doctor) and get away with it. However, ... 'den kompetente läkaren' might signal a somewhat more conservative or educated register.

Crazy exception: a definite singular noun phrase with no noun, and a human referent. This corresponds to constructions such as 'the old one'. Regardless of gender, this must come out as 'den gamle'. There's an exception even there: when the noun is omitted by ellipsis in parallel constructions, -a is permissible - even for masculines. So, 'out of the sons, only the youngest one knew the answer', you can say 'av sönerna visste endast den yngsta/yngste svaret".

In addition, professional titles that are not explicitly feminine, and also human nouns ending in -are ('dansare', 'sångare', 'läkare' - dancer, singer, doctor), the -e form is sort of preferred when the gender is not specified. So even though -a i the gender neutral option, -e is preferred in gender-neutral contexts. ...

However! Crazy exception #2
Even when a gender-neutral title such as 'minister' or 'dancer' refers to a female, and is known by the speaker to do so, if the adjective "classifies" or "modifies the function", rather than "characterizes" the noun, -e is preferred. The examples are, again, from Svenska Akademiens Grammatik.

den nye/nya finske/finska utrikesminister-n Anna Lindblom
the new-masc finnish-masc foreign minister-(def) Anna Lindblom

den *trevlige/trevliga minister-n Anna Lindblom
the *kind-masc/kind-fem minister-(def) Anna Lindblom
den politiske/politiska fånge-n Violeta Jimenez
the political-masc/political-fem prisoner-(def) Violeta Jimenez
den svårt *sjuke/sjuka fånge-n Violeta Jimenez
the severely *sick-masc/sick-fem prisoner-(def) Violeta Jimenez
3. Definiteness discongruence
The adjective 'egen' (cognate to 'own') in educated speech is inflected according to the gender of the noun, and thus ignores definiteness. Normally, it does either occur with indefinite nouns or possessed nouns. With non-possessed definite nouns, it might actually prefer to use the definite -a form.

Remember, possessive pronouns trigger definite forms on the adjective (but not on the noun). (I lied a bit. Possessive pronouns trigger definite forms on the noun if they are right-dislocated: mitt hus (my house), but huset mitt (house-the my).

So, despite possessive pronouns usually forcing adjectives to take definite forms, these behave as follows, taking the indefinite, gender-marked forms instead:
mitt eget hus - my own house
din egen bil - your own car
våra egna vägar - our own roads/ways

You would very seldom come across
det egna huset
and the following form is downright wrong:
*det eget huset
ett eget hus / en egen bil
do occur, in contexts like 'I dream of a house of my own' - the 'my' would be superfluous in that context in Swedish. The adjective there is of course inflected as expected, as indefinite forms usually take the gender inflection on their adjectives.

However, the definiteness congruence is reinstated with right-dislocated possessive pronouns:
det egna huset mitt
Right-dislocated possessive pronouns are not exactly avoided in educated speech, but signal either dialectal background or a very conservative idiolect.

4. Orthographically quirky words
Since I do not hold the written language to be "the real language", I was a bit unsure whether this is real enough an example of discongruence to be included, but I decided to go for it anyway.

Two colours, orange and beige are unique among adjectives for having /ʃ/ (or if you're Swedish /ɕ/) written by <ge> in a word-final position. There are nouns (plantage, garage, dekolletage). It is generally held that writing beiʃa, beiʃe, beiʃt, oranʃa, oranʃe or oranʃt as <beigea, beigee, beigt or beiget, orangea, orangee, oranget or orangt> is unsatisfactory - it simply does not look very good.

In the spoken language this is not an issue, and the inflected forms are used, and are supposed to be used in correct Swedish. If one uses these adjectives in a position where they should have the -a/-e/-t forms, one is advised to write the uninflected form. When coming across them in writing, one is expected to read them in the correctly inflected form.

Personally, I decided - while writing this post - to solve this conundrum by writing the ʃ sound as -sj- in the inflected forms, but -ge- in the common gender uninflected form. (Thus orange, oransja, oransje, oransjt, beige, beisja, beisje, beisjt).

Writers are also suggested to use paraphrases like "orangefärgad/-färgat/-färgade" (= orange-coloured), or replace it with words like 'brandgul', 'apelsingul' or 'gulröd' (fire-yellow, orange*-yellow *=the fruit, yellow-red) whenever inflected.

5. Words that are morphologically indistinct (for all or some forms)
A few words lack distinct forms, including all present participles.
Ett rullande hjul (A rolling wheel)
En flygande pannkaka (A flying pancake)
Den sjungande barberaren (The singing barber)
Det brinnande huset (The burning house)
A pair of examples of their own type are the words "lätt" and "rätt" - easy, light (in weight) and "right": the neuter and common gender forms are identical, but the plural and definite form is 'lätta', "rätta".

'Different' - 'annorlunda' - is identical in all forms, and is thereby autological as far as morphological behavior goes. A few other adjectives fall in this class - 'enda' (only), 'noga' ('careful, scrupulous, meticulous'), 'barfota' (barefoot). A few other examples exist. One could potentially describe the adjectives that end in -a as having 'definiteness discongruence', but that feels like fudging it a bit too much.

6. Words with morphological gaps
A couple dozen adjectives ending in -t, -d or -dd, such as 'rädd' ('afraid') lack neuter forms - or neuter forms are at least strongly avoided by speakers. Plural forms are however permissible. Not all adjectives that end in -t, -d or -dd have this property though. The restriction only occurs with adjectives that semantically are restricted to animate nouns. However, some neuter nouns are animate.

These are distinct from category 4, on account of category 4 having all forms - tho' they are identical. These can only be used in slots where their available forms fit, whereas category 4 adjectives go in all slots, but morphologically conflate some slots.

7. Små vs Liten
This isn't really an example of discongruence, but tells us something about the congruence system in Swedish - essentially that the conflation of plural and definite is not complete, but only occurs on the surface.
This is also here to illustrate a non-semantic historic shift.

Liten has the following forms:
common: liten
neuter: litet
definite: lilla
definite masculine: lille
Notice a gap? Well, I've been somewhat remiss, in that I've not been consistent in providing the -a form with the label "plural and definite" consistently - this is exceptionally not available as an indefinite plural form!
The plural is små!

A full paradigm would actually be like this:
common: liten
neuter: litet (marginally also smått)
plural: små
common, neuter (, plural): lilla
solely plural: små
Thus, the plural congruence slot can take a form that common and neuter definite nouns cannot, thus illustrating that the conflation of the plural and the definite is somewhat superficial - there is at least this one lexeme that maintains a distinction between them.

SmÃ¥- is also used as an element in compounds, regardless of number: smÃ¥barn (infants, lit. small-child), smÃ¥sak ('a trifle', lit. small-thing), smÃ¥sten ('small-stone'). To make the whole mess even greater, the comparative and superlative are formed from the root min- (mindre, minst), but there is also a parallel form 'smärre' that has some special connotations. (The superlative "smärst" is effectively extinct.) 

So, from the point of view of historical linguistics, English and Swedish share cognates 'little'/'liten' and 'small'/'små', but whereas English keeps both as perfectly nice synonyms with some minor differences in connotation and usage, Swedish has turned them into one single suppletive lexeme, where the suppletion is triggered by congruence-related concerns.

I am, however, under the impression that 'little' lacks entirely established comparatives and superlatives (littler, littlest being seen as either jocular or childish forms), and so the issue with smaller, smallest kind of serving as the comparative and superlative of both seems to say that English too has some level of conflation between the two words.

Detail #391: A Small Idea on Imperatives and Similar Moods

Wednesday, March 11th, 2020
Thinking about the Dairwueh 'preprepositional' slot, that in some prepositions in that language can be used for certain things, I came up with an idea that I almost decided to incorporate in Dairwueh, but then realized it does have enough split ergativity already thank you very much

Ok, so. Consider a situation wherein a type of imperative - not perhaps the one you'd use when rude or in a hurry, so not the "get out of of the way of that speeding dogsled!"-kind of imperative, but rather a more relaxed or formal imperative.

This could basically reuse some preposition, which would mark the subject and object (thus opening for optatives and subjunctives and the like!) 

However, prepositions kind of prefer being prepositions. So, in the case of there being no object, the subject becomes the object of the preposition.

Here is the intransitive construction, rendered with 'for' as the imperative marker:
Sleep, for you! ('Sleep!')
Run, for him! ('Would that he run!')
Now, the transitive case is where it gets interesting:
Compose you.nom for a song! ('Write a song!')
Learn he for a job ('Would that he learned a job!')
Now, variants of the language could of course deal differently with it, placing, for instance, the intransitive subject to the left anyway, or adding a dummy pronoun to the object side, or even making this an OPS thing (Object, preposition, subject), or a PSO thing (preposition, subject, object).

This could of course generalize in other ways, and other prepositions might start taking two arguments. In fact, just generally, I am sort of fascinated with the idea of adpositions with multiple arguments recently.

The Creation of Meaning

Sunday, March 1st, 2020

Olivia Nelson is a 17-year-old high school senior living in Pennsylvania. Her interest in language started at a young age as she began noticing the imprecision of English. As she learned more about the study of language, her education became more specific. She has recently focused in on etymology, language construction, and linguistics, while formally studying Chinese and American Sign Language. Today, she excels at providing unrequested lectures about linguistics to her classmates during their lunch period.


In this presentation, The Creation of Meaning, Olivia Nelson reviews the process for creating a language, as well as the foundation of constructed languages. Her research, primarily using The Art of Language Invention by David J. Peterson and other scholarly texts, outlines the basics of creating a language to a lay audience. Within the presentation she explores what brings meaning to language, arguing that a dictionary is an outline for what a word means, and the true definition of the word lies in a culture’s repeated use in a consistent context.

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