Wóxtjanato: A grammar

January 1st, 2022

Jessie Sams is a 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. Since 2019, she’s worked as a professional conlanger on the Freeform series Motherland: Fort Salem. In her free time, she enjoys reading, hosting game nights with friends, baking (especially cupcakes), and, of course, conlanging.


This is the full grammar of Wóxtjanato, a language spoken on a planet that was affected by the sudden appearance of a second moon.

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Real Language Examples: The that-trace effect in Swedish and Finland-Swedish

December 24th, 2021

Time for even more real language examples. And as usual, I have dug deep in the grammar of my native language to find a belated hannukah-gift to you, my dear readers.

In syntax, a that-trace effect is a kind of blocking, where a complementizer cannot be followed by a trace. This effect is present in English, and causes this system of sentences with various transformations to hold:

I didn't think he could sing
He, I didn't know sings in that choir (arguably not grammatical)

Unlike English, Scandinavian languages permit topicalizing elements of subclauses rather freely. In English, this seems mainly to occur with interrogative pronouns. A __ will be inserted where the moved element originally stood in example sentences:

who did you think __ would finish this?

Compare this with Swedish clauses such as these:

Evert tror jag inte __ äter fisk.
Evert think I not __ eats fish.
Evert, I don't think eats fish.
I don't think Evert eats fish.

Other constituents can also be moved around:

Fisk tror jag inte Evert äter __.
Fish I don't think Evert eats.
I don't think Evert eats fish.

Here, it would be fun if we could do this to verbs as well, but alas, this is not permissible:

Äter tror jag inte Evert __ fisk.
Eats I don't think Evert fish
I don't think Evert eats fish (think this as contrasting to what he does do with fish: farm, cut fillets, cure, smoke, put in brine, make fish fingers, mong, etc, them)

Let's return to our English example "who did you think would finish this?" Let us consider two possible rewordings of this where it's "he" instead of "who", and it's just a statement.

You did think he would finish this?
You did think that he would finish this?

We find an interesting difference here, with regards to the permissibility of "that":

*who did you think that would finish this?

The hypothesis is that "that" cannot be followed by a trace of the element that has been moved left. (In essence, this means we can't have "that" and a move at the same time.) The subclause must be introduced by a null-element instead if there is a trace.

Anyways, Standard Swedish as spoken in Sweden has the same that-trace effect as English, whereas Standard Swedish as spoken in Finland lacks it. Norwegian seems also to have geographical splits on this, and Icelandic, I am happy to tell, solidly sides with my variety of Swedish. Since left-moved elements seem to be more common in Scandinavian in general, these phenomena are much more visible than in English.

Standard Swedish:
han tror jag kan simma
he thinks I can swim

As it happens, standard Swedish has V2, so this can actually correspond to _two_ different English orders. Notice that Swedish does not have person congruence on the verb:

jag tror han kan simma
I think (that) (he*) can swim (throw "he" to the left edge)
he think (that) I can swim (remove (that))
and is thus ambiguous. If Swedish did not have V2, it would be less ambiguous
he I think can swim
I he think can swim
but since Swedish does not permit this, it gets ambiguous. (There are some word order rules with regards to adverbs and auxiliaries that do, at least in part, resolve the question, but not always.)
Finland Swedish has resolved this issue in a different way, however. We don't have the that trace effect.
han tror jag att kan simma
he think I that can swim
he I think that can swim
This is as if English permitted
*who did you think that would finish this?
Since the 'att' is nearly mandatory if the subclause is not introduced by its subject, this actually fully removes the ambiguity from F-Swedish subclauses with leftwards shifted subjects.

The reason this particular difference between the two Swedish varieties has not been squashed by the education system is probably the fact that it's kind of difficult to explain something as abstract as this rule to kids.

I am kinda at awe at the level of hypocrisy "grammar nazis" reach on this thing. With one side of their face say we should make sure the language is as unambiguous as possible and with the other side of face teach that this trait of F-Swedish should be eliminated - despite the fact that it objectively reduces the amount of ambiguity. Fuck them. Seriously.

More about valence decrease and related phenomena

December 19th, 2021
I recently talked about valence-decreasing mechanisms in general and discovered a whole mess of unanswered foundational questions about how they work in Koa. I'm happy to report that things look a lot clearer after a month of percolation and I think I can address all of them. This will apparently be the Age of Empires edition of Ea Opi le Koa because a lot of my example sentences are...well, you'll see.

Object Deletion

The simplest way of reducing valence, if you want to call it that, is by deleting the object:

u sótama i tuho ka lina
DEF.PL soldier VP IMPF destroy DEF city
"the soldiers destroyed the city"

u sótama i ma tuho Ø
DEF.PL soldier VP IMPF destroy Ø
"the soldiers were destroying [things]"

Valence in Koa is pretty free compared to English. You've got a verb, and the subject position is required (unless it was previously stated or can be assumed, like i kuma he tana "it's hot today"), but beyond that you can kind of free-form the participants in the way you choose and anything omitted either (1) becomes indefinite or (2) is recovered anaphorically. This latter reading could therefore yield "the soldiers were destroying it" as an alternative interpretation to the previous sentence, if "it" were some referent already established in discourse.

It turns out that at some point we earmarked pa as a suffix to indicate an indefinite object, which means we could resolve the ambiguity, if necessary, by saying

u sótama i ma túhopa
DEF.PL soldier VP IMPF destroy-INDEF
"the soldiers were destroying things, the soldiers were going around destroying"

That's clear enough, but it's not 100% obvious what that pa actually is...is it some kind of pronoun? I thought so at one point. Or is it more derivational, like "do X here and there/haphazardly/with undefined results?" These days I think hi can actually fulfill the role I'd envisioned for pa back then (see below) so I'll leave it as a suffix for the moment with no further pretensions toward independent status.


I was surprised to discover last night that I thought I already understood this once upon a time, but I'm not at all satisfied with a lot of those conclusions, and I'll start from scratch here.

The most neutral way of indicating that a verb's object is identical with its subject is via the particle hi. This is genuine valence reduction in that the verb's object slot for the repeated participant disappears when this particle is used.

ni hi loha
1SG REFL love
"I love myself"

ni hi ana ti kánute
1SG REFL give this injury
"I gave myself this injury"

Note that ditransitive verbs can become reflexive with respect to either the direct or indirect object.

In a somewhat more marked way, the valence of the verb can be left alone but a reflexive construction used for the object:

ni loha niími
1SG love 1SG-self
"I love myself"

ni ana ti kánute la niími
1SG give this injury DAT 1SG-self
"I gave this injury to myself"

There's an added sense of contrast or emphasis here, so depending on the context this structure might tend to show up with focalization as well. Combining the two strategies is also possible with a serial verb, with even greater centering of the reflexiveness:

ni hi loha i imi
1SG REFL love VP self
"I love myself"

Semantic reflexiveness can come in via an incorporated object as well:

ni loha imi
1SG love self
"I love myself," "I self-love"

This gives a slightly different meaning, though: we're implying that self-love is a thing, and that the speaker practices it.

There's one final undecided point, though, of just how pronominal hi is allowed to get within VP arguments: in other words, can/should we say this instead for "I love myself"?

?ni loha hiími
1SG love REFL-self
"I love myself"

On purely aesthetic grounds I do greatly prefer it when languages have a reflexive pronoun (e.g. Polish golę się, lit. "I shave oneself" vs Spanish me afeito, lit. "I shave me") but this does potentially introduce a host of complications. Which of these is "I love my cat?"

ni loha ka sene ni
1SG love DEF cat 1SG

ni loha ka sene hi
1SG love DEF cat REFL

At the moment the sentence with hi is feeling pretty weird to me so I think we can nix that unless some emergent circumstances demand it in the future.


In reflexive verbs the totality of the action applies to all subjects individually. Reciprocals, in which the action travels from each of a plurality of subjects to each other subject, are formally very similar. The least marked structure is actually the same as for reflexives, and context disambiguates 95% of the time:

nu hi loha
1PL REFL love
"we love each other" OR "we love ourselves"

The possibilities for overt disambiguation exactly parallel those for reflexives with the same minor differences in sense, using the word kahi "reciprocal":

nu loha nukahi
1PL love 1PL-reciprocal
"we love each other," lit. "we love our reciprocal ones"

nu loha kahi
1PL love reciprocal
"idem," lit. "we love reciprocally"

nu hi loha i kahi
1PL REFL love VP reciprocal
"we love each other [reciprocally]"

Object Incorporation

When a transitive verb has a general, non-referential object, the most neutral structure is to incorporate it: in Koa terms, to omit the article so that it modifies the verb rather than standing on its own as an independent object. This reduces the verb's valence by one slot and is explored pretty thoroughly (with surprisingly few differences from modern usage) in this post from 2011, so I'll let that explanation stand in the interest of brevity. This gives us clauses like

u sótama i ma tuho lina
DEF.PL soldier VP IMPF destroy city
"the soldiers were destroying cities," "the soldiers were engaging in city-wrecking"

Passive/Middle Voice and Argument Shifts

Though traditionally labeled "passive," the particle pa affects argument structure in a manner that's pretty unlike the passive voice in IE languages. pa "promotes" a verbal object to subject position, but it also optionally "demotes" the subject to postverbal -- i.e. object -- position. The structure thereby created allows the agent/experiencer can be elided in a way it cannot in preverbal position, and valence is not technically decreased (depending on how you want to define object deletion).

As such, pa verbs are able to say something about their patient without inferring anything at all about their agent or experiencer, or even implying their existence. In this way it's more similar to a middle voice:

to puku i pa tino mo vake
that costume VP PASS take.off ADV difficult
"that costume 'takes off' with difficulty," "that costume is hard to take off"

A more passive reading is possible as well:

ka lina i pa tuho he to kesa
DEF city VP PASS destroy TIME that summer
"the city was destroyed that summer"

The wild difference from IE passives and middles, and one that I would consider the most Loglanesque operation in the whole of Koa if it hadn't been rescued by Bantu, is that there is still an argument slot for the notional subject after the verb:

ka lina i pa tuho u sótama
DEF city VP PASS destroy DEF.PL soldier
"the city was destroyed by the soldiers"

For speakers of case languages, though, there's another way of experiencing this sentence that has nothing to do with passivity. It's hard to get at in English except in the most poetic of contexts; maybe if you start with "bright waxed the moon" (a predicate, not an object, I know) and then parse "the city destroyed the soldiers" the same way you can sort of feel it? But if you've got an accusative like Latin, you can just say

urbem dēlēvērunt mīlitēs
city-SG.ACC destroy-PERF-3PL soldier-PL.ACC
"the soldiers destroyed the city"

The pragmatic or stylistic circumstances where one might make this choice in Koa will still need to be established, probably in the very long term. In the mean time, we can also make the agent oblique with ci (instrumental) and give the structure more of a traditional passive feel:

ka lina i pa tuho ci u sótama
DEF city VP PASS destroy INSTR DEF.PL soldier
"the city was destroyed by [the actions of] the soldiers"

Passive Agent Incorporation

In the same way that a general predicate in the object position of an active can be incorporated, a general agent/experiencer in postverbal position in a passive sentence can be as well:

ka lina i pa tohu sótama
DEF city VP PASS destroy soldier
"The city was destroyed by soldiers"

Note that the grouping here is [[pa tohu] sótama] "be destroyed by soldiers," not [pa [tohu sótama]] "be destroy soldier-ed" -- we're incorporating a predicate into a passive verb, not passivizing an incorporated verb which would make no sense because it's presumably intransitive.


The subject position can't be left vacant the way the object position can, but we can use an impersonal construction to code the subject as unknown/indefinite/general/unnamed/irrelevant. This is accomplished with hi -- the same particle used for reflexives -- but in a pronominal position with respect to the verb. I don't think we've ever actually thoroughly mapped out all the preverbal slots and clearly should, but for now the general shape of things is


Thus with hi in the pronoun slot, we can say

hi tohu ka lina
INDEF destroy DEF city
"they destroyed the city," "the city got destroyed"

This is actually very often the best Koa translation for an English passive without expressed agent, because the implication of an actor -- whether intentional or not -- is still present. Note that the actor is not necessarily implied to be animate. Another example of usage:

ai hi puhu le Níkili ne tia?
QU INDEF speak NAME English LOC this
"is English spoken here?"

It's possible for a verb to have a hi in two different positions with different (but related) meanings!

ha hi va hi kanu, hi vi hake ko apu
if INDEF HAB REFL injure, INDEF IMPER seek ABS help
"if one injures oneself, one should seek help"


Okay this was long (again), but I believe I've covered all the questions except for #4, "can pronominal objects in fact appear preverbally?" Despite my certainty in past years that this should be possible, the short answer here is no. There's simply no reason to dream this into being, even if there's a way you could justify it as equal treatment for all predicates. I'm down to reconsider someday should usage seem to demand it for some reason, and in the meantime I'm pleased to say I think we've got a pretty solid system of valence decreasing devices developed at this point!

Pe le Iúli

December 17th, 2021

In the almost 15 years since I started keeping this blog I haven't really said anything at all about myself, for the most part because its purpose was process/exploration/documentation and I really never imagined that anyone at all would ever read it! But in case anyone is curious...

Hi! I'm Julie -- 

I grew up in Seattle, a child of Polish immigrants on my dad's side and an odd holdout population of rural Swiss-German-speaking Oregonians on my mom's. I've been studying language and linguistics intensively since middle school and started creating languages in isolation quite a long time before I realized there was or had ever been a community of other people with the same strange interest. Around 1996 I discovered the conlang listserv which I can completely unironically say profoundly influenced my art and my life. I went to UC Berkeley for linguistics in the late 90's and early 2000's and later came to the non-profit arts administration career track which is where I still find myself professionally.

My best natural languages other than English are Spanish and Polish, with intermediate and roughly descending fluency in Finnish, Welsh and Catalan; I can fake it in French, German, Russian and, on a good day, Hungarian and Turkish. I'm sort of embarrassed that there's nothing non-IE in there further than a stone's throw from Europe, though there's been a lot of dabbling over the years and I come close to sleeping with my Nahuatl textbook under my pillow these days.

Koa began in my dorm room in 1999, initially out of irritation with Esperanto (ne miskomprenu min -- mi flue parolas ĝin, iam instruis ĝin per DeCal ĉe UCB, vojaĝis per ĝi post la altlernejo, kaj havas pri ĝi multajn varmajn sentojn...sed ankaŭ nombron de, laŭ mi, kompreneblaj plendoj). I found myself wondering how hard it would be to really do better in an IAL: not just philosophically, but as a working system that was genuinely usable as a language. Other initial basic parameters were maximal cross-typological intuitiveness, a minimum of decisions that a learner might find arbitrary, deriving all structures from a small and clearly defined set of first principles, and seeking and destroying any unexamined IE calquing.

As I've discussed recently Koa's original aspirations to IALdom may or may not still hold, but after more than 20 years of continuous development the language is awfully important to me and maybe one the things I'm the most proud of. I really need to write more soon about the philosophy and history of Koa, but it's hard to pull my attention away from the latest crisis in nominalized clauses. Other upcoming projects include a proper bidirectional dictionary, literary texts starting with Are You My Mother? and eventually a thorough reference grammar.

Some other notable constructed language projects along the way include:

* My very first, Terran (naturally), in an old, middle and modern version. Middle Terran got far enough that I was able to translate some of Unanana and the Elephant into it: Qua meithë, meithë cróharon şona ájenou Unananai e şilanë a vë éşalau cá címion ton divi...

* Seadi [`sjæði], my main squeeze in late high school and early college, an ergative and highly emotive artlang with influence from Ancient Greek, Sámi and possibly the spirit of Láadan...this is the only project that had a real world-building story behind it, with multiple dialects and a well-developed system of historical change...there's a blog for it too, but not much on it unfortunately. Not many texts exist, though I did inscribe the inside of my first girlfriend's ring in it: Ciēla sēn ainā inie "may this love between the two of us always endure."

* Oligosynthesis has been a major fascination ever since I ran across Brad Coon's Nova in middle school, but despite an absurd number of attempts I'm still struggling to really get a system off the ground. After something like 25 years of work I finally have a phonology that gives enough roots while being pronounceable and even pleasing in multisyllabic words, but basic morphology is still holding it up. One of these years it's going to really be awesome, though! I can say things like adožíla "clumsy inexplicable love," qearhoju "apathetically drink to destruction," or iveinisui "he ate it with confusion, as if it were the first time."

When not holding a reference grammar, I enjoy singing and playing folk music on tenor guitar and button accordion, exploring the natural world and studying evolutionary biology and philosophy, traveling, cooking, playing games and taking long walks in pretty neighborhoods. I work for a jazz conservatory and live in Portland, Oregon with my partner Olga (who lovingly hounded me for years to write this) and my two daughters.

If you'd like to reach out to talk about Koa, conlanging or anything else, I'd love to chat -- feel free to e-mail! I'm at juliet at hey dot com or @julietabirch on Instagram.

The theta clause

December 6th, 2021

This post would have come a lot sooner if I could just have figured out what to call it. English-language linguistics typically refers to these as headless relative clauses or indirect questions, but that's begging the question: there's no reason to start out with the assumption that what's actually happening in Koa must map onto a relative clause or a question. I'm going to be bold and use "theta clause" because these structures are sort of meta-encoding a thematic role; since that's not a term anyone would understand out of the box, though, you can substitute with "nominal clauses" if you want!

These have been an albatross for most of Kea's existence, an endless source of confusion and discouragement. Until 2021 I just couldn't really even approach the problem of how to express something as seemingly basic as

I don't know what you want

Somehow I instinctively steered wide of the most obvious strategy...it seemed like maybe a structure that felt that comfortable was making too many assumptions. The Polish, for example, would be

nie wiem, co chcesz
NEG know-1SG what want-2SG
"I don't know what you want"

The Koa calque of this would be

ni na ilo kea sa se halu
1SG NEG know what FOC 2SG want

Hungarian does something similar but precedes the embedded clause with a complementizer:

nem tudom, hogy mit akarsz
NEG know-1SG COMP what-ACC want-2SG

This would calque as

ni na ilo ko kea sa se halu
1SG NEG know COMP what FOC 2SG want

Was that better? Who knew? I think maybe what argued caution was that I wasn't at all sure I understood what was really going on here; given the fact that question words haven't ever been a part of relative clause structure in Koa, why suddenly pull them in just to address this complication? This corner of syntax rested in abeyance until this year, with yet another Nahuatl intervention.

Nahuatl produces these kinds of clauses just as elegantly and effortlessly as any other NP, and in the same way:

in cihuātl
DEF woman
"the woman"

ca cochi in cihuātl
DECL sleep-3SG DEF woman
"the woman is sleeping"

in cochi
DEF sleep-3SG
"the one sleeping, who is sleeping"

ca cihuātl in cochi
DECL woman DEF sleep-3SG
"the one sleeping is a woman"

in cihuātl in cochi
DEF woman DEF sleep-3SG
"the sleeping woman, the woman who is sleeping"

Koa works extremely similarly to Nahuatl in its predicates' ability to assume any syntactic position ("lexical class," if you must), and in fact all of these translate seamlessly into Koa:

ka mina
DEF woman
"the woman"

ka mina i nuku
DEF woman VP sleep
"the woman is sleeping"

ka nuku
DEF sleep
"the one sleeping"

ka nuku i mina
DEF sleep VP woman
"the one sleeping is a woman"

ka mina nuku
DEF woman sleep
"the sleeping woman, the woman who is sleeping"

If we can do all this, and in fact our ability to do all this is foundational to the grammar of Koa, that presumably means we can also say

ni na ilo ka nuku
1SG NEG know DEF sleep
"I don't know who's sleeping"

Note that this does not mean "I don't know the sleeping woman": that would be a different verb of knowing which, embarrassingly enough, I still haven't picked out -- savoir vs connaître. Anyway, none of this is controversial, really, I just wasn't clear before that I could use these structures this way!

Let's take a look at how this works in different syntactic positions. Core slots -- subject and object -- are extremely simple:

ni na ilo [ka ma puhu] he tisena (subject)
1SG NEG know DEF IMPF speak TIME this-now
"I don't know who's speaking right now"

ni na ilo [ka ta ma sano] he tisena (object)
1SG NEG know DEF 3SG IMPF say TIME this-now
"I don't know what he's saying right now"

Now, if someone really wanted to interpret these as headless relatives, they could imagine that there's gapping going on here underlyingly, like

ka Ø ma puhu "the oneᵢ that Øᵢ is speaking"
ka ta ma sano Øᵢ "the thingᵢ that he is saying Øᵢ"

I think that's trying unnecessarily hard to frame Koa grammar in a IE-compliant way, though. Maybe the trees have invisible arrows and maybe they don't, but the way it feels to a Koa speaker is that ma puhu or ta ma sano can be used as adjectives just like any other predicate or predicate complex: so ka sao "the right one," ka ma puhu "the speaking one," ka ta ma sano "the him-saying one."

The reason I don't think relative clauses are the right way to think of these is what happens in oblique positions. How would you say "I know where you live"?

First of all, you can probably throw formal grammatical relations to the wind and just say this, letting the hearer reassemble the semantic role from obvious context:

ni ilo ka se asu
1SG know DEF 2SG dwell
"I know the you-living one" = "I know where you live"

If you do actually definitely want to overtly include that "location" semantic, though, I might expect to see one of these if these structures are really relative clauses:

ni ilo ka se asu ne Ø (gapping)
1SG know DEF 2SG dwell LOC

ni ilo ka se asu ne ta (pronoun retention)
1SG know DEF 2SG dwell LOC 3SG

The thing is, I don't think either of those are acceptable Koa! The most neutral, least marked Koa phrasing actually uses one of those ke-compounds to recover the missing semantic role:

ni ilo kene se asu
1SG know location 2SG dwell
"I know where you live"

There's a really strong urge to interpret kene above as performing a relative function exactly analogous to that of where in the English translation, but that is not what's going on here. Kene is a noun, not an adverb, and so the more literal English rendering of the Koa phrase would be "I know the location of your living." Here are some other examples:

ni na ilo kepe ta ma puhu
1SG NEG know topic 3SG IMPF speak
"I don't know the subject of his speaking" = "I don't know what he's talking about"

ai se ilo keo ve ka pasuo se i tule
QU 2SG know origin MOD DEF PASS-eat 2SG VP come
"do you know the origin of your food's coming?" = "do you know where your food comes from?"

This would actually be much more neutral without come, as

ai se ilo keo ka pasuo se
"do you know the origin of your food?" = "do you know where your food comes from?"

The Koa clauses are often somewhat more syntactically economical than the English in this way.

ni co na ilo keci ni cu ata la
1SG still NEG know means 1SG IRR arrive DAT
"I still don't know the means of my arriving there" = "I don't know yet how I'm going to get there"

NB: the English glosses all have a definite object: "I don't know the subject of his speaking," etc. Shouldn't the Koa then be ni na ilo ka kepe ta ma puhu? No, in fact. I don't know how widespread this is, but in a lot of IE languages we have this thing where the head of a genitive phrase is required to be formally definite; in this kind of structure, though, there is in fact not a known, specific topic already on the discourse stage to be referred to with ka. What's really going on here is more subtle: kepe is the incorporated object of the verb ilo! In essence, we're saying "I don't origin-know his speaking." This is visible in other types of sentences where there's no clear verbal object:

ta ie ata he tana, ni na ilo keo
3SG just arrive TIME today, 1SG NEG know origin
"he just got here today, I don't know where from"

We can also see this in the Koa translation of "it matters where your food comes from": Notice that "the origin," when in subject position, is a po-phrase because it's entirely general/universal. That same meaning in object position is expressed by incorporation.

tava sa po keo ka pasuo se
matter FOC GEN origin DEF PASS-eat 2SG
"the origin of your food matters"

(Though I'm confident the Koa forms are correct, the above statement about definiteness marking is going to need some scrutiny in the future: either I'm painting with too broad a brush, which is entirely possible, or I've been misusing ka all over the place. For example, why is "my house" ka talo ni if it's not on the discourse stage yet? I think my understanding of what's really going on here needs to develop a bit in subtlety. Meanwhile, though, again, I think the Koa is right with respect to the topic under discussion.)

One thing I don't know -- and this is the case throughout the world of Koa dependent clauses -- is how we refer to possessors. How would we say "I don't know whose drink I'm holding"?

?ni na ilo ka ni lolo ka paípo ta
1SG NEG know DEF 1SG hold DEF PASS-drink 3SG

A minute ago I just confidently announced that pronoun retention is not used in Koa in these kinds of phrases, so apparently not.

?ni na ilo kela ni lolo paípo
1SG NEG know beneficiary 1SG hold DEF PASS-drink
"I don't know the destination of my drink-holding"

Okay, but then what we're literally saying is "I don't know who I'm holding this drink for," which is sort of sneakily avoiding the issue. The possessor is at the absolute bottom of the relativization hierarchy which is no doubt the reason this is turning out to be such a challenge. Maybe the way to do it is with a verb that means "own"; currently we have only the reverse, a verb that means "belong to." I suppose we could use a passive......?

?na ilo paoma ka paípo ni lolo
NEG know PASS-belong DEF PASS-drink 1SG hold
"I don't know the belonged-to one of the drink of my holding" =
"I don't know the owner of the drink I'm holding" = "I dunno whose drink I'm holding"

That might be respectable, if initially utterly counterintuitive! Let's let it stand for the time being.

There are a number of other types of theta clauses which, though unremarkable in their structure from a Koa standpoint, need to be pointed out because they're utterly different from their English counterparts. First, two more making use of object incorporation:

ni na ilo mea ta
1SG NEG know thing 3SG
"I don't know what it is"

ni na ilo noa ta
1SG NEG know name 3SG
"I don't know what his name is"

The other two use special verbs of being:

ni na ilo ka ta ila
1SG NEG know DEF 3SG be-like
"I don't know what set he's a member of," "I don't know what he's like"
(we've seen this one before)

ni na ilo ka ta imi
1SG NEG know DEF 3SG self
"I don't know who he is"

This last one is breaking some important new ground. It became clear when thinking about these kinds of structures that imi "self" at base really means "identity" (mathematical, not personal); as an adjective "equal, identical," or as a verb, "have identity with." Interestingly, in this single case, ka imi and ka pa imi would actually be the same thing, since either side of the triple bar is formally identical to the other! So niími means "myself," literally "my identical one."

In fact, we could express this sentence in at least three other ways whose semantic differences from the foregoing, if any, are pretty difficult to assess:

ni na ilo ka imi ta
1SG NEG know DEF identity 3SG
"I don't know what is identical to him" = "I don't know who he is"

ni na ilo imi ta
1SG NEG know identity 3SG
"I don't identity-know him" = "I don't know who he is"

or even

ni na ilo ta imi
1SG NEG know 3SG identity
"I don't know his identity" = "I don't know who he is"

I'm leaving that particular rabbit hole for some late-night philosophical discussion. What I do need to say before I sign off for today is that I think Koa may actually permit IE-style embedded questions after all, in a rather more marked way. In the interest of brevity I'll have to add this to the rapidly expanding docket of future topics to post about!

Unknown Riches, Episode 2

December 3rd, 2021

I recently produced a sentence that made my friend learning Kílta ask which section of the grammar explained that use. Then I realized that not only was it not described in the grammar, I hadn't really thought about it explicitly.

Hakán ésamét kwan kwailo.
arm vaccine INST hurt.PFV
My arm hurts from the shot.

He wanted to know why the instrumental kwan was used here, when he would have gone for nós due to, on account of.

I have talked before about using a diary as a conlang tool. I am quite sure this sort of use of kwan started a while ago, but because the diary is handwritten, I can't easily search it to look for the first such use of kwan. Nonetheless, it was established early that kwan would indicate inanimate agents for passive verbs. The use of kwan in the example above is allied to that. It shows up in plenty of example sentences in the lexicon, chisanta kwan uttimo died from cancer, mata kwan atenko dissolved in the water, koska kwan haivo drown in shit, etc.

With a little thought it became clear that I was using kwan to indicate inanimate or indirect agents in patient intransitives (also known as "unaccusative verbs," an excessively cute and confusing bit of terminology). These are intransitive verbs where the grammatical subject doesn't have much agency in the situation, die, fall, be sick, happen, hurt, etc.

The detransitive suffix -is-o generally results in verbs with more patient-like subjects, so it, too, can take kwan in this sense, 

Chátis në mëtaula kwan kwitiso.
window TOP storm INST break.DETR.PFV
The window broke in (due to) the storm.

So here was a bit of Kílta grammar that was (probably) created in the diary, got used all over the examples, but hadn't been expressed explicitly until I got asked about what was going on. This is normal in the diary process. Certain use patterns develop because they seem right at the time, and over time take on semantics that can be hard to explain at first. In this case, I'm lucky enough to have someone ask me what I was up to with kwan. And now it's explained in the grammar.

Alrond and the Magic Fox

December 1st, 2021

Dr. Evgeny A. Khvalkov, Associate Professor, Higher School of Economics, Dept. of History Promyshlennaya Ulitsa 17, Saint Petersburg, Russia.


This is an original fairy tale by Evgeny A. Khvalkov translated into English and Toki Pona.

Version History

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Getting Koa’s valence-decreasing house in order

November 22nd, 2021

It's become increasingly clear this week that I don't really understand valence-decreasing operations in Koa. I created pa very early on as a passive marker -- whatever that exactly means in practice -- and seem to have identified hi as a reflexive prefix, but that about sums it up: no further exploration or description has taken place in all these years. Here are some questions that need to be answered:

1. Can the agent of a passive verb be overtly indicated? If so, how?
2. How does the passive work with ditransitive verbs?
3. How do reflexives work? Is it just a verbal prefix? Or is it a pronoun? If a pronoun, can it appear in other syntactic positions?
4. Can pronominal objects in fact appear preverbally?
5. Is there a way to background the subject, or make it indefinite/impersonal, without using the passive? (Like aquí se habla español "Spanish is spoken here" or ווערטער זאָל מען װעגן און ניט צײלן verter zol men vegn un nit tseyln "words should be weighed, not counted)
6. If there's some kind of impersonal construction, does it matter if the logical agent is human or not?
7. What's the relationship, if any, between reflexives and impersonals?
8. How do we represent reciprocal action, and how is that different from reflexives?

There's a lot of material here and I'm not sure if this is destined to be a single post or several. I guess we might as well go through them one at a time...

1. Indicating agents of passive verbs

It's been a long time since the typology class where we looked at a thorough cross-linguistic survey of agents in passive constructions, so I've been extremely grateful for this paper by Edward Keenan and Matthew Dryer providing exactly that. I needed some help with agent demotion because I knew it was most common for them to be relegated to an oblique position, but it was extremely unclear which Koa adjunct particle would be appropriate. Meanwhile, the only passive agent indication in current active use has been phrases like

"my beloved"

From the above it should be possible to say

se palóhani
2SG PASS-love-1SG
"you are my beloved"

...and if this is written out with the particles separated, you end up with

se pa loha ni
2SG PASS love 1SG
"you are my beloved" = "you are loved by me"

This makes it look like passivization in Koa -- at least by means of the particle pa -- is in fact not a valence-decreasing operation at all! Instead, Loglan-style, the subject and object are simply swapped, with pragmatic consequences. Further examples if this is true:

se loha iu poli pi mehe
2SG love EXT many QUANT person
"you love so many people"

se pa loha iu poli pi mehe
2SG PASS love EXT many QUANT person
"you are loved by so many people"

Initially I figured this kind of linguistic backflip wasn't really possible for humans, and therefore should be considered inadmissible. The best I could do was to suppose that palóhani breaks down to [[palóha]ni], like we start out with "beloved person" -- palóha -- and add personal possession: now it's ka palóha kémeni, "my beloved person." Maybe it doesn't literally mean "the one who is loved by me"...as much as it really, really, really, really looks like it does.

Keenan and Dryer, though, point out that some languages really do do this, though, particularly in the Bantu family. Here's one of their Swahili examples:

maji ya-meenea nchi
water it-cover land
"the water covers the land"

nchi i-meenea maji
land it-cover water
"the land is covered by water"

Here there isn't even any kind of passive marker, just verb agreement with a different subject. Bottom line, this may in fact be a viable Koa strategy. What if we do want an adjunct, though, whether for clarity or for semantic or pragmatic reasons? One strategy is an ablative -- so o in Koa -- but that seems a little ad hoc and apparently some kind of instrumental is more common cross-linguistically.

Only...Koa doesn't have an unambiguous instrumental. I've deferred serious consideration over the years, imagining (or hoping) that other particles might be sufficient: going in a car, or writing with a pen, etc. When it comes down to it, though, I really do want to be able to talk straightforwardly about means. If kelo is "reason" and kemo is "manner," what would "means" be?

After a few days of pondering, I think this is important enough to assign one of our newly available c- particles to. Initially I'd chosen ca but no amount of familiarity seemed able to make that feel right, so I switched it to ci at about 3am last night and I'm pretty happy with that. So:

ni kanu ka tue ci kivi
1SG injure DEF finger INSTR rock
"I hurt my finger with/on a rock"

se ia te puhu ci le Koa
"you really can speak Koa"*

ta miilo ve ka kala ta i si pa iune ci mola
3SG INCEPT-know REL DEF fish 3SG VP ANT PASS steal INSTR bear
"he discovered his fish had been stolen by a bear"

*Usage here hasn't been formally decided. Should it be ci le Koa "by means of Koa" like Hungarian, or mo le Koa "in the manner of Koa, Koa-ly" like Polish or Latin? Or (probably not) ne le Koa like English? Seems like ci is most appropriate semantically but a final decision can come later.

By the way, I may have also decided in the midst of this instrumental study that the word for "and" should just be e plain and simple. I've had me conjoining NP's -- influence from Swahili -- but I'm not sure what that gets me in exchange for additional semantic ambiguity (did I really buy a house with a car, or just a house and a car separately?). I can't imagine that letting go of this would upset any learner regardless of linguistic origin.

Getting back to the original question, yes, this kind of passive can indeed have an overt agent phrase: (1) definitely headed by ci, our new instrumental, and (2) maybe even as a plain NP that looks like a core argument. Still unanswered is what's really going on here with valence at a lower level, particularly in view of option (2), so we'll need to come back to this.

2. The passive of ditransitives

In English a person can be given a book, and a book can be given to a person, within the same apparent passive structure. What about Koa? The answer seems to hinge on how ditransitives are handled in active clauses, about which I'm honor-bound to admit sheepishly that I'm not sure. If both the direct and indirect objects are full NP's I think one of them has to be phrased as an adjunct to avoid modifying the other:

A. ta ana ka lelu la ka toto
3SG give DEF toy DAT DEF child
"he gave a toy to the child"

B. ta ana ka toto pe ka lelu
3SG give DEF child APPL toy
"he gave the child a toy"

??ta ana ka toto ka lelu
3SG give DEF child DEF toy
"he gave the toy's child..."

What's less clear is what happens when the indirect object is a pronoun. I'm not sure why this shouldn't work:

ta ana ni ka lelu
3SG give 1SG DEF toy
"he gave me the toy"

I guess we're kind of begging the question, though, because as soon as we're saying that both of those ana clauses above are acceptable, it's clear that it must be possible to promote either the direct or indirect object. I guess I'll go ahead and say yes, this is permissible, until I find a good reason to forbid it. For what it's worth I think Yoruba agrees. So then, the passives would look...like this, I think?

A. ka lelu i pa ana la ka toto (ci ta)
DEF toy VP PASS give DAT DEF child (INSTR 3SG)
"the toy was given to the child (by him)"

B. ka toto i pa ana (pe) ka lelu (ci ta)
DEF child VP PASS give (APPL) DEF toy (INSTR 3SG)
"the child was given the toy (by him)"

Oof, this is getting complicated. I'm not sure whether the pe in structure B is obligatory, despite the fact that it would have been in the active sentence -- once the two objects aren't piled up anymore, the ambiguity disappears! And while we're trying to figure that out, if it might be possible to free agents from an adjunct phrase like we were saying before, might this be an acceptable rephrasing of type A?

A. ka lelu i pa ana ta la ka toto
DEF toy VP PASS give 3SG DAT DEF child
"the toy was given by him to the child"

In this case, the literal translation would look something like "the toy was his given thing (i.e. his gift) to the child." Even though this surprises my IE intuition, I really don't see why this shouldn't be okay! And I actually kind of love it.

Getting back to B above, I think it's better with pe omitted: included, it's acceptable but not really helpful. It's the same as the fact that we can theoretically say

ni ipo pe ka cai
1SG drink APPL DEF tea
"I drank [with respect to] the tea"

...but the circumstances where a speaker would naturally choose to do that would be pretty specific. At least 99% of the time you'd just get ni ipo ka cai.

This is already long enough that I think I should leave 3-8 for separate posts...and I haven't forgotten that there's some really important material still waiting to be written about nominalization and relativization! I'll do my best over Thanksgiving break.

Detail #422: Variations on Reflexives

November 21st, 2021

I have been reading up a lot on reflexives in different languages, and this inspired me to write a little on the different types of reflexives I have encountered, and some additional types.

1. Types of pronouns 

1.1. Gaps

Some languages have gaps in the pronominal system where the reflexives would be expected to appear. West Germanic, for instance, now entirely lacks reflexive possessives (whereas Slavic and North Germanic do have them).

Thus, "he saw his car" can signify the subject's car being seen by the subject, or some other third person's car being seen by the subject. In Slavic and North Germanic, there is a reflexive possessive pronoun. In examples throughout this post, I may use "sy" and "sine" for this, analogous to this structure w.r.t. Swedish: min:my::sin:sy.

Another arguable gap in most IE languages is the lack of a reflexive subject, which could make sense with subclauses and such:

"he did not know that heself would ..."

There are other imaginable situations where a reflexive nominative also makes sense, such as in split ergative languages where the nominative also is the absolutive, or in languages where some type of quirky case or differential case marking sometimes has nominative forms in object positions. Also, in the bit further down about reference, we may find other reasons.

Another imaginable gap could be a gender-specific conflation. Imagine a language where masculines and feminines have distinct reflexive form, but neuters do not, leaving

"the animal saw it"
ambiguous as to whether it's reflexive or not.

2. Person

In some languages, reflexive pronouns are person-specific, whereas in some they are entirely person-agnostic. Russian is an example of the latter, English of the former.

Thus, in Russian, reflexive arguments often are expressed by the pronoun 'sebya' in the proper case form regardless of person (although in first and second person, using the first or second person pronouns is permitted and sometimes done). In English, it's myself, yourself, himself, herself, etc.

In Swedish, first and second person use the first and second person pronouns. The semi-reflexive "själv" (obvious cognate) can follow, but is option.

jag såg mig in the mirror = I saw myself in the mirror
jag såg mig själv i spegeln = I saw myself (emphatic) in the mirror

I would go so far as to say that "själv" no longer is properly reflexive in Swedish but rather some kind of intensifier and restrictive marker. C.f.

Jag visste att jag själv skulle bli tvungen att lösa det.
I knew that I self would have to resolve it

Han själv hade inte hunnit med det, men med hennes hjälp gick det bra.
He self had not been_able_to_do_on_time with it, but with her help went it well
He would not have been able to get it done on time by himself, but with her help it went well (or maybe "alone, he would not ...")

Otherwise, 'själv' serves the other roles 'self' serves in English, altho' sometimes in the superlative: självaste kungen/kungen själv : the King himself.

The usual reflexive in Swedish only pops up in the third person, and does not distinguish number - although 'själv' would be inflected for plural if used with a plural, and neuter when used with neuters:

han såg sig (själv) i spegeln
de såg sig (själva) i spegeln
djuret såg sig (självt) i spegeln

he/they/the animal saw him/them/itself in the mirror, -a = plural adjective/pronoun congruence, -t = neuter ditto.

The richer the congruence system on the reflexives get in a language, the more likely it feels like the reflexive/non-reflexive distinction is going to be lost and be replaced by some form of proximative/obviative-like distinction instead. Once you have gender and number and the whole shebang both on the regular third person pronouns and reflexive ones, you will very seldom need a restriction on them that force them to be reflexive or not, but rather might just care about whether there's two referents that are distinct and of somewhat different prominence in the discourse.

3. Reference

3.1 Subject only 

It is not unusual for reflexive pronouns to be restricted to subjects only. Thus, sebya and its forms, as far as I can tell, only refer back to the subject. I have no idea how this works with non-nominative subjects of infinitives in Russian, but there's space for variation there.

Natural variants of this type could be absolutive-only and topic-only.

3.2 Some other kind of reference

In Swedish, the rules for the possessive reflexive are complicated, but as an acquaintance of mine would express it: 'Any NP that C-commands the phrase with the reflexive pronoun can be the possessor'.

In fact, there's a further sort of restriction where for most speakers, the regular pronouns cannot refer to the subject (whereas the reflexive ones can; the non-reflexives do seem to be able to refer to non-subjects even in positions where they can refer to non-subjects as well.) 

Two examples:

de visade honom till sitt nya rum

they showed him to sy new room

Here, the new room might be theirs or his.

John visade Peter till hans nya rum

John showed Peter to his new room

Here, the new room can only be Peter's.

The c-command rule opens up a few other positions:

tanken i all sin förträfflighet
the thought in all (of) sy excellence = the thought in all its excellence

This could be any constituent - subject, object, prepositional object, etc. This position, however, does seem to permit for use of non-reflexive pronouns as well,

tanken i all dess förtäfflighet
the thought in all (of) its excellence

Finally, the Swedish reflexive can refer to an empty subject of an infinitive, and this also holds for the regular reflexive object pronoun

att lära sig känna sina gränser är viktigt
to learn to know sy boundaries is important

att vila sig är hälsosamt
to rest oneself is healthy

Beyond this, there is a nominalization in the plural, 'de sina', which signifies the closest family and friends.

3.3. Even further kinds of reference 

The Swedish example above is rather complicated, but we can find examples that it does not permit. Deciding whether to permit these (or to restrict some of the ones the Swedish example includes) can give some space for a conlang to grow into a detailed project.

3.3.1 Conjunctions 

"Han och sina vänner" - "He and sy friends" does not work in Swedish. It must be "han och hans vänner".

The reflexives do not work over subclause boundaries, making

"han visste att han var försenad"
he knew that he was late

mildly ambiguous as to whether it is reflexive or not. "Själv" could be added, but would sound really weird in Swedish - though more acceptable with some other verbs in the main clause and subclause. Even then, "själv" is not necessarily reflexive, as it might actually also signify that the second subject is or does something by himself.

3.3.2 Topicalization of non-subjects 

One could also imagine that topics are possible candidates for reference of reflexives, in which case you might want to be able to refer to the subject as possessed by the topic, and with a reflexive possessive at that. Or maybe even in some weird situation where the topic and the subject are the same referent, but mark different roles,

himself he gave an expensive gift.
could make much more sense in some languages' logic as
him heself gave an expensive gift.
3.3.3 Quirky case 
Of course, with quirky case you may have a non-subject in the nominative or a subject in a non-nominative case, and there may be restrictions depending on whether they're true quirky cases or not affecting whether they can or can't be the referent of a reflexive. It might be nice having objects  in the nominative be candidates for reflexive reference (and also, naturally, blocking the use of regular reflexive possessive pronouns owning the object).

3.3.4 Subordinate structures
It is imaginable that subordinate infinitives with an agent that is distinct from the subject of a finite verb may restrict the reflexives within its scope to refer to NPs within the infinite VP + the agent, or maybe even more restrictive, such that the agent may be blocked from being the referent of the reflexive. Thus
I helped him do his homework
could, in such a language, not be
I helped him do sy homework
One could also imagine a reverse effect, where the agent is within the scope of the infinitive phrase's block and prevents external reflexives from reaching it, thus if he helps his sister with her homework, it couldn't be
he helps sy sister do ...
But if the infinitive then permits reflexive reference to the agent, this would be permissible:
he helps his sister do sy homework

The situation with subclauses is of course of some interest as well, but I will not get into detail with regards to that. Similar possibilities exist as with regards to the infinitive phrase, but with a subclause you generally do not have arguments "outside of" the scope of the subclause.

4 Other considerations
4.1. Distinct reflexives for subjects and other referents
One could imagine a language that has evolved distinct forms of 'sy' and '...self' for subjects and objects (or ergatives and absolutives, or topics and non-topics, or subjects and objects and obliques, or topics and other NPs or maybe topics or subjects vs. non-subject non-topics). This seems unlikely but not impossible. I imagine this would likely include some kind of morphological marking distinguishing the two (or more) types instead of separate stems.
4.2 Antireflexive 
 I have previously considered an anti-reflexive pronoun, where the regular third person pronoun is assumed to be reflexive if there is a third person subject, and any non-reflexive reading requires an explicitly non-reflexive one.

4.3 The Finnish reflexive possessive
The Finnish reflexive possessive is fascinating in that it entirely lacks independent morphemes of its own. Normally, reflexiveness in Finnish is marked by itse + case + possessive suffix, so "itselleni" = self + to + my = to myself.

However, 'itse' does not feature in reflexive possession. 'Oma' can be used for that sometimes, but is not exclusively reflexive. In meaning it is fairly close to '(one's) own', i.e. more about exclusive possession rather than reflexive such, although both meanings do exist.

Third person reflexive possession in Finnish is expressed by the possessive suffix, whenever the noun is not the subject:
Hän löysi varastetun autonsa = (s)he found her/his stolen car
Here, we actually get a slightly antireflexive construction, because if you sneak in the genitive third person pronoun, it suddenly no longer is reflexive
Hän löysi hänen varastetun autonsa = (s)he found her/his(someone else's) stolen car

A Koa lullaby

November 15th, 2021
On the evening of August 22nd, 2012 when Callie was five months old and I was trying to get her to sleep, this lullaby somehow spontaneously came out of me fully formed. That was the heyday of real Koa usage, and I frequently spoke it to her in the course of daily life; for a minute it seemed not inconceivable that it might become a living language. That hasn't quite happened (yet), but the song itself -- Aika ko Nuku, "Time for Sleep" or "Sleepytime" -- has stuck around and both girls know it word for word, even if they can't parse it.

Given that this is still the only existing Koa text, I'm kind of appalled I've never posted anything about it! Here's the score, followed by an interlinear translation.
We usually sing it twice through, repeating the last two measures more slowly on the final repetition.

Over the years I realized I've been imagining the spelling as Aika Konuku rather than Aika ko Nuku as I had it in my score from 2012, but I'm not sure why. There's really no prescriptive...anything in Koa about word grouping or capitalization at this point, so everything is reflecting perceived aesthetics of the moment. Another topic for someday. Anyway, the words:

aika ko nuku la ka piku ni
time ABS sleep DAT DEF little 1SG
"it's sleepytime for my little one"

vo se io maka ne ni áheki
"here you are now lying in my sweet arms"

toa pi kiuni i hala pai pui
that QUANT need-rest VP after day long
"so tired after the long day"

aika ko nuku la se
time ABS sleep DAT 2SG
"it sleepytime for you."

The third line has been a bit problematic. Through most of the song's life it existed as

toa pi kiuni hala a pai pui
that QUANT need-rest after INDEF day long
"so tired after a long day"

First of all, though hala has meant "after" since about 2011, it wasn't until this year that I finally figured out how to use it, and this isn't it -- there was nothing integrating it into syntax! This has been changed into its proper verbal form in the words above (a post about this is forthcoming). A is not at all the right particle, either...if anything it might make sense to say ...hala ti pai pui "after this long day," but really the long day is not being spoken of in any kind of specific way: we're referring to a kind of tiredness one feels after a long day in general, and as such the right way to express it is via object incorporation: no article.

Still an issue, though, is the translation of so tired. I picked a word for this out of a kind of Esperanto correlative logic, where you would genuinely say tiom laca "that amount of tired," but it doesn't actually make sense in Koa: toa pi kiuni suggests a real referent in the world for toa "that" which clearly doesn't exist ("I'm not this tired, I'm that tired."). What we want is iu kiuni "so tired," but iu didn't exist back then, and it doesn't fit the meter. We need more syllables.

se iu kiuni "you're so tired" (accent in the wrong place)
kiuni poli "very tired" (words too drawn out and accent on poli instead of kiuni. I think we need 3 syllables)
tótoki kiuni "tired little child" (maybe okay! Sounds a lot like the original; two successive ki's but it's still not hard to sing)
toto iu kiuni "such a tired child" (also possible but I like it less for some reason)
néneki kiuni "tired little baby" (since Callie was one when this was composed. Maybe?)

I don't think I'm making a decision today, but I potentially like some of these options. There may be a revolt, though...the change from hala a pai to i hala pai wasn't even noticeable to the little ones, but this one -- when I figure out a replacement -- won't be so easy to sneak past them.

Incidentally I mentioned to them at some point that I was working on a second verse, and since then they ask me about it every few months. I think I'm having some performance anxiety, as usual for me with songwriting, but I know it'll be something like

Aika ko nuku la ka piku ni (same as first verse)
Ka esi me aimo something ("the moon and stars will watch over you through the night?")
Something about no cause for worry when you're so loved
Aika ko nuku la se (same as first verse)

Uh...still some big gaps in there. I'll get back to you.