Archive for the ‘grammar’ Category

Art & Anxiety: Conlanging through imposter syndrome

Wednesday, February 1st, 2023

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.

Abstract

In this essay, Jessie Sams discusses some of the major personal hurdles she has to overcome as a conlanger, and introduces a new personal conlang she’s working on, Zhwadi.

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Etymology statistics

Sunday, January 29th, 2023

Just a point of interest as I continue to organize my lexicon...

Of the 790 predicate roots assigned so far:

* 163 (21%) are derived from Finnish
* 57 (7%) are derived from Hawai'ian, Sāmoan, Tongan or Māori
* 75 (9%) are derived from other languages (Arabic, Basque, Bislama, Chinese, Doraja, Esperanto, French, Greek, Icelandic, Irish, Japanese, Latin, Lapine, Latvian, Malay, Nahuatl, Polish, Proto-World [ha ha], Quechua, Quenya, Russian, Seadi, Spanish, Swahili, Tagalog, Turkish, Swahili, or broad international usage)
* 34 (4%) are internally-derived

This means 295 (37%) of the current Koa root stock was derived in some way from other languages, compared with 495 (63%) that was either randomly generated, internally derived, or selected/created in some way (unfortunately there's no good way to distinguish randomness from intention reliably at this point). I find these figures a little surprising: it was my impression that the significant majority of Koa words was based in something -- to the point that I was stymied for a long time in creating more vocabulary when I couldn't find enough existing linguistic inspiration. Also, again, let's just pause for a second to acknowledge that Finnish has provided a fifth of Koa vocabulary.

Worthy of special mention are 6 roots (1%) that were created by friends or family members -- I'd love to swell that number moving forward!

A first Koa publication

Friday, January 27th, 2023

In response to my children's repeated requests, I decided late last year that I would do my best to assemble a printed, kid-oriented, concise Koa dictionary in time for the Solstice. As the project took shape it grew beyond my original intention, eventually including a phrasebook and mini-grammar as well, and in the end I was pretty pleased with it as a snapshot in time of the development of this language.



It was also an opportunity to buckle down to some serious vocabulary creation, which had been languishing a bit in recent years; I'm pretty happy to finally have words like siki "particle," mohi "predicate," lelo "sentence," cóepo "alphabet" and címihale (or halecimi...more on that soon) "grammar."

In fact the process of creating needed vocabulary for the Úputusi Énasi sort of unblocked me and I've been on a bit of a rampage since then, coining around 200 new words over the past two months. What's been amazing is discovering that all that toiling in the syntactical, pragmatic and morphological mud I was doing in 2021 moved the structure of Koa to a place where now vocabulary is its primary need. Suddenly having all these words available, I'm finding that the language is much more speakable than I had previously expected, and with surprising expressive power.

As of today at noon, 774 of Koa's 3335 possible predicates have been defined. Emotional vocabulary has been my focus of late, but I'm starting to wonder what other thematic categories deserve some attention. Materials? Science? Botany? Civics? Geography? I've always been so intensely focus on word-worthiness and concerned about running out, but after 23 years I've still only used up a quarter of my possible roots!

Anyway, this was such a fun project that really jump-started some major progress after a pretty slow year. Unfortunately the dictionary doesn't seem to have inspired my girls toward total Koa fluency yet, but surely it's only a matter of time...

...And if you'd like to download the whole thing, a PDF is available here.

Ni Ceso

Monday, January 23rd, 2023

This is a difficult moment in my life. It's not the first such moment that's passed since I started this blog, but it is the first time that I was actively working on Koa enough to have something to say. What this means, of course, is that I'm now going to make you read sad love poetry.

Seriously, though, this is the first native-Koa artistic composition since Aika Konuku in 2012, and the first non-translated work of poetry of any kind. It feels significant! It features Koa’s growing collection of emotive vocabulary, particularly "ceso" which means something like "incurious" but less highbrow: the opposite of "curious," desiring not to know, feeling pulled away from rather than towards understanding of something; it also makes heavy use of modal particles and clause nominalization.

As with the previous poem, I find myself really liking how compact, elegant and balanced Koa can be for poetry. I didn't expect this but it makes me happy! My shot at an English translation definitely loses some or all of that particular aesthetic sense of the Koa original.

Ni Ceso

Ni ceso
Noia na vi sano ni
Ka se cu nike he tana
Ka so cu ete mo kune
Ka ne se simo he ko meti pe to níkete
Ka ne se simo he ko meti pe to mehe
Ka ne se simo he ko meti pe ka kecu.

Ni ceso
Kelo se na te lu tai me ni
Kemo sisu ve se ca ma tala ko halu ni
Ka ma lolo se simo mo iule o ni
Ni na te koma ka natepakoma.

Ni na lu koma
Ni pavasu lo ko tala
Ni cu te hitui la hete to lise mo cali.
Ni na lu koma ka natepakoma
Ni na lu koma kelo se na te halu ni
Noia na vi sano ni
Ni ceso.

-Váhumaa, 2023-01-22


Translation:

I'm Not Curious

I'm not curious
Please don't tell me
Who you're seeing today
What you're doing together
What's in your heart when you think about that meeting
What's in your heart when you think about that person
What's in your heart when you think about the future.

I'm not curious
Why you can't want to be with me
How hard you're still trying to want me
What's holding your heart back from me
I can't understand the incomprehensible.

I don't want to understand
I'm worn out with trying
I could smash myself against that wall forever.
I don't want to understand the incomprehensible
I don't want to understand why you can't want me
Please don't tell me
I'm not curious.

-Portland, 1/22/23

Questions for a Conlang Grammar

Wednesday, January 11th, 2023

 Here's a few questions for any conlanger who doesn't know where to go with his grammar.

  • How do the tenses work?
    • What tense would you use in a question such as 'how long have you lived here', in case the person still is living there? In e.g. Russian, it's the imperfective present. NB: Russian imperfective present is non-future with possible extension into the past.
    • How would you, or would you even, distinguish different spans depending on whether the end- and starting-points are included or not, whether they are both in the past, both in the future, starting-point in the past, or either one happens to be the present?
  • Does tense/mood/aspect/polarity/evidentiality/... ever 'raise' to the main verb of a surrounding clause? Is this restricted only to some verbs?
  • How do moods work?
    • When would you use which mood? Do conditionals require extra marking for the apodosis and protasis, or is the verb mood itself sufficient? Do moods influence word order (or is word order even the sole marker?)
  • How does deference work? Special pronouns or filler vocatives? Special verb forms? Special phrasing?
  • How do you resolve third person pronoun reference?
    • This doesn't even have to have an unambiguous strategy, most real languages probably have no single resolution strategy for this.
      • This doesn't prevent people from thinking such a strategy exists in their language, e.g. "the most recent third person subject of the same gender and/or number as the pronoun in a previous clause or subclause" is popularly believed by Swedish grammar nazis, but when you point out when they themselves deviate from this rule, they always have some ad hoc explanation, not realizing that this ad hoccery just goes to show that their rule is incomplete.
    • Are there ways of affecting the resolution strategy a listener will use by changing some details?
  • How do relative subclauses work?
    • Are they entirely replaced by participles and the like?
      • Do you have dedicated participles for each tense/mood/aspect, and
      • for each possible relativizeable role? (E.g. "the man to whom you gave a pineapple" > the from you a pineapple to-given man?")
    • How much of the accessibility hierarchy are you going to cover? 
      • Subject > Direct Object > Indirect Object > Oblique > Genitive > Object of comparative (replace Subject and Dir Obj with Abs > Erg for ergative langs)
      • This means 'if you can express 'the man whose car was stolen' using a relativizer that expresses the genitive relation, then you should also be able to say 'the man with whom I was guarding the treasure', but not necessarily 'the man than who I am taller'.
      • Those parts of the hierarchy that you exclude, how would you express the same sentiment?
    • Can all nouns in a clause have a relative subclause follow them?
    • Can relative subclauses stand by themselves?
      • i.e. can you have things like 'whosoever can help, speak up'? 
    • Do relative subclauses have a special word order?
    • Do relative subclauses have a specific alignment? (Not entirely unusual in split-ergative languages) 
    • Can relative subclauses be discontinuous?
    • Is there adposition stranding (c.f. 'the house which I waited in') - unusual globally, but not unknown outside of north Germanic and a few examples in west Germanic.
    • Do you have resumptive pronouns ('the man who I know his wife')
      • Even if you don't have them in the typical relative subclause, do they appear in more complicated, embedded subclauses?
    • Can you have a subclause where the outermost relative subclause actually doesn't assign the relativized noun a role?
      • "The man who they told me about a time when he stole a car from a moving train"
  • How do other subclauses work?
  • How does comparison work?
    • See the different types here: https://wals.info/chapter/121
    • Can other things beyond adjectives and adverbs be compared - e.g. locative cases or adpositions ('closer to'), instrumental cases or adpositions ('with greater strength'), nouns ('more of a substance', 'a thing of greater size')
    • How do you do "cross-cutting comparisons" ("he can run faster than they can pursue me")
    • Can superlatives be indefinite? If yes, is this restricted to a few specific phrases? (A youngest child). How do superlatives and definiteness interact?
    • In case you go for a typical European-style comparative construction with a word similar to 'than'
      •  Is it a preposition that governs some case?
      • Is a subordinating conjunction that preserves case?
      • Is it a bit of both with conflicting behaviors in different situations?
  • How are the spatial locatives "cut out"?
    • Does a painting hang "on" or "in" the wall?
    • Are there special exceptions to the general rule? ("På sjukhuset" in Swedish, where you normally are 'in a house', you are 'on the sickhouse', i.e. the hospital.)
  • When would you use directions and when would you use locations?
    • This is not entirely trivial: German, Russian and Finnish prefer to "put things somewhere" with direction marking on 'somewhere', Swedish prefers to "put things somewhere" with location marking on 'somewhere', except conservative dialects.
  • How do reflexives work?
    • separate marker for all persons or one unified marker?
    • marker on the verb or separate object?
      • can the verb marker maybe also go on adpositions?
    • full case morphology for the reflexive pronoun or defective?
    • is there a reflexive possessive?
    • does the reflexive marker only refer to the subject, or can it refer to other participants of the clause as well ('They showed him himself in a mirror, a marvel he had never encountered before")
    • how do reflexives operate over subclause boundaries? ("he knew that his father was a youngest child".)
    • Are there reflexive possessive markers, i.e. a distinct possessive pronoun for 'he saw his car' when it's the subject's vs. when it's some other male referent's?
    • Are reciprocals distinct from reflexives? If so, are the answers the same to all of the above, only with distinctive markers? Are they conflated in some constructions? Or do the answers differ strongly?
    • Can reflexives lack an actual thing to refer to? e.g. "to know oneself is important".
  • Definiteness
    • Does the language encode definiteness? How? (Articles, suffixes on the noun, suffixes on adjectives, differences in congruence on the verb for definite or indefinite subjects or objects, differential case marking - e.g. definite objects take one case, indefinite ones another)
    • Does the language conflate specific with indefinite or with definite?
      • Specific = 'known to speaker, but not to listener'
      • English conflates specific with indefinite, some languages with definite ("I am looking for a car", when I know exactly which car I am looking for or when I am just looking for a car that I'd fancy buying at the car store.)
      • Does it perchance even distinguish all three?
  •  Attributes in the noun phrase
    • Are genitives a form of adjective or something else? (This can have syntactical effects, e.g. word order for adjectives vs. genitives, but also e.g. the lack of definite or indefinite articles in possessive constructions in e.g. English!)
    • Can genitives combine with indefinite and definite articles if such exist?
    • Can infinitives stand as attributes (c.f. in Swedish, 'the art of playing the violin' would be 'the art to play the violin'
    • Can adpositional phrases be attributes? Would the speakers prefer saying 'the roof on the house' rather than 'the house's roof'?
  • What kind of a system of indefinite pronouns does the language have? Is it different when they stand as determiners for NPs or when they stand independently? (For more info, see this.)
  • Does the language have infinitives? How do they work? What kinds of infinitives are there?
    • Can they take "real" subjects or do they require some kind of oblique marking on their subject? How about other arguments, such as objects?
    • Can they take tense, aspect, moods? (Not as impossible as it might sound!)
    • How do they interact with verb phrases and with noun phrases and maybe with adjectives?
      • E.g. can you have constructions like "John is easy to please" vs. "John is eager to please".
      • Can you have something like "I saw him run away" (or does that take a dedicated special form, or a bona fide subclause, e.g. "I saw as he ran away"?)
    • Do clauses even require a finite verb?
      • C.f. Russian or Finnish or colloquial Finland-Swedish:
        • "kak najti rabotu" - how find a job?
        • "hur hitta ett job?" - how find a job?
        • "miten löytää työpaikka?" - how find a job
      • Are some auxiliaries maybe actually nouns or adjectives or adverbs? ('to me (there is) a need for ...')
      • Zero copulas?
  • How do you hedge statements?
  • How do you express evidentiality?
  • How do you express volition?
    • Lexically distinct verbs for volition vs. non-volition, and maybe some verbs just don't show the distinction?
    • Verb forms?
    • Auxiliaries?
    • Embedding the involitional or volitional in a subclause where the main clause gets to express the volitionality?
    • Adverbs?
    • Differential subject marking?
  • Are there quirky case things?
    • These don't necessarily require a case system per se, but e.g. an adposition might serve just as well
    • How do quirky cases interact with coordination over gaps with non-quirky case stuff
  • Differential case things? (I.e. different cases for the object convey different things about definiteness or aspect or whatever.)
  • Numerals
    • How are higher numbers formed?
    • Is there dedicated morphology for fractions? (e.g. 'half, a third, a fourth' with distinct morphology)
    • Are there ordinals? Do 'twice, thrice, etc' have a pattern that continues? Are there collective numerals? Adverbs of group size (Fi: kahdestaan: by twos, 'together (in a group of two)'? Other numerals?
    • Are cardinals followed by singulars or plurals? Is this distinct for different types of nouns (animate vs. inanimate, for instance)? Is it different in different cases? How does verb congruence work with this?
      • In e.g. Finnish, verb congruence is singular unless a demonstrative pronoun or somesuch is involved, in which case the verb congruence again is plural.
      • In Russian, it's a mess.
      • In Finnish, in case the noun lacks singular forms, the numeral is also inflected for plural, and each constituent numeral of the numeral is in fact inflected for plural. This also occurs for the ordinals, so 'the twentythird (pair of) pants' in Finnish comes out as "the twentieth.plur third.plur pants", of course with each segment also inflected for the same case, etc.
  • Negation
    • Is there negative congruence (i.e. 'double negatives good') or not ('double negatives bad')?
    • How does the scope of the negator interact with subjects and objects, with different types of determiners?
  • Congruence
    • What types of congruence are there? Do they break under some circumstances?
  • Coordination: how does coordination over gaps work for 
    • ... verbs with a shared subject
    • ... objects with shared verbs
    • ... adpositions with a shared noun
    • ... nouns with a shared adposition
    • ... congruence when the coordinating conjunction is a disjunction ('he or she is suspect.PLUR? or suspect.masc? or suspect.fem?...)
  • How do complements of the copula work?
    • Usually, they're not objects but in some languages they are!
    • In some languages, they take non-nominative forms, and in some, the form they take can signify a variety of things.
  • Is there a standard grammar? In case the language is set in a conworld of some kind, the following questions may be of interest:
    • In what ways does this deviate from the "actual" grammar?
      • Are there scholarly mistakes or misunderstandings in the standard grammar?
      • Are there scholarly prejudices informing some of the rules in the standard grammar?
      • Do the scholars lack some of the conceptual tools needed to be able to describe certain aspects of the grammar correctly?
      • A conlanger can naturally, by their say-so, define the language one way or another. A linguist in the real world cannot. This is an important difference to keep in mind.

Suso Ni

Wednesday, January 4th, 2023

Voha usi iolo! I was just excited to rediscover another text, a sweet poem Olga and I wrote together in February of 2019. I've updated a few points of syntax and spelling conventions but the use of language was already pretty modern even four years ago. I had forgotten about this; I'm even a little bit surprised to be enjoying the simplicity of the poetic phrasing so much, the balance of structure, and the elegance of syntax that it turns out the particles make possible (suso ni mo iolo he koiolo).


Suso Ni

Suso ni noia
Suso ni ne lasa
Suso ni hepoa hepoa hepoa

Suso ni he súanose
Suso ni he súalase
Suso ni he ko páivalo
Suso ni he ko ívopime
Suso ni he ko nuku
Suso ni he ko vene

Suso ni noia
Suso ni ne lasa ne laki ne sase
Suso ni mo meli
Suso ni mo iolo he koiolo
Suso ni mo lime he kolime
Suso ni palóhani
Suso ni hepoa hepoa hepoa.

-le Óleka e le Iuli, Váhumaa, 2019-02-04


Translation:

Kiss Me

Kiss me please
Kiss me on my lips
Kiss me always always always

Kiss me at sunrise
Kiss me at sunset
Kiss me in the light of day
Kiss me in the dark of night
Kiss me asleep
Kiss me awake

Kiss me please
Kiss me on my lips, my cheeks, my forehead
Kiss me sweetly
Kiss me joyfully in times of happiness
Kiss me sadly in times of sorrow
Kiss me, my love
Kiss me always always always.

-Olga and Julie, Portland, 2/4/19

A Surreal Conlang

Sunday, January 1st, 2023

David J. Peterson received a BA in English and Linguistics from UC Berkeley in 2003 and an MA in Linguistics from UC San Diego in 2005. He created the Dothraki and Valyrian languages for HBO’s Game of Thrones, the Castithan, Irathient and Indojisnen languages for Syfy’s Defiance, the Sondiv language for the CW’s Star-Crossed, the Lishepus language for Syfy’s Dominion, the Trigedasleng language for the CW’s The 100, and the Shiväisith language for Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World, among others. He’s been creating languages since 2000.

In this essay, David Peterson attempts to explain what a surreal conlang might look like, and provides examples to show where conlangers might push into territory akin to surreal and abstract visual art within the conlang space.

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Some family terms in Ćwarmin

Monday, December 5th, 2022

The basic family terms:

julo = son
ot = oldest son
zel = daughter

father =  aru
mother = viri

brother = raŋa
older brother = cawot
sister = zuja

In older Ćwarmin, possessive suffixes existed, but are used in very restricted contexts. However, in some lexemes, they appear as derivative elements of unclear meaning. Thus

-ata | -ete, formerly 1sg possessive

has lead to these terms:

raŋata ('my brother') = uncle
zujata ('my sister') = aunt
aruta ('my father') = grandfather
virite ('my mother') = grandmother

Apparently, parents referring to their siblings and parents has become a way children refer to their uncles, aunts and grandparents, and this was lexicalized. Other synonyms do exist, however. In addition:

aruta and virite are sometimes used as formal address to parents.
julata and zelete are used by some clergymen to refer to congregants.
cawata is used by some clergymen to refer to their senior clergymen.

The plural forms never have the possessive suffixes in use, as the morphological complexities for that has been largely forgotten. 'Otata', 'my oldest son' appears in some testaments and such.

Parents- and siblings-in-law also have forms such as 

raŋaś
zuja
ś
aruś
viri
ś

In some regions, second person suffixes (-aba/-ebe) are used instead of these historical third person suffixes. Why second or third person suffixes won out in different regions is unclear.

Seyrán ta Tainaa

Thursday, December 1st, 2022

James E. Hopkins received a BA in French from Hofstra University in 1974 and an MS in Metaphysics from the American Institute of Holistic Theology in 1998. He is a published poet, Eden’s Day (2008), and has a novel which features five of his conlangs, Circle of the Lantern, with the publisher as of this writing. He has been involved in language construction since 1995 with the birth of his first conlang, Itlani (then known as Druni). Although Itlani is his first and foremost love, since that time he has been developing Semerian (Pomolito)Djiran (Ijira)Djanari (Nordsh) and Lastulani (Lastig Klendum), the other languages spoken on the planet Itlán. One further language project, Kreshem (Losi e Kreshem), is also under development. His primary interest in language construction is from an aesthetic and artistic perspective.

What follows is the original Itlani text, in Realms-Somewhere-Real (RSR), of Seyrán ta Tainaa, translated into English and published as Circle of the Lantern in 2015 (AuthorHouse). This is a first draft of the RSR version available on planet Siarél (Earth).

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What’s in a specifier?

Tuesday, November 29th, 2022

There's no escaping it any longer: after decades of hemming and hawing, Koa's specifier system is just too damn complicated.

One might feasibly inquire what articles are doing in a putative IAL in the first place, and I've made a number of valiant attempts over the years (2010 and 2012, for example) to justify their existence by rigorously defining their use. Nonetheless, some inconvenient facts have been gently tapping on my shoulder recently, such as:

* Though theoretically beautifully defined, the system is so complex that the creator herself is often unsure of the best specifier choice in practice

* Specifier choice criteria seem to be much more detailed in pre-verbal (i.e. subject) position than post-verbally

* Following what you might call adjunct particles (ci he la lo me mo ne no o pe) there seems to be only a binary distinction -- definite vs indefinite -- which has never caused a problem

Indeed, going way, way back to basics, I have to confess that the most critical function of Koa specifiers is not in fact to elegantly plot fine distinctions on the axes of deixis, referentiality and discourse relevance, but probably just to help parse those predicates in the speech stream. As such, when preceded by one of those aforementioned adjunct particles, the primary work is already done and we can content ourselves with the pragmatic considerations that really matter: apparently only whether the NP in question is definite. Let's see, then, if we can reduce the system to a set of much simpler principles.

DEFINITE NPs are marked with ka when singular or optionally u when plural, unless:

* The NP requires being pointed at, whether physically or metaphorically, in order to be identifiable -- use ti/to "this/that"

* The NP is inalienably possessed by a pronominal referent -- use the relevant personal pronoun

* The NP is a name -- use le

INDEFINITE NPs are unmarked when preceded by another particle, or marked with a otherwise.

If you've been following the plot closely so far, you may have noticed that hu and po are conspicuously absent from the above taxonomy. I would in fact like to advance the theory that these have never been specifiers at all, but were mistaken as such because of their tendency to appear most frequently before unmarked NPs!

Let's start with the basic supposition that hu and po are in fact quantifiers, not specifiers: specifically ∃ and ∀, respectively. They can quantify indefinite NPs -- in which case there would be no article -- or definite ones, in which case they would be marked as described above. Examples of use, with both a logical and vernacular gloss:

po lulu i sihi
ALL flower VP plant
"for all flowers, it is the case that they are plants"
"(all) flowers are plants"

po ka lulu i puna
ALL DEF flower VP red
"for all of the flowers in a predefined set, it is the case that they are red"
"all the flowers are red"

hu lulu i puna
EXIST flower VP red
"for at least one flower, it is the case that it is red"
"a/some flowers exist such that they are red"
"some flowers are red," "there are red flowers"

hu ka lulu i puna
EXIST DEF flower VP red
"for one or more of a predefined set of flowers, it is the case that they are red"
"some of the flowers are red"

That seems clear and simple enough, but probably the thorniest area in the treatment of indefinite NPs has been in the choice between a and hu. For the last several years it's seemed that in practice the former is used for instantiated nouns -- real, specific things -- not yet raised to the discourse stage, whereas hu marked the NP as non-referential. Thus, heretofore:

1) ni mene la ko kou a tusi
1SG go DAT ABS buy INDEF book
"I went to buy a (certain) book"

2) ni mene la ko kou hu tusi
1SG go DAT ABS buy EXIST book
"for some book, it is the case that I went to buy it"
"I went to buy a (theoretical, not yet identified) book"

...but this is clearly far, far too fine a distinction to actually prescribe. Perhaps less elegant but more actually produceable by humans with competing resource demands beyond this single utterance:

1) ni mene la ko kou a tusi mao
1SG go DAT ABS buy INDEF book certain
"I went to buy a (certain) book"

2) ni mene la ko kou tusi
1SG go DAT ABS buy book
"I went to buy books, I went book-buying"

In fact ni mene la ko kou a tusi could potentially be interpreted in either sense according to context, and I think that's the important thing for me to accept here: that allowing context to play a role is not discarding all elegance or sophistication in this language.

Another place that things get confusing is around existential statements. What's the difference between these?

1) a lulu i ne ka masa
INDEF flower VP LOC DEF table
"a flower is on the table"

2) hu lulu i ne ka masa
EXIST flower VP LOC DEF table
"for at least one flower, it is the case that it is on the table"
"there's a flower on the table"

Semantically nothing at all, I think, but pragmatically these will have a different thrust. The purpose of (1) seems to be to communicate contextual information, whereas (2) is more concerned with the truth value of the proposition. If we really want to talk about existence and not truth value, I realized recently, we also have this option which is likewise vastly more human:

i me lulu ne ka masa
VP COM flower LOC DEF table
"there's a flower on the table"

or even

ka masa i me lulu (ne ta)
DEF table VP COM flower LOC 3SG
"the table's got a flower (on it)"

Hu is pretty straightforward for "some" in at least the quantifier sense of the English word, but note that there is a more periphrastic possibility as well:

hu lulu i puna
EXIST flower VP red
"some flowers are red" or "there are red flowers"

nai pi lulu i puna
some QUANT flower VP red
"some flowers are red"

So somehow or other that was actually pretty...easy? I'm almost a little nervous about it after all these years of fretting. I'll get back to you after I've tried it out in everyday usage.

Coming up next: if that's all clear now, maybe I can finally tackle how to say "something" and "nothing," a problem that has vexed me as long as I can remember -- this all came up right at this moment because I'm working on a bidirectional dictionary for my girls, and I couldn't figure out what to list as the generic translations!