Archive for the ‘grammar’ Category

Detail #433: The Antideponent Verb

Friday, November 18th, 2022

Let's for a moment consider the deponent verb. This is a verb which lacks morphologically active forms, despite being active. This might seem a bit weird, but let us have a look at some Swedish deponent verbs.

First, Swedish has a morphological passive, mostly formed by affixing -s to verb forms. (Swedish also has two periphrastic passives, but this is irrelevant for now.)

Here are some verbs which never appear without their -s:
andas (to breathe)
hoppas (to hope)
minnas (to remember)
låtsas (to pretend)
brås (to take after, to be similar to someone - in both cases due to family connections)

Some of these can take objects (granted, a minority). Andas can take the gas which is breathed ('breathe air', or, say, the aliens of Jupiter breathe methane - varelserna från Jupiter andas metan). "Hoppas" can take det ('that, it') as its object, signifying 'I hope so' (but literally 'I hope that'). Minnas can take any person or thing or fact as its object. Låtsas often is an auxiliary with a transitive verb under it.

In Swedish, these lack a past participle - but some do have a gerund (that morphologically looks exactly like a past participle; however, syntactical differences clarify that it indeed only is a gerund). I will warn against looking into lists of Swedish deponents, because some of them do seem to be just passives with slightly odd semantic shifts, or sometimes even just ... passives. The Swedish -s form also imho is not just a passive marker but also happens to be a reciprocal and an aspectual marker.

Other languages with deponents may have other restrictions - maybe all the deponents are intransitive, or maybe a verb is only partially deponent (i.e. deponent in, say, the participles but not in the finite forms).

Let's make up a set of features:

+ active syntactically
+/- transitive
-  active finite forms
- active infinite forms
+ passive finite forms
+ passive infinite forms
- can take agent adverb (e.g. the 'was seen by us' part)

Let's use these features to consider the antideponent.

Verbs such as 'boil' in English seem to permit somewhat similar behaviors, i.e. they can be passive in meaning (or active), thus passive syntactically is partially true. However, English does have active finite and infinite forms for boil, i.e. 'to be boiled' and the participle 'boiled' itself. The active form, 'boiling' interestingly enough does serve to convey the passive meaning of 'being boiled' as well. It cannot, however, take the agent:
the egg is boiling by me is wrong, I'm boiling the egg is acceptable.

Let's inverse the above table fully:

- active syntactically
+/- transitive
+ active finite forms
+ active infinite forms

- passive finite forms
- passive infinite forms
+ can take agent adverb

The interesting bit here is the +/-transitive, and I think that's where we could distinguish this from run off the mill split-ergativity, where some verbs just happen to have an ergative-like behavior. If we restricted this so it only ever happened with intransitives, and the actual subject was demoted to agent adverbial, whereas the subject either is empty or a dummy pronoun, this is getting us into some interesting ground.

Another option is just simply having these as a sort of lexical restriction: these verbs just don't do passive. I think English maybe actually might have some of those even beyond the auxiliaries?

A further option is of course to take something like English 'I broke the window' but only permit these two options:

The window broke.
The window broke by me.
*I broke the window.

Once more voices are involved, some interesting options emerge, such as gaps in the voice paradigm for verbs.

Detail #432: Generalized Wh-movement

Thursday, November 17th, 2022

Wh-movement tends to come in two forms in conlangs, as far as I can tell: English-like or wh-in situ. Let's consider some other options! This post was inspired by some questions in the conlang mailing list.

1. Wh-at the end

There are, apparently, some reasons to consider this highly unlikely in languages. OTOH, it might not be entirely unattested.

2. Wh-in wackernagel

The Wackernagel position, i.e. the second word in a clause, seems a rather natural option.

3. Wh-next-to-verb

Both the position after and before the verb seem to make sense as possible attractors for the interrogative pronoun.

4. Discontinuous wh

There are further complications we can consider, such as discontinuous-wh. I find this most likely for two types of interrogatives: determiners and adjectival interrogatives ('what type of a', 'yes/no-query determiner', 'which', 'of what qualities', etc).

These actually occur in some Slavic languages with interrogatives like "kakoj" and "kotoryj". 

Anyways, discontinuous-wh can probably be combined with any of the three previous forms, and in different ways - maybe the head noun is moved instead and the wh remains? Maybe vice versa. Different movements for both parts of the interrogative noun phrase seems unlikely, but parts of the noun phrase may well be pulled along with the interrogative particle.

Let's imagine "Q" is an interrogative particle that forms a yes/no-question focused on the noun it belongs to. Congruence makes it clear it pairs with "house" in this imagined language, marked by roman lowercase numerals picked at random. We can now imagine that Q pulls along pertinent 'factors' along with it:

Q.iii red.iii you saw house.iii?
did you see the red house?

Verbal interrogative markers seem somewhat more likely to be discontinuous - just consider the English polar question.

Johnathan R. Palmer’s Short Memoir on the Creation of the Tɐ́lʒrə̬k Conlang and Dance

Tuesday, November 1st, 2022

Johnathan Richard Palmer (a.k.a. Polar Bear) is a new member of the LCS as well as a new member of the LCS Board of Directors. He has created his first two personal conlangs called Tɐ́lʒrə̬k and the dance and would like to share them with Fiat Lingua. Johnathan was born and raised in Pocatello, Idaho and currently resides in Garden Valley, Idaho with his wife Christina and their two huskies, named Timber, Teekon, and cat, named Henry. Johnathan works in his community as a Direct Care Staff for hurting teens and has been doing so off and on since 2012. He is a U.S. Veteran of the Army Reserve and National Guard. Johnathan Received his B.A. in Applied Linguistics from the University of Arizona Global Campus (formerly Ashford) in 2019. Johnathan and his wife are adventurers and travelers; they have been to Alaska many times, many places all over the United States, and have driven the Alaska highway many times as well.

Johnathan Richard Palmer has written a short memoir of his personal reflections when creating his first two conlangs and mentions briefly his process of doing so. Mostly this memoir is a reflection of Johnathan’s past as he confronts his greatest enemy—his childhood past. And how creating his first conlangs helped him discover healing for his body and mind through the dance and the Tɐ́lʒrə̬k conlang. This process of creating these conlangs gave Johnathan comfort when no person could. Johnathan also mentions why he conlangs and includes information on the conlangs themselves.

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“Black Adam” – Kahndaqi Language

Saturday, October 22nd, 2022

I was hired in 2021 to create two languages for the film "Black Adam," one for timeline-hopping wizards (called the Language of Eternity in the credits), one for Kahndaqi, Black Adam's language. The wizard language does show up in the film, but is somewhat masked by voiceovers, so I'm just going to say a few things about the Kandaqi language here, for those curious.

The nation of Kahndaq is imagined to somewhat predate the rise of the more familiar ancient Near Eastern civilizations of Egypt and Sumer. We discussed various options how to base the language, but I convinced them to go with a language isolate (i.e., a language not related to anything else), but which had also spent a lot of time living in close company with Sumerian and Elamite.

Languages that live next to each other a long time start to borrow things from each other — not just words but even grammatical tendencies. So, from time to time when creating a new Kahndaqi word for dialog, I would go take a look at a Sumerian or Elamite dictionary to see if there might be something reasonable to borrow (usually modified a bit, in either sense or phonology). For example, the Kahndaqi word for king, lúke (accent marks stress) hints at a relationship with the Sumerian word, which is usually romanized lugal. Mostly I picked a few core nouns for this sort of borrowing, since those are most easily borrowed. Most Kahndaqi vocabulary, though, I generated myself. 

As in Sumerian (and Hurrian), ergativity pops up in some parts of the language, though not identically to Sumerian. There are a few unusual features of Elamite grammar which I didn't feel I could get away with borrowing into Kahndaqi, the personal noun classes, especially. (One person on twitter asked about Elamite in particular, I'm guessing for exactly this fun part of the grammar.)

I'll give two examples for the linguistically inclined. This is the first bit of dialog I produced, and it appears in the second trailer (just after the 20s mark):

Soemel tilam.
soemi-el til=am
magic-2.POSS weak-COP.AN
Your magic is weak.

So, personal possession is often marked with suffixes, as in soemel your magic. I used an animacy-based noun class system, and soemi magic is grammatically animate, which is why the copula clitic is the animate form here.

Erentas ma'ate inger.
Eri-enta-s ma'ate i-nger-∅
people-1PL.POSS-ERG champion 3PL.ERG-need-3AN
Our people need a champion.

Here we have another example of personal possession as a suffix, our people. And a taste of ergativity, both in the subject noun marking and the verb. Transitive verb subjects are marked with prefixes. That apostrophe marks a glottal stop, ma'ate /mɑˈʔɑte/. 

Superbasic Full Conlang Starterpack

Saturday, October 1st, 2022

Sanh Deda grew up and lives in Bulgaria. He’s been interested in world building since childhood, and later on became a language geek and conlanger. He currently studies architecture and spends his free time on languages and gardening.

This is a basic one page guide giving advice on how to start a full conlang.

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Relative Clauses in Dairwueh

Saturday, September 17th, 2022

 I have previously given a short introduction to relative clauses in Dairwueh. Let's up the ante a bit.

Resumptive pronouns in relative attributes

Since the relativizing verb does not carry (much) information about the syntactical role that the referent has in the subclause, resumptive pronouns are often used. Some dialects and varieties of Dairwueh have a resumptive pronoun stem ner- (from a historical nez, the fricative popping back in some forms). Most use the neuter pronoun stem, but inflected for gender - the capital literary form specifically uses the t-stem version of the nominative and accusative.

A peculiar thing about the resumptive pronoun is that it can even be used for the subject of a subsequent subclause, as if this were how to form two subclauses in English:

the man who plays the guitar and he sings.

Weird restriction

Consider an utterance like 'don't reject applicants for being too boring'. In English this cannot be rephrased as 'don't reject applicants who are too boring', since this alters the meaning significantly. A strict reading has the rephrasing signify that no one that is too boring must be rejected, whereas the first only means that boringness must not influence the decision.

In Dairwueh, use of the irrealis form of the subordinating verb is used, among other things, for this particular structure.

The irrealis form can also be used to communicate a purely irrealis subclause, e.g. 'those who would do so-and-so'. To enforce the "purely irrealis" reading, a resumptive pronoun is used. To enforce the purely 'for being X' reading,the subordinate verb may be irrealis instead of infinitive - or in some varieties, a demonstrative pronoun is placed before the relative verb.

Finally, the irrealis form of the relative verb can also express an indirect question: I wonder the men who will sing -> I wonder whether the men will sing.

Use of the interrogative pronoun before a relative subclause requires irrealis in some dialects, and requires irrealis for present tense in many dialects.

Adjectives have a similar function as well when using the irrealis participle marker e-...-šis on them.

Happy birthday to Koa!

Saturday, September 17th, 2022

This week on September 13th we had the world's first ever Koa Day celebration, including not one but two cakes: one improvised by Callie and me, and the other rather more artfully facilitated by Olga.

Someone also sent flowers! It was quite a lovely feeling for Koa to be seen/acknowledged/appreciated like this after so many years of my sort of being in the closet about it.

ALSO, and perhaps most importantly, there is now a Koa birthday song! It's just a direct translation of the American song, but still. Unsurprisingly we've got an extra syllable at the start of each line which means we have to start with an 8th note triplet, but it still works:

Pai Náute Lolo
Pai náute lolo la se
Pai náute lolo la se
Pai náute lolo, X mila
Pai náute lolo la se

The syntax here is so straightforward I think we can dispense with the interlinear, but I did want to say something about náute. Since nau means "give birth to, bear," the most accurate translation of "birth" from the point of view of the offspring would in fact be panáute: the occasion of being born, not the occasion of giving birth (way more on that here). In terms of actual usage, though, it's a needlessly granular distinction to have to make...and would throw off the meter even more, so clearly aesthetics are going to have win out here.

It does raise the question, though, of whether it's ever actually a helpful or meaningful distinction -- súsote "kisses given" vs pasúsote "kisses received," -- since all the arguments are represented in the instance being described regardless of which way way around you turn it. My instinct is maybe not, at least in a real human language. Not that it should be forbidden where it happens to add meaning, but also not prescribed.

The Secret World of Conlanging – An Overview of Tolkien’s “Secret Vice”

Thursday, September 1st, 2022

Robin Rowan is a senior undergraduate student studying Spanish at Arizona State University online and previously earned a BA in History from Auburn University. As a life-long science fiction fan, she has always been fascinated by the concept of conlangs. When a general requirement course in linguistics called for a final project there was no question as to what the topic would be. After the course ended, she decided to expand the project to give a greater overview of conlangs from the perspective of a non-conlanger. Robin currently resides in Alabama but has lived in Tennessee, Illinois, and California, and has travelled extensively in Europe and the Middle East. After graduation Robin plans to earn her TOEFL certificate and continue her travels.


This essay provides a brief overview of conlanging from the perspective of a non- conlanger. It clarifies what a conlang is from this same perspective and places conlanging in a historical context, especially as regards what has motivated people to create conlangs and the disdain with which some people have viewed such efforts. The terminology of conlangs is presented with a concise examination of several conlangs and their histories regarding how and why they were created and by whom. These include Esperanto, Klingon, and Láadan. Research included academic sources, internet search, and personal correspondence among others. The usefulness of conlangs as a means to study the nature of language and communication, as well as how conlangs create authenticity and depth in television, movies, and literature, is explored. While there may or may not ever be a true “universal language” constructed language, the value of conlanging and it’s popularity can be expected to continue.

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Things I would like to research or develop

Monday, August 29th, 2022

A while ago, in a post I said something like "more research required" regarding a particular feature of Swedish grammar. This made me think of things I'd like to research, but which I probably never will. These would all be at least somewhat original research.


A variety of tiny syntactical and typological questions that have occurred to me over the years:

  • Does the Swedish relative pronoun or relativizer "som" permit exceptional coordination over gaps?
  • How uniform are the rules for partitive-vs-accusative among speakers of Finnish?
  • What case do speakers of Swedish prefer for the complement of a copula in contexts where the subject of the copula is a non-subject syntactically? ("We will let you be you").
  • How does congruence and number work in coordinated-over-gaps compounds in Swedish?
  • Do speakers of English naturally prefer the accusative for complements of the copula? I am pretty sure that examples like "it is difficult to be me" and a few others showcase that accusative in fact is the natural case that everyone prefers, and that most "it is I"-speakers have a cultivated and artificial case selection that fails whenever a single complication arises. The test could be one of "select the correct case" with sentences with a gap, and measuring response times. Needs to start out with simple clauses and progress into increasingly long ones, with some of them there only to be able to calibrate for expected response time. Comparably complex structures also need to be used.
  • Syntactical differences between standard Finland Swedish and middle  Ostrobothnian.
  • Figuring out the full set of sound changes of Björkö dialect. (Conlang idea: apply all these sound changes to late proto-norse and create a 'fully björkö' dialect.)
  • How common is it for existential statements to have quirks in terms of congruence, case marking, word order, ...)
  • To what extent are 'than' and 'as' (and 'än' and 'som' as element of comparison) objectively speaking prepositions in the grammars of speakers of English and Swedish - even among those who claim they exclusively are conjunctions.
  • To what extent can we find evidence that the rule against definite form after 'denna/detta/dessa' in prescriptivist Swedish is made-up to spite southern and southwestern Swedes?
    • Swedish has two patterns for forming "this": "denna" and "den här". (Both are further inflected for gender and number.) 'Den här' is always followed by the definite form of the adjective as well as the definite form of the noun. 'Denna' is - in prescriptive usage - followed by definite adjectives but indefinite nouns.
    • In texts predating the middle of the 18th century, you find variation on this: both the definite and indefinite noun are used in the nominative. (Other cases only take the definite.)
    • 'Denna' is predominantly used in the south and southwest, 'den här' is predominantly used everywhere else.
    • "denna + indef" quickly gains ground in books printed in the "den här"-area towards the end of the 18th century, and basically becomes mandatory in writing in the 19th century, but "denna + def" never goes extinct in the south and southwest.
    • There seems to be at least some 18th century correspondences between publishers that hint at this actually being an intentional change to turn southern Swedish "wrong".


  • It is my firm belief that even many apparently philosemitic Christian clergymen in their sermons plant the seeds for antisemitism. The research would require the following steps:
    Finding a corpus of sermons and sermon-like texts that in one way or another discuss Judaism and the Jews, and their role and their beliefs from a Christian p.o.v. In this corpus, statements that misrepresent Jewish beliefs in ways that may lead to negative perceptions about Judaism, and statements that use Jews as a negative example - when similar negative examples can be found within Christianity itself - have to be found, and the "actual" fact about Judaism needs to be verified. (Examples: does Judaism teach that all who are born non-Jewish will automatically burn in hell? I have heard this claim from Christians. I know it is false. It is often presented in order to prop up certain Christian dogmas and to make Christianity seem the compassionate alternative.)
    • The way in which such mistaken statements nurture antisemitism needs to be evaluated in some way, and the effect on listeners - both believers and non-believers alike - need to be estimated. 
    • Some measure as to how common this is would either reassure me that it's just a few bad apples, or confirm my own experience that it's fairly common.
  • it would also interest me to research the use of fabricated Jewish traditions to prop up Christian theology. It is not entirely uncommon for Christian preachers to claim that there is an ancient Jewish tradition about so-and-so, and this tradition explains some detail in the NT or even later Christian traditions. Sometimes it might hold up, most of the time it doesn't.
  • It would greatly interest me to find examples of humour in the Bible, in the Talmud, in the midrashes and targums, in the baraitha literature, and even in more general literature from ancient Mesopotamia - that have failed to be identified as humour. I am convinced that the cultural gulf between modern humans and those of antiquity is so great that we may fail to appreciate just how some of the statements in the literature mentioned above very well may been intended as jokes to convey some point. Many Jewish scholars - and even fairly "average yeshiva-level" students seem to be aware of some of these jokes, but secular scholars often seem to fail to spot such jokes. I am not saying this is a universal problem, but I get the impression that there may be a fair share of humour that no one's identified as such. It is not inconceivable that greek philosophers as well have jokes that have been missed.


  • Tymoczko has (and possibly other theorists have) identified that modulation and chord progressions are very similar phenomena. He doubts that listeners could manage keeping any kind of track of a third similar level. Using, say, pentatonic scales embedded in diatonic scales embedded in uneven extended meantone chromatic scales could provide a way of creating exactly that structure. Extended meantone chromaticism could also be used for extending the chord_progression-modulation complex to a chord_progression-modulation-metamodulation complex.
    • What kind of notion of "keeping track of" do we have in mind?
  • To what extent can listeners appreciate functional harmony using isoharmonic triads that are not predominantly 4:5:6 (and its utonal version). Do they need to be rooted at powers of 2? Does 8:11:14 do a better job  than 6:7:8, 7:9:11, 7:10:13 or 9:11:13 because 8:11:14 is rooted at 2³? How important is root motion of 3/2? (I believe the tritone substitution G7 > F# shows that a root motion of a fifth is not necessary.)
  • Can asymmetric chords in the wholetone scale help facilitate a functional tonality in it?
  • Temperaments such as mavila warp familiar relationships. Can this warping be 'eased in' by modulating into successively more warped regions of a very warped temperament while fully maintaining the relationships - i.e. the relation between root and third still feels as though it passes through the cycle of fifths in the same way?
  • Figuring out how to use sushalf sharp4-chords as an extension to normal harmonic praxis? (Notice the half sharp - not♯.)
  • Can we somehow formalize the "similarity" between the use of chords in functional harmony and jins in maqam. Can we further develop a notion of "functional melody"??

 Maths and CS

  • How well can games make players get used to weird geometries and topologies?
  • Can a player discern things about the geometry of a game from hearing warped intervals in the music? 
  • Comparing the complexity of a variety of geometrical problems in different types of geometries.

Design of things

  • A string instrument with plastic frets ('fishing line'). The frets are attached to two beams that are easy to attach to the neck. At least one of the beams needs to be small enough to fit under the strings.

Software design:

  • Some cursed versions of gomoku.
  • Improve my pitch perception practice app
  • Some basic topology/geometry toolkit, especially with the intention of visualizing some of the topologies and geometries present in microtonal theory
  • A set of scripts that utilize some sound change applier and git to make managing multiple a priori conlangs easy.
  • An AI for writing microtonal harmony and counterpoint.

A Conreligious Practice: Alphabetic Thread Manipulation

Monday, August 22nd, 2022

Among some of the more ritualistic Bryatesle-Dairwueh religions, a devotional practice involving strings of wool and the hand has developed.

Strings (regionally, this varies from ribbons of about half an inch width to actual strings) are wrapped around the hand in order to imitate the shapes of letters.

Words are written through repeated application of this. This is done in order to emphasize important words in a prayer or meditation. Very few would write an entire sentence this way, but sometimes, groups collaborate in writing full hymns on their hands.


The first  main difference is between ribbon-users and string-users. Naturally, ribbons and strings behave slightly differently, with ribbons not permitting quite as sharp 'turns', thus leading to significant differences in the notional 'fonts' they use.

Not a single tradition tolerates both ribbons and strings; they all are strictly one or the other. All manner of justifications for their favoured type exist. Their opinion of the other group is not violently hostile, but always somewhat negative. However, negative opinions may exist between different groups that share the ribbon (or string), and sometimes over purely technical details: linen vs. wool, blue vs. red, patterned or plain ribbon, woven or crotcheted ribbons, single thread or three threads? All threads of the same colour or different colours?

Ribbon-users tend to have different colours on the two sides, and they may consider which side is visible to be of some importance. Ribbons can also use folds that are difficult to form with strings. Strings can have tighter loops.

Weaving beneath and above fingers, forming angles, using the palm, etc are all parts of this. Both sides of the hand are used in some varieties, whereas in some, only one side is used.

In some traditions, letters are also tied with strings around the hands of the dead, usually one letter on top of the other, so that the outermost letter is the first letter of the word. Which words are used tends to vary strongly.

Really strict beliefs

Although these practices are far from universal, in some areas they are considered important. Special importance is ascribed to the letters tied on the hands of the dead, and they are often considered passwords for the afterlife. (The tradition, however, rather seems to have originated as a way of conveying messages to angels and relatives and God himself, rather than as passwords.)

This of course may cause problems for people who lose a hand or who have lost fingers. Losing a hand in such a way that the hand is physically 'available' often leads to performing this ritual before burying the hand. Some traditions are strict about which hand the letters should be formed on, and so losing 'the other hand' may be less important. In traditions where which particular hand it is doesn't matter so much, it still happens that people bury the first hand with letters in case the other were to be entirely lost in the future.

Loss of fingers may also cause issues, and grafting wooden sticks into the hands of the dead as a solution occurs. Entire wooden hands are sometimes used.

Further developments

Hand-shaped growths on trees sometimes get similar words tied o nthem. These are not of a sign-post nature (signposts are either cut out or chiseled or some other method), but purely ritualistic. Such growths are sometimes also buried as a message to the other side.