Archive for the ‘grammar’ Category

Aka në rínchat no më – I will not fear

Thursday, November 4th, 2021

Years ago I started in on a Kílta translation of the very famous Litany Against Fear from Frank Herbert's Dune books. But I ran into a few problems I wasn't finding easy to work with, and rather than force it, I put the translation aside to marinate. I realized a few days I ago I finally have the tools to address it in a naturally Kílta way.

Aka në rínchat no më.
Rínchot në, michumokës no,
Nekin uttimës no,
Mantin emémmiëtta no.
Rínchot si chérat no.
Aka si in hotekat in aimánat huitat no.
Rínchot në ohëchët, aka keta si michiëkan rinkat no.
Rínchot vë issa nen vura rokat no më.
Aka në anui vëchat no.

1) The canonical opening line is "I must not fear." Because the rest of the recitation uses the future a lot, I just put it in the future here. The film and TV adaptations of Dune all make their own modifications to the Litany, and the TV show used the simple future as well. I also use Kílta's high-agency first person pronoun, aka, which is more an aspiration if you're reciting this, but I find it a nice touch here.

2) I topicalize rínchot fear, and talk about it a bit. The word michumokës is a transparent compound, mind-killer.

3) Again, close to the original, "it is the little death" (no, not that one).

4) This is trickier. The original is "that brings total obliteration." I went with structural parallelism with line (3), [ADJ N no]. Emémmiëtta is a rather odd word, and means "that which causes destruction," in an instrumental sense. Often nouns derived like this are physical items. "It is a terrible instrument that causes destruction."

5) The closest equivalent to "I'll face my fear" in Kílta is rather aggressive, which I don't think is quite in keeping with the following lines. I use instead "I will acknowledge my fear," or even "I will feel my fear." The construction ADJ + chéro is normal for internal feeling expressions, which is supposed to be in mind for this sentence.

6) "I will allow it to go over and go through me." Very close to the original.

7) I use a converb clause for sequencing, rather than the nominalization of the original, "the fear having passed." Then I get to break out michiëkan with mind (attention) turned inward. There is a not often used suffix, -iëkan, which generates adverbs meaning in, inward, towards the center. The meanings are often idiomatic, as here. Michiëkan came out of some other vocabulary work I was doing, and once I had it I knew immediately it would work for this. I also use keta footprint, trace of passage, trace of existence.

8) "On the fear's path there will be nothing." Very close to the original, though again avoiding a nominalized relative clause.

9) A final declaration of agency, using aka, with the line very close to the original.

Translated out of Kílta:

I will not fear.
Fear, it is the mind-killer,
it is the little death,
it is a terrible cause of destruction.
I will feel my fear.
I will let it go over and go through me.
The fear having passed, I will see (its) trace by turning my mind inward.
On the fear's path there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

This remains quite close to the original, while accepting a few changes to meet Kílta's usual way of doing things, and few tweaks to make the style work better in the language. The last line lands a little flat and obvious in Kílta, and might still get some pragmatic refinements in the future.

Focus without movement

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2021

This is the first in a series of posts about focus, nominalized clauses and relativization, which in Koa are all closely related. I'm hoping that by the end of it we'll have cleared up a whole suite of muddlements that have persisted since the early days.

Koa's focus particle, sa, has its origins in Yoruba ni with the same function. In Yoruba, the focalized constituent is moved to the front of the clause, followed by ni (li or l' before an oral vowel), and leaving a gap in its original position:

kíl'o rà níbẹ̀?
what.FOC-2SG buy there
"what did you buy there?"

aṣọ ni mo rà
cloth FOC 1SG buy
"it was cloth I bought"

This is exactly parallel, at least superficially, to the structures in Koa:

kea sa se kou ne toa?
what FOC 2SG buy LOC there
"what did you buy there?"

vate sa ni kou
cloth FOC 1SG buy
"it was cloth I bought"

Movement rules like this seemed plausible enough given Yoruba's permission and I didn't think that much about it until I started trying to translate headless relative clauses. If "What do you want?" is Kea sa se halu?, then how do you say "I don't know what you want"? I recall going through a whole bunch of contortions trying to figure this out:

?ni na ilo [ kea sa se halu ]
1SG NEG know [ what FOC 2SG want ]
A word-for word calque of the English structure. Can embedded clauses can be focused just like main clauses, and without overt marking? Is this how embedded questions should work? This feels very natural, obviously, but that's not necessarily a good thing: it needs to make sense in terms of Koa, not in terms of English.

?ni na ilo ko [ kea sa se halu ]
1SG NEG know COMP [ what FOC 2SG want ]
This has a complementizer to set off the embedded clause, which is how Hungarian does it. Still feeling really nervous about the way focus works in the sub-clause, and also the way the question is embedded.

?ni na ilo ko [ se halu kea ]
1SG NEG know COMP [ 2SG want what ]
This gets rid of the worrisome focus issue, but somehow feels even worse.

I think it was nagging at me that (A) I wasn't sure I really liked my not-particularly-examined movement rules after all, and (B) accepting the IE way of thinking of these as "embedded questions" in the first place felt like sloppy, circular thinking. If there were a book titled What I Think, would the Koa translation genuinely be Kea Sa Ni Lule, using a question word -- and literally exactly the same sequence of words as the question "what do I think?" -- even though there is not really any kind of question being asked? PLUS we're explicitly not supposed to be forced to rely on intonation for basic functional distinctions, and that's exactly what this would require.

It also made me feel a little squirmy that sa was such an anomaly in every way. It's a particle that goes after the constituent it applies to? What in fact was going on here below the surface?

All this led me to remember my Nahuatl, which handles focus in a pretty astonishingly different way. Note that ca is a statement marker, contrasting with e.g. cuix which would turn these into questions:

ca cihuātl in cochi
STMT woman DEF sleep.3SG
"it is a woman who is sleeping," lit. "the she-sleeps-one is a woman"

ca ātl in niqui
STMT water DEF 1SG-drink
"it's water that I'm drinking," lit. "the I-drink-one is water"

Calquing these into Koa, we'd end up with:

mina i ka nuku
woman VP DEF sleep
"it is a woman who is sleeping"

anu i ka ni ma ipo
water VP DEF 1SG IMPF drink
"it's water that I'm drinking"

Several pretty noticeable things came out of this right away.

1) Focus requires no underlying movement rules, which is frankly awesome in a denying-Chomsky-his-invisible-branching-structures kind of way

2) Which constituent counts as the "NP" and which as the "VP" is a little arbitrary; both of these could be flipped around while retaining the focus:

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

ka ni ma ipo i anu
DEF 1SG IMPF drink VP water
"the thing I'm drinking is water"

3) These structures are exactly parallel to relative clauses:

ka mina ve nuku
DEF woman REL sleep
"the woman who's sleeping"

ka anu ve ni ma ipo
DEF water REL 1SG IMPF drink
"the water I'm drinking"

4) They would give us a Koa-native way of doing "embedded questions," without having to think of them as questions at all:

ka nuku
DEF sleep
"who is sleeping"

ka ni ma ipo
DEF 1SG IMPF drink
"what I'm drinking"

Ka Ni Lule
DEF 1SG think
"What I Think"

5) Most fascinating of all, i ka in the original calqued-from-Nahuatl examples can be replaced with sa to yield identical meanings:

mina sa nuku
woman FOC sleep
"it is a woman who is sleeping"

anu sa ni ma ipo
water FOC 1SG IMPF drink
"it's water that I'm drinking"

Nahuatl made it possible to work backwards up to that Koa structure with sa in such a way that we can understand exactly what it's doing there without having to infer movement at all, AND fixed the headless relative clause problem, all in one fell swoop.

The natural follow-up question, in the face of this, is whether we actually need sa at all! And the answer is yes, for interesting reasons that we'll get to next time...

Die Wichtigkeit von Conlangs in Medien

Monday, November 1st, 2021

Jonah is a conlanger and worldbuilder from Germany who recently graduated high school. He started worldbuilding early on and later started making languages for a fantasy world about which he also has written a novel and short stories, following a huge interest in history and ancient languages. His best known language is Käntwo, but he’s currently working on a family of hunter-gatherer languages for a new worldbuilding project. During his leisure time he likes to worldbuild, roller skate, and make conlang-related YouTube videos. In the future he wants to study historical linguistics.

Jonah ist ein Conlanger und Worldbuilder aus Deutschland, der vor kurzem sein Abitur gemacht hat. Er hat schon früh mit Worldbuilding begonnen und später Sprachen für eine Fantasy-Welt entwickelt, über die er auch einen Roman und Kurzgeschichten schreibt, was einem großen Interesse an Geschichte und alten Sprachen folgt. Seine bekannteste Sprache ist Käntwo, aber er arbeitet derzeit an einer Familie von Jäger- und Sammlersprachen für ein neues Worldbuilding-Projekt. In seiner Freizeit mag er Worldbuilding, Rollerskaten und das Erstellen von Conlang-YouTube-Videos. In der Zukunft möchte er historische Linguistik studieren.


Fantasy and Science Fiction shows and movies have been gaining a lot of popularity recently. Thus the authenticity of fictional cultures in media is more important than ever: being a prop it has to be both fully functional and authentic. Suitable conlangs in media are essential, especially in a globalised society like ours to avoid cultural appropriation.

Fantasy- und Science-Fiction-Serien und -Filme haben in letzter Zeit stark an Popularität gewonnen. Daher ist die Authentizität fiktionaler Kulturen in den Medien wichtiger denn je: als Requisite muss sie sowohl voll funktionsfähig als auch authentisch sein. Geeignete Conlangs in Medien sind essentiell, besonders in einer globalisierten Gesellschaft wie der unseren, um kulturelle Aneignung zu vermeiden.

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Friday, October 29th, 2021

A language with a small number of verbs that combine with nouns to make actions, with the verbs in question being HTTP request methods.

Detail #421: A Quirky Numeral Structure

Friday, October 29th, 2021

Consider a language with singulars, duals and plurals. The language has a rather strict distinction between mass and count nouns, and explicitly marks different types of individuated, specific, indefinite, etc references.

Now, this entirely eliminates the need for the numerals one and two, as you would never say 'two bikes', you'd say bike-dual. You would never say 'there are two of them', you'd say 'they-plur are they-dual'.

This of course leads to problems when counting higher numbers. You have nothing to put after 'twenty' or 'thirty' when you want to form 21 and 22.

Twenty bike-SINGULAR = 21 bikes.
Twenty bike-DUAL = 22 bikes.

Probably unlikely.

Detail #420: Ambiguous Reference with Possessive Pronouns

Tuesday, October 26th, 2021

English has some ambiguity with its possessive pronouns, but the level of ambiguity could be taken to a weirder level in this way:

reflexive third person ownership or other third person referent: singular possessive pronoun

Thus "he sees his house" can have 'his' either be reflexive or not, but "they see his house" also can signify reflexive possession.

reciprocal ownership uses a third person plural possessive pronoun

Thus "they see their house" can mean 'they see some other persons' houses' or 'they see each other's houses'.

I don't think this kind of idea is entirely unrealistic.

Individual incidences

Tuesday, October 26th, 2021

Warning: this is a long one.

In Maltese, there's a systematic distinction between the abstract action of a verb and a single discrete occasion of it. From Teach Yourself Maltese by J. Aquilina (Hodder & Stoughton 1965), 149:

There are two kinds of verbal nouns. One which (i) denotes the action or state indicated by the meaning of the verb, (ii) is of masculine gender singular in number, and, (iii) like any other noun, can be preceded by the definite article, but has no plural (Exx. dfin 'burial' from difen/jidfen 'he buried/buries', id-dfin 'the burial'), and another which (i) expresses a single occurrence of action or state indicated by the verb (ii) is of feminine gender singular in number; (iii) forms its plural by suffix iet and (iv) can be preceded by the definite article (Exx. difna 'a burial'; id-difna 'the burial'; difniet or id-difniet 'burials, the burials').

More examples of these kinds of pairs:

daħk "laughter" vs daħka "a laugh"
taħwid "confusion" vs taħwida "a mess"
ġbir "gathering" vs ġabra "a collection"
żfin "dancing" vs żifna "a dance"
bligħ "swallowing" vs belgħa "a gulp"
xorb "drinking" vs xarba "a drink"
ferħ "joy" vs ferħa "a joy"

I think if it hadn't been for studying Maltese in around 2005 I might not have thought that hard about this, since the languages I know best make the distinction haphazardly (if at all): Polish śmiech "laughter, laughing, a laugh"; radość "joy, a joy"; pochowanie "burial, burying," pochówek "a burial"; picie "drinking," łyk "a drink."

In Koa, the abstract action or state is very straightforward, since there's a specific article (ko) set aside just for this: iolo "happy," ko iolo "happiness"; ipo "(to) drink," ko ipo "drinking. The question is how to get at the single occasion/occurrence/incidence/action/etc.

Well, up to this point, we've been doing something that's possibly a little weird: we've been using a double article. I don't know that I ever thought this through thoroughly in the past, but I believe what I was trying to get at was that, despite its appearance as an article, the use of ko is really more of a derivational operation. This would certainly be true in English: good -> goodness, drink -> drinking, etc. If we look at it this way, the change in meaning is something like this:

koa "a good one, good, be good"
ko koa "goodness, of goodness, be goodness"

In other words, ko changes the meaning from that of the root itself, into that of the state, condition, or action of doing or being the root. What I'm realizing, though, is that that doesn't say anything about specification or referentiality. I had been thinking that in a phrase like ko koa the ko would count as a specifier because "goodness" is a kind of universal and as such is always on the discourse stage (or, let's say, on the shelf immediately adjacent to it). But in all other cases, that kind of concept would require the particle po! If ko is derivational, we'd expect something more like this:

a kokoa "an example/occasion of goodness not yet present on the discourse stage"
ka kokoa "the example/occasion of goodness we're already aware of in this discourse"
hu kokoa "there is an example/occasion of goodness out there such that..."
po kokoa "goodness in general"

What we've been doing so far is allowing simply ko koa, rather than po kokoa, for the final example. I guess the rule we'd have to make explicit -- if that's really how it is -- would be something like "ko behaves as a specifier when used alone, and as derivational morphology when preceded by another specifier." After almost 20 years, I'm not at all sure that this makes any sense at all!

In fact, looking over our particles, ko is the only one that could be said to be derivational in nature. There are pronominals (ni se ta nu so tu), locators/adverbials/adjuncts (he la lo me mo ne no o pe), specifiers (a u hu ka ke le pi po ti to), tense/aspect markers (cu, io, ma, mi, si, su, va, vu), modals, evidentials/viridicals/miratives (ho ki ku li lu pu te vi ia), valence operators (hi mu pa), clause-level operators/conjunctions (e ha na ve), syntactic markers (i, sa, vo), and qualifiers (ce, ie, iu). I think that ko, incredibly enough, may have been mis-assigned!

What this ought to be is a suffix, almost all of which are derivational at this point (in fact I think all except for the pronouns indicating possession). Some options: -ko (just moving it to the back instead of the front), -te, -ti, -mi, -i, -pe, -vi. To be fully transparent, the one I was going to suggest at the start of all this was -te, but I'm curious to see how the others feel as well.

With -ko:
húlako "dance"
púhuko "talk"
súoko "meal"
súsoko "kiss"
élako "life"
cíniko "kindness"
lóeko "coldness"

This is pretty okay, though the diminutive suffix gets repetitive with /k/: húlakoki "a little dance," púhukoki "a little talk." Assuming ko is going to maintain the other half of its dual role as a complementizer, this also potentially risks confusion...although Polish seems to have no problem with że as complementizer and -że as an emphatic suffix (the latter not particularly common, to be fair). Ta sano ko ta no móeko "she said she had no dreams" -> Ka sánoko ko ta no móeko... "the statement that she had no dreams..." A little awkward.

With -te, -ti:
húlate, húlati "dance"
púhute, púhuti "talk"
súote, súoti "meal"
súsote, súsoti "kiss"
élate, élati "life"
cínite, cíniti "kindness"
lóete, lóeti "coldness"

These seem pretty solid, and here the diminutive works better: húlateki "a little dance," púhuteki "a little talk." Ka sánote ko ta no móete also has improved flow...though I'm sort of surprised to say I like the aesthetics of forms with -te less than those with -ko! I like how neutral these feel, though. I think I prefer -te to -ti? Or do I?

With -mi, me:
húlami, húlame "dance"
púhumi, púhume "talk"
súomi, súome "meal"
súsomi, súsome "kiss"
élami, élame "life"
cínimi, cínime "kindness"
lóemi, lóeme "coldness"

I think I could be okay with -me, though it's awfully close to -ma in a way that could actually be confusing: élame "life" vs élama "a being," for example. So probably no on this. Incidentally, I'm finding it surprisingly difficult to be okay with with the word for "kiss." Really the only one I've liked so far is súsoko, with súsoti in second place. Ana súsokoki la ni "give me a little kiss" -- ugh, -koki just is not very good. And I just realized that "height" would be kókeko, yikes. Ana súsoteki la ni? Ana súsotiki la ni? I think -te might feel the most Koa.

With -i:
húlai "dance"
púhui "talk"
súoi "meal"
súsoi "kiss"
élai "life"
cínii "kindness"
lóei "coldness"

Oof, I think this is just weird. Possible confusion with the VP marker i as well.

With -pe, vi:
húlape, húlavi "dance"
púhupe, púhuvi "talk"
súope, súovi "meal"
súsope, súsovi "kiss"
élape, élavi "life"
cínipe, cínivi "kindness"
lóepe, lóevi "coldness"

Hm. -pe doesn't feel neutral enough. I like the -vi forms but I'm not sure they should actually mean what these will mean. Ana súsoviki la ni...Ka sánove ko ta no móevi...No, I don't think so.

Okay, Olga likes -te, so I think that's what we'll call it for now. That said, I want to revisit our previous conclusion that ko's assignment had been a complete mistake. I had said that po kóate would mean the same thing as ko koa, and I'm not actually sure that's true. Let's go back over the determiners.

a X = a referential instantiation of X not yet raised to the discourse stage
ka X = a referential instantiation of X already on the discourse stage
hu X = a non-referential instantiation of X
po X = the non-referential set of all instantiations of X
ko X = X itself, uninstantiated

It looks like we need to be clear on the difference between an instantiation and an occasion/occurrence/incidence:

Instantiations: a kind person, a dog, a runner
Incidence: an act of kindness, a moment of caninity, a run

Clearly the semantics of an incidence of a strongly nominal root are a little...weird. You can imagine fantasy stories, maybe, featuring interludes of being a dog? But it's very clear and useful in roots that are more stative or verbal. Anyway, here's what the determiners would look like with the -te suffix:

a Xte = a referential incidence of X not yet raised to the discourse stage
ka Xte = a referential incidence of X already on the discourse stage
hu Xte = a non-referential incidence of X
po Xte = the non-referential set of all incidences of X
ko Xte = the concept of incidence X itself, uninstantiated

Clearly ko X and po Xte are not the same thing, even if the semantic load between them is slight to nonexistent. For example in actual usage,

po súsote i mu iolo ni "kisses make me happy"
ko suso i mu iolo ni "kissing makes me happy"

These are similar but not identical. There are different sentences that could better clarify the distinction; the first seems to be saying that the act of kissing, or fact of kissing, is what makes them happy, whereas the second refers to the kisses themselves. Here's another shot:

po súsote se i mu iolo ni "your kisses make me happy"
ko suso se i mu iolo ni "kissing you makes me happy"

Here we also see the fact that ko can introduce a clause with a clear pronominal object. I think, then, that ko in its original meaning isn't going away: we're just adding -te for a separate meaning that previously wasn't being ideally encoded. Whew! That was a lot.

On another topic, here's an interesting bit of emergent subtlety with our new suffix:

súsote "a kiss, a single instance of kissing"
pasúsote "a kiss, a single instance of being kissed"

So a súsote potentially means "a kiss X gave (someone)," and a pasúsote is "a kiss someone gave X" -- a shift of perspective from the giver to the receiver. We don't have a "massage" root yet, but if we did, would the default way of talking about one you received be the pa- form? I don't know if this should be a prescriptive distinction, but certainly a nicety of expression available to a skillful speaker.

Summing all of this up, before I finally post this behemoth and catch my breath: for those who don't speak Maltese, there's an important systematic difference to learn to make between e.g. ko cini "kindness, being kind" on the one hand, and cínite "a kindness, act of kindness" on the other. And I think élateni for "vida mía," while not quite as evocative as koélani, is still quite nice.


Sunday, October 24th, 2021

allocutive agreement that marks whether the listener is a man or a woman: binarist, overdone, old information

allocutive agreement that marks whether the speaker has a crush on the listener: inclusive, novel, transformative

Detail #419: Direct and Indirect Object Case Marking: a Different Approach

Thursday, October 21st, 2021

Let us imagine a language that is similar to standard average European. Let's further imagine that word order informs us which NP is the direct object and which is the indirect one. Let's also imagine that there are two cases, emphatic oblique (-n in the examples below) and oblique (-m in the examples below).

I give you-m a-n book-n

"It is a book I give you / a book I give you"

I give you-n a-m book-m

"It is you I give a book" / "you I give a book"

When word order operations occur, however, some restrictions appear: in the initial position, recipients are -m, accusatives -n - but this does not prevent the other NP from taking the same marker after the verb.

Detail #418: Subtle Clusivity

Tuesday, October 19th, 2021

One could imagine a language where certain constructions signal inclusivity, while others signal exclusivity, without there being any dedicated morphemes for clusivity.

1. Reflexives in two ways

In some languages, there is a reflexive pronoun that can be used for any person (see the Russian себя), whereas in others, reflexives are person-specific (myself, yourself, etc).

In Russian, in some circumstances you can use the person-specific possessive or accusative, but this is unusual. However, we could imagine a language in which first person plural uses the third-person reflexive whenever the listener is not included. This of course limits the clusivity to reflexive constructions, unless the clusivity-signaling reflexive is intentionally overused, maybe as a dative or something else like that, or just as a dummy object with intransitives.

2. Gender (dis)congruence

In a language where plural first person pronouns encode gender, in a system where, e.g. the masculine pronoun can refer to a mixed group (but feminine pronouns cannot), feminine first person plurals when speaking to males can signal clusivity. This is a pretty restrictive situation in which clusivity emerges, but maybe it could be taken one step further, such that gender congruence with a singular listener (or uniform group of listeners) becomes a way of signalling clusivity, rather than signalling the gender of the group.

3. Differential object or subject case on the first person pronoun

For some reason, I imagine a vocative case could actually double as an inclusive subject or object marker.

4. The selection of auxiliaries, especially ones that denote evidential information?

One could imagine a couple of near-synonymous auxiliaries, where one is just for whatever reason associated with the inclusive or the exclusive second person plural.

5. Differential object case on a noun phrase object

Perchance deriving from a historical "our", where the language normally would prefer reflexives possessive pronouns. However, this might disable the marking for clusivity if the subject is not also the first person pronoun, and it disables mixed clusivity in a clause (e.g. "we-excl sold our-incl harvest in town").

6. Word order

"Our house" = inclusive, "house of ours" = exclusive. "They us saw" = inclusive, "they saw us" = exclusive. This could very well be a statistical rule rather than a strict one, such that if the context leads to parsing it differently, such different parsing is permissible - but 90% of the time, this will hold.

For subjects, I imagine this might be less common, although I can also imagine that a SVO language could have VSO as an exclusive structure, since putting the verb first feels like a more "pressing" narrative, where the listener might be unaware of what happened.

7. Selecting between different semantically similar structures

E.g. something like the English perfect and the English past tense. I imagine a language could start associating such a pair with a distinction such as this, due to the situations in which one is likely to use one or the other: 'have done' seems slightly more likely to be used when telling someone who did not participate, "did" slightly more likely when talking to someone who did participate.

8. Dual or trial

One can also imagine that the dual / (trial /) plural distinction might, for second person plural under some circumstances become an inclusive/exclusive distinction instead. However, I want to keep the ability to use the dual/plural distinction itself, so - how about discongruence conveying clusivity. Dual + singular verb = exclusive, plural + dual verb = exclusive? This of course requires an unusually rich verbal morphology with regards to number, and we're also restricting it to elements that have congruence on the verb. Maybe the clusivity distinction becomes so important that in all other positions, the distinction is clearly one of clusivity, or maybe both distinctions are important enough that they're simply thoroughly ambiguous and only context serves to disambiguate between "we two" versus "we, but not you" versus "we several" versus "we and you".