Archive for July, 2013

Pal ŵak exkep felē — I sat there

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013
I sat in the woods yesterday while the rain came down, and afterward, as I walked home, I was so pleased with the experience that I sang a song about it.

Originally in Sandic.  Not sure how to make English fit it, so I've just added a "smooth English" of the ditty without bothering to make it fit syllables or rhythm.

Again, using vocaroo.  It's easier for me.

Order of texts:  Sandic -- Smooth English of Sandic


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Pal ŵak exkep felē
mîbin ta jémén otiab exbra felē

pal ŵak felē exkep felē
mîbin ta jémén otiab exbra felē

--

I sat there
The words/messages of the trees, I heard them!

I myself sat there
The words/messages of the trees, I heard them!

Becoming Human: The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker

Monday, July 22nd, 2013
       This is the only time I can remember finding a book I wanted to read (and one I ended up loving) on one of Amazon's bestseller email notices.  The title caught my attention for two reasons: my interest in Judaism and my interest in myth and legend as displayed in literature, which is one of the subjects of this blog.  The Golem and the Jinni is a perfect fit for that subject.

       Two creatures of legend, mysticism, and magic end up in New York City at the turn of the 20th century.  That in itself is an intriguing premise. 
       The jinn (sing. jinni), according to Wikipedia, are spiritual creatures mentioned in the Qur'an who inhabit a dimension beyond the visible universe and are made of fire.  They also have a physical nature and are able to interact with people and objects.  They can be good, evil, or neutrally benevolent and so, like human beings, have free will.  Fiendish types of jinn also exist, notably the ghul (our word ghoul) and the ifrit, among others.  The ifrit is a brutish and wicked sort that has a part to play in Wecker's book.
       A golem, on the other hand, is just about the most corporeal creature that one can imagine.  It comes from Jewish legends, tales of certain Rabbis of medieval and Renaissance times who created beings out of clay and brought them to life with incantations incorporating a shem, or Name of God.  The shem was placed on the forehead of the golem or written on a slip of paper and placed in the golem's mouth.  However, only God can give true life; a golem must be forever flawed and will ultimately turn violent and destroy its creator.  The Hebrew word means simply unshaped matter; interestingly, Adam was originally a golem formed by God out of earth.  In modern Hebrew the word means dumb or helpless, or is used for a "brainless lunk."  (Wikipedia)  The golem legend turns up in numerous literary sources, including Frankenstein's monster.
 
       In Helene Wecker's book, the golem has been taken up a notch.  Rotfeld, a lonely Polish furniture maker asks an old Jewish mystic, Yehudah Schaalman, to create a female golem to be his wife. He requests that she be given qualities of curiosity and intelligence.  Then Rotfeld emigrates to New York City, taking his unawakenened wife with him in a crate.  Partway through the voyage, Rotfeld animates her, using the words written on a slip of paper; one set of words will awaken her and another will destroy her.  But then Rotfeld suffers a burst appendix and dies immediately after animating her, leaving her on her own, possessed of Rotfeld's meager possessions, including the slip of paper that carries her life and death written on it.  She ends up wandering the streets of New York City, where she is befriended by the elderly Rabbi Meyer, who recognizes what she is.  The good Rabbi decides not to destroy her, but to try to educate her to live as a human.  He names her Chava, or Life.
       Meanwhile, a tinsmith in New York City's Little Syria is repairing a copper flask and when he obliterates some of the engraved design, out pops this tall, handsome male  figure -- a jinni who has been imprisoned in the flask but can't remember how he got there.  He wears an iron cuff that keeps him bound to a human form.  The tinsmith gives him the name Ahmad and ultimately, he and Chava meet.  Fire and Earth attract each other, it seems.
 
       The plot of The Golem and the Jinni is quite complex.  There are a lot of characters, each of whom has a story.  These stories are interwoven a piece at a time, each a plotline of its own.  The author makes this work beautifully.  Somehow the reader never quite forgets what has gone before in any given plotline.  It reminds me of a Middle Eastern carpet, each little piece of story knotted into the whole until gradually the entire pattern emerges.  How will the tales of Fadwa and Ice Cream Saleh and Sophia Winston and Anna Blumberg and the Rabbi's nephew Michael all ultimately come together?  It keeps the reader champing to learn what will happen next.
       Meanwhile, the main characters are learning how to be human, a process far more difficult for the jinni than for the golem.  Before a wizard imprisoned him in the flask, the jinni had been accustomed to flying above the desert, building himself beautiful glass palaces at will, indulging his casual curiosity about human beings.  Now tied to earth, he retains his qualities of arrogant free will, unencumbered by any moral sense, any sense of right and wrong.  These instincts lie dormant inside him, however, and he emerges as a character the reader can't help liking and empathizing with in spite of some of his questionable behaviors.  Gradually, as the plot proceeds, he learns that loving and caring are a large part of what makes human beings unique and important.
       Because the golem was created to serve a master, she already knows that giving is an important quality and so she possesses a natural empathy.  She is a tall woman with immense physical strength and she learns from the Rabbi that she is likely to turn violent and destroy any threat to whatever she cares about.  But she was also created with intelligence and she recognizes that she must overcome this tendency if she wishes to continue to live.  For her to  become human, she must control her primitive instincts.  Surely that is something we all must do if we wish to call ourselves human. Since all humans possess bodies created of elemental substances and will return to those substances sooner or later, we have more in common with golems than we could ever have with an incorporeal creature made of fire.
       At one point Chava, who can read thoughts and feelings, sorrows over the sight of homeless men shivering under thin blankets on park benches.  It's obvious in the following exchange that it's Chava who is closest to attaining humanity. 
 
       "They need so much," she murmured.  "And I just walk by."
       "Yes, but what would you do?  Feed them all, take them home with you?  You aren't responsible for them."
       "Easy to say, when you can't hear them."
       "It's still true.  You're generous to a fault, Chava.  I think you'd give your own self away, if only someone wished for it."
 
       A final word on the book's style.  I often read the 2- or 3-star reviews in Amazon to see if I agree or disagree.  One of these stated that the prose was "elemental and pedestrian, lacking the poetics such as lyricism, imagery, metaphor and simile, that I so favor in my prose."  Strangely, I don't find that to be true at all.   The narrative style is simple and straightforward and very readable, never getting in the way of comprehension.  But it is also interwoven with wonderful metaphors and similes, like the bits of colored class embedded in one of the jinni's intricate necklaces.  Here are a few examples:
 
       "Sophia's mother was in one of her states, careening about the house like a loose parakeet."
       "The rooftops lapped each other into the distance, like an illuminated spread of playing cards."
       "He clasped the necklace around [Fadwa's] throat, his arms almost embracing her.  He smelled warm, like a stone baking in the sun."
       "The more he rode the trolleys and trains of New York, the more they seemed to form a giant, malevolent bellows, inhaling defenseless passengers from platforms and blowing them out again elsewhere."
       "Night was falling in the desert. ...  It flattened the hills and stones, so that from its mouth, ibn Malik's cave seemed an endless abcess in the earth."
      "The skies had refused to deliver on their promise of rain; the thick clouds hung low and unmoving over the city like the pale underbelly of some gigantic worm."
 
       There is another character in the book: the 1890s city of New York.  This squalid concatenation of different ethnic groups, coping with a life that didn't turn out quite as well as they had hoped, becomes a place of enchantment, a lyrical metaphor all of its own -- a world of magic and mysticism quite as enthralling as if it existed on another planet.
 
       I could write a lot more about The Golem and the Jinni and some of the deeper meanings embedded in this narrative, but I won't.  What happens as the relationship of this mismatched pair of mythical beings develops is something you will have to find out for yourselves by reading the book. It's a fascinating journey and one I wouldn't spoil for the world.

Detail #49: Case system detail / Vocatives

Monday, July 22nd, 2013
Imagine a language with vocatives and with case congruence on adjectives. Further imagine the language has some kind of intensive or superlative adjective formation, either of indo-european style or just some kind of more general intensifying meaning.

Now, it would be rather natural that vocatives never use non-intensive/non-superlative adjectives; the actual meaning-change involved would be somewhat negated by the presence of the vocative, though, as even a 'good' friend would be called 'best friend!' in such a construction, and everyone was aware of the grammatical rule there. Thus, lexical items would have to be used instead to distinguish intensities instead of morphological devices.

One could even imagine a language where there are no explicit vocative markers, except the restriction on non-superlatives in vocative NPs. One could of course have some (morphologically) superlative/intensive dummy adjective for this role too, if no other adjective is present?

Koa inspiration from Amharic

Monday, July 22nd, 2013
First of all, just out of interest, Amharic demonstrative pronouns/adjectives are the same as the possessives for that level of deixis. For example, "that book" has the same form as "his book." I mention this because there was a brief discussion with Allison about using a strategy like this in Koa in the early 2000's.

The main point of this entry, though, is about reduplication. We've talked about the talo-talo and talo-alo types (not that we know exactly what they do), but Amharic has a different method that we could use too: repeating the medial consonant with the vowel a. Thus talo > találo, kunu > kunánu, etc. CVV nouns often end up with a pronounced glottal stop: pai > pa'ái.

I was thinking this might serve to make the noun more euphemistic, more gentle, less objectionable, or something. So a pragmatic rather than semantic value. Just one possible idea, though.

So like... Ai se halu luái? "Do you want to get it on?" You're not exactly saying lui, but still talking about it.

Koa inspiration from Amharic

Monday, July 22nd, 2013
First of all, just out of interest, Amharic demonstrative pronouns/adjectives are the same as the possessives for that level of deixis. For example, "that book" has the same form as "his book." I mention this because there was a brief discussion with Allison about using a strategy like this in Koa in the early 2000's.

The main point of this entry, though, is about reduplication. We've talked about the talo-talo and talo-alo types (not that we know exactly what they do), but Amharic has a different method that we could use too: repeating the medial consonant with the vowel a. Thus talo > találo, kunu > kunánu, etc. CVV nouns often end up with a pronounced glottal stop: pai > pa'ái.

I was thinking this might serve to make the noun more euphemistic, more gentle, less objectionable, or something. So a pragmatic rather than semantic value. Just one possible idea, though.

So like... Ai se halu luái? "Do you want to get it on?" You're not exactly saying lui, but still talking about it.

Lēena ba hel — Spirit of the fire

Monday, July 22nd, 2013
I don't think I've translated this so far, though how that can be is beyond me.  I started humming it at work, and, well, the rest is history.

Enjoy!  This is "Spirit of the Fire", with a slightly altered rhythm (which is the way I learned it in English, even..  Somehow this is a less-common rendition of it).  I have no idea who the original author is in English, or if it's copyrighted.  Oh well.  It's a folk song, so let it be free!

Posting this via Vocaroo, since divshare has been ridiculous recently.  I'm loving the audio quality on the kindle's mic.  Awesome stuff.

Order of texts: Sandic -- Smooth English of Sandic -- English Original



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lēena ba hel, fian olēéféd
ba helab felē etema

"

ba helab felē etema,
hamarab daeyúi etetrékâ.

"
ba hamarab daeyúi biab etetrékâ

--

Spirit of the fire, come to me
I will make the fire

"

I will make the fire,
I will walk around the holy circle

"
I will walk around that holy circle

--

Spirit of the fire, come to us
We will kindle the fire

"

We will kindle the fire,
dance the magic circle 'round
We will kindle the fire
We will kindle the fire

Tatədiem

Sunday, July 21st, 2013
Tatədiem is a conlang I have been, well, not working on per se, but coming up with occasional ideas for over about eight years now. I have decided that all further conlanging on it will take place on this blog.

A short summary of Tatədiem

Tatədiem is an agglutinating language with some fusionality. Its noun system distinguishes three numbers - singular, dual, plural, as well as mass nouns. The singular and plural forms distinguish, further, definite and indefinite forms, whereas the dual is only used with definite forms. Mass nouns do not distinguish definiteness.

Further, definiteness and number fuse with case as well, combining with ergative, absolutive, *instrumental, partitive, dative (only definite), and locative. Mass nouns and indefinite plurals merge ergative, absolutive and partitive, indefinite singulars merge absolutive and ergative, as well as partitive and locative.

Certain female names are morphologically dual and so are some place names. Almost all of these have some syncretism with the singular, and the occasional one with the plural.

The nouns have a bantu-style gender system, but with the gender markers more restricted in when and where they appear. Basically,

  • an indefinite noun does not have gender markers
  • adjectives with a definite noun have gender-number congruence, and as complements they also take the partitive case.


As for the verb, it can show gender agreement with the subject, the object, and the indirect object. Certain auxiliary verbs can show agreement with some other things, such as instruments, locations and recipients. Certain aspects and voices are marked by simply adding an auxiliary with some congruence in place, and leaving the regular verb with canonical marking.

This system may sound a bit redundant and rich, but I intend to break it sufficiently that an interesting system will be obtained.

The Isolating Conlang: Implicit adjectives for adpositions

Saturday, July 20th, 2013
In some languages, adjectives can take complements - e.g. afraid of bears, proud of himself, full of shit, ... In English, almost all such complements take 'of' as their preposition, and some take 'by' (notably past participles). In other languages that have similar complements, a wider selection of prepositions may occur, and The Isolating Conlang (henceforth TIC) is an example of such a language.

In TIC, the number of adpositions in general is large. In part, this is due to two historical processes of preposition grammaticalization having occurred: to some extent, verbs have turned into prepositions, to some extent nouns have turned into prepositions.

Now, sometimes, the association between an adjective and a preposition is particularly strong, and in these cases, omitting the adjective is very common. With the adjective omitted, it is possible to have a copy of the preposition appear at the onset of the sentence or before the verb. Obviously, this is somewhat of a lexical thing, and so a short appendix listing the meanings of adjectives that can be omitted is supplied.

Appendix: Some prepositions in TIC, some with implicit adjectives


ḱesp: on, n. head
suspicious, careful, → der lə ḱesp in "I am (keeping tabs) on him"
tsim: by, with, n. group
similar to  ir kewen tsim subul 'he runs like a calf'
der lə tsim kmtok → I group with my brother/I am similar to my brother
convinced, agreeing: ar lə tsim in → you are (agreeing) with him 
dəlts: in collusion with, with, also an adverb
Dəlts! (Do! Join! You must!)
der lə delts in → I and he collaborate
em in kwale dəlts em vupi then he plays together with (people) then self → sometimes he plays (music) together with others, sometimes by himself
kip: for, especially when doing something that is someone else's obligation or by someone else's request
eager, servile, subordinate
ner: for, to, especially when handing over or giving things to someone
charitable, helpful 
semag: equipped with, having, n. hand, v. carry
skilled, talented → ar lə semag hilhil: "you are (skilled) with the flute"
in kwale semag hilhil → he played the flute skillfully
ragad: inside,
has a peculiar inverse meaning with the adjective full: full of [content] inside, mehar ragad [content]
gad: in
occupied with, fortunate with, 
gad der lə gad məniḱ : I have bountiful catch of fish, I am fortunate with a catch of fish
gad der lə gad sauttm : I am busy with business
segad: covered with, n. pelt, v. lie under, cover with
occupied with, bored with, 
kpem: under, covered by, n. roof, tent
pregnant → wa lə kpem in, "she is (pregnant) by him"
This also can be used as an adverbial to express who the father is with any pregnancy-related verbs, wa səd gahar kpem in ≃ she gave birth to his son, we səd ruhal kpem in ≃ she gave birth to his daughter, wa tom tekka kpem in ≃ she is about to give birth to his first child, wa tom tekka ≃ she is about to give birth to her first child
kvat: moving in the direction of, (located) somewhere along the way to
agreeing with, supportive of (human object), → ar tom kvat in? are you in agreement with him? 
hungry for, eager for, interested in → ar lə kvat qurpa, "you like fights." 
kev: moving in the direction of, v. 'fetch, approach'
quick to, habitually   → in lə kev qurpa, he is quick to find a fight; in lə kev kmtok, he always goes to his brother (for help), in wəl kev sauttm astm-ḱe, he is quick to (make) business (out of) anything (literally "he have quick business anything")
sarə: along, located somewhere along the way to, n. road.
gug lə sarə → the house is along our path
xuk: at the house or abode of [complement], (there is a similar cognate noun, gug)
related → in lə wa lə xuk or in lə xuk wa, "they (he and she) are related", or "he is related to her". Due to cultural reasons, relatedness is not necessarily considered reflexive. 

seve: about, (from noun meaning 'speech')
right in lə seve əm "he is (right) about it"
 esteemed for  → seve ar lə seve kwale hilhil, he is (esteemed) for his flute playing

caterpillar is tolkar

Friday, July 19th, 2013
tolkar = caterpillar (noun) (some things Google found for "tolkar": a common term; Tolkar Makina A. S. of Turkey sells commercial laundry machines; Tolkar Turismo (travel agency) of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina; an unusual last name; user names; present tense of the verb meaning to interpret in Swedish)

Word derivation for "caterpillar"
Basque = beldar, Finnish = toukka
Miresua = tolkar

In Finnish toukka means caterpillar and also larva. Another word for caterpillar is perhosentoukka, where perhosen means butterfly or moth.

The Hookah-Smoking Caterpillar is a character in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Detail #48: Some congruence blocking things

Thursday, July 18th, 2013
I considered making a few suggestions along the lines of "no congruence for interrogative pronouns" and so on, but changed my mind a bit.

Let us imagine a language where there is an explicit congruence marker for every person, and there is a specific present tense stem (or a full-on lack of infinitives or anything like that; let us assume there's little to no way of confusing the congruenceless verb from an infinitive). Now, we could come up with a lot of relatively easy kinds of things I have already probably hinted at, here ordered by abstractness:

  • certain specific pronouns (interrogatives) or 
  • certain lexical items
  • certain null-subjects
  • indefiniteness
  • aspect-like things
However somehow, all these things seem rather similarly complex - all the suggestions this far are in a way rather focused on one particular constituent or semantic idea. Let us try and step a bit out from the verb phrase / clause, and consider interactions between participants and actions on a more general level, some more pragmatic stuff perchance.

How about

  • distant past combined with either lack of tangible results, imperfectiveness or non-differentiable objects
  • uncertain future or present combined with indefinite object
  • speaker having distinct lack of enthusiasm for the reported information
  • past-known-by-hearsay combined with intransitivity
  • partially or entirely repeated speech?
  • certain specific groups of verbs under circumstances specific for each group