Archive for April, 2021


Wednesday, April 28th, 2021

Old Kay(f)bop(t). Reconstructing Old Kay(f)bop(t) can reveal much information about Kay(f)bop(t) that is of no use whatsoever. The modern fedora hat phoneme was formed by the merger of a pork pie hat and a Bavarian hat. The greater/less than $10 suffixes originally referred to 10 cents and there was formerly another suffix meaning “beyond material value” which has disappeared from modern Kay(f)bop(t). The proto-language had dental fricatives which evolved into the faciomanual click (because people face-palmed every time they pronounced them wrong) although before voiceless consonants they instead became a clap (it’s a long story). Old Kay(f)bop(t) was written in English phonetic spelling.


Wednesday, April 28th, 2021

Create a conlang set on the Boiling Isles, with the singular, plural, and witches’ dual.

Ŋʒädär: Indefinite Address

Friday, April 23rd, 2021

Indefinite address in Ŋʒädär differs from that of English significantly. Indefinite address does reuse parts of the indefinite pronoun system for some constructions - but only because the dedicated indefinite second person address pronouns lack certain case forms.

1. Indefinite 2nd person

Besides the usual second person pronoun vär, Ŋʒädär has a rather special second person indefinite pronoun, 'jusa(n)' (absolutive), 'jusam' (dative). It has a rather simplified case morphology, but has a specialized morphological system. It seems fairly clear it originates with the imperative "jus", listen up.

1.1 Use

The pronoun is used when addressing (at least) one individual out of a group, such that the speaker is not aware of the identity, but is able to deduce the existence of, or at the very least suspects the existence of, a person that fulfills some given criteria. In writings, it an also address any reader that has some quality, or any reader in general. With the spread of literacy, it has especially taken to being the term of address employed when instructing any reader to do something - in letters to a specific reader, the second person is used instead.

1.2 Morphology 

The pronoun only distinguishes two cases, the absolutive and the dative. Other cases are conflated either with the second person pronoun vär, or some  indefinite pronoun (depending on context, style, time, personal preference of the speaker, etc).

However, jusa(n) has some special morphology, with some amount of syncretism in the system. It is similar to the indefinite pronouns lisar and nusar, with the exception that lisar and nusar have a full case system (with some syncretism).

absolutivejusar, lisar
jusada, lisada
sajusan, salisan
dativejusam, lisam
jusada, lisada
jusam, lisam

Forms such as jusaÅ‹a, jusus, jusuk, jusluno etc do appear in speech, but rather infrequently. They do seem to elicit a certain sense of "wrongness" whenever used, both in most hearers and speakers. 

The adnominal can refer to an adjective or a noun.

jusar Å‹ator ('someone fast (among you)')
jusar kamma ('a/the chieftain (among you)')

lisar Å‹ator (someone fast)
nusar Å‹ator (something fast)

If it is known that at most one such individual can exist, the 2nd person plural possessive often marks the noun or adjective, i.e.

jusar kamma-un ('your chieftain' - assumed to be present)
jusar Å‹ator-un ('the fastest person among you')

Sometimes, the complement case is used both for adjectives and nouns:

jusar ŋatoɣ-ɣuv (in northwestern: jusaɣ ŋat:wuo)
jusar kammo-ɣuv (in northwestern: jusaš kaŋ:wuo)

In early modern Ŋʒädär and still in northern and northwestern Ŋʒädär, this marks a weakened certainty of the presence of such a person. In central and southwestern, it has rather come to be used with irrealis verb forms and questions.

Detail #409: Number and gender dyscombination

Sunday, April 18th, 2021

In many languages, number and gender are somewhat dependent, somewhat independent. C.f. French il, ils, elle, elles.

Naturally, sometimes there will be conflicts in marking. French is the standard example as far as this goes, and the basic mechanism is, I guess, fairly common: if there's even a single man in a group, the whole group as an entity is masculine.

In Indo-European languages, number and gender is fusional (also with case), e.g. in historical Swedish, -or is +fem, +plur (, +nom); -ar is +masc, +plur (, +nom), -n is +neut, +plur (, +nom/acc).

What if we entirely separate the number and gender markers into a more purely agglutinating system. (NB: in modern Swedish, there is almost a hint at that, if we consider -r a plural marker and the preceding vowel a gender marker.)

Let's start out with not having any zero-marked gender, or at least having the zero-marking only pop up in very limited contexts. For this part of the post, I entirely ignore ideas like case, definiteness, etc.

The setup will be thus:

Nouns: root-(gender*)-(number*)
Adjectives: root-(gender)-(number)
Verbs: root-(gender)-(number)
Determiners: (root)-gender-number
pronouns: (root)-(gender)-(number)

On nouns, some gender may be zero-marked, and the number is zero-marked for singulars. Determiners and pronouns may consist of as little as the gender and number marker with no root, although most pronouns (such as indefinites, various demonstratives, etc) do have roots. The * on gender and number at nouns signify that they're not necessarily always explicitly marked - some nouns may have inherent gender, or possibly, some gender is zero-marked in the noun morphology.

Now for the interesting parts: constructions where the gender or the number is omitted for congruence reasons. 

1 Disjunctions

Disjunctions are an obvious contender for such constructions:

Is-[]-[sg] Eve or Peter responsible-[]-[sg] for this.

Here, we could actually consider a meaning distinction encoded in the congruence on the adjective: if the number is unspecified, we leave it open that the adjective is plural - and thus that they both are responsible. Imagine, however, this type of construction:

Is-[masc]-[dual] Peter, John or Albert responsible-[masc]-[dual] for this?

Are we now asking which two out of the three that are responsible?

One more extreme approach could be having disjunctions block all gender marking, such that

Is-[]-[sg?] Peter or Evan responsible-[]-[sg?]

is the only permissible construction. I am a bit partial to that idea myself - I like having the structure per se be the triggering factor instead of the actual gender difference.

2. Indefinite pronouns

Sometimes, we know something about otherwise indefinite actants. E.g. "I saw someone outside the door" - sometimes, you did see enough to be able to specify further. Obviously, sometimes you saw more than one person; sometimes you may be unsure if the several instances of seeing people actually were the same person in slightly different times. Sometimes you have a good guess as to the sex of a person. Sometimes, you may think you've seen one or several men, but you're sure they're all men.

So, in a gender-centered grammatical system, the utility of being able to specify additional optional information - but potentially also omitting it depending on the available knowledge - should be clear. 

A distinction between "multiple persons, with several genders in the group" vs. "multiple persons, I was unable to distinguish their genders from the information I got" is possible, but I don't really prefer that kind of system in my own sketches of conlangs, because, well, introducing such a meta-distinction is just not how I roll with under- or overspecifying information in languages in this blog.

3. Non-conjunction-like grouping

In many languages, "and" and "with" basically are not strongly distinguished. In languages that do, however, we could consider a system whereby the number fails to agree with whoever it really agrees with:

I is-[]-[pl] playing music with them


4. Different rules for gender markers and plural markers?

We could also consider a situation whereby the scoping rules for the two markers behave differently over conjunctions, etc, so that

I-masc or they-fem will-[]-[plur] win this game
they-masc or she will-[]-[plur] win this game

In this case, the scoping rule for gender is that gender-disagreement leads to no marking, but plural marking outranks singular marking and always wins if possible.

Another possibility could be that any coordination will trigger plural marking, but congruent gender will permit gender marking:

I-masc or she will-[]-[plur] win
he or she will-[]-[plur] win
Tim or Tom will-[masc]-[plur] win

We could also consider rules like "leftmost number but rightmost gender takes precedence for marking".

Detail #408: Thinking about parts of speech

Wednesday, April 14th, 2021

The impression I get when looking at how conlangers deal with parts of speech is that the main method in existence is this:

  1. Take the English set of parts of speech
  2. Conflate some of them (typically <verbs and adjectives>, <nouns and adjectives> or <adjectives and adverbs>).
  3. Break even.
Let's break even in some other manner. (NB: I claim very few conlangers will profit!)

What distinguishes word classes? The following seem to be reasonable characteristics, ranked from strong to weak:
  • syntactical properties (strong)
  • certain, but not all information structural properties (strong, but diffuse!)
This one's somewhat unclear, and that's good, because it gives us some flexibility. Clearly there's information-structural differences between words within the same word class sometimes.
  • morphological properties (somewhat strong)
  • semantic features (weak)
Strength should be seen as correlating with how easily applicable it is. Semantic features is weak because, well, "life", "live", "alive" have a really strong semantic overlap - they seem to refer to the same underlying concept, but they provide different information-structural and syntactic "interfaces" for that meaning. If a word satisfies either of the two top requirements, or two of the weaker features, or partially one of the top features and wholly one of the weaker features, I think that should be sufficient.

So, some ideas here.

Three Parts of Speech
These do not quite fit in the same language.
Titles of address
Consider a language in which titles - sir, mister, reverend, etc - deviate sufficiently from nouns and adjectives as far as syntax and morphology go  not to qualify as either.

These particles can go anywhere in a noun phrase - including the edges - have no morphosyntactical markers, but there may be unique morphemes that go on them. These may correlate with grammatical subsystems of the language - gender and number and such. They cannot stand by themselves as head of an NP, however. 

This class is not entirely closed, and there may be ways of turning adjectives, nouns and verbs into this class. There are, however, some titles that do not have corresponding nouns, verbs or adjectives. Many of those that have no nominal, adjectival or verbal cognates are also morphologically very simple.

Particles of Social Relations
Similar to the previous category, but these mark social relations of humans. In particular they (optionally?) mark the relation of nouns to the higher ranking noun (either by some rank hierarchy or by some syntactical notion of rank). A quirk is that they can also mark the relation of vocatives to the speaker - as long as the vocative is morphologically distinct from the object case, which it isn't for all nouns and names.
Ways of manipulating the rank - voice transformations or other tricks - may permit for marking social relations centered on a person of lower status, or who occupies a syntactical role with lower syntactical status.

There could maybe also be a way of introducing persons who have no semantic role other than being the syntactic center. Maybe having an auxiliary (or some voice construction) whose subject is the social hub and which demotes all other nouns to lower status? Maybe topics always are social hubs, and hanging topics are permitted? Maybe there's some adposition or case marker that raises the rank of a person. Also, the social hubs material possessions can take a similar, inanimate marker.
Particle of Reference
A referential particle is a postposition-like optional word that goes after an NP to which a third person pronoun in the same clause or nearby will refer. There are also a separate particle of possessive reference, which goes on the possessor of a possessum, if these also have separate syntactical roles in the sentence. Unlike a proper postposition, they cannot "outrank" a conjunction: man PARTICLE and his house : a man and his own house (not a man and some other man's house). Multiple particles can be on separate NPs that are co-referred to, even if these are different syntactical entities or possibly even separated by subclause boundaries: the man PARTICLE listened while the woman PARTICLE played the piano PARTICLE and they formed a beautiful scene.

Post mortem:
I have been thinking about this post for a while now, but the three types of particles I came up with seem to be about borderline for whether they make sense as word classes. Clearly, I have provided them all with rather unique semantics and made sure to give them unique syntactical behaviors, but it still seems a bit much to call them word classes.

Detail #407: A New Locus for Irregularities

Tuesday, April 13th, 2021

Normally, 'irregularity' in the popular idea of linguistics consists of patterns in morphology that don't hold. I have, for some time, been interested in other kinds of irregularities, such as quirky case.

Let's consider something in the ballpark of transitivity or valency. Of course, a simple way of creating irregularity for valency would be valency-marking on verbs, and then having a few verbs that deviate from the pattern. But then we're back in the irregular morphology rut again.

We could do another thing:

Have certain unmarked valency-changing operations occur under some circumstances, but have irregularities in this application for some particular verbs.

What kinds of circumstances could these be?

  • Subjects (or possibly objects) of certain noun classes
  • Subclauses vs. main clauses
    • Specific types of subclauses
  • Infinites vs. finite verbs?
  • Certain TAMs?
  • Certain voice, valency, transitivity or subcategorization changes
  • Presence of certain adverbs?
For this I am primarily thinking of adverbs that convey TAM-like information, voice-like information or introduce information-structure dependencies not unlike subclauses.
  • Certain word order changes?
  • Under certain pragmatic conditions?
  • Utterance-initial sentences? Discourse-initial sentences?

Entr’acte: The vanity of logic and typological neutrality

Thursday, April 8th, 2021

Continuing to think about pronominal predicates (about which more is forthcoming) and embedded clauses has led me to some difficult realizations over the past couple weeks. Here's the setup: how should clauses used as predicates really work? We've gone to considerable length to motivate this theoretically final decision that the i marking finiteness should simply be deleted, e.g.

le Iuli i loha ti mehe
NAME Julie FIN love this person
"Julie loves this person"

ka mehe [ (ko) le Iuli loha ]
DEF person [ (ABS) NAME Julie love ]
"the person Julie loves"

The core argument here is that, from the first principles underlying Koa grammar and syntax, there should be no difference between a clause used as a predicate and any other simplex predicate; and the structure of dependent clauses themselves should follow logically from those same first principles. I tried to show how in a clause like the above, the verb phrase (loha) could be said to be modifying the head (le Iuli), producing a Turkish-style nominalization meaning something like "the person of loving-Julie-ness."

Here's the thing: the structure of the Koa clause does not proceed from logic. Within predicates we have this very solid, logical, well-described system of modification, and likewise between predicates and particles...but with clauses we began with what turns out to be an essentially arbitrary formula:


It's a sensible system, a typologically neutral system, but there's nothing at all logical about it. The division between the subject NP and the VP simply had to be made somehow, so we made it. But in the argument above, we tried to create an alternative history where we could reconstruct logical, derived-from-first-principles meaning across a whole dependent clause, when in fact that kind of logic was never present in the simplest of main clauses to start with!

I've realized that we've been holding two competing foundational philosophies simultaneously all this time: typological intuitiveness represented by creoles in one hand, and logic inspired by something like Loglan in the other. We've let each of them grow and flourish and tried to avoid situations where the streams might cross, but with embedded clauses this strategy has just run out of road.

The truth is that at some level of complexity -- such as where we now find ourselves -- this becomes a zero-sum contest. The more genuinely cross-linguistically intuitive these structures are, the less formally logical they will be; the more logical they are, the less intuitive. It's been vanity to imagine that I could indefinitely maximize both simultaneously; self-deception to deny the centrality of the muse of my own aesthetics.

Let's level: Koa isn't really going to become an international auxiliary language, regardless of whether I deem I've met my goal of besting Esperanto or not. This seems to be the moment where I have to decide what kind of language I want this to be, and that choice will underlie the structures that enable Koa to rise up from the banality of example sentences and become a vibrant, truly usable human language.

So what do I do about relative clauses? Do I make them unreduced and internally-headed like Navajo, by far the most elegant, internally consistent choice, despite the fact that that would feel alien to 99% of the Earth's population? Or follow the example of Yoruba (and most other languages, honestly), accept a relative pronoun, and decide that there's something that makes these kinds of clauses different from others? Or go back to the drawing board on what really makes a clause in Koa in the first place, trying to build something up from first principles that will survive this particular wave of complexity...knowing that the result also will likely be elegant and logical at the cost of typological neutrality?

I'm not sure, but what's becoming clear is that the choice is mine to make, and that no amount of rigorous exploration of semantics will decide it for me. In a way it's freeing: maybe after more than 20 years of devotion to principles, I've earned the right to let my personal aesthetics unabashedly lead me for a while. It would be a relief to choose a structure or a system that I like, and feel justified in doing so because there is no alternative to choice so I might as well make it one that pleases me.

More to come, clearly.

A review of “A Hand-book Of Volapük” by Andrew Drummond, and an interview with the author

Thursday, April 1st, 2021

Jim Henry was born in 1973 in Decatur, Georgia, and has lived in the Atlanta area most of his life. He started creating constructed languages in 1989 after discovering Tolkien’s Quenya and Noldorin (in The Book of Lost Tales rather than his better-known works), but his early works were all vocabulary and no syntax. In 1996, after discovering Jeffrey Henning’s conlang site and the CONLANG mailing list, he started creating somewhat more sophisticated fictional languages; and in 1998, he started developing his personal engineered language gjâ-zym-byn, which has occupied most of his conlanging energies since then, and in which he has developed some degree of fluency. He retired recently after working for some years as a software developer, and does volunteer work for the Esperanto Society of Metro Atlanta, Project Gutenberg, and the Language Creation Society.


Jim Henry reviews the book A Hand-book of Volapük, and then interviews its author, Andrew Drummond.

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