Archive for December, 2021

Real Language Examples: The that-trace effect in Swedish and Finland-Swedish

Friday, December 24th, 2021

Time for even more real language examples. And as usual, I have dug deep in the grammar of my native language to find a belated hannukah-gift to you, my dear readers.

In syntax, a that-trace effect is a kind of blocking, where a complementizer cannot be followed by a trace. This effect is present in English, and causes this system of sentences with various transformations to hold:

I didn't think he could sing

He, I didn't know sings in that choir (arguably not grammatical)

Unlike English, Scandinavian languages permit topicalizing elements of subclauses rather freely. In English, this seems mainly to occur with interrogative pronouns. A __ will be inserted where the moved element originally stood in example sentences:

who did you think __ would finish this?

Compare this with Swedish clauses such as these:

Evert tror jag inte __ äter fisk.
Evert think I not __ eats fish.
Evert, I don't think eats fish.
I don't think Evert eats fish.

Other constituents can also be moved around:

Fisk tror jag inte Evert äter __.
Fish I don't think Evert eats.
I don't think Evert eats fish.

Here, it would be fun if we could do this to verbs as well, but alas, this is not permissible:

Äter tror jag inte Evert __ fisk.
Eats I don't think Evert fish
I don't think Evert eats fish (think this as contrasting to what he does do with fish: farm, cut fillets, cure, smoke, put in brine, make fish fingers, mong, etc, them)

Let's return to our English example "who did you think would finish this?" Let us consider two possible rewordings of this where it's "he" instead of "who", and it's just a statement.

You did think he would finish this?
You did think that he would finish this?

We find an interesting difference here, with regards to the permissibility of "that":

*who did you think that would finish this?

The hypothesis is that "that" cannot be followed by a trace of the element that has been moved left. (In essence, this means we can't have "that" and a move at the same time.) The subclause must be introduced by a null-element instead if there is a trace.

Anyways, Standard Swedish as spoken in Sweden has the same that-trace effect as English, whereas Standard Swedish as spoken in Finland lacks it. Norwegian seems also to have geographical splits on this, and Icelandic, I am happy to tell, solidly sides with my variety of Swedish. Since left-moved elements seem to be more common in Scandinavian in general, these phenomena are much more visible than in English.

Standard Swedish:
han tror jag kan simma
he thinks I can swim

As it happens, standard Swedish has V2, so this can actually correspond to _two_ different English orders. Notice that Swedish does not have person congruence on the verb:

jag tror han kan simma
I think (that) (he*) can swim (throw "he" to the left edge)
he think (that) I can swim (remove (that))
and is thus ambiguous. If Swedish did not have V2, it would be less ambiguous
he I think can swim
I he think can swim
but since Swedish does not permit this, it gets ambiguous. (There are some word order rules with regards to adverbs and auxiliaries that do, at least in part, resolve the question, but not always.)
Finland Swedish has resolved this issue in a different way, however. We don't have the that trace effect.
han tror jag att kan simma
he think I that can swim
he I think that can swim
This is as if English permitted
*who did you think that would finish this?
Since the 'att' is nearly mandatory if the subclause is not introduced by its subject, this actually fully removes the ambiguity from F-Swedish subclauses with leftwards shifted subjects.

The reason this particular difference between the two Swedish varieties has not been squashed by the education system is probably the fact that it's kind of difficult to explain something as abstract as this rule to kids.

I am kinda at awe at the level of hypocrisy "grammar nazis" reach on this thing. With one side of their face they say we should make sure the language is as unambiguous as possible and with the other side of their face they teach that this trait of F-Swedish should be eliminated - despite the fact that it objectively reduces the amount of ambiguity. Fuck them. Seriously.

More about valence decrease and related phenomena

Sunday, December 19th, 2021
I recently talked about valence-decreasing mechanisms in general and discovered a whole mess of unanswered foundational questions about how they work in Koa. I'm happy to report that things look a lot clearer after a month of percolation and I think I can address all of them. This will apparently be the Age of Empires edition of Ea Opi le Koa because a lot of my example sentences are...well, you'll see.

Object Deletion

The simplest way of reducing valence, if you want to call it that, is by deleting the object:

u sótama i tuho ka lina
DEF.PL soldier VP IMPF destroy DEF city
"the soldiers destroyed the city"

u sótama i ma tuho Ø
DEF.PL soldier VP IMPF destroy Ø
"the soldiers were destroying [things]"

Valence in Koa is pretty free compared to English. You've got a verb, and the subject position is required (unless it was previously stated or can be assumed, like i kuma he tana "it's hot today"), but beyond that you can kind of free-form the participants in the way you choose and anything omitted either (1) becomes indefinite or (2) is recovered anaphorically. This latter reading could therefore yield "the soldiers were destroying it" as an alternative interpretation to the previous sentence, if "it" were some referent already established in discourse.

It turns out that at some point we earmarked -pa as a suffix to indicate an indefinite object, which means we could resolve the ambiguity, if necessary, by saying

u sótama i ma túhopa
DEF.PL soldier VP IMPF destroy-INDEF
"the soldiers were destroying things, the soldiers were going around destroying"

That's clear enough, but it's not 100% obvious what that pa actually it some kind of pronoun? I thought so at one point. Or is it more derivational, like "do X here and there/haphazardly/with undefined results?" These days I think hi can actually fulfill the role I'd envisioned for pa back then (see below) so I'll leave it as a suffix for the moment with no further pretensions toward independent status.


I was surprised to discover last night that I thought I already understood this once upon a time, but I'm not at all satisfied with a lot of those conclusions, and I'll start from scratch here.

The most neutral way of indicating that a verb's object is identical with its subject is via the particle hi. This is genuine valence reduction in that the verb's object slot for the repeated participant disappears when this particle is used.

ni hi loha
1SG REFL love
"I love myself"

ni hi ana ti kánute
1SG REFL give this injury
"I gave myself this injury"

Note that ditransitive verbs can become reflexive with respect to either the direct or indirect object.

In a somewhat more marked way, the valence of the verb can be left alone but a reflexive construction used for the object:

ni loha niími
1SG love 1SG-self
"I love myself"

ni ana ti kánute la niími
1SG give this injury DAT 1SG-self
"I gave this injury to myself"

There's an added sense of contrast or emphasis here, so depending on the context this structure might tend to show up with focalization as well. Combining the two strategies is also possible with a serial verb, with even greater centering of the reflexiveness:

ni hi loha i imi
1SG REFL love VP self
"I love myself"

Semantic reflexiveness can come in via an incorporated object as well:

ni loha imi
1SG love self
"I love myself," "I self-love"

This gives a slightly different meaning, though: we're implying that self-love is a thing, and that the speaker practices it.

There's one final undecided point, though, of just how pronominal hi is allowed to get within VP arguments: in other words, can/should we say this instead for "I love myself"?

?ni loha hiími
1SG love REFL-self
"I love myself"

On purely aesthetic grounds I do greatly prefer it when languages have a reflexive pronoun (e.g. Polish golę się, lit. "I shave oneself" vs Spanish me afeito, lit. "I shave me") but this does potentially introduce a host of complications. Which of these is "I love my cat?"

ni loha ka sene ni
1SG love DEF cat 1SG

ni loha ka sene hi
1SG love DEF cat REFL

At the moment the sentence with hi is feeling pretty weird to me so I think we can nix that unless some emergent circumstances demand it in the future.


In reflexive verbs the totality of the action applies to all subjects individually. Reciprocals, in which the action travels from each of a plurality of subjects to each other subject, are formally very similar. The least marked structure is actually the same as for reflexives, and context disambiguates 95% of the time:

nu hi loha
1PL REFL love
"we love each other" OR "we love ourselves"

The possibilities for overt disambiguation exactly parallel those for reflexives with the same minor differences in sense, using the word kahi "reciprocal":

nu loha nukahi
1PL love 1PL-reciprocal
"we love each other," lit. "we love our reciprocal ones"

nu loha kahi
1PL love reciprocal
"idem," lit. "we love reciprocally"

nu hi loha i kahi
1PL REFL love VP reciprocal
"we love each other [reciprocally]"

Object Incorporation

When a transitive verb has a general, non-referential object, the most neutral structure is to incorporate it: in Koa terms, to omit the article so that it modifies the verb rather than standing on its own as an independent object. This reduces the verb's valence by one slot and is explored pretty thoroughly (with surprisingly few differences from modern usage) in this post from 2011, so I'll let that explanation stand in the interest of brevity. This gives us clauses like

u sótama i ma tuho lina
DEF.PL soldier VP IMPF destroy city
"the soldiers were destroying cities," "the soldiers were engaging in city-wrecking"

Passive/Middle Voice and Argument Shifts

Though traditionally labeled "passive," the particle pa affects argument structure in a manner that's pretty unlike the passive voice in IE languages. pa "promotes" a verbal object to subject position, but it also optionally "demotes" the subject to postverbal -- i.e. object -- position. The structure thereby created allows the agent/experiencer can be elided in a way it cannot in preverbal position, and valence is not technically decreased (depending on how you want to define object deletion).

As such, pa verbs are able to say something about their patient without inferring anything at all about their agent or experiencer, or even implying their existence. In this way it's more similar to a middle voice:

to puku i pa tino mo vake
that costume VP PASS ADV difficult
"that costume 'takes off' with difficulty," "that costume is hard to take off"

A more passive reading is possible as well:

ka lina i pa tuho he to kesa
DEF city VP PASS destroy TIME that summer
"the city was destroyed that summer"

The wild difference from IE passives and middles, and one that I would consider the most Loglanesque operation in the whole of Koa if it hadn't been rescued by Bantu, is that there is still an argument slot for the notional subject after the verb:

ka lina i pa tuho u sótama
DEF city VP PASS destroy DEF.PL soldier
"the city was destroyed by the soldiers"

For speakers of case languages, though, there's another way of experiencing this sentence that has nothing to do with passivity. It's hard to get at in English except in the most poetic of contexts; maybe if you start with "bright waxed the moon" (a predicate, not an object, I know) and then parse "the city destroyed the soldiers" the same way you can sort of feel it? But if you've got an accusative like Latin, you can just say

urbem dēlēvērunt mīlitēs
city-SG.ACC destroy-PERF-3PL soldier-PL.ACC
"the soldiers destroyed the city"

The pragmatic or stylistic circumstances where one might make this choice in Koa will still need to be established, probably in the very long term. In the mean time, we can also make the agent oblique with ci (instrumental) and give the structure more of a traditional passive feel:

ka lina i pa tuho ci u sótama
DEF city VP PASS destroy INSTR DEF.PL soldier
"the city was destroyed by [the actions of] the soldiers"

Passive Agent Incorporation

In the same way that a general predicate in the object position of an active can be incorporated, a general agent/experiencer in postverbal position in a passive sentence can be as well:

ka lina i pa tohu sótama
DEF city VP PASS destroy soldier
"The city was destroyed by soldiers"

Note that the grouping here is [[pa tohu] sótama] "be destroyed by soldiers," not [pa [tohu sótama]] "be destroy soldier-ed" -- we're incorporating a predicate into a passive verb, not passivizing an incorporated verb which would make no sense because it's presumably intransitive.


The subject position can't be left vacant the way the object position can, but we can use an impersonal construction to code the subject as unknown/indefinite/general/unnamed/irrelevant. This is accomplished with hi -- the same particle used for reflexives -- but in a pronominal position with respect to the verb. I don't think we've ever actually thoroughly mapped out all the preverbal slots and clearly should, but for now the general shape of things is


Thus with hi in the pronoun slot, we can say

hi tohu ka lina
INDEF destroy DEF city
"they destroyed the city," "the city got destroyed"

This is actually very often the best Koa translation for an English passive without expressed agent, because the implication of an actor -- whether intentional or not -- is still present. Note that the actor is not necessarily implied to be animate. Another example of usage:

ai hi puhu le Níkili ne tia?
QU INDEF speak NAME English LOC this
"is English spoken here?"

It's possible for a verb to have a hi in two different positions with different (but related) meanings!

ha hi va hi kanu, hi vi hake ko apu
if INDEF HAB REFL injure, INDEF IMPER seek ABS help
"if one injures oneself, one should seek help"


Okay this was long (again), but I believe I've covered all the questions except for #4, "can pronominal objects in fact appear preverbally?" Despite my certainty in past years that this should be possible, the short answer here is no. There's simply no reason to dream this into being, even if there's a way you could justify it as equal treatment for all predicates. I'm down to reconsider someday should usage seem to demand it for some reason, and in the meantime I'm pleased to say I think we've got a pretty solid system of valence decreasing devices developed at this point!

Pe le Iúli

Friday, December 17th, 2021

In the almost 15 years since I started keeping this blog I haven't really said anything at all about myself, for the most part because its purpose was process/exploration/documentation and I really never imagined that anyone at all would ever read it! But in case anyone is curious...

Hi! I'm Julie -- 

I grew up in Seattle, a child of Polish immigrants on my dad's side and an odd holdout population of rural Swiss-German-speaking Oregonians on my mom's. I've been studying language and linguistics intensively since middle school and started creating languages in isolation quite a long time before I realized there was or had ever been a community of other people with the same strange interest. Around 1996 I discovered the conlang listserv which I can completely unironically say profoundly influenced my art and my life. I went to UC Berkeley for linguistics in the late 90's and early 2000's and later came to the non-profit arts administration career track which is where I still find myself professionally.

My best natural languages other than English are Spanish and Polish, with intermediate and roughly descending fluency in Finnish, Welsh and Catalan; I can fake it in French, German, Russian and, on a good day, Hungarian and Turkish. I'm sort of embarrassed that there's nothing non-IE in there further than a stone's throw from Europe, though there's been a lot of dabbling over the years and I come close to sleeping with my Nahuatl textbook under my pillow these days.

Koa began in my dorm room in 1999, initially out of irritation with Esperanto (ne miskomprenu min -- mi flue parolas ĝin, iam instruis ĝin per DeCal ĉe UCB, vojaĝis per ĝi post la altlernejo, kaj havas pri ĝi multajn varmajn sentojn...sed ankaŭ nombron de, laŭ mi, kompreneblaj plendoj). I found myself wondering how hard it would be to really do better in an IAL: not just philosophically, but as a working system that was genuinely usable as a language. Other initial basic parameters were maximal cross-typological intuitiveness, a minimum of decisions that a learner might find arbitrary, deriving all structures from a small and clearly defined set of first principles, and seeking and destroying any unexamined IE calquing.

As I've discussed recently Koa's original aspirations to IALdom may or may not still hold, but after more than 20 years of continuous development the language is awfully important to me and maybe one the things I'm the most proud of. I really need to write more soon about the philosophy and history of Koa, but it's hard to pull my attention away from the latest crisis in nominalized clauses. Other upcoming projects include a proper bidirectional dictionary, literary texts starting with Are You My Mother? and eventually a thorough reference grammar.

Some other notable constructed language projects along the way include:

* My very first, Terran (naturally), in an old, middle and modern version. Middle Terran got far enough that I was able to translate some of Unanana and the Elephant into it: Qua meithë, meithë cróharon şona ájenou Unananai e şilanë a vë éşalau cá címion ton divi...

* Seadi [`sjæði], my main squeeze in late high school and early college, an ergative and highly emotive artlang with influence from Ancient Greek, Sámi and possibly the spirit of Láadan...this is the only project that had a real world-building story behind it, with multiple dialects and a well-developed system of historical change...there's a blog for it too, but not much on it unfortunately. Not many texts exist, though I did inscribe the inside of my first girlfriend's ring in it: Ciēla sēn ainā inie "may this love between the two of us always endure."

* Oligosynthesis has been a major fascination ever since I ran across Brad Coon's Nova in middle school, but despite an absurd number of attempts I'm still struggling to really get a system off the ground. After something like 25 years of work I finally have a phonology that gives enough roots while being pronounceable and even pleasing in multisyllabic words, but basic morphology is still holding it up. One of these years it's going to really be awesome, though! I can say things like adožíla "clumsy inexplicable love," qearhoju "apathetically drink to destruction," or iveinisui "he ate it with confusion, as if it were the first time."

When not holding a reference grammar, I enjoy singing and playing folk music on tenor guitar and button accordion, exploring the natural world and studying evolutionary biology and philosophy, traveling, cooking, playing games and taking long walks in pretty neighborhoods. I work for a jazz conservatory and live in Portland, Oregon with my two daughters.

If you'd like to reach out to talk about Koa, conlanging or anything else, I'd love to chat -- feel free to e-mail! I'm at juliet at hey dot com or @julietabirch on Instagram.

The theta clause

Monday, December 6th, 2021

This post would have come a lot sooner if I could just have figured out what to call it. English-language linguistics typically refers to these as headless relative clauses or indirect questions, but that's begging the question: there's no reason to start out with the assumption that what's actually happening in Koa must map onto a relative clause or a question. I'm going to be bold and use "theta clause" because these structures are sort of meta-encoding a thematic role; since that's not a term anyone would understand out of the box, though, you can substitute with "nominal clauses" if you want!

These have been an albatross for most of Kea's existence, an endless source of confusion and discouragement. Until 2021 I just couldn't really even approach the problem of how to express something as seemingly basic as

I don't know what you want

Somehow I instinctively steered wide of the most obvious seemed like maybe a structure that felt that comfortable was making too many assumptions. The Polish, for example, would be

nie wiem, co chcesz
NEG know-1SG what want-2SG
"I don't know what you want"

The Koa calque of this would be

ni na ilo kea sa se halu
1SG NEG know what FOC 2SG want

Hungarian does something similar but precedes the embedded clause with a complementizer:

nem tudom, hogy mit akarsz
NEG know-1SG COMP what-ACC want-2SG

This would calque as

ni na ilo ko kea sa se halu
1SG NEG know COMP what FOC 2SG want

Was that better? Who knew? I think maybe what argued caution was that I wasn't at all sure I understood what was really going on here; given the fact that question words haven't ever been a part of relative clause structure in Koa, why suddenly pull them in just to address this complication? This corner of syntax rested in abeyance until this year, with yet another Nahuatl intervention.

Nahuatl produces these kinds of clauses just as elegantly and effortlessly as any other NP, and in the same way:

in cihuātl
DEF woman
"the woman"

ca cochi in cihuātl
DECL sleep-3SG DEF woman
"the woman is sleeping"

in cochi
DEF sleep-3SG
"the one sleeping, who is sleeping"

ca cihuātl in cochi
DECL woman DEF sleep-3SG
"the one sleeping is a woman"

in cihuātl in cochi
DEF woman DEF sleep-3SG
"the sleeping woman, the woman who is sleeping"

Koa works extremely similarly to Nahuatl in its predicates' ability to assume any syntactic position ("lexical class," if you must), and in fact all of these translate seamlessly into Koa:

ka mina
DEF woman
"the woman"

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

ka nuku
DEF sleep
"the one sleeping"

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

ka mina nuku
DEF woman sleep
"the sleeping woman, the woman who is sleeping"

If we can do all this, and in fact our ability to do all this is foundational to the grammar of Koa, that presumably means we can also say

ni na ilo ka nuku
1SG NEG know DEF sleep
"I don't know who's sleeping"

Note that this does not mean "I don't know the sleeping woman": that would be a different verb of knowing which, embarrassingly enough, I still haven't picked out -- savoir vs connaître. Anyway, none of this is controversial, really, I just wasn't clear before that I could use these structures this way!

Let's take a look at how this works in different syntactic positions. Core slots -- subject and object -- are extremely simple:

ni na ilo [ka ma puhu] he tisena (subject)
1SG NEG know DEF IMPF speak TIME this-now
"I don't know who's speaking right now"

ni na ilo [ka ta ma sano] he tisena (object)
1SG NEG know DEF 3SG IMPF say TIME this-now
"I don't know what he's saying right now"

Now, if someone really wanted to interpret these as headless relatives, they could imagine that there's gapping going on here underlyingly, like

ka Ø ma puhu "the oneᵢ that Øᵢ is speaking"
ka ta ma sano Øᵢ "the thingᵢ that he is saying Øᵢ"

I think that's trying unnecessarily hard to frame Koa grammar in a IE-compliant way, though. Maybe the trees have invisible arrows and maybe they don't, but the way it feels to a Koa speaker is that ma puhu or ta ma sano can be used as adjectives just like any other predicate or predicate complex: so ka sao "the right one," ka ma puhu "the speaking one," ka ta ma sano "the him-saying one."

The reason I don't think relative clauses are the right way to think of these is what happens in oblique positions. How would you say "I know where you live"?

First of all, you can probably throw formal grammatical relations to the wind and just say this, letting the hearer reassemble the semantic role from obvious context:

ni ilo ka se asu
1SG know DEF 2SG dwell
"I know the you-living one" = "I know where you live"

If you do actually definitely want to overtly include that "location" semantic, though, I might expect to see one of these if these structures are really relative clauses:

ni ilo ka se asu ne Ø (gapping)
1SG know DEF 2SG dwell LOC

ni ilo ka se asu ne ta (pronoun retention)
1SG know DEF 2SG dwell LOC 3SG

The thing is, I don't think either of those are acceptable Koa! The most neutral, least marked Koa phrasing actually uses one of those ke-compounds to recover the missing semantic role:

ni ilo kene se asu
1SG know location 2SG dwell
"I know where you live"

There's a really strong urge to interpret kene above as performing a relative function exactly analogous to that of where in the English translation, but that is not what's going on here. Kene is a noun, not an adverb, and so the more literal English rendering of the Koa phrase would be "I know the location of your living." Here are some other examples:

ni na ilo kepe ta ma puhu
1SG NEG know topic 3SG IMPF speak
"I don't know the subject of his speaking" = "I don't know what he's talking about"

ai se ilo keo ve ka pasuo se i tule
QU 2SG know origin MOD DEF PASS-eat 2SG VP come
"do you know the origin of your food's coming?" = "do you know where your food comes from?"

This would actually be much more neutral without come, as

ai se ilo keo ka pasuo se
"do you know the origin of your food?" = "do you know where your food comes from?"

The Koa clauses are often somewhat more syntactically economical than the English in this way.

ni co na ilo keci ni cu ata la
1SG still NEG know means 1SG IRR arrive DAT
"I still don't know the means of my arriving there" = "I don't know yet how I'm going to get there"

NB: the English glosses all have a definite object: "I don't know the subject of his speaking," etc. Shouldn't the Koa then be ni na ilo ka kepe ta ma puhu? No, in fact. I don't know how widespread this is, but in a lot of IE languages we have this thing where the head of a genitive phrase is required to be formally definite; in this kind of structure, though, there is in fact not a known, specific topic already on the discourse stage to be referred to with ka. What's really going on here is more subtle: kepe is the incorporated object of the verb ilo! In essence, we're saying "I don't origin-know his speaking." This is visible in other types of sentences where there's no clear verbal object:

ta ie ata he tana, ni na ilo keo
3SG just arrive TIME today, 1SG NEG know origin
"he just got here today, I don't know where from"

We can also see this in the Koa translation of "it matters where your food comes from": Notice that "the origin," when in subject position, is a po-phrase because it's entirely general/universal. That same meaning in object position is expressed by incorporation.

tava sa po keo ka pasuo se
matter FOC GEN origin DEF PASS-eat 2SG
"the origin of your food matters"

(Though I'm confident the Koa forms are correct, the above statement about definiteness marking is going to need some scrutiny in the future: either I'm painting with too broad a brush, which is entirely possible, or I've been misusing ka all over the place. For example, why is "my house" ka talo ni if it's not on the discourse stage yet? I think my understanding of what's really going on here needs to develop a bit in subtlety. Meanwhile, though, again, I think the Koa is right with respect to the topic under discussion.)

One thing I don't know -- and this is the case throughout the world of Koa dependent clauses -- is how we refer to possessors. How would we say "I don't know whose drink I'm holding"?

?ni na ilo ka ni lolo ka paípo ta
1SG NEG know DEF 1SG hold DEF PASS-drink 3SG

A minute ago I just confidently announced that pronoun retention is not used in Koa in these kinds of phrases, so apparently not.

?ni na ilo kela ni lolo paípo
1SG NEG know beneficiary 1SG hold DEF PASS-drink
"I don't know the destination of my drink-holding"

Okay, but then what we're literally saying is "I don't know who I'm holding this drink for," which is sort of sneakily avoiding the issue. The possessor is at the absolute bottom of the relativization hierarchy which is no doubt the reason this is turning out to be such a challenge. Maybe the way to do it is with a verb that means "own"; currently we have only the reverse, a verb that means "belong to." I suppose we could use a passive......?

?na ilo paoma ka paípo ni lolo
NEG know PASS-belong DEF PASS-drink 1SG hold
"I don't know the belonged-to one of the drink of my holding" =
"I don't know the owner of the drink I'm holding" = "I dunno whose drink I'm holding"

That might be respectable, if initially utterly counterintuitive! Let's let it stand for the time being.

There are a number of other types of theta clauses which, though unremarkable in their structure from a Koa standpoint, need to be pointed out because they're utterly different from their English counterparts. First, two more making use of object incorporation:

ni na ilo mea ta
1SG NEG know thing 3SG
"I don't know what it is"

ni na ilo noa ta
1SG NEG know name 3SG
"I don't know what his name is"

The other two use special verbs of being:

ni na ilo ka ta ila
1SG NEG know DEF 3SG be-like
"I don't know what set he's a member of," "I don't know what he's like"
(we've seen this one before)

ni na ilo ka ta imi
1SG NEG know DEF 3SG self
"I don't know who he is"

This last one is breaking some important new ground. It became clear when thinking about these kinds of structures that imi "self" at base really means "identity" (mathematical, not personal); as an adjective "equal, identical," or as a verb, "have identity with." Interestingly, in this single case, ka imi and ka pa imi would actually be the same thing, since either side of the triple bar is formally identical to the other! So niími means "myself," literally "my identical one."

In fact, we could express this sentence in at least three other ways whose semantic differences from the foregoing, if any, are pretty difficult to assess:

ni na ilo ka imi ta
1SG NEG know DEF identity 3SG
"I don't know what is identical to him" = "I don't know who he is"

ni na ilo imi ta
1SG NEG know identity 3SG
"I don't identity-know him" = "I don't know who he is"

or even

ni na ilo ta imi
1SG NEG know 3SG identity
"I don't know his identity" = "I don't know who he is"

I'm leaving that particular rabbit hole for some late-night philosophical discussion. What I do need to say before I sign off for today is that I think Koa may actually permit IE-style embedded questions after all, in a rather more marked way. In the interest of brevity I'll have to add this to the rapidly expanding docket of future topics to post about!

Unknown Riches, Episode 2

Friday, December 3rd, 2021

I recently produced a sentence that made my friend learning Kílta ask which section of the grammar explained that use. Then I realized that not only was it not described in the grammar, I hadn't really thought about it explicitly.

Hakán ésamét kwan kwailo.
arm vaccine INST hurt.PFV
My arm hurts from the shot.

He wanted to know why the instrumental kwan was used here, when he would have gone for nós due to, on account of.

I have talked before about using a diary as a conlang tool. I am quite sure this sort of use of kwan started a while ago, but because the diary is handwritten, I can't easily search it to look for the first such use of kwan. Nonetheless, it was established early that kwan would indicate inanimate agents for passive verbs. The use of kwan in the example above is allied to that. It shows up in plenty of example sentences in the lexicon, chisanta kwan uttimo died from cancer, mata kwan atenko dissolved in the water, koska kwan haivo drown in shit, etc.

With a little thought it became clear that I was using kwan to indicate inanimate or indirect agents in patient intransitives (also known as "unaccusative verbs," an excessively cute and confusing bit of terminology). These are intransitive verbs where the grammatical subject doesn't have much agency in the situation, die, fall, be sick, happen, hurt, etc.

The detransitive suffix -is-o generally results in verbs with more patient-like subjects, so it, too, can take kwan in this sense, 

Chátis në mëtaula kwan kwitiso.
window TOP storm INST break.DETR.PFV
The window broke in (due to) the storm.

So here was a bit of Kílta grammar that was (probably) created in the diary, got used all over the examples, but hadn't been expressed explicitly until I got asked about what was going on. This is normal in the diary process. Certain use patterns develop because they seem right at the time, and over time take on semantics that can be hard to explain at first. In this case, I'm lucky enough to have someone ask me what I was up to with kwan. And now it's explained in the grammar.

Alrond and the Magic Fox

Wednesday, December 1st, 2021

Dr. Evgeny A. Khvalkov, Associate Professor, Higher School of Economics, Dept. of History Promyshlennaya Ulitsa 17, Saint Petersburg, Russia.


This is an original fairy tale by Evgeny A. Khvalkov translated into English and Toki Pona.

Version History

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.