Archive for November, 2022

What’s in a specifier?

Tuesday, November 29th, 2022

There's no escaping it any longer: after decades of hemming and hawing, Koa's specifier system is just too damn complicated.

One might feasibly inquire what articles are doing in a putative IAL in the first place, and I've made a number of valiant attempts over the years (2010 and 2012, for example) to justify their existence by rigorously defining their use. Nonetheless, some inconvenient facts have been gently tapping on my shoulder recently, such as:

* Though theoretically beautifully defined, the system is so complex that the creator herself is often unsure of the best specifier choice in practice

* Specifier choice criteria seem to be much more detailed in pre-verbal (i.e. subject) position than post-verbally

* Following what you might call adjunct particles (ci he la lo me mo ne no o pe) there seems to be only a binary distinction -- definite vs indefinite -- which has never caused a problem

Indeed, going way, way back to basics, I have to confess that the most critical function of Koa specifiers is not in fact to elegantly plot fine distinctions on the axes of deixis, referentiality and discourse relevance, but probably just to help parse those predicates in the speech stream. As such, when preceded by one of those aforementioned adjunct particles, the primary work is already done and we can content ourselves with the pragmatic considerations that really matter: apparently only whether the NP in question is definite. Let's see, then, if we can reduce the system to a set of much simpler principles.

DEFINITE NPs are marked with ka when singular or optionally u when plural, unless:

* The NP requires being pointed at, whether physically or metaphorically, in order to be identifiable -- use ti/to "this/that"

* The NP is inalienably possessed by a pronominal referent -- use the relevant personal pronoun

* The NP is a name -- use le

INDEFINITE NPs are unmarked when preceded by another particle, or marked with a otherwise.

If you've been following the plot closely so far, you may have noticed that hu and po are conspicuously absent from the above taxonomy. I would in fact like to advance the theory that these have never been specifiers at all, but were mistaken as such because of their tendency to appear most frequently before unmarked NPs!

Let's start with the basic supposition that hu and po are in fact quantifiers, not specifiers: specifically ∃ and ∀, respectively. They can quantify indefinite NPs -- in which case there would be no article -- or definite ones, in which case they would be marked as described above. Examples of use, with both a logical and vernacular gloss:

po lulu i sihi
ALL flower VP plant
"for all flowers, it is the case that they are plants"
"(all) flowers are plants"

po ka lulu i puna
ALL DEF flower VP red
"for all of the flowers in a predefined set, it is the case that they are red"
"all the flowers are red"

hu lulu i puna
EXIST flower VP red
"for at least one flower, it is the case that it is red"
"a/some flowers exist such that they are red"
"some flowers are red," "there are red flowers"

hu ka lulu i puna
EXIST DEF flower VP red
"for one or more of a predefined set of flowers, it is the case that they are red"
"some of the flowers are red"

That seems clear and simple enough, but probably the thorniest area in the treatment of indefinite NPs has been in the choice between a and hu. For the last several years it's seemed that in practice the former is used for instantiated nouns -- real, specific things -- not yet raised to the discourse stage, whereas hu marked the NP as non-referential. Thus, heretofore:

1) ni mene la ko kou a tusi
1SG go DAT ABS buy INDEF book
"I went to buy a (certain) book"

2) ni mene la ko kou hu tusi
1SG go DAT ABS buy EXIST book
"for some book, it is the case that I went to buy it"
"I went to buy a (theoretical, not yet identified) book"

...but this is clearly far, far too fine a distinction to actually prescribe. Perhaps less elegant but more actually produceable by humans with competing resource demands beyond this single utterance:

1) ni mene la ko kou a tusi mao
1SG go DAT ABS buy INDEF book certain
"I went to buy a (certain) book"

2) ni mene la ko kou tusi
1SG go DAT ABS buy book
"I went to buy books, I went book-buying"

In fact ni mene la ko kou a tusi could potentially be interpreted in either sense according to context, and I think that's the important thing for me to accept here: that allowing context to play a role is not discarding all elegance or sophistication in this language.

Another place that things get confusing is around existential statements. What's the difference between these?

1) a lulu i ne ka masa
INDEF flower VP LOC DEF table
"a flower is on the table"

2) hu lulu i ne ka masa
EXIST flower VP LOC DEF table
"for at least one flower, it is the case that it is on the table"
"there's a flower on the table"

Semantically nothing at all, I think, but pragmatically these will have a different thrust. The purpose of (1) seems to be to communicate contextual information, whereas (2) is more concerned with the truth value of the proposition. If we really want to talk about existence and not truth value, I realized recently, we also have this option which is likewise vastly more human:

i me lulu ne ka masa
VP COM flower LOC DEF table
"there's a flower on the table"

or even

ka masa i me lulu (ne ta)
DEF table VP COM flower LOC 3SG
"the table's got a flower (on it)"

Hu is pretty straightforward for "some" in at least the quantifier sense of the English word, but note that there is a more periphrastic possibility as well:

hu lulu i puna
EXIST flower VP red
"some flowers are red" or "there are red flowers"

nai pi lulu i puna
some QUANT flower VP red
"some flowers are red"

So somehow or other that was actually pretty...easy? I'm almost a little nervous about it after all these years of fretting. I'll get back to you after I've tried it out in everyday usage.

Coming up next: if that's all clear now, maybe I can finally tackle how to say "something" and "nothing," a problem that has vexed me as long as I can remember -- this all came up right at this moment because I'm working on a bidirectional dictionary for my girls, and I couldn't figure out what to list as the generic translations!

Detail #433: The Antideponent Verb

Friday, November 18th, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let's make up a set of features:

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

Let's use these features to consider the antideponent.

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

Let's inverse the above table fully:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Detail #432: Generalized Wh-movement

Thursday, November 17th, 2022

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

1. Wh-at the end

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

2. Wh-in wackernagel

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

3. Wh-next-to-verb

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

4. Discontinuous wh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 1st, 2022

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

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

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