Saturday, March 29, 2014

Detail #83: Some fun with grammatical number

Recall how there are two types of all-quantifiers in English (and in many other languages as well):

every man / each man vs. all men
In English, the former is formed and perceived as singular, the latter as plural. Semantically, there's some differences in meaning, but for some utterances, the difference is almost stylistic more than pertaining to any real difference in the situation described. (Such examples are somewhat few and far between, though).

However, what if we extended this to other things referring to a non-singular number of entities:

somery man vs. some men
anery man vs. any men
We could even extend it to the plural itself:
ery man vs. men vs. ery men (several men taken as individuals vs. a bunch of men perceived as a group vs. bunches of groups of men taken as individual groups), thery man vs. the men vs. thery man (same but definite)
fivery man vs. five men vs. fivery men (five men considered on an individual basis, vs. a bunch of five men considered as a group vs. groups of five men)
This per se isn't that interesting, but how does it interact with other things in the language?

Some people may want to be able to distinguish
the thieves hid themselves
each of the thieves hid himself  
In a language with the system described above, you'd get
the thieves hid themselves
thery thief hid himself
Further it might be possible to stack these:
ery five men :   all groups of five men
thery fivery men : any set of a particular set of men as individuals considered in a combination of five of them.
 Not a particularly new idea per se, but few conlangers ever discuss how introducing something like this affects things like reflexives and so on.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Detail #82: Restricted imperatives

A language where imperatives cannot have adverbs of time, adverbs of location nor adverbs of manner. Not all verbs have proper imperatives, and the imperative is often slightly irregularly formed. A complement is generally mandatory (although a kind of empty dummy complement also exists). Other arguments are also rather limited - instruments can appear, but if so tend to be marked as objects instead, and seldom co-appear with direct objects. Indirect objects sometimes do appear with direct objects, but generally speaking either the direct or the indirect object tends to be understood.

More complex orders - anything involving a non-present time, non-present location or more complicated tools are expressed using various periphrastic means often involving irrealis moods or indirect statements.

Friday, March 21, 2014

A Little Reflection on Conlanging

Conlanging as a hobby has gotten some attention in media and popular culture recently, whatwith several television series and a few movies having commissioned languages, Paolini's conlanging exploits garnering some attention and so on. The number of people taking up or at least trying their hand at conlanging during a year probably grows from one year to the next, and is, I would bet, an order of magnitude larger now than in the early 2000s at the very least.

This is not particularly bad or problematic as such, but with this, some newcomers - and some oldbies as well - adopt some kind of weird attitude regarding the entire hobby. We have those who think this hobby deserves academic attention. Well, it does not deserve intentionally being ignored, exactly the same way no other hobby deserves being intentionally ignored- after all, research has been done on children's games, on even the least measurable aspects of music, on amateur literature, amateur theatre, on the sociological aspects of computer games, on fan fiction, on head-banging at metal and hardcore concerts, the sociology, mechanics and et cetera ad infinitum. Some conlangers do think conlanging has significance for the study of natural languages and linguistics, though, and that is probably a mistake appearing from lack of understanding of real linguistics.

Of course, there are some experimental uses for throwaway conlangs in linguistics - a pretty obvious example would be generating a small language to test whether some specific feature can be acquired or reliably replicated by the human brain or for testing sociolinguistic things (how do people react to people speaking with an accent or a language they cannot identify). However, this requires little actual conlanging experience (or godforbid, 'expertise'), it rather more requires the kind of knowledge linguists have acquired by reading linguistics journals and literature, from seminars and field research, from learning languages and about languages. Even if you've made fifty a priori languages and as many a posteriori ones that all are oh so beautiful or oh so clever, the linguistics-related skillset you've acquired, while probably impressive in sheer quantity, is not particularly academically relevant. (One minor exception - some a posteriori conlangers really have a good grip on historical linguistics of some family or families of languages, i.e. the authors of Novegradian or Dravean. However, both of these have proven their knowledge of the relevant fields in other ways than conlanging as well.)

There are an infinite number of things which attract the interest of small segments of academia - possibly even segments of only one or two scholars. There is only a finite number of people working in academia. Some topics, no matter how interesting to you or me, will not make the cut. To those who cannot accept this, there's only one way of putting it: stop being so self-centered already.

Academia already provides us with tons of useful material - descriptions of grammars of languages from all over the world (albeit usually at a fair cost), but also freely available papers on obscure features in obscure languages, comparative descriptions of features in all kinds of languages, etc. These are very useful resources, and academia provides a significant part of it free of charge. If you have access to a university library, you get even more as a bonus. Compared to the situation when I started conlanging in 1998 or thereabouts, the amount of free resources available online has grown by several orders of magnitude. Academia hands us more useful stuff than we could ever ask for. Is it really mature to show our appreciation by griping about not getting enough attention?

Some conlangers semi-regularly start discussions about 'closetedness' - as though having an unusual hobby was something as stressful as being gay in a religious family or being the only atheist in Alabama. Of course, conlanging is a hobby that is somewhat odd - it is probably among the odder hobbies - far from the oddest, but odd enough to raise some eyebrows. So is playing Classical Indonesian music, so is composing serialistic music, so is east European folk dances, so is basically studying anything that lacks utility. People usually don't get worried about what people are going to think about the fact that they compose serialistic music or play the gamelan or dance horas and polkas. Why do conlangers pretend conlanging is something so weird that they must worry about rejection etc over it? Get over yourselves - conlanging is no worse than writing science fiction or inventing board games.

Conlanging, of course, has little obvious utility. This is partially why some people want it to have academical respectability and attention - if it did we could pretend our hobby was actually genuinely useful. But compare to the things mentioned as comparable examples - all the actual utility those have is the enjoyment the hobbyists derive out of their hobby. Stop being such drama queens online.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Detail #81: Indefinites

We all recognize the normal indefinite pronouns, c.f. Ye Merrye Conlangre's treatment.

What if we'd take some of these and switch the information content to some less usual word class, i.e. verbs?

I can't find the solution -> I can not find solution.acc

I can't find any solution -> I any.1sg not able to find solution.(some other case)

I have ideas -> I have ideas.acc

I have some ideas -> I do have ideas

A hammer would do -> hammer is sufficient
Any hammer would do -> hammer does suffice

Some car drove past -> car did drive past
The/a car drove past -> car drove past

This way, it may be difficult to know which particular noun is affected by the meaning change. Probably either a hierarchy (certain nouns are more likely to be definite than others) determines which noun is intended to be understood as the definite one, or there's specific auxiliaries for indefinite objects and specific ones for indefinite subjects. I would prefer just stacking them when both are indefinite, or leaving it unmarked.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Onwards with Detail 67: The further adventures of the nouny and

In detail 67 I presented a sketch of a nouny conjunction. This conjunction had a few tricks up it sleeve, but clearly just expressed the notion of 'and' in a complicated manner. A further possibility is to develop other conjunctions out of it in combination with derivative affixes.

singular-əj- + diminutive := or
plural-əj- + diminutive :=  but
Other affixes wouldn't really affect the function of the conjunction, but do affect the emotional mood of the utterance.

Another paper worth reading - the verbs for 'and' in Walman

The Verbs for 'And' in Walman, a Toricelli Language of Papua New Guinea by Dryer and Brown. Well worth reading, and I hope it might inspire new ideas for how to deal with conjunctions and the like in conlangs.

Posting it here, again, is just as much a way for me to keep a record of where to find it (or how to find it if it ever changes url) as it is a way of directing your attention to it.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Detail 80: Nestedness and evidentiality marking

In some language with evidentiality marking, let this marking only apply to the outermost VP in a clause. Any nested verb will be marked as being nested simply by having evidentiality-marking that is lower in a reliability-hierarchy than the main verb; the marking will be somewhat incomplete, though, to distinguish it from real evidentiality; usually, the lower verb is marked as 'inference', although a dead-end unusu:

Heok ti.ebel.xe.d ti.dustun.en -> Heok 3sg.stay.past.EYEWITNESS 3sg.guard.INFERENCE (note the lack of tense) -> Heok remained guarding

Mbi eli ti.kustap.en Heok tutri -> I not [1st person, empty marking in negative present tense].know.[present tense].[no evidentiality marking for first person on verbs of emotion and mental processes] Heok sheet.acc -> I do not know if Heok read the sheet (=newspaper) 

For things where there's an order or such given, an actual mood marking will be used instead of evidentiality, e.g.
he told them to go away -> 3sg.tell.past.[whichever is applicable] imperative.plur.depart.
Oftentimes, the embedded verb will be to the right of any verbs that command it, thus giving an extra clue for disambiguation in cases where i.e. both the imperative and a low-evidentiality verb could be the main one.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Terminological pondering

Is there any term for case-like marking that is neither entirely dependent on dependent- or head-marking? The primary example I am thinking of occurs in my own home dialect, and is a thing I'd like to generalize into the noun morphology of some conlang.

Description of the marking: background facts

In my dialect of Swedish, the separate definite articles behave - as far as the internal working of the noun phrase goes -, syntactically like in standard Swedish: they are optional for noun phrases without adjectives (in fact, having them there when not mandatory is quite marked in standard Swedish; it is slightly less so in my dialect, where the definite suffixes have acquired slightly case-like behaviors in sometimes marking a partitive-like meaning). However, any definite noun with an adjective acquires a separate definite article that is phrase-initial:

bilen <> bi:l`in
den röda bilen <> han rö:d bi:l`in

Now, my dialect retains the old gender system, so modern Swedish 'den' corresponds either to han or hon, he or she. Det corresponds to he. The plural can be ti/tej, and which one of those seems conditioned by intonation and stress patterns - the same distinction exists in both nominative and oblique case first and second person pronouns (ja - ja:g, mi - me:g; tö/dö - tö:g, te - te:g, vi, ve:g - o:s, ni, ne:g - är, edär - but this particular alteration is not what I intend to discuss). Case marking has been lost on the third person pronouns (except hon has an optional dative-accusative, hennar). (Historically, though, han originally did not have an accusative, the modern Swedish honom is a repurposed dative.) 

What distinguishes this system in my dialect from standard Swedish is the presence of another set, tan, ton, te (with no distinct plural forms) exists. This seems to be used frequently when either of these hold:
  • there's a restrictive element embedded in the phrase ('the other', 'the one who did so-and-so', "whoever that does this or that ...", "the red one")
  • the noun is a restriction in itself, i.e. the answer to a question along the lines of 'which one'? In this case, it often also has a slightly demonstrative meaning, which I don't think it has otherwise.
Using it when none of these are present sounds malformed, although at least I will try to parse it as a demonstrative in that case. 

What kind of a distinction would this be if marked morphologically on the noun? In part it seems to be case-like (i.e. marks the kind of relationship with an adjective or subclause), on the other hand it seems to be something I would not go so far as calling a case.

However, I find this particular thing interesting, and have no idea what to call the kind of category this particular distinction resides in. And what other kinds of distinctions could be made in the same category.