Sunday, June 13, 2021

A Conreligious Detail: Scripture as Circulating Letters

This text describes a practice of one of the Bryatesle-Dairwueh religions.

Consider a religion wherein the notion of scripture exists, but is significantly different from that of, say, Christianity or Islam.

One type of scripture that is, afaict, unique to Abrahamic religions, is the letter. Christianity has, in its "primary" volume of scripture a set of letters - the epistles. In Judaism, letters do not occur in the Bible, nor do they occur in the Quran in Islam, but in the ongoing process of halakha and sharia - decisions on questions of Jewish and Islamic law - responsa/fatwas from earlier authorities - historically often sent as letters - form an important part of the source material for the decisions. The Jewish and Muslim canon is sort of closed but in some sense, the responsa and fatwa literature is an open scriptural corpus, where new - as well as hypothetical - issues are being discussed and evaluated.

This idea takes that "religious mechanic" and puts some twists on it.

Let's now rather imagine that letters with a variety of religious content - spiritual claims, ethical advice, ritual advice, political advice, eschatological claims, prayers, hymns, stories - are in circulation, but that there's a tradition against copying them.

New letters sometimes enter into circulation, and are deemed as acceptable depending on how well they conform to the known letters of the community to which it first arrives. 

When a community receives a letter, there's a festive celebration - and when they send it on the way, there's a festive celebration.  Physical copies of letters naturally deteriorate over time. A deteriorated letter is not replaced by a copy. Other letters replace it. Some ideas will be lost, some ideas will change over time, some new ideas will enter. The loss of a letter to entropy also is the cause of ritual observances.

The letter and its paraphernalia

With the letter, a rather stylized wooden pole into which the symbols of the eight first congregations to receive and accept the letter are carved (exceptions with as many as twenty congregations may be found). If there is some theme that lends itself to a nice graphical representation, this may affect the ornamentations of the stick. Sometimes, the end of the pole is shaped as animal heads, human heads, implements of war or of agriculture, lamps or candleholders, hands showing culturally important gestures, and in at least a handful of examples human genitalia. The letter itself is inside a leather pouch attached by strings to the stick. 

The pouch may also contain letters about the letter - inquiring as to the veracity of the authorship, clarifying correspondences, etc. Sometimes, ritual objects or relics may be included.

What does it take to get a letter into circulation?

Upon being received at its first congregation, the local clergy - possibly with some input from congregants, and clergy nearby, the letter is taken into consideration. The reputation of the author and of the carrier are taken into account. Nearby congregations may be consulted - and short letters about the letter may be exchanged. When some time has passed, a decision is made, and the letter is - under festive forms - bound to the stylized wooden pole that has been prepared for it, and sent onward to some other congregation.

The next congregation will, after receiving it, arrange a festive occasion for reading the letter aloud. At this occasion, the symbol of the congregation is also carved into the accompanying pole.

A congregation (or rather, its leaders) may decide that it's undecided as to the validity of the letter. If so, it is sent onward without celebration. Onto the pole, a thread is tied with a specific type of knot. If they hold the letter to be invalid, a different type of knot is used.

When receiving a letter with either type of knot, if the congregation decides to uphold the letter as worth keeping in the religion, the congregation's symbol is carved into the pole, and one knot is removed. If deciding to reject the letter or to be undecided, a second knot of the relevant type is added. If the pole receives six undecided-type knots or three reject-type knots, the letter is destroyed in an unceremonious event. Most congregations also consider the reject-type knots to contribute to the undecided sum, so four undecided and two reject-knots would sum as six undecided knots and so warrant destroying it.

Once the letter has received more than five congregational marks and no knots remain, it basically is accepted. In some cases, there's been straggling knots all the way to the sixteenth congregation, but it's unusual to add more knots once the fifth congregation has accepted it. 

This procedure does seem to favor early support over late skepticism.

The reaction of the congregation - but even more so the reaction of the leaders of the congregation - affect whether the letter gets approved, rejected or just remains undecided on. Often, the groups that primarily are affected will have a bit more of a say - if most of the letter concerns women, the women will have some say. If it concerns slave-owners, they will have the first say.

If the letter affects two groups and their relationship, the group that has the most social clout will usually get to decide - so obviously, parents, slave-owners, husbands, land-owners, clergy and nobility are at an advantage.

End of Life

As the letter is worn out by time, a congregation will at some point upon receiving it conclude that it no longer is legible. The letter is then given similar rites as a dying human would receive. A month later, a funeral for the letter takes place, during which the letter is burned. Any relics included with it are either kept at the temple or buried. The pole is returned to its originating congregation, where it too is burned in a funeral-like service.


Often, the letters are sent to nearby congregations in a rather haphazard way. Clergy who meet other congregations' clergymen may make deals as to where to send letters over the next years. A certain randomness is inherent and seems to be desired by those who maintain the system. A small temple may have anywhere from zero to three letters in its possession at any time, a large, urban temple may have as many as twenty.

If a clergyman perceives that a certain issue is present in his congregation, he may ask surrounding clergymen to forward letters pertaining to that particular topic.

Effects on doctrine, rite and ethics

The corpus of letters in circulation is written over decades - some letters even being more than a century old - by several dozen writers over a land area corresponding to the size of the Ukraine. Naturally, there are contradictions within the corpus.

Since congregations do not keep their letters for very long, the memory of their contents also deteriorates, and teachings are slowly distorted. Thus, whenever a letter arrives and the festivities have subsided, there may be a somber day of correction, when the congregation repents for previously held mistaken beliefs that the letter corrects.

Not all letters have this effect, and in the presence of a contradicting letter, the two inconsistent beliefs will not always be held to require repentance - some congregations seem to favor newly arrived letters over letters that have been received in the recent past (and not yet been forwarded), others seem to give priority to the letter they have had the longest at the moment of reception. There are also congregations that seem to favor the oldest letter in such cases. This has also been discussed in letters, and a congregations decisions with regards to conflicting content may depend on the letters it has had over recent years.

Contradictions are inevitable. Ways of ritually resolving these issues exist, and seem to provide the congregations with a strong community-building mechanism, where the whole congregation takes part both in the same "mistake" (which would've been correct had the letter arrived in the other way around), and in the same "correction", which in turn may turn into a new mistake, and correction. The ritual grief over these errors also are used to teach a form of humility - humans will be mistaken, and must learn to live with this fact.


Certain abuses of the custom have occurred. It is not unusual that letters which make impopular demands are stolen and destroyed. Such demands include sexual abstinence, charity and kindness to the poor, kind treatment of slaves.

Another, less frequent type of abuse is forgery. Usually, this is combined with some kind of theft - going to the effort of fabricating the paraphernalia in addition to the letter itself is a bit of an effort.

At least one example where a letter containing the instruction that clergymen should consecrate marriages by having sex with the bride was forged by some clergymen in collusion.


I hope to include in this blog at some point some samples of the letters, especially in the languages of Dairwueh and Bryatesle. Many of the letters contain non-religious details as well, and a rather sweet example of this is this particular passage, which lead to the popularity of Armri as a female name, and regionally nearly made the name mandatory for any girls' whose father's name was Jeris:

I Jeris-at, xən-ir jera-lir xov-at Armri e-bəti-umuš side-əj.
/i je'ris-ət xə'ni:r jera'lir xovat
armri ebitjumuš s:idjəj /
Jeris, about.dat daughter.dat your.dat Armri call-irrealis_active_ptplc good-3sg

Jeris, your daughter Armri being-named would be good.
≃ Jeris, Armri would be a good name for your daughter.

Here, the author clearly knew the name of a member of the recipient congregation, and apparently that he was unsure about the name to give the child in case it was a daughter.

Secondary Effects

In areas where this religion has a sizeable presence, the empire often sponsor the letter-carrying activities, turning the religious organization into a proto-post office for the regional powers. Even in a significantly later, secularized time, the various postal organizations carry a certain heritage from this religion.


The circulating letter system is a method by which religious praxis and doxis is spread, maintained and developed over time. The system permits the religion to change rather drastically over time, and introduces a slight amount of democracy, albeit rather flawed, into the system. The system also creates an internal set of tensions and regional differences.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Real Language Examples: Double Negation

 Light preamble

This post is a "double translation" - it was originally written in Swedish, and for an audience of quite a different level of knowledge about and interest for linguistics.

I think most conlangers are familiar with the typological facts of this matter, but the logical facts of the matter still probably are subject to some misunderstanding. Here, I primarily set out to correct the logical misunderstandings.

IS DOUBLE NEGATION (for a negative meaning) ILLOGICAL?

I would be as bold as to say "no!"

I fully agree that double negation in standard English or Swedish is (for now, at least) best avoided, and that in these languages, it does in fact "cancel out". However, I do not agree that languages in which it fails to cancel out are illogical, and I object to the statement that double negation somehow proves that languages are illogical.

How can this be - isn't ¬¬A A a necessary logical truth? Have I rejected the foundations of logic? Am I stupid? Am I peddling quantum woo or some super-relativist notion of truth? No, as you will see, I fully subscribe to normal notions of truth and logic - but I will investigate some unstated assumptions in the claim that "double negatives are illogical", and we will see that it does not logically follow that linguistic double negation (as a way of encoding negative meaning) is anything illogical. It is in fact an efficient and fairly safe way of handling negation.

0. Arbitrary terminological decision

For this essay, "double negation" will from now on refer to such systems where even number of negations do not cancel out. I will call systems where even amounts of negations do cancel out 'classical double negation'.

1. Mistaken assumption: which operator do languages use?

No one ever investigates the assumption that the only operator that can be used is ¬. I contend that languages where double negation is used, ¬ is not the operator in use. 

Truth table of ¬
¬T ≡ F
¬F ≡ T

However, a fully logical operator that is entirely possible in a system of boolean logic (or any other logic where T and F are values) could be this, for which I've picked ¤ as the symbol.

Truth table of ¤
¤T ≡ F
¤F = F

There is nothing per se illogical about the existence or even the use of such an operator.

This has an interesting effect! This makes the claim that double negatives are illogical per se illogical! Whoever makes the claim has not evaluated the premises, and is working from unstated - and false - premises.

The operator I described, ¤, is not much used in logic - but that's mainly because there's no need for a single operator for every possible truth table. The same "effect" can be obtained by stacking the common operators - and in fact, there are two operators that by themselves are sufficient to express any boolean logical expression, NAND and NOR. Since we generally don't use those in languages very much, any complain about ¤ not being very 'powerful' is really irrelevant.

2. Actual attestations in languages

Most or even all Slavic languages use double negation, as do several Romance languages. Finnish uses a semi-double negation system that is sort of difficult to explain. Other examples are not hard to find. In the Germanic family, double negation systematically appears in Yiddish, as well as in AAVE, and has at various times been rather frequent in the English corpus.

In some dialects of Finland-Swedish "int aldri" appears - "not never". This is, however, often the only double negation present, and should maybe be taken to be a single phrase with simply negative meaning.

3. Problems of double negation

Double negation is less powerful than classical double negation, as we are not able to express complex relationships between negated and non-negated things. However, how often do we benefit from that? It seems to me that most often, one gets worried whether whoever expressed such a statement got the parity of the negations right. 

4. Advantages of double negation

4.1 Redundancy

What if the speaker gets cut off, or what if noise (or a slip of attention) makes the listener miss a negation? What if the papyrus is degraded by 2000 years in a jar?

Redundancy is a feature, not a bug.


4.2 Cognitive burden

It seems our brains are really not made for keeping track of the parity of negations. The risk of failing to get the parity right due to the mental burden - or the risk of concentrating only on the negations instead of on other, pertinent content in the statement - grows pretty quickly in a classical double negation system.

4.3 Confidence in the speaker/writer

When filling out questionnaires, do you ever get the feeling that you do not trust the author's ability to keep track of stacked negatives? Certainly, it will not only be listeners and readers who fail to parse a stack of classical double negatives correctly - speakers and writers will fail to generate the proper amount of classical double negations, making parsing a sentence with classical double negations a game of second-guessing.

When filling out questionnaires, I usually do not have a problem parsing multiply negated sentences - however, I never feel confident that the designer of the questionnaire knew what he was expressing.

5. Advantages of classical double negation

5.1 Logical expressiveness

¤ are not able to combine in stacks to express a variety of complicated nested negations. However, as previously pointed out, this is seldom a good strategy for communication due to the cognitive burden it presents. If ¤ does not affect negations nested in "self-contained units" - such as subclauses - within a statement, the same effects can be obtained by utilizing subclauses and similar devices to "reinstate" classical double negation. I am actually fairly sure most languages with double negation do this. However, this advantage is pretty meagre - most of the statements that can be constructed can be constructed just as well without classical double negation. Let's imagine ! as ¤:s sister, with the difference that ! does reinstate classical double negation with regards to subclauses.

DN: n¤ one did n¤t knew she had n¤ time = no one knew she had no time

CDN: n! one d!dn't know she had n! time
Ok, so - someone knew she had time?

Why not say that then, instead of mucking about with useless negations that cancel out anyway.

5.2 Linguistic momentum of languages that have classical double negation

Tradition is basically one of the most important things in language - you can't just decide to change something as in-grained as the finer details of how negation works without running into problems. People who are very "linguoplastic" might be able to turn quickly, but it is also likely they'd quickly be turned back by interactions with less "linguoplastic" people. Besides, there's a significant amount of literature, articles, movies, plays, songs, etc where the classical double negation obtains - changing English or Swedish on a whim would be near impossible - much like changing Spanish to a classical double negation language would be impossible.

Similarly, speakers of AAVE, for instance, should probably keep using double negation when speaking with other speakers of AAVE (and with speakers of other types of English who display some kind of familiarity with AAVE, exemplified, for instance, by the ability to correctly parse the double negative*), because that is what is expected of them - and as I've previously shown, it's not illogical.

In English, most contexts where double negation is used seem to be coded by a variety of things - certain genres of music, certain regiolects, certain types of people in movies. As long as that holds, one can generally be sure to know when to parse the double negation as a double negation rather than a classical double negation.

6. Is it random happenstance that people think one defining trait of AAVE is illogical?
I fully believe that white prejudice against southerners and African-Americans is one reason why people think such linguistic structures are illogical. Well, whoop-de-fucking-do, whoever thinks these structures are illogical is illogical himself and should probably shut up about logic and go and learn instead and stop thinking of the double negative in AAVE and southern English as providing any insight into how logical AAVE or southern vernacular English is, or into the ability of southerners and African-Americans to apply logic.

Recent years have really shown how willing people are to throw "facts and logic" around with barely any ability to apply logic. There's in particular a rather shitty group of people who browbeat people all around with "facts and logic" - but I am convinced this is not just a result of them being scum - it's a result of us not only tolerating bad logic, but nurturing bad logic in the belief that it is good logic. Let's fucking get logical, take back logic from those who would defile it in such a way, and properly excise bad logic from our thinking.
7. Conclusion
Switching from one system to another in any language is probably not worthwhile. However, I hope we finally could drop the fallacious claim that double negatives in languages are illogical - since that claim itself is fallacious and based on a really bad understanding of what logic is.

* And that ability, of course, just goes to show a lot about their objection.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Detail #410: Degrees of Definiteness and Tension between the Degrees

English has two levels of definiteness. Definite signifies that the referent is (expected by the speaker to be an) established referent in the mind of the listener.

A third degree exists in some languages, viz. specific: an established referent in the mind of the speaker

In English, "specific" sometimes is realized identically to indefinite: "I am looking for a car" (this can be either me looking for a new car, I have not yet decided which), or I may be on the search for a very specific car, I am presenting the information so as to establish a referent in your mind. This could be followed by "The car was last seen on this very island." - the referent has been established in the listener's mind.

Other languages have no definite, only specific - anything that is definite is likely also to be definite.

There are, however, situations where definite forms are used with specific referents despite lack of frame of reference in the listener's mind: "the tea I had this morning was pretty good.", not "a tea I had this morning" or "some tea" or even just "tea". It seems restrictive attributes make specific meaning take on definite marking. The speaker does not even have to assume that the listener knows of his matutinal tea habit.

Could we draw the line elsewhere?

1) Make the marking more consistent
Naturally, we could consider the restrictive attribute by itself to be sufficiently specific that a definite article is superfluous, and have "a tea I drank this morning was pretty good" be used when it is specific. This seems even more likely if the language has a visible distinction between restrictive and descriptive attributes.

2) Have different rules in different syntactic contexts

Some languages have definiteness marked only in some contexts - c.f. the Turkish direct object rule. Here, I see several interesting possibilities:

  1. First person subjects license specific marking on objects and other NPs in the VP.
  2. Split ergativity, in which either the ergative or accusative side of the system has a case distinction that marks for specific/definite distinction. This might be triggered by person (see previous point), or various environments such as subclauses (maybe specifically narrative such).
  3. Maybe specific and definite nouns interact with congruence in different ways. This may restrict the environments in which it is explicitly marked:
    1. Maybe only subjects (or only objects, or both but not other constituents) have verb congruence that permit for this distinction?
    2. Maybe the marking on the adjective also is two-fold, but splits the difference differently. Thus red.def house.def is definite, but red.indef house.def is specific. (Here, "red.def house.indef" would seem like an attractive solution as well, if we assume Adj N word order.)

3) Multiple levels of specific-definite-contraspecific and ways in which the specificness and definitenesses of different speech participants interact in marking.

It is conceivable, that a speaker might want to communicate that he does not have a clear idea yet of the thing the listener has spoken of, and so could mark the lack of understanding as [+definite -specific]. In such a language, clearly, both specificity and definiteness need to be marked independently - but potentially, it could be marked independently in a way that isn't always visible or always clearly distinct. Consider, for instance, a system where adjectives mark for indefinite, specific-or-definite, whereas nouns only mark "specific-or-indefinite" vs. "definite". The normal "specific" combination would thus be "specific-or-definite" adjective but "specific-or-indefinite" noun. However, in that case, an indefinite adjective combined with a definite noun would perchance convey this confusion. The locuses needn't be nouns and adjectives, could as well be verbs and nouns or other carriers of congruence. Any ways, the adjectival congruence solution is nice because adjectives are often optional.

4) Have different rules for nouns of different topical salience

One could imagine a system whereby nouns that are topics have more levels of distinction.

5) Have different rules for nouns of different noun classes or number

Plurals or inanimates or mass nouns might very well differ. The difference may be a thing that has purely cultural origins, or may be the result of sound changes eliminating the distinction for some forms.

6) In some languages with articles, there are contexts where no article is used. One could consider having articles dropped whenever there is tension or uncertainty regarding [?specific ?definite], or whenever unusual combinations such as [-specific +definite] appear.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Ŋʒädär: Indefinite Address

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 jusaŋa, 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 ŋator ('someone fast (among you)')
jusar kamma ('a/the chieftain (among you)')

lisar ŋator (someone fast)
nusar ŋator (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 ŋator-un ('the fastest person among you')

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

jusar ŋatoɣuv (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.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Detail #409: Number and gender dyscombination

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".

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Detail #408: Thinking about parts of speech

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.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Detail #407: A New Locus for Irregularities

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?