Saturday, May 21, 2022

Detail #429: Pseudo-Gender

It struck me that a language could have a system of lexical associations that are somewhat gender-like without quite being a gender system. Let's begin with a basic, fairly gender-like version.

The ways in which this system expresses itself is in which nouns are used to express relations:

If a thing is the origin of something, it's either its mother or father; if it originates with another thing, it is its son or daughter; it goes together with something - brother or sister. Closely associated with something? Husband or wife. Other typically sex-specific terms are also associated, and human-metaphors are either fully male-centric or fully female-centric for any given noun.

However, we can also imagine other ways of expressing relations. Maybe the categories are streams and trees!

Origin - source, root.
'Offspring' - (part of) delta, branch (or nut, or seed, or fruit)
Associate - a different, named river that is culturally seen as close, a specific different species of tree
Intimate associate - a named tributary, the word for a major branch
Decline - drought, fall over
Increase - flood, grow

Sunday, May 1, 2022

A Question about Syllabic Consonants

Is there any language that has a syllabic consonant that, in the language, lacks a non-syllabic equivalent?

E.g. a language whose only lateral is a syllabic consonant, or whose only rhotic is syllabic.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Detail #428: A Case

Consider a language where the nominative and the vocative are identical. However, what if a clause may only have one nominative-vocative constituent, and the subject therefore is a marked nominative in the presence of vocatives?

What would be a reasonable name for such a case?

I find it rather likely for this to be restricted to pronouns - or in case nouns also get it, that it is at the very least not distinguished in adjective congruence.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Detail #427: Articles and articlelessness with plurals

In English (and similarly Swedish), plurals normally take no indefinite articles. (There is actually an indefinite plural article in Swedish, which is used in some very specific circumstances, e.g. expressing astonishment*.)

Now, we can imagine a language where indefinite articles also appear for plurals more regularly.

It seems common for languages with indefinite articles to permit omission of these articles in some contexts, e.g. "I like coffee". In English, the context is nearly exclusively mass nouns, whereas in Swedish it is more 'open', with e.g. nouns after some prepositions preferring to be without articles, complements of the copula often being without articles, and a variety of other contexts which are a bit difficult to catch in a simple description. (I intend to write a description of this at some point.)

So, here's the idea for a detail in a language:

  • Plural articles, both definite and indefinite.
  • Contexts where the articles are not used.
  • For each noun, there is a lexical preference for which number to use when articleless.
  • Maybe, just maybe, there is also a preference based on verb and syntactic position, but these preferences interact in some way.

* The plural indefinite article is simply "one" with a plural marker: 'ena'. Examples of expressing astonishment:

det var allt ena dyra mackor

that was all-(neut) a-s expensive-s sandwiches

"ena" is never mandatory, afaict.

'Det var allt []' is a set expression also introducing a mildly astonished statement about something.



Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Ŋžädär Religion: The Ŋʒädär pantheon and its complications

The Ŋʒädär are polytheists, but their polytheism is of a limited nature - there is only a fixed number of gods. However, as it happens, the fixed number is contradictory.

There are four gods.
There are seven gods.

These two mutually inconsistent dogmas seem to have emerged from two rather similar traditions, each of which had gotten into shedding gods from the pantheon. Both traditions seem to have found a single number by parsing traditions somewhat out of context.

Naturally, different ways of explaining this has emerged, and these different views affect each other, interact with each other, oppose each other, etc. There is also the pantheon itself, which will be described after the rather abstract analysis of the pantheon's structure.

1. Noncommensuralism

The four and the seven exist in very orthogonal ways, and it is thus impossible to claim that the four or the seven would ever interact with any of the other group in any way a person could interact with another. One group is abstract, the other is concrete; one group are like the winds, the other are like thoughts; one group are cosmic, the other group are earthly, one group human-like, the other animals, one group are virtues, the other are powers, etc.

There is one rather concrete interpretation - which basically is partially seorsism (from latin 'seorsum', separate), partially noncommensuralism - which holds the four to be an older generation, and that the titles 'god' signify different things for the two generations of god: the four are non-corporeal beings, the seven are corporeal, the four are distant "four first causes", the seven are spiritual entities constantly involved in earthly affairs, the four drew the fixed stars - the seven pull the planets around.

The favourite symbol of noncommensuralist theology consists of four dots and a seven-pointed star, here represented by an asterisk.

.    *
The concrete part-seorsism part-noncommensuralism version tends to use a symbol consisting of a four-fingered hand and seven stars.

2. Prismatism

The four or the seven are different ways of differentiating the gods into constituent parts. Different approaches exist. Some hold that either the sevenfold or the fourfold division holds sway at any one time, and in times of transition, the natural order weakens. Others hold that there may be regional differences as to which division holds sway, or even that it can be influenced. Finally, some hold that both systems constantly obtain. There are schools that have affinities both to noncommensuralism and to descriptivism.

One common symbol consists of four parallel lines followed by a slightly wider set of seven parallel lines, with a bunch of lines at different angles connecting the two sets, a bit like the rays coming from a prism.

The prismatic symbol

The section where the lines cross - and thus express their relationships - sometimes is used and manipulated in mystical contexts, drawing and redrawing them in sand, for instance, to connect the gods in various ways.
A different popular symbol is a "net" of lines, 7x4 lines, but that's basically just a big hashtag, so I won't use my MSPaint skills for that.

3. Descriptivism

Either one or the other of the two numbers is true, but the other number is used to express some significant truth about the gods.  I.e. there are seven gods, but the seven gods act as if there were four of them, or have four temperaments distributed among them, or vice versa. This sometimes is symbolized by a cross encircled by a heptagon.

The number of corners in the various quadrants of the cross (and which corner touches which beam) sometimes is used to symbolize different flavours of this belief, but manipulating it for mystical use is not popular - although not unattested.

4. Constellationism

Constellationism is a fairly concrete form of descriptivism.

The four gods form "aggregate gods" in seven overlapping ways. All their actions are through such alliances, and therefore, in practice, the gods' essentially act through seven offices. Sacrifices that are directed to the relevant "aggregate" are more likely to be correctly acted on. Oftentimes, sacrifices will be sacrificed both to the primary gods themselves and their offices. An inverse constellationism, where seven gods act in four groups, seems to have existed as a minority opinion in areas where prismatism mainly held sway.

Constellationists do disagree on which gods ally in which ways. The common symbol is a square. Sometimes, specific symbols for the seven gods are put in the corners. Sometimes, coloured lines connect the gods in ways corresponding to the seven offices, which gives constellationists a way of communicating their view of how the gods arrange their affairs. Some constellationist mystics manipulate these as parts of elaborate mystical practices where they thus 'interact with' the gods.

This theology gave rise, in Ŋʒädär philosophy, to their version of the Venn diagram.

5. Seorsism

(from Latin seorsus, 'apart')

"There are four gods" and "there are seven gods" are held to be uttered in different classifying contexts, and so, these different numbers are held to be four gods with some specific description, and seven gods with some other specific description.

The seorsic schools tend to be rather conservative as they sometimes have an unbounded pantheon, or at the very least one with more than seven gods. Seorsists also tend to hold a rather concrete view of the nature of the gods, often having a corporeal idea of their nature.

The proof texts used by more mainstream schools for 'four' and 'seven' (and lesser known texts with numbers anywhere from one to seven in "regular circulation", and even higher numbers in more marginal circulation) do support such readings, and for this reason, variations of seorsism emerge rather naturally out of the religious landscape. Many varieties of seorsism therefore have emerged, with anything from exactly seven gods (out of which four are different in some ways), to sects with partial overlaps between the seven and the four (such that some of the two groups are shared members but not all) to full distinction, and further - sects with even greater pantheons out of which the four and seven are subsets - sometimes even insignificant ones. Many of these preserve ancient beliefs or import gods from nearby cultures.

6. Inclusivism / Heptadism

The four are a subset of the seven. In some ways related to Seorsism, but less controversial and less heretical. Also tends to be less corporealist.

7. Diveritasism

The view that holds most earthly authority is "diveritasism", viz. both numbers are the true number, and we cannot understand how this can be. Any understanding is wrong, and any attempt at understanding it is prone to mistakes. Don't waste your life thinking about it, just accept it and let the scholars think about it instead.

A philosophical extreme form of diveritasism is monistic diveritasism, which holds that the nature of the divine beings is such that speaking of any subset of the two full sets, or any combination thereof is wrong. Gods can only be addressed and described as four and seven, and speaking of two of one group and three of another in any context is really just ... bogus.

Why have these ideas evolved? Why have theological conflicts emerged?

It seems conceivable that the shedding of gods was a result of a temporary "proto-empirical" approach to ritual. Different groupings seem to have decided that gods that have not helped are not worth keeping, and by testing them in a variety of ways determined that certain gods were worth keeping. This is closely aligned with the ruling chieftains desires. Worshipping un-sanctioned gods could be seen as illoyalty, as could refusal to worship sanctioned ones.

The rejection seems not to have been one of denial of existence, but rather only a refusal of worship. Following this, subsets of a greater pantheon seem to have persisted in different tribes for a while. At some point, it seems refusal of worship actually turned into denial of existence in large segments of the population. It also seems that some level of syncretism occurred, where tribes emulated more successful tribes' pantheons, and alliances also could contain demands on abolishing the worship of unsanctioned gods, or sometimes reintroduced previously rejected gods. Another consequence was that the pantheons became rather weird, sometimes with obvious gaps, such as a divine sister with no siblings or a divine husband with no wife. Two resolution strategies seem to have emerged: interpolating gods that fill the gaps and changing the roles of gods in ways that fill up the system.

Thus, few gods retain their ancient functions.

When almost all Ŋʒädär were unified under an alliance of two "suballiances" of tribes - the Vinʒer (of four gods) and the Gupajar (of seven gods), the two pantheons of these major groups seem to have never fully merged, but been set up in a way that respects both groups. Smaller groups' pantheons were rejected, and most worshippers seem to have accepted the new gods, at least begrudgingly. For this reason, seorsism of the various polytheist forms emerged among less powerful tribes. 

Even non-conquered Ŋʒädär seem to have taken note of this development and seen it as spiritually significant. Now, the old Ŋʒädär pantheon's forgotten gods partially can be found as cognate gods among tribes speaking languages of the Dagurib branch and among some distant tribes speaking languages of the Ćwarmin branch. The Ćwarmin, however, have largely been influenced by the Bryatesle and the Dairwueh in religious matters.

Many seorsists hold, and most of the old Ŋʒädär probably held, that the gods' fortunes in the godly realm are reflected in their fortunes in the earthly realm, and so a god whose cult has been demoted has probably lost heavenly authority (as a cause, not an effect, of losing the earthly adoration - or maybe even fully parallel, neither being the cause or the effect of the other). However, there are (probably accurate) rumours of radical seorsists - a not insignificant bunch - performing secret rituals in the hope of reestablishing the pantheon to its rightful place. Few "proper" polytheist of any branch seem to remember very many of the old gods' names, indicating that some pretty harsh campaigns of eradication have been carried out. (However, if one were to research place names, proverbs, etc, it is likely one could reconstruct a large part of the pantheon.)

Constellationism and inclusivism seem to have emerged as ways of keeping smaller pantheons than 4+7 alive. Constellationism keep the four gods as the 'really' godlike ones, and basically demote the seven to a more angel-like status. Descriptivism, constellationism and descriptivism emerged both among the Gupajar and the Vinʒer as a method of not really submitting to the other group's gods, though syncretism eventually won out. Conservative voices could not oppose the critical mass of mystics, laity, and politics: mystics seeing the influence of the other groups as a divinely sanctioned source of information about the gods' natures - as well as a rich well of theological speculation, laity being in contact with the other pantheon and respecting it as well as their own, and politics demanding acquiescing in many ways to the other pantheon.

Prismatism seems to conserve some old polytheism in a clever spin on "undecimaltheism". Basically, there's 4! * 7!, i.e. 120 960 different possible setups, giving a crazy large amount of potential gods. Some old polytheist ideas do seem to shine through at times, but since they have lost the names of the old gods, the connection is a bit tenuous. It is also not very popular among tribes outside of the central tribal alliance. It seems likely that prismatism is a re-emergence of polytheism in the form of crypto-polytheism with some conservative traits. Some of the setups, when represented in a symbolic language invented by the prismatists, clearly "spell out" the names of old gods, and peculiarly enough, these combinations are often the focus of devotion.

Diveritasism, again, seems to have been concocted as a theology taught when the teacher just doesn't think the student has the intellectual ability to understand the finer points of theology, or when trying to forcibly teach a region to abide by "officially sanctioned" teachings. It is thus unusual among the educated elite, but common in some rural regions and among the lower classes.

The original relevance and significance among the first adopters of the dual pantheon is hard to trace. In diveritasism, it simply has become a doctrinal shibboleth, and a way of showing intellectual deference - a way of teaching the adherents to believe and accept what they are told. To some extent, the origin of the belief system does seem to be a political alliance, and with that comes its use as a tool of power, a yardstick of loyalty. In several branches, it is a tool for mystical speculation, devotional practices and also pure numerology.

The 4-to-7 proportion is common in many contexts: poetry, music, architecture, pictures, proverbs, folk medicine, magic, scholarly magic, alchemy, scholarly medicine, various superstitious practices in nearly every activity - even, say, cutting stripes into dough for baked goods or dividing up dough for bread loaves, the shape and symbols on amulets, ... but the way in which it is present in culture may signal stances held by the practitioner, and this may at times function as a shibboleth.

Violence between different groups is not unknown. At times, religious leaders have exhorted to violence, and adherents have heeded the call. At times, leaders have tried to stop the violence, and adherents have ignored these calls. At times, calls to violence have been ignored by the population - and at times, calls to peace have been heard. The violence sometimes has actually been tribal violence dressed up as religious violence - but at times, the violence has been purely religious, cutting across tribal lines in unexpected ways.

The Pantheon

The four

The four tend to be based on a subsection of the family, but with each representing several roles. Mother, grandmother and aunt, father and paternal uncle, son-and-daughter. Most narratives involving these have them appearing as a voice that guides someone. They seem not to have an origin nor any clear desires. Their guidance is reliable in stories that mention them - so heeding them is assumed to be reasonable. However, they often have unexpected long-term positive outcomes that may involve temporary setbacks.

The seven

The prototypical roles of the seven normally correspond to roles in a small tribe:

chieftain, hunter, shaman, "constructive task-person", dog driver, ...

The stories involving these often anthropomorphize them, and sometimes have them corporeally interacting with humans. The actual roles vary significantly from story to story. These gods do seem to have desires:

  • to strengthen the community, both through defense and offense
  • to provide nutrition
  • to heal
  • to lead
  • to build
  • to subdue
  • to teach
  • to be content

In the stories, the different gods' ways of attaining these may come in conflict, and sometimes, they do not even find a resolution. In different stories, different gods seem to prioritize them differently.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Detail #426: Discontinuous colours

 A language where some colour terms do not form continuous areas on the spectrum would be interesting.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Detail 425: Mixed groups vs. Gendered Plurals

In some languages, gender is distinguished in the plural. This naturally brings along the problem of what to do about mixed groups. It is fairly usual for mixed groups to default to a gender (all instances I know of default to masculine). What if a language behaved differently? What options are there? Here are a few with some hints at avenues of making the situation even more complex.

1) Free selection

The decision to use a feminine or masculine plural pronoun for mixed groups is left completely to the speaker.

2) Controlled semantic selection

Which pronoun is determined by some semantic fact about the utterance: maybe the gender indicates attitudes to the group, or maybe it correlates to TAM. Maybe actual, definite, pre-defined groups get feminine, whereas yet-undefined, hypothetical, future, potential groups get masculine.

3) Syntactic selection


  1. Subjects - feminine, other constituents: masculine.
  2. Main clauses: feminine, subclauses: masculine.
  3. Erg-abs part of grammar: feminine, nom-acc part of grammar: masculine.
  4. Certain verbs' or adjectives have congruence that is, for morphophonological reasons, defective: singular masculine and singular plural is conflated in the verb. In such cases, the feminine is used. In some other verbs, the opposite problem applies, and so the masculine is used.

4) Registral selection

The strategy may vary by register, but it may also be as easy as in formal registers, mixed groups are masculine, in other registers, they're feminine (or maybe free or whatever).

5) Speaker- or listener-based selection

Maybe mixed gender groups always get the opposite gender to the speaker (or the same), or maybe it's the listener's gender that determines. In case of mixed listeners, ...

6) Lexically controlled selection

Maybe some verbs prefer feminine pronouns for mixed groups, some verbs prefer masculine pronouns. The deficiency in congruence in 3.4 could easily be lexicalized and stop being specific to forms of the verb where the congruence fails.

7) Referent-affected selection

The group or some individual of the group, and some property of said person(s) affects the choice: majority female gets feminine, majority masculine gets masculine, or most socially prominent member determines gender of the group.

8) Feminine- and masculine mixed groups as separate referents

I am not sure this even could evolve, but imagine a system whereby e.g. masculine plural for a mixed group essentially is proximative, and feminine essentially is an obviative pronoun.

9) No mixing

Instead of a single pronoun, two are used: "they(fem) and he", "they(fem) and they(masc)".