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Spec Tech: Conlanging 3 — A noun by any other name…

July 7, 2011

This is the third in a series of posts “live-blogging” the creation of a fictional language from scratch, with the help of our readers.  We plan to construct a functional language one piece at a time, incorporating suggestions and preferences from our audience along the way.  You can read the previous posts here and here.

Letʼs start off by dealing with a couple of lingering things about our sound system, pointed out by folks after our last meeting.

First, as I said before, weʼre not going to get a perfect system — no matter what sounds we choose, there are going to be people from language backgrounds that simply donʼt have some of them.  Thereʼs nothing that can be done about this, and I donʼt think itʼs worth our time to keep revisiting the issue.

It was also noted that it is a bit weird to not allow nasals at the ends of syllables within words (e.g., CVNCV), and Iʼd agree, it is weird.  Mostly, I stopped adding in new word shapes once we got to a sufficient number of words with the phonemes we had, but then decided that I was kind of partial to this bit of weirdness.  It makes our language kind of unique, but without going crazy and violating a bunch of universal tendencies or something.  Still, thereʼs no reason we couldnʼt change it; what do other people think?  Shall we allow nasals at the ends of syllables within words?

Alright, letʼs move on to the topic at hand for todayʼs meeting: a discussion of how to handle our nouns.

Number — Iʼm going to suggest we not have a grammatically-required plural, unlike English and some other languages.  There will, of course, be other ways one can indicate a large quantity if needed (e.g., “many dogs”, “lots of dogs”), but the grammar will never require that this happen; “three dogs” will be “three dog”, etc.

ArticlesAs was mentioned in our discussion last time, articles show up in about 1/3 of human languages.  Although we could decide against having an article based only on the fact that 2/3 of languages donʼt have one, I think there are other reasons to avoid having an article in our language.

First, articles can be quite difficult to learn for people whose native language doesnʼt have them.  Importantly though, the reverse isnʼt true—if youʼre a native English speaker learning a language without articles, you donʼt miss them.  (Or at least, I donʼt—but if youʼve previously come down with article home-sickness, please let us know!)

Second, the meanings of articles are messy, both within a given language and cross-linguistically.  For example, linguists usually talk about the definite article in English being used for referential nouns — i.e., nouns which refer to a specific entity, and which are also identifiable to the listener.  So, when I say the man, Iʼm flagging “man” as being the man that weʼre already talking about, and asking you to match up this mention with the previous ones.

In Salish languages, however, things work a bit differently.  The issue is still one of referentiality, but flagging a noun with the article means that the noun is identifiable to the speaker, not to the listener.  So, when I say ƛǝ deemiɬ, Iʼm not asking you to match it up to some other instances of man in the discourse; Iʼm instead reassuring you that Iʼm talking about a specific man, and that I know who he is.

This is the rub with articles — although they do the “same” thing when we take a birdʼs eye view, they often end up doing pretty different stuff when we actually get on the ground in any one location.

Which is a long way of saying, letʼs just not worry about articles.

Gender — There was some discussion of gender after our last meeting, but no one seemed willing to lobby for a full-fledged gender system with nouns, so we wonʼt have one.

There are a couple of other things to think about here with regards to gender, though.

The first is what to do with our pronouns.  We have three options, as I see it.  One is to match the English system, with three words for he, she, and it.  A second would be to have a two-way distinction between, essentially, people and not-people: one word for s/he, one word for it.  Finally, we could have a single word for third persons, which makes no distinctions: s/he/it.  Iʼm rather partial to the latter two options, but please let us know what you prefer.

The second thing to think about is whether or not we want some way to give nouns gender, as in English words like “lioness” or “she-wolf.”  It might be nice to have some sort of consistent means built into the language to do this.  If we decide to do this, I think we should keep the full noun unmarked for gender, and that we have a suffix/prefix/modifier for both the masculine and the feminine — wolf, he-wolf and she-wolf, not wolf and she-wolf, where the masculine is also the form thatʼs unmarked for gender.

Possession — Iʼm going to propose that we have a genitive marker pa, and that in possessives, our order is POSSESSED-POSSESSOR.  (For our purposes, genitive is just a fancy word for “possessive.”)  This makes the possessive look very much like the English possessive constructions that use “of,” along with a number of other languages.

moing pa Mike – “Mikeʼs cat”

hihau pa na – “my dog”

Adjectives — No one seemed particularly tied to the idea of adjectives being verbal or not, so Iʼm going to go ahead and propose that we make them verbs, with meanings like “be.blue”, “be.big”, etc.  In which case, letʼs revisit this issue after we talk about verbs at our next meeting.

Putting nouns together — Iʼm going to say that we also use our possessive construction for nouns modifying other nouns.  “House cat” then becomes “cat of the house,” “computer paper” becomes “paper of the computer”, etc.  This can seem a bit weird to English speakers, but it shows up in lots of languages as a pretty consistent phenomenon (Japanese and Finnish come to mind), and it does make a certain amount of sense.

pipa pa kopu — “computer paper”

moing pa dosu — “house cat”

All right, thereʼs a rough sketch of the grammar of our noun phrases!  Thereʼre still some things that need to be filled in, but I think this outline should be sufficient to let us move on to our task for next time — verbs.  We have two main things to think about.

The first is called alignment, and deals with how the arguments of a verb (the doer, the doee, etc.) relate to the verb and to each other.  English, for example, prefers subject-verb-object (or SVO) word order, as do many other languages.  Almost as common as SVO word order is SOV word order, with VSO a rather distant third.  We should probably stick with one of these, unless we want to do something totally crazy.

In addition to word order, some languages also use case marking, which flags the nouns in a clause to indicate whether they are the subject or the object.  English used to do this with all its nouns, but the system has been simplified to the point where we only have a few relics of it left in our pronouns—”he” for subjects and “him” for objects (roughly).  In my experience, English speakers tend to shy away from case marking, but it does have some potential benefits — for example, it can allow more flexible word order, which can then be used for discourse functions like emphasis.  And, if case marking is paired with a preferred word order, it can also help provide some redundancy in the system for identifying who is doing what to whom.  What do you think?  Case or no case?

We also need to deal with all of the other things that go along with verbs, namely tense, aspect, and mood (often abbreviated TAM).

Tense deals with where an action is situated in time, with regards to the moment of speaking.  The most obvious distinction, thinking logically, is past versus present versus future, although languages rarely make such a clean-cut division.

Aspect deals with the internal structure of an event, and how it moves through time.  This is where we get our imperfects (for things that were/are/will be still happening, e.g., “he was going,” “she will be jumping up and down”) and our perfectives (for actions that have been/will be completed, e.g., “he went,” “he will have gone”).  These are perhaps the most common cross-linguistically, but there are certainly other options.  We might have an iterative (“he jumped over and over”) or a distributive (“he kicked a bunch of different things”). (If youʼre interested in the range of aspect distinctions that show up cross-linguistically, have a look at the Wikipedia page for aspect, which has a nice list towards the end.)

Mood is the trickiest of the lot, and is essentially a means of dealing with speaker attitudes and unrealized events.  If youʼve studied a Romance language, youʼve encountered mood in the guise of the subjunctive.  English also has mood, mostly in terms of a conditional, especially for unrealized events—”could go,” “might go,” “would go,” etc.  Another place where mood commonly appears is in imperatives, or commands.

In many languages, English being no exception, tense and aspect and mood all get muddled up together, as the examples above demonstrate.  Regardless of what dimensions of TAM we decide to have in our language, we definitely want to separate them out from each other; this will allow us to stack them up to get other meanings (e.g., future perfective, past iterative, etc.), while maintaining a clear reading of the meaning.

What dimensions of the TAM world do you think we should be encode in our language?

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. Bernard C. Siegl permalink
    July 8, 2011 12:11 am

    Well, I explained my position in my (albeit rather late) reply, but to reiterate, I would support allowing nasals at the end of syllables, but only if they share the same place of articulation as the following consonant. So, “sampa”, “santa”, and “sangka” would be allowed, but not “*sangta”, “*sanpa”, “*samta”, etc. This would sometimes help (actually about two-thirds of the time if my calculations are correct) to identify whether a two syllable expression is two words or one two syllable word. Anyway, if the choice is either to allow all combinations of nasal+consonant to occur, or not allow them at all, I would have to choose not allowing them at all.
    No plural noun forms – good.
    No articles – good.
    Gender. Hmm. A human/animate/ inanimate distinction might be interesting. But a European-type masculine/feminine (/neuter) system – No! The interesting (and perhaps problematic) thing about the human/animate/inanimate systems is where do you “draw the line”. Say we pick a “sentient/non-sentient” distinction. Humans and Qu’ssh!rrians would be in the “sentient” category, whereas rocks, trees, and grass would be “non-sentient”, but what about dolphins, chimpanzees, and gorillas (near-sentients? sentient-diminutive)? Or how about infants (“potential” sentients?, sentients-future?). Or say we pick an animate/inanimate distinction. Humans, chimps, dogs, mice, ants are all animate; rocks, mountains, houses, furniture are all inanimate; but what about non-living things that move (e.g. the wind, rivers, the ocean, the sun, the moon)? And where go plants go, since they are alive and grow and they move with the wind? We could try a two dimensional system with human/non-human and animate/inanimate together so there would be four possibilities: human-animate, human-inanimate (someone who has “passed on”?), non-human/animate (animals, perhaps plants, wind, sun etc.), and non-human/inanimate (rocks, mountains, etc.). This would have to be worked out if we go this way. So, for now I’m going to put off deciding on whether to pick the human/non-human s/he – it option or the single-word s/he/it option, but I am definitely against the gender distinctions as they appear in English and most other European languages.
    As for giving nouns gender markers, I agree that the core word should be genderless. We could have markers for both male and female, but I feel these should be optional and have the words/morphs for “male”, and “female” be short, simple and easily affixed to the noun. Using Spanish/Italian masculine and feminine endings: “-o” and “-a” (I’m just using this as an example; we can pick any affix or word that makes some sense to us.), we would get moing – “cat”, moinga – “female cat”, moingo – “male cat/tom cat” and hihau – “dog”, hihaua – “female dog”, hihauo – “male dog”.
    For possession, I agree almost 100%. The only thing I’d like to add is that perhaps we could put the pa after the noun. It might be more interesting, would resemble English a bit less, and would follow the pattern of modifiers coming after the main word (a pattern which I would prefer to follow as much as possible; as others have said, it seems logical). So we would have:
    moing Mike-pa – “Mike’s cat”
    hihau na-pa – “my dog”
    pipa kopu-pa — “computer paper”
    moing dosu-pa — “house cat”
    As for alignment, I like the idea pacatrue suggested: VSO. Why? Because at first it just seemed fun, and then I realized I really like the idea of the action coming first.
    No case. Please.
    TAM
    Tense: For simplicity’s sake only one marked: past (marked) vs. present/future (unmarked) or none. I actually lean more toward none, and we can use words that mean something like “will” and “before” to mark future and past. Or we could try something interesting like a now/present/real vs. past/future/unreal distinction like some Native American languages have (at least to my understanding). But this might be a challenge getting used to. So, if I had to choose right now I’d choose no tense markers.
    Aspect: Don’t know much about this, but it seems to me we could mark if some action happens/ed once, many times (iterative? habitual? frequentative?), is a continuing situation (imperfective? continuous? progressive? stative?), etc. I’m sure we can think of many useful distinctions, but I would prefer using short CV or CVN words to mark these aspects rather than affixes for most of these. But I’m not opposed to a few affixes for aspect markers.
    Mood: Again I would lean toward use of short words to mark moods. I would be supportive of a realis/irrealis distinction marked with an affix (it just seems interesting).
    Finally, I’d like to do a little experimentation. Say we have a suffix “-a”. Works well with CVN and CVCVN words, and CV and CVCV words that end in a diphthong, or “i”, “e”, “o”, or “u”, but what about words that end in “a”? You would get constructions like naa, pipaa, etc. The same sort of result occurs if we introduce any suffix that begins with a vowel or diphthong (two examples: “-u” hihauu, kopuu, dosuu, etc. “-au” naau, pipaau, etc.). If we introduce suffixes that begin with consonants, other disconcerting combinations occur. Say we have a suffix “-ta”; all CV and CVCV words would have no problem, but with CVN and CVCVN words this would result in two out of three cases with words having somewhat difficult consonant clusters (e.g. sangta, samta) which I would prefer to avoid. The situation is even more problematic if the suffix begins with a nasal. Both of these problems can be alleviated by adding a consonant like “h” between the vowels when they are the same, and adding a vowel when the consonants are the same, similar, or difficult to pronounce. Or we could vary the suffix in other ways, for example through the process of assimilation. In this process the suffix changes in response to its environment (much like English plural changes its realization when it follows a voiced or unvoiced consonant (“dogs” /z/ vs. “cats” /s/) and when it follows an “s”, “sh”, “z”, “zh” “ch”, or “j” sound where “es” is written but it is pronounced as /iz/ or /əz/). So our “ ta” suffix could assimilate to the same place of articulation when following a nasal and thus sangta and samta would become sangka and sampa. This would work as long as there are no “-pa” or “-ka” suffixes.
    Prefixes seem to be a bit less problematic. V-, CV- (or even CVCV- if we end up with such a thing) prefixes pose no problems attaching to a following root word. VN- and CVN- prefixes however, would have to either add a vowel or assimilate to the initial consonant of the root (like English does with the prefix “in-” intolerable, immature, incoherent /iŋkou’hi꞉rənt/ ).
    I would prefer to place modifiers exclusively after the main word. But with the phonological structure of the language as it is, it seems prefixes would be easier to work with. So I would propose we should have prefixes of either the CV- or V- type. This would amount to 99 possible prefixes (90 if only CV- is allowed). I’m sure this should be more than enough for our purposes.
    BcS

    • Chris Doty permalink
      July 9, 2011 9:01 am

      Sorry I wasnʼt able to respond to your previous post before this one went up—but yes, I think nasals at the same place of articulation — mp, nt, ngk — might be a good compromise for consonant clusters in the middle of a word. What do other people think?

      Re: Gender: Well, “animate” is basically linguistic shorthand for “humans + animals”; I probably should have explained that. Iʼm sure there are languages which include a few things like wind or water in the animate category, but for the most part, it means stuff that moves of its own accord.

      Re: Possession: In this case, “pa” isnʼt modifying “Mike”; what we really have is the possessor modifying the possessed. The “pa” indicates, by standing between the two nouns, that the second — the possessor — is modifying the first. It looks kind of like a modifier if youʼre paralleling English, but there are languages which, instead of marking the possessor, mark the possessed; you could think of this as being “moing-pa Mike.” Regardless, though, if you have a language which exclusively puts modifiers after head words, the order we have here is the one youʼd expect.

      Having said that, itʼs certainly possible to have the order you suggested, as some languages do do that. Iʼm not a fan of that system, though; with “pa” standing between the nouns, you get something thatʼs a bit more iconic than sticking the possession marker at the end of the phrase.

      Re: Tense/aspect/mood: To some extent, if weʼre using separate words for tense marking, it really doesnʼt matter too much if we say that a word means “PAST” or that it means something like “earlier” but also gets used for past tense. Still, though, I think we need at least some with a more grammatical meaning. Compare, for example, the English past tense, -ed as a verb suffix, with the future “will” which is its own verb. Itʼs common for languages to have a mix of these things, and thereʼs no reason that couldnʼt also happen with ours.

      I agree with your assessment of the suffix versus prefix issue; I guess in my head, up to now, I was imaging the language being essentially isolating—meaning that you get one word for one idea, instead of stacking up a bunch of morphemes into a single word — so itʼs mostly just a matter of deciding what things, if any, we want as prefixes, and what we want as separate words.

    • Chris Doty permalink
      July 9, 2011 9:05 am

      Oh, I also meant to say that, regarding the gendering of nouns, we could do something like you suggest, or we could use our noun-modifier structure: moing pa “male”, moing pa “female”, or something like that.

  2. Mishell Baker permalink*
    July 8, 2011 2:12 pm

    Some of this is getting to be a bit much for my non-linguist brain to wrap around, but I would like to throw in a vote for a case difference for subject/object. Although it is obviously not needed, since we don’t have it much in English and do fine, I think it would add clarity, so long as it is a very simple distinction that is the same for all nouns and doesn’t change depending on the final letter of the noun, etc. Less to memorize = good.

    I think most people (even non-linguists like me) can make a mental distinction between subject and object, so having a way to mark a noun one way or the other wouldn’t break many brains too badly.

    I can’t begin to comment on the AM part of TAM, but I do think verbs need past, present, and future tenses for the sake of clarity. At the very least, I feel there should be a way to tell the difference between “I ate” “I eat” (regularly) and “I am eating” (right this minute), without context.

    As far as “I am in the process of going to to eat right this second” form of future tense, I like the way many languages structure that by just combining the infinitive with some form of “go”. I go to eat. It’s very easy to wrap your brain around. The future that is more “at some point in the future I will eat” should be constructed differently, either with a different “helper word” or just a different ending.

    Those are my very non-academic thoughts, just based on how I the layperson thinks about the verbs I use daily.

    • Chris Doty permalink
      July 9, 2011 9:23 am

      Yeah, the real trick, with regards to the tense stuff, is what kinds of things get grammatical words, and what we have as full-fledged, separate words. All languages can express the same concepts, itʼs just a matter of deciding what kinds of things are more grammatical, and which are paraphrastic. As you mentioned, and was mentioned above, as certain words like “going to” or “tomorrow” or “earlier” can get used to mean tense-like things in addition to their regular meaning.

      The more I think about it, the more partial Iʼm becoming to something like a straightforward past/present/future distinction, alongside a perfect/imperfect distinction, using grammatical stuff, with other things using more paraphrastic means.

      • Bernard C. Siegl permalink
        July 25, 2011 12:34 pm

        I’ll go with past/present/future and perfect/imperfect being grammaticalized. But might i suggest that perfect/imperfect be clarified a bit for the non-linguist, and those of us who may have had a few linguistics but slept through that lecture.

  3. July 11, 2011 6:48 am

    Maybe this is not a right time to propose such a thing but I’ll try anyway.

    As far as I get it, we are not trying to make a Volapuk here. And, like a good story, a good language should consist of a right proportion of familiar an unfamiliar, common and exotic.

    So I’d propose something, which looks exotic, but understandable. At least to me.

    There is a very nice construction in English, which I find really non-obvious, at least in context of other languages. Namely, it is the way to make a question starting with “Do”, like “Do you want to eat?” or “Did they sleep well?”. The interesting part of this construction is that the question is formed by using the “auxiliary” verb “do”, whereas in the other languages it is usually formed by either intonation, changing the word order or adding a special particle. So, I think it would be nice to try this scheme in the language.

    We can go even further: sometimes interrogative pronouns (such as English wh- words) look like adjectives. Since it is decided, that the adjectives in the constructed language are to be verb-like, maybe we can try to make the analogues of the “wh-” words to be verbs, or at least some of them.

    Finally, I’d like to propose a “not to be”-verb, like the Arabic “laysa”.

    If there would be a tense marking of the verbs, the interrogation and negation schemes will then work like:

    Are you going to the shop = IntVerb.PresCont go.INF you shop

    I didn’t fly like a pterodactyl = NotToBe.PST fly.INF I pterodactylly

    or something like that, depending on the further development of the grammar.

    • Chris Doty permalink
      July 13, 2011 3:35 pm

      I do agree that we should have some funky stuff in here, to make the language both different enough from other languages, and also because, as you say, we’re not after a new Volapük or Esperanto. We do, though, need our language to be relatively easy to learn, and I think that that question structure might be a bit too much. It’s an old historical artifact of English, essentially, so putting it in would make our language look quite like English, while also making it potentially more difficult to learn for non-English speakers. Still, that’s not an automatic reason to not have it—let’s revisit the issue again when we deal with questions and question words.

      As to the negative copula, that might be fun. I’ll raise that as a possibility when we get to dealing with copulas.

  4. July 11, 2011 3:08 pm

    I can think of two aspects of language that I have rarely seen but have always imagined as being bloody useful:
    1) An in-language means of encoding agency. The primary distinction I find important here is a means of distinguishing between “choosing to act” and “acting under duress” or “acting without thinking.” The connoisseur of wine and the alcoholic both drink, but the act of drinking is a decision for one and a compulsion for the other. The same distinction can be made for children, animals, and others who cannot be said to understand the ramifications of their actions. It also allows for a powerful linguistic tool to indicate when people are not in their right minds.
    2) An in-language means of encoding evidency. I pull this mostly from Láadan, but I would love a tool to draw distinctions between degrees of certitude, from “it’s a scientifically proven statement” to “I saw it myself” to “I heard about it from somewhere but don’t quote me.”

    • Chris Doty permalink
      July 13, 2011 3:44 pm

      A number of languages do encode agency, although usually as a subset of the way that they do their case marking. In Tibetan (and a number of related languages), for example, a sentence like “I opened the door” has two possible ways to mark the first-person participant—as an agent (“I set out to open the door and succeeded”) or as a “regular” subject, which gives an accidental reading (“I bumped the door and it opened”). Salish languages do something roughly similar, but with different verb marking, depending on whether or not the action was intentional and/or successful (so you get pairs of meaning like “I shot him” and “I tried to shoot him (but missed)/I accidentally shot him”).

      We’d have to think about how to incorporate this into the system that we’re developing here. One possibility might be to have a category of evidential-like things (see below), with a couple of meanings like this: “I did X (and meant to)”, “I did X (accidentally)”, “I (tried but failed to) do X”, etc. It might be a fun system to have, as long as we don’t go overboard with lots of possible meaning distinctions.

      Evidentials show up quite a bit in natural languages as well, and I’m quite partial to them myself—I certainly wouldn’t complain if they end up in our language.

      What do people think of this idea of creating a system of markers for evidence/volition?

      • Bernard C. Siegl permalink
        July 25, 2011 1:35 pm

        I like it. Though we may have to get used to it, and fine-tune the distinctions as we work this out. Like i can easily see a distinction between “I saw it myself.” and “I heard it from Joe, who heard it from his friend, who heard it from his cousin…” But what about if i heard it from a teacher or from a con-artist? So, the persistent question of where do we draw the line(s) remains.

  5. Bernard C. Siegl permalink
    July 25, 2011 12:26 pm

    The other day i was taking my daughter to swim at a friend’s house that my brother-in-law was house-sitting at, and as we were leaving(ready to drive off, my daughter in the passenger seat, my brother-in-law leaning though the passenger side window), i invited him to come over for a meal. I said: “Maybe we can whip somethin’ up.” (I was thinking he would do most of the cooking since he was once a short-order cook at a diner, and i and my daughter would “help”.) He said “Okay… … See ya soon.” Later my daughter wanted to check when her uncle would be coming over so she called him and during the conversation i heard her say to him: “Maybe we can whip something up.” and i thought “Uh-Oh – What is she saying?” Well, i ended up cooking breakfast with my daughter’s help.
    That afternoon my daughter and i were driving home from her karate class, and i explained to her the ambiguity in the English word “we” and how it had forced an adjustment (at least of my expectations for breakfast) that morning. And i told her about how many Native American languages have a “we-inclusive” and a “we-exclusive”. She didn’t get it at first, so i told her that “we-inclusive” is the “we” in “We’re going to the store. Are you ready to leave now?” and “we-exclusive” is the “we” (and the “us”) in “We’re going to the store. Do you need us to get you anything?”. (Ah that moment of clarity that makes teaching all worthwhile.) She immediately suggested the word “wex” for “we-exclusive” and “wen” for “we-inclusive”. But then she said /wEn/ is already a word. (Around here, “whale” and “wail” sound the same.) So i suggested the word “wenk”, but she was not impressed. And as i thought about it i realized that i don’t know of any English words that end with the sound /-ENk/. Anyway we decided on “wex” /wEks/ and “wein” /wi:n/ or perhaps /weI_^n/ by the time we got home.
    So i would like to suggest a “we-inclusive”/”we-exclusive” distinction in our language.
    I will reply to other questions shortly.
    BcS

  6. Dean Easton permalink
    July 27, 2011 4:46 am

    Since we now have a noun-phrase structure of noun-1 pa noun-2, with noun-2 the possessor/modifier, we could potentially also be moving in the direction of basic VSO word order, or even VOS. The former is relatively common (> 30% or so of languages) while the latter is very uncommon (< 5%), but might be fun to implement in our language just for that reason. That also means, if we followed the VSO or VOS syntax tendencies consistently, that other modifiers would follow what they modify: relative clauses could follow their head nouns (as in English), adverbs follow verbs (unlike in English), etc.

    Under the influence of languages which are much more interested in aspect than tense, I'm proposing that we leave tense to optional adverbs, and focus more on aspect, iteratives, distributives, etc.

    Instead of subject and object marking, how about agent and patient? Thus, the subject of a sentence such as "I ate the meat" would have a different case marker from the subject of a sentence like "I fell asleep" or the subject of a sentence with a stative verb (adjective as verb) like "I am-hungry." Transitive verbs would take agent subjects, while intransitives would take patient subjects. (We could go fully ergative if we wished.)

    For yes-no questions, we could deploy an invariant question particle at the beginning of sentences. Nikolay mentions an interest in something resembling English do for this purpose. An initial question particle could accomplish much the same thing, but also be used where other auxiliary verbs are used in English, without the inversions in word order. Why not generalize the structure, and incidentally ease the learning load? Incidentally, several Slavic languages do this.

    English: Are you coming? Did he fix it? Can you see?
    Our Language: Q you come? Q he fix it? Q you able see?
    (or with the proposed VSO/VOS word order)
    Our Language: Q come you? Q fix he it? Q able you see?

    My $.02.

    Dean

    • Chris Doty permalink
      July 28, 2011 1:12 pm

      [Sorry that I wasn't able to discuss any of your comments in the current post; I submit my drafts by the Tuesday before the posts appear, so there wasn't time to rework what I'd written.]

      I’m hesitant about using agent/patient marking, given that ergative systems seem to be somewhat quirky and unstable cross-linguistically. I think we’d be better off just starting with a subject/object system, since all languages appear to exhibit some nominative/accusative properties (or, at least, ALMOST all languages, depending on how you look at it).

      I quite like the idea of a question marker of the kind you describe; it’s simple, straightforward, and easy to learn—no worrying about changes in word order or anything like that. Question formation will be one of the first things we visit after our current round of “testing,” and this will certainly be one of the ideas that I propose.

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