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Spec Tech: Conlanging 7 — Who’s what?

September 29, 2011

This is the seventh 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 find a listing of our previous installments here, and a spreadsheet listing the words in our language here.

Before we get started today, I want to address a question from the comments on the last post: if Kohen has a set word order for subjects and objects, why do we also have particles to mark subjects and objects?  There’re two reasons to have our subject and object markers in addition to word order.

The first is that, by having subject and object markers, we get some flexibility in our word order that we can use for larger, discourse-oriented functions like emphasis — we might decide later that we can, for example, move a subject or an object before the verb to emphasize it.  It’s also possible that we’ll discover as we work through our grammar that these particles are useful for clarifying things that might otherwise be ambiguous, especially in constructions with, e.g., relative clauses.

The second reason is that having both markers and word order provides redundancy.  Languages do a variety of things that aren’t strictly necessary to convey meaning, but that aid others in understanding what’s been said.  If you’ve studied Spanish or French or Latin or German and dealt with making adjectives agree in both gender and number, you’ve encountered this tendency.  The /s/ that goes on the end of English verbs in the present tense for third-person singular subjects (e.g., “He runs for the bus”)  is another example of this kind of redundancy.  We don’t get the /s/ except when we have the word “he”, “she”, or “it” for the subject (or a noun), so the /s/ doesn’t actually add any information; we already know who the subject is.  What this /s/ does add is that, in a loud, crowded room, it can help you reconstruct what someone’s said, even if you had some trouble hearing them.

Okay, on to two new things.  The first thing to tackle today is how to deal with copular clauses — that is, clauses which, in English, contain the verb “to be”: “He is a doctor”, “I am a teacher”, etc.  There’s a pretty large range of ways in which languages handle these constructions, from having a verb like in English to simply juxtaposing two nouns.  In the interests of keeping our morphology and syntax relatively straight-forward, I think we should use the machinery we already have in place.  To this end, if you want to say “He is a cat” or “That is my house”, treat the bit that comes after the “is” like a verb—put it first in the sentence, stick whatever prefixes for tense and aspect you need on the front of the noun, and follow it with the subject.

tapumoing sa na

ta- pu- moing sa na

PAST- PERF- cat SUBJ I

“I used to be a cat”*

(*Bonus points if you can tell me why the translation here is “I used to be a cat” instead of “I was a cat”)

fema pa Mishell sa ku

∅- ∅- fema pa Mishell sa ku

PRES- IMPERF- “of” Mishell SUBJ s/he/it

“It’s Mishell’s story”

Note that this construction is only for cases where the two nouns are essentially equal to each other, and is not for locations — we’ll deal with how to say that something is located somewhere in a future post.

The second thing today is to start thinking about question words.  Last time, we dealt with how to ask yes/no questions; now it’s time to think about information questions that use words like “who” and “what”.  There’s a couple of ways we can go with this, and some things we need to decide.

The first decision to make is where our question words will go.  In English (and lots of other languages), the question words go first in the sentence.  Another option, especially common in Asia, is to put the question word into the sentence wherever the missing information would go—instead of “Who is that man?” you’d get “That man is who?”; instead of “Where’d he go?” you’d get “He went where?”

The second decision is what we want our question words to look like.  In many languages, there’s often some obvious similarity between the different question words; in English, we can see this in the “wh” at the beginning of most of the question words.  In Kohen, I’m thinking that all of our question words should start with the same syllable, maybe te-?

For second half of the question words, we have two options.  One is to simply generate an arbitrary list: teka could be “what”, tefin “how”, etc.  The other is to combine the te- with meaningful words that tell you what kind of question is being asked.  If we have the word futa meaning “(some)thing”, “what” could be tefuta “what thing”.  We can do this for all of the various question words: “what way/path” for “how”, “what person” for “who”, etc.  One nice thing about doing our question words this way is that, because the question words are transparently derived from, e.g., te- plus a lexical word, there’s room for language play.  “Which cat?” might be simply “Temoing?”

What do y’all think about these ideas?  How do you think we should do our question words?  Weigh in in the comments!

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Mishell Baker permalink*
    September 29, 2011 9:07 pm

    If I understand you correctly I am all for it! I like the idea of “te” or something similar being kind of a what/which, and then adding it as a prefix to “location” or “person” or what have you to make specific question words.

    I am going to take a stab at the translation question too. As I understand it, “perfect” in grammar basically means the concept of “completed.” So “I used to be a cat” is a completed thing, whereas “I was a cat” doesn’t rule out the idea that the catness never came to an end and in fact you still are a cat. So “I used to be a cat” is the correct translation when we use the “pu” prefix. “I was a cat” would be tamoing sa na.

    • Chris Doty permalink
      September 30, 2011 11:30 am

      Dingdingding! You’re absolutely right about the “cat” thing. The other option we have in Kohen for this clause, with a similar meaning, would be tamoing sa na — which is literally something like, “I was being a cat” — which says nothing about whether or not one is still a cat. With the perfective, though, it’s over and done.

      And vote counted for question words. I kind of like that style, too, although I think mostly because, if you’re learning a new language that uses a system like that, you learn some extra words along with the question words. Which, come to think of it, is perhaps not a terrible argument for having such a thing in Kohen…

  2. Dean permalink
    October 1, 2011 2:28 am

    These additions to Kohen look fine to me, too. Combining separate full words with a question particle makes the language more transparent in this regard, as you note, and I’m for transparency in conlanging when it doesn’t sacrifice a substantial gain elsewhere, like regularity.

    I’m looking forward to seeing how we’ll handle relative clauses.

    It looks like we also need more vocabulary. Any domains that feel particularly lacking in entries (since we’re clocking in at around 80 items)?

    • Chris Doty permalink
      October 4, 2011 8:16 am

      Feel free to grab any of the domains listed in the previous posts that didn’t get picked up, or come up with whatever you want! We haven’t really talked about adjectives yet, so nouns and verbs are probably more in need at the moment… Although we’ll still need adjectives at some point, so yeah, anything really is probably fine.

  3. Dean permalink
    October 1, 2011 2:33 am

    Quick note — looking back at previous posts, I realized that we need colors added to the wordlist. There are probably some other items I missed, too. So we do have more words in our dictionary.

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