Spec Tech: Conlanging 3 — A noun by any other name…
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.
Articles — As 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?