Spec Tech: Conlanging 4 — Verbs and Basic Clauses
This is the fourth 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 previous installments here: one, two, three.
Before we get into our discussion of verbs, we should probably deal with our pronouns. I’m going to propose the set below.
tihu “you” (but plural: “y’all, youse”)
There was a suggestion about the pronouns made after our last meeting: that we have both an inclusive and an exclusive option for the first-person plural form “we”. Although we don’t have this in English, it does show up in a number of languages. Essentially, we’d have two forms for “we” — the exclusive would indicate that the person being spoken to is not part of the “we”; the inclusive would mean that the person being spoken to IS part of the “we”.
What do people think of this? We could perhaps do a combined form of the other pronouns, something like natihu, for the inclusive meaning, and leave nahu as the exclusive form?
On to verbs, then. The first thing to discuss is our basic word order. Last time, I proposed that we choose one of three possibilities: SVO, SOV, or VSO, as these are the most common patterns found in natural languages. Those who chimed in seemed to prefer VSO word order, which I think is a good option; it’s not horribly common in the world, but neither is it uncommon, so I think it will add a nice flavor to our language, without being too terribly strange.
Now, we need to decide about case marking. There was some disagreement about whether or not this is something we want in our language, so I’m going to ask that more people speak up if they have strong feelings. In the meantime, though, I’m going to tentatively suggest that we do mark subjects and objects by placing a short word before them: sa for subjects, fi for objects.
sa “subject marker”
fi “object marker”
We also need to decide on tense, aspect, and mood, at least in terms of what is grammaticalized, but we should probably talk a bit about what “grammaticalized” means. All languages are capable of expressing all of the same ideas, it’s just a matter of how they do it. In some languages, for example, past tense is expressed by including some sort of time word in the sentence, such as “yesterday” or “earlier”, but the verb itself doesn’t change. This is different than English, of course, where we have a specific suffix, -ed, that is stuck on the verb to mean past tense. What we need to decide, then, is what parts of meaning have grammaticalized, and which we want to do via paraphrastic means.
As was noted by one of our group previously, because of the structure of our words, it’s probably best if we have our tense and aspect marking show up as prefixes on the verb root, so that’s the route we’ll take.
For tense, I think the most logical set of time distinctions are past, present, and future, and it’s these that should be grammaticalized. We don’t necessarily need to have a prefix for each of these, though—one can be “unmarked”, where the lack of any prefix indicates one of the tenses; this is indicated by the symbol ∅. Our set of tense prefixes, then, would look like this:
Before we get to examples of verbs, let’s think about aspect. Here, it seems reasonable to make a two-way distinction between perfect and imperfect. As with our tense suffixes, we can leave one unmarked, which I propose be the imperfect:
Now, what is meant by “perfect” versus “imperfect”? Essentially, perfect is used for actions which are completed, while imperfect is used for ongoing actions. Note, though, that this is separate from tense — we can have actions completed in the past as well as the future (e.g., “will have eaten”). We’ll have some examples in a second which should help to clarify the difference.
I think that we can deal with issues of mood later, as they come up; I don’t know that we need any grammaticalized prefixes to deal with it.
Now that we have our tense and aspect systems in place, we have an idea of what a basic clause will look like in our language:
TENSE- ASPECT- VERB sa SUBJECT (fi OBJECT)
Using these prefixes with some verbs, we can now take a look at some examples of how our tense and aspect markers can go together to get different meanings:
dalu sa moing pa Mike
∅- ∅- dalu sa moing pa Mike
“Mike’s cat is running”
tapudalu sa ku
ta- pu- dalu sa po
lipudalu sa na
li- pu- dalu sa na
“I will have run”
lidalu sa moing
li- ∅- dalu sa moing
“(a/the) cat will run”/”(a/the) cat will be running”
wufa sa hihau fi moing
∅- ∅- wufa sa hihau fi moing pa Mike
“(a/the) dog is chasing Mike’s cat”
tawufa sa moing fi hihau
ta- ∅- wufa sa moing fi hihau
“(a/the) cat was chasing (a/the) dog”
We still have a lot to do on our language, but we’ve got a rough sketch of the basics — what words look like, what kinds of things nouns and verbs do, and a basic structure for putting it all together. I’m going to suggest that we work on two things for next time:
First, we need to start developing more vocabulary. I’m going to ask that people pick a certain vocabulary domain (e.g., body parts, animals, basic verbs, etc.) and start creating words for those things. This will have to be first-come, first-served, but once people start posting their words, I’ll create a spreadsheet online so that we can keep track of our vocabulary and make sure that we don’t have any repeats.
Second, we need to spend some time playing with what we have. Admittedly, we still haven’t developed a number of things that we’ll need eventually — negation, question words, grammatical particles, etc. — but we need to be sure that what we do have works, as far as it goes, as well as make sure that all of us are on the same page. I’m going to suggest, then, that as the vocabulary starts to come in, you begin making up some sentences of your own, using the various words and prefixes that we’ve developed so far. You can post these here, along with any questions that you have.
As you’re doing this, try to make a note of things that you’d like to be able to say, but can’t with what we have so far. Much of this will be filled in as we go along, but it’s certainly possible that we’ll need to tweak what we do have to make it a viable core for our language as we go along.
Our next meeting will be something of a review — take a look at what we have so far, with a bunch of examples from the group, and decide what the next topic we want to tackle is.