I’ve been revisiting Conan Exiles again since it left Early Access. It’s definitely way improved, and worth trying out if you like survival games.

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Somebody looked at a bunch of reference pics of Indian/SE Asian temples

First, what’s different?

  • The map is way bigger. (Also, the in-game map is actually useful now.)
  • Combat is revamped; there are multiple actions, and a punishing stamina meter.
  • Animals have been redistributed (for some reason).
  • A lot of the crafting is different. In general there are more things to build.
  • There are a fair number of interesting locations, side quests, and boss monsters.
  • I’m probably forgetting a lot. There are more religions, for instance, and they’ve added a climbing mechanic, and achievements, and pointers (in lieu of a tutorial).
  • You can actually meet Conan in game.
  • Many of the things I complained about in the first review are fixed; e.g. you can loot enemies now.

Now, I still have no interest in PvP.  I think Exiles might be a great co-op game, but I don’t have any friends who play. So I’m evaluating it as a single-player game.

As such, it’s an interesting, kind of weird experiment. I’ve put about 130 hours into it, so I’d say there’s plenty of fun to be had.  It also falls short in some also weird ways.

Why is it weird? Well, mostly because it’s so undirected. This is the exact opposite of games that have a voice in your ear telling you what to do next, and puts map markers all over so you know where to go. Besides the new pointers (things like “catch a fish”), there is no direction at all. You could easily miss all the more interesting locations and monsters; you have to go in search of them.

Which is a really interesting design decision! Most games, though treating you as The Prophesied One, don’t trust you to know how to have fun on your own. Exiles relies on normal curiosity: what’s in that big temple? where does this river go? what new resources might live in the jungle?

Also, the map is immense, and large parts of it are nearly empty. This is unusual too: Skyrim, say, is also huge, but it’s dotted with dungeons and towns and in general feels unnaturally full. The Exiled Lands feel big. There are long lonesome vistas, and you can easily get lost.  I have two main bases, which aren’t far apart on the map, but it’s a fair walk to get between them. I like this; it really gets past the usual video game convention that a tiny tiny area stands in for an entire city or wilderness.

(Of course, the huge area is there for people to fight over on multiplayer servers. But it gives a particular feeling to the single-player game.)

So what do you do?  Well, survival, combat, building, thralls, and monsters.

As a survival game, well, it’s not really hard. You have hunger and thirst, and you start in the desert… but you’re a short walk away from a freshwater river. You can subsist on slugs and bugs if you like, but you can quickly make stone weapons and kill and cook animals. You very quickly get to the point that you have way more food than you can eat. About the only tricky bit is making sure you have enough water if you take a long trek to explore.

Combat involves four basic actions: light and heavy attacks, block with a shield, and dash-evade. All of these take stamina, and you have to kite your opponent frequently while your stamina rebuilds. The blocking isn’t very satisfying, especially as shields break easily, but maybe I’m just not good at it. You can make combos by alternating light and heavy attacks.  It’s not that I don’t like it, but, well, it’s not great. It’s no Arkham, or Bayonetta. (Funcom, if you’re listening, here’s one idea that’d make it far better: reward successful combos with stamina.)

Building: I like that you can get started with nothing but trees and stones. You can quickly build a mini-base in a new territory. (Getting up on a foundation block is useful in avoiding combat, especially useful at night.) You can go really far with this, building increasingly elaborate castles.

The problem here, I think, is balance. If you really want to build a castle, it will take a shitload of resources. And the finer tiers of building material require multiple crafting cycles of their own: mine ironstone, turn it into iron bars in a furnace, make “steelfire” from tar and brimstone, make steel bars from iron and steelfire, make steel reinforcement rods, make brick from stone, finally put it together into building pieces. Plus, this all requires several different crafting stations.

Empyrion did this right: make building easy enough that you can easily construct ginormous spaceships and bases, only going out now and then for more ores. That’s how you get huge interesting buildings. Exile’s process is just way too tedious.

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Queen of all I survey 

But, there’s a solution– cheat! Excuse me: use the admin menu.  I try to only half-cheat: I only build things that I know the recipe to. Some huge portion of that 130 hours consisted of banging on rocks and trees; it’s OK for awhile, but I’m kind of tired of it now. So the admin menu allows me to build a nice base and go play the fun parts of the game.

One of the advertised features is thralls. You can knock out a human NPC instead of killing them, drag them to your base, and break them on a “wheel of pain”– a kind of millstone they have to push around till they’re docile. Then you can move them to a crafting station to speed it up and add recipes. Some thralls can fight for you, or dance for you… which turns out to be the only remedy for fighting “corruption”, a magical disease that saps your health, acquired in certain ruins.

Interesting idea, but again kind of tedious to really take advantage of solo. The problem is, most settlements consist only of fighters, and for the crafting stations you need specialists. So it may take quite a few raids to find the one you want. Plus it takes a long time to break thralls, which slows the process down. At least I found a dancer this playthrough, so I’m not pissed at the corruption thing.

Finally, monsters. These are basically your side quests, the rewards for finding the really interesting locations. They are unfortunately balanced for multiplayer games– they are huge HP buffers and take forever to whittle down; but they drop the better loot. Honestly, I find it best to just cheat again and turn off damage. (Again, it’s a balance issue. When you die, you go back to your base, and you’d have to make your way to the monster again, who of course will have regenerated at full HP.)

There’s also bits of lore scattered around, and plants you can use to recolor your clothes, and there’s a town of non-hostile NPCs… at this point, in fact, I’m mostly interested in wandering around finding all the strange stuff they’ve put in.

There’s also a main quest, which is, in the spirit of the game, hidden. You’re trapped in the Exiled Lands by a metal bracelet. If you beat monsters and find certain items, then read the flavortext, you learn that you can put those items together to undo the bracelet. So, eh, you can do that if you want. Or you can just lord it over the Exiled Lands.

If you do like resource extracting, base building, and beating up animals and NPCs, it’s probably worth checking out. I’d just add that if you stick around the river in the south, you might get bored without, well, actually seeing what’s in the game. You have to kind of make your own goals in this game, but one of them should be to explore as much as possible. A lot of the game content is quite interesting, but it need to be sought out.

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In your first essay on Asimov’s Psychohistory, you wrote:

Discussions of psychohistory usually turn into debates on the role of the individual: can one person significantly affect the course of history or not? We all have our pet cases proving one point of view or the other. I have a strong opinion on the issue– but I’m going to suppress it.

Ok, now what if you don’t suppress your strong opinion on the issue? What’s your take?

—Raphael

king-court-cards

That refers to the Great Man theory, most clearly articulated by Thomas Carlyle. the opposite poles of the debate:

  • History is made by  Great Men, and all you need to study in history is the sequence of great men– mostly kings and religious leaders, though to appear cultured we can throw in a writer now and then.
  • History is made by grand social forces, from the raw and specific (who has the oil or the silver) to the abstract (a widespread desire for national rebirth). Looking at Great Men is simplistic hero worship; social forces produce them, and if one dude didn’t come forward, another would have.

Very roughly, we might call these “old-fashioned” and “modern” ways of writing history. An old-style history was the story of one king after another. A modern history looks at a far wider range of actors, tries to find underlying causes, concentrates not on how leaders differ but on how societies do.

My position isn’t very exciting after all; it’s that both poles are obviously wrong. Or both true, if you prefer.

In general, the Great Man theory is silly. If you have a question like “Why did Europe spill out over the whole globe after 1500?”, then looking at key figures is virtually a waste of time. Even key abstract factors are subject to furious debate. But it’s hard to seriously maintain that that whole process would have proceeded entirely differently if a different set of leaders had won out.

In science and invention, it’s especially evident that very often an idea is just in the air, and we over-fetishize the question of who got it first. Newton and Leibniz both invented calculus; the steam engine was a collaboration of a whole series of British and French inventors; the US and USSR were both in a position to develop atomic weapons and spaceships. The development of the Roman Empire, of capitalism, of the industrial revolution, of anti-colonialism, of the civil rights movement, would have gone about the same even if some of their particular founders were hit by a bus.

Plus, I do prefer modern histories! If I read about Ming China, I’d feel cheated by an account of the lives of each of the Zhu rulers.  I want to know about how the laws changed, why they sent out treasure fleets and why they stopped, how well the examination system worked, how the economy was developing, why Neo-Confucianism was so attractive, how administration differed from previous dynasties, how the environmental situation was growing more serious, how women and minorities were faring.

Yet, it still seems obvious to me that certain people change history. Most of Carlyle’s list— Muhammad, Shakespeare, Luther, Rousseau, Pericles, Napoleon, Wagner— I’d actually throw out, except for one: Muhammad. Though he had intriguing forerunners, notably Zaid ibn Amr, there was no historical inevitability to a monotheistic religion appearing just then, uniting all of Arabia, and then bursting out to take over territory from Spain to Indonesia.

People can and have speculated endlessly about the US Civil War. I think an excellent case can be made that the Northern victory was not inevitable, but was largely due to three men: Henry Halleck, Ulysses Grant, and Abraham Lincoln. To wit: the war showed that in post-Napoleonic war, defense was far stronger than anyone imagined. The North had far more resources, but struggled for years to put them to effective use. The public, and most generals, believed in huge victories won by frontal assault, something that was simply not possible. Most generals could not comprehend or implement Halleck’s “anaconda strategy” of strangling the South’s production capacity, till Sherman and Grant did. If the plan had taken two or three years more, very likely the North’s will to pursue it would have faded. Lincoln’s assassination, of course, put the country in far less wise hands. It can be doubted if Lincoln could have charted a far more progressive path, but it seems likely that he’d have done better than Johnson.

In science, I’d suggest Albert Einstein. He was by no means the only thinker who could have come up with relativity and quantum theory, but no one else was likely to have come up with all this by 1905. Plus, his and Szilard’s letter to Roosevelt about the atomic bomb must be one of the most consequential documents in history.

I’m writing about syntax right now, so I have to mention Noam Chomsky. Again, his ideas weren’t unprecedented— Morris Halle had some similar approaches. It’s hard to explain, especially if you’ve actually read Chomsky’s books, but something about his work simply galvanized people. He created a whole field of syntax and has dominated it, for good and ill, for sixty years.

In short… the broad sweep of history would probably be the same without any particular individual. But the identity of entire empires, the spread of entire religions, the success of this or that nation, would be quite different. The timing of scientific discoveries could differ by decades or more.

And of course, once an individual has changed things, that creates a momentum of its own. Once an Islamic empire existed, that had immense impacts on Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia, and that affected everything from the rediscovery of Aristotle to the spread of coffee drinking.

Stories, of course, can hardly avoid the Great Man syndrome. Probably no one wants to hear how Sauron was defeated by the superior industrial resources of Gondor and the greater appeal of elven ideology. They want to hear about how Aragorn and Gandalf and Frodo did it.

Asimov, whatever he was trying to do, couldn’t help reinforcing the Great Man theory although psychohistory was, in principle, its refutation. He keeps building up Hari Seldon and later R. Daneel Olivaw; he manages to capture the inevitable failure of the Empire without making the rise of the Foundation similarly inevitable.

 

 

 

 

First, enjoy, if you can, this TF2/Overwatch comedy video thing.

When Overwatch came out, I said it was like TF3.  The similarities are obvious and deep. Yet it’s not a simple copy.

For one thing… you really can’t make a great game by slavishly copying another game. Cheesy imitations just make people want to go back to the original.  You can do the same genre, even use the same tropes, but if there’s enough talent involved it’ll be it’s own thing.

For another, the only thing that prevented Valve from making TF3 was Valve. Valve has lost its verve. They don’t seem to have any interest in innovating great new games, they’ve bled off their best writers, and their best idea for TF2 is basically “more of the same”.

And finally, let’s talk about differences between TF2 and Overwatch.

One: Valve humor is not Blizzard humor.  Valve’s humor is “everybody is dumb”– kind of like South Park.  It’s too cool for school; it doesn’t care about anything; every TF2 character is annoying and stupid. And that’s absolutely fine for a game! Their “Meet the…” series is brilliant, indeed far better than most of Blizzard’s videos. But their worldbuilding doesn’t go beyond “a pointless, endless battle between pinheaded idiots.”

Blizzard (at least in Overwatch, I’m not talking about its other properties) is almost painfully earnest. Though they have their comic elements, every Overwatch character is a hero, or a strangely appealing villain. As Tracer says, the world could always use more heroes. The backstory is full of drama and rivalry, and there’s a story about a human-omnic war that’s rather dark, but the overall tone of the game is still optimistic, even utopian.  And kind of by accident, it appeared just at a time when ironic detachment suddenly seemed tired and even suspect.

And the game wants the player to feel heroic, too. There are a lot of subtle things to downplay competition and feelings of loss, from the hiding of team stats, to the merging of kills and assists into eliminations, to the assembling of a personal highlights reel. Even the sound design cooperates: you hear your enemies squealing in pain as they die; you don’t hear the same sounds when you do.

Not unrelated is the commitment to diversity. TF2’s characters came from around, well, the Euro-American world.  All are men (which baffles me… Valve has endless energy for making hats and costumes, but can’t make female versions?).  Overwatch, unusually, has 13 male and 13 female characters, plus Bastion. Just 3 are American.  13 are non-white (counting Reaper as Hispanic). I don’t say they’re perfect at this, but they are putting effort into it.

Also worth noting: with all those characters, none are easily confused with each other, and they’ve taken enormous pains to make their silhouettes, voices, and animations distinctive and interesting.  If you play it, take some time to look at the first-person animations– the walks, the gun reloads, shooting. Each character is different, and everything reinforces their personality.

Also, I think Blizzard does so well at making its characters likeable that it’s easy to forget that this is not an easy thing at all. Disney, for instance, never quite got the knack: Mickey Mouse is just not interesting or likeable in the way Bugs Bunny is. A lot of TV characters are not really likeable, only amusingly grotesque, like the TF2 characters.

The TF2 aesthetic is absolutely stunning– for 2007. It looks wan and repetitive next to Numbani, Lijiang Tower, or Junkertown.  This is to be expected with nine years between them.  But again, Valve could have reimagined their game themselves in that time, and chose not to.

The simplicity of the weaponry (most characters can’t change guns) combines with the idea of ults to make the gameplay seem quite different from TF2. Teams are maxed out at six, and don’t allow multiples of one character, while TF2 teams can be as high as 12. All this focuses the game quite a bit.  In TF2, half the players can treat the game as deathmatch most of the time, and it doesn’t matter much. Overwatch requires a higher commitment to the objective, such that you really notice if your Hanzo or Widowmaker is indulging themselves rather than actually making their shots.

And precisely because teams are smaller, and characters can’t be doubled up, you can’t just turtle up, which was the strategy much of the time in TF2. If Blizzard studied TF2, surely one of the conclusions they came to was “don’t let the turrets dominate the game.”

Plus, the two dozen characters make for far more interesting choices, as well as the constant expectation that Blizzard will shake everything up with a new character. I think TF2 made it far easier to slip into a comfort zone– e.g. I mostly played Pyro and Soldier. I have more range in Overwatch, though perhaps not enough, as many rounds of Mystery Heroes have demonstrated.

Finally, there’s the whole Overwatch League thing.  I’ve found these high-level matches pretty interesting.  TF2 now has ranked play, but I’m not sure how well it’d work as an e-sport.  Again, the turtling and the omnipresent snipers make it difficult for teams to coordinate a strategy.

None of this is to disparage TF2, which I played with great enjoyment for, omigod, like eight years.  It’s a great game!  But Overwatch has surpassed it, for me at least.

 

 

 

 

When you’re reading and writing about syntax, then you see syntax everywhere.  E.g., I just found this gem on Twitter:

Quoted in NYT is not something I was expecting to get when becoming a socialist.

Let’s do some syntax!  First, what is this?  It’s not quite like anything else in my bestiary of transformations. It’s an extraposition of a V’ from the VP, but I can’t make parallels with other auxiliaries:

?Quoted in the NYT is not something I was expecting to be.

?Printed by a major publishing firm is not something I was expecting to be.

*Brought down three prime ministers is not what Brenda thought she would ever have.

The first two are maybe marginal. But simpler statements definitely fail:

*Eaten tripe and onions is not something that I have.

*Eating tripe and onions is not something that I am.

*Compared to a troglodyte is not something that I’ve got(ten).

The sentences seems closest to Pseudo-Clefting, but it doesn’t quite work:

What ended the Martian threat was bacteria.

What he dreams of is being profiled by both Forbes and Dungeon.

What he never expected was getting quoted in the NYT.

*What he never expected getting was quoted in the NYT.  

On the other hand, other uses of get seem to work:

A case of 200-year old wines is not something I was expecting to get from my grandfather.

A rock is what I got.

So I think the best I can come up with is that the Twitter sentence works by analogy from the physical to the auxiliary sense of get. This would help explain why the sentences with get sound better than those with be.

It’s fine, by the way, if you don’t quite accept the original sentence. I’m not 100% sure I do either, but I don’t find it clearly ungrammatical either.

If you’re a conlanger, this construction is worth thinking about— not that you should copy it, but are there any other areas where the syntax can be stretched like this? It’s all too easy to just come up with a straightforward example of (say) the passive, and never think about possible, impossible, and in-between variants.

I actually picked this up when it came out, but never finished it.  And I still haven’t, but I’m playing it again, and I’m almost done, so I’d might as well write a review.

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I sure hope there’s a zipline so I can get down there

Re-reading my review of the reboot, I’m struck by how many things I didn’t like that they’ve now fixed:

  • Basically no Quicktime events. (There are a few “run away across a collapsing building” scenes, but they generally use moves you’ve mastered anyway.)
  • Not as many cutscenes in general. You mostly get to control your own camera!
  • No gallery of ‘friends’ who do nothing to help and are there mainly to get in trouble and/or get killed.
  • No snotty ‘friend’ who’s set up as the obvious betrayer.  (There is a betrayer, but they provided a plausible motivation this time.)

Almost all of the game is set in Siberia, looking for the lost city of Kitezh. Now, Kitezh is a city from Russian folklore which supposedly resisted the Mongol invasion by slipping into a lake.  A Rimsky-Korsakov opera has it becoming invisible instead.  Also it’s supposedly near Nizhny Novgorod, which is not in Siberia.

Whatevs. Here it’s founded by Byzantines, who’ve come from Syria, led by their Prophet, who seems to have the secret of eternal life.  An evil cult named Trinity wants this, and so does Lara Croft, but in a much nicer way.

On the plus side:

  • It’s really pretty; the mountains and the forests and the various ruins are very well done.
  • It has much bigger areas to explore, and you’re able to mess around all you like. (There were some small hubs in the first game, but there wasn’t much to do in each one, and the plot was always hurrying you on.)
  • I like Lara’s voice actress, Camilla Luddington. There’s much less character development this time, so most of the work of making Lara likeable comes down to the voice acting, and Luddington makes her sound earnest and concerned. OK, that may sound dull, but compare that to your basic space marine, who usually sounds indifferent and/or bombastic.
  • There is less emphasis on “hard enemies which mess with what you’ve learned so far”, which is fine by me. E.g. you have armored enemies, but you also have some good options against them.
  • The basic gameplay loop is fun.  Sneak around, shoot arrows or bullets at people, solve some physics puzzles, do some mild parkour. Everyone who’s passed through Kitezh– Trinity, the Byzantines, the Mongols, the Soviets– is fond of leaving ruins which can only be traversed with Lara’s particular gear– climbing pick, rope arrows, etc. Some places even give you a choice of route!

Honestly the open world aspect can be wearing.  There are optional tombs scattered around– you’d might as well do as many as you can, since they offer perks. There are challenges and optional missions and resources to pick up and animals to hunt and relics to find and… well, if you like that sort of thing, there’s a lot of it. The first time I played the game, I put it aside halfway through, and I think it’s because of all this cruft. I feel like I should do everything, but it becomes a chore.

I’m enjoying it more now, mostly because I’ve given myself permission to skip anything I don’t feel like doing. Anyway, in general, this isn’t a Bethesda game, where the main questline is the dullest of them all.  They put the most work into the main story.

On the minus side–

  • I don’t mind dying to enemies– the fights always seem fair, and if I die it’s my fault and it’s usually easy to see why.  But I hate dying because I missed a jump, especially if it has fiddly positioning or timing to it. The game doesn’t even have the excuse of Mirror’s Edge, that it’s about split-second button presses. Rather than falling to her death, Lara should recover, like Batman.  (You could make her repeat the last bit, if you want mistakes to have a cost.)
  • The plot idea of ‘vindicating Dad’ is far less interesting than the first game, which moved Lara from frightened young girl to badass warrior woman. Once she’s that badass, there’s little she really needs, so the emotional temperature drops a bit.

There’s another sequel coming out later this year, so I hope I’ve put Trinity down by the time it comes out.

Edit: Finished it tonight… I really wasn’t far from the end. The final boss fight isn’t terribly hard, which is also fine by me.

Though they lost the character arc from the first game, I think the story here is a lot more meaningful. The story in the first game is more or less “try to escape this extremely dangerous island which Lara’s dad for some reason wanted to get to.” Here, it’s all related to having the secret of immortality… it’s not any more believable, but at least you can see that it has big consequences which explain why everyone is after it.

 

 

 

Today’s reading: Grammaire générale et raisonnée de Port-Royal, by Antoine Arnauld and Claude Lancelot, published in 1660.  Let’s call it PRG. You can get it here, in the 1803 edition. My understanding was that it was a precursor to Chomsky, and in fact he claimed as much in a book, Cartesian Linguistics (1965).  Spoiler: it isn’t.

grammaire

Undoubtedly your first question will be: as a grammar from Renaissance times, how does it compare to the word of Šm Fatandor Revouse, Pere aluatas i Caďinor? In overall coverage and linguistic knowledge, it’s fairly similar— for instance, PRG, like Šm Revouse, stumbles in the phonology section through not having any vocabulary or notation for phonetics; both are reduced to talking about letters.

On the other hand, PRG is fairly free of the sort of metaphysical and nationalistic nonsense that Šm Revouse indulges.  In particular, they never claim that the ancient languages are better than the modern, nor do they try to find spiritual categories or whatever within language. They acknowledge at several points that many aspects of language are arbitrary, and vary between languages. (They do sometimes appeal to the notion of ‘elegance.’)

By the way, see here for an argument from W.K. Percival that there is really no such thing as “Cartesian linguistics” at all, that PRG was not particularly innovative or Cartesian, and that Descartes’ idea of language, to the extent he had any, had very little resemblance to Chomsky’s.

Anyway, what is PRG? It’s not really a grammar at all, either of French or the ancient languages. It could be called a sketch of a comparative grammar, or an overview of the concepts needed to study grammar. So it starts with sounds, then discusses nouns, pronouns, adjectives, cases, verbs, etc.  It never gives enough information to fully cover any topic or tell you in detail how a language handles it, but it does define all grammatical terms, gives examples, and opines on what the functions of each thing are.

Chomsky felt that his notion of “universal grammar” was prefigured here, but I’d say PRG starts from the pretty obvious fact that a similar grammatical analysis can be used for the major languages of Europe. PRG never really runs into a fact about modern French that can’t be described using the terms of classical grammar.  So, for instance, they are perfectly aware that French nouns don’t have case, but they find it useful to relate subjects to the Latin nominative, PPs with de to the genitive, and PPs with à to the dative.

The languages covered are very few: of ancient languages, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; of modern, French, Italian, and Spanish. There are a couple of references to German; none at all to English, and nothing on languages the authors surely were aware of: Basque, Bréton, Dutch, Portuguese, Arabic.

Chomsky went so far as to assert that PRG prefigured his “surface and deep structures”. This is completely absurd; PRG talks about things like subjects and predicates and propositions, but this was bog-standard thinking about language since ancient times. They come a little closer in this passage on adjectives:

When I say Invisible God has created the visible world, three judgements occur in my mind, contained in this proposition. Because I judge first that God is invisible. 2. That he has created the world. 3. That the world is visible. And of these three propositions, the second is the principal one, and the core of the proposition; the first and the third are incidental to it.

The idea that the adjective invisible applied to God represents a proposition God is invisible reoccurs in generative grammar. On the other hand, it is not part of a transformational view of language, nor it is part of a systematic treatment of semantics. It’s really a pretty basic observation about adjectives… if you want to say what an adjective is, you’re almost bound to observe that it says what something is like. It doesn’t mean that you’ve invented deep structure, or phrase structure rules.

There are some interesting bits where the authors try to relate meanings to other meanings. E.g. they say at one point that Petrus vivit ‘Peter lives’ is equivalent to Petrus vivens est ‘Peter is living’, or that Pudet me ‘I am ashamed’ is equivalent to Pudor est tenens mihi ‘Shame is had by me’. You could generously relate this to generative semantics, except backwards: GS tends to make verbs primitive, while PRG tries to restate verbs in terms of adjectives or nouns.

But we really have to avoid overinterpreting texts in terms of current theories. PRG is, by modern standards, hobbled by a lack of semantic terms and frames of reference. The authors didn’t have predicate calculus to think about, or Minsky’s idea of frames, or Fillmore’s idea of semantic roles, or Rosch’s prototypes or fuzzy categories, or Lakoff’s ideas on categories and metaphors.

They’re doing the best they can with the concepts they have. On verbs, for instance, they reject the old idea that verbs represent actions or passions, pointing out (quite rightly) that there are stative verbs which are neither. They propose that the essence of a verb is that it affirms something— that is, it asserts a proposition about something. The prototypical affirmation is the word est “is”, which is why they restate Petrus vivit as Petrus vivens est. Essentially they’re reducing sentences with verbs to things they have already discussed: objects and attributes.

They have a very short chapter on syntax, whose content is rather disappointing. It amounts to these observations:

  • Some words have to agree with each other, to avoid confusion.
  • Some words require each other (e.g. nouns and subjects), and some words depend on another (e.g. adjectives on nouns).
  • When everything is stated well, without rhetoric, the order of words is “natural” and follows the “natural expression of our thoughts”.
  • However, sometimes people want to be fancy, and they omit words, insert superfluous words, or reverse words.

I’m guessing they were in a hurry to wrap up, because they certainly knew Latin well enough to know that the basic sentence order was different in Latin and French, but also could be more freely varied.

A minor point of interest: PRG frequently, like generative grammar, gives negative examples— things we don’t say. This was by no means common in grammars— Whitney’s Sanskrit grammar, for instance, doesn’t do this.

Should you run out and read it? Eh, probably not, especially as it turns out it’s not a precursor at all to modern syntax. It is interesting if you want to know how early rationalists approached grammar, e.g. if you wanted to write something like Šm Revouse’s grammar for your own conlang.

 

 

 

I’m up to page 220, which probably means I’m half done with the Syntax Construction Kit. So it’s time for another progress report.

The last book I read, Robert Van Valin’s An introduction to Syntax, is perhaps the least useful on the details of syntax, but the most useful on what syntax has been doing for the last forty years. There are two overall strands:

  • A focus on constituent structure, the path taken by Chomsky.
  • A focus on relations between words: semantic roles, valence, dependencies.

That’s really helpful, and it’s a better framing than the division I learned in the 1980s between Chomskyan syntax and generative semantics.  The problem with that was, in effect, that GS disappeared. So it kind of looked like the Chomskyans won the battle.

But like Sith and Jedi, you can never really get rid of either side in this fight. In many ways GS simply regrouped and came back as Cognitive Linguistics. Plus, it turns out that many of the specific GS ideas that Chomsky rejected in the 1970s… came back in the ’90s as Minimalism. In particular, semantic roles have a place in the theory, and even the semantic breakdown of verbs (show = cause to see) that GS emphasized years ago, and that Chomsky at the time bitterly resisted.

Also, an unexpected side path: in order to understand and explain a lot of modern theories, I’m having to re-read papers I read for my first syntax classes, nearly forty years ago. My professor had pretty good taste in what would prove important.

There’s two challenges in writing this sort of book.

  • How to communicate that Chomsky isn’t the only game in town, without simply writing a brusque travelog of maybe a dozen alternatives
  • How to make this useful and interesting for someone who just wants to write conlangs, man

Van  Valin scupulously divides his page count between the constituent and the relational point of view. I will emphasize relations far more than I originally intended to, but I’m still going to focus on constituent structure. Partly that’s because there’s so much to cover, but it’s also because I’ve already written quite a bit about relations and semantics in my previous books.

But in general, I’m trying for breadth of syntactic data, not depth in Minimalism (or any other school). The problem with the latter approach is that you may learn to create a syntactic tree that your professor won’t scribble red marks over, but you won’t learn why that particular tree is so great. Every theory can handle, say, WH-movement.

Hopefully, that will address the second challenge as well.  As the Conlanger’s Lexipedia gives you a huge amount of information about words, my aim with this book is to give you more things to put in your syntax section than you thought was possible. And hopefully some pretty weird things. Wait till you see a Bach-Peters sentence.

Plus, web toys! I don’t know why more syntax books haven’t been written by computer programmers; it’s a natural fit. Though I have to say: Chomsky should have run his ideas on Minimalism past a programmer. Some of Minimalism is beautifully simple: you can set out the basic structure of a sentence with a minimum of rules. Then, to handle tense and case, question, and movements, you have to add an amazing superstructure of arbitrary, hard-to-generalize rules. The idea is to get rid of ‘arbitrary’ rules like Passive, but the contrivances needed to do so seem just as arbitrary to me.