Important zbb news

This is to catch anyone who hasn’t been looking at the ZBB lately because it’s been full of errors.

I’m going to move the board to a new host, in stages.  The first stage is to set up the board on a new host, which is done.  You can get there at

To sign up you’ll need a code, which is 676.

Anything you post there is temporary and liable to go away. That’s because the plan is to back up the database from the old ZBB, copy it to the new host, and point the new board at it.  If all goes well, all the old users and posts will come over with it.

(If it doesn’t, plan B is to keep the old data around for some period.)

I wanted to at least get a temporary board up so people can post things without annoyance.

At some point soon, I will have to take the old board down to back it up.  So if it’s down in the next few days, that’s why.

Chomsky pro and con

The syntax book is coming along– I have about 300 pages written.  This project has required reading more by and about Chomsky than is, perhaps, compatible with mental health.

My general position on Chomsky is to defend him to linguistic outsiders, and complain about him to insiders.

In general the defense is going to be in the book– you can hardly talk about modern syntax without recognizing his influence and his discoveries. Generative grammar (GG) from the ’60s was galvanizing… a huge array of transformations and rules and weird syntax was quickly found.  An early book like John Ross’s Infinite Syntax! (1967; it was published under that title in 1986) is highly technical yet displays the contagious exuberance of discovering new things. Whether or not you like the theories, the facts remain, and we can no longer relegate syntax to a six-page section after doing the morphology, as the Port-Royal grammar did.

GG appealed almost at once to computer programmers, which is remarkable if you think about it: few programmers looked at the classic Latin, Greek, or Sanskrit grammars and said I want to program that! If anything, this part of the charm of GG is far more accessible today!  I’ve been creating some web toys that allow modeling transformations; they allow GG to come alive in a way that ’70s textbooks couldn’t really show.

So, on to the complaints!  One is more of a sad groan: it is really hard to keep up with Chomskyan syntax– it changes every ten years, often in dramatic ways. And Chomsky’s own books have become increasingly unreadable. I can barely follow The Minimalist Program; it seems to be barely about language at all.  He seems to prefer abstract pseudo-algebra to discussing actual sentences. The one exception to this generalization is Language and Problems of Knowledge (1988), which was written for the general public and shows that the man can write understandably when he wants to.

Generally speaking, other people have had to tidy up his theories and make them into readable textbooks. I’ve appreciated Andrew Carnie’s Syntax: A Generative Introduction and David Adger’s Core Syntax: A Minimalist Approach.

The dude has a right to change his views over time; still, one might complain that so many of the changes are pointless or don’t seem to move toward greater correctness. Yet he has a way of stating his present views as if they were the only ones possible. In The Minimalist Program (1995), he’s gotten out of the habit of even arguing for his position, or acknowledging that there are any other views at all.

This must put Chomskyan professors into a terrible position.  Imagine teaching, for years, that you must have an N below an N’ below an N” even if you’re dealing with a single word like John, and carefully marking up students’ papers when they lack the extra nodes. And then Chomsky decides one day that all this is unnecessary.  Or, you have NPs for years and then are told that they are DPs.  Or you learn phrase structure rules, only to have them thrown out.  Even without looking at the many other syntactic theories, shouldn’t all this bring in some healthy doubt?

I know it’s almost impossible for humans, but really we should assign our statements a probability value– e.g. it’s 60% likely that the head of “these frogs” is an N, 40% that it’s a Det– and then take serious note of the fact that stacked hypotheses plummet in probability. If you think idea A is 90% probable and so is idea B, then idea AB is 81% probable. And idea ABC is 73% probable, and so on. And anything as complex as X’ theory or Minimalism is made up of dozens of stacked hypotheses.

I wish that Chomskyan syntacticians would take a lesson from math, or computer programming: the same problem can be solved in multiple ways. As a simple example, look at the multiple proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem. GG in the 1960s (not just Chomsky) was convinced that there was a right solution to any syntactic problem. (And it tended to see any linguist problem as a syntactic problem.) This attitude has continued, and it’s rarely acknowledged that it may just be wrong.

So, when we look at Minimalism, and Word Grammar, and Relational Grammar, and Generalized Phrase Structure Grammar, and Construction Grammar, and Lexical Functional Grammar, and Arc Pair Grammar, and so on… it’s possible that none are entirely wrong. It’s quite possible, even likely, that the same language can be described in multiple ways.

Some of these systems probably will die with their creators, and that’s fine. On the other hand, I think relational grammars in general will continue, because they offer a needed corrective. Chomskyan syntax concentrates on constituent structure, and relational grammar on, well, relations between words. You can diagram a sentence either way and learn something each time; each approach is also better for different languages.

(Minimalism makes a great effort to represent relations, and yet does so very clumsily.  Really, try to get a Chomskyan to explain what a “subject” is, or what a “passive” does. Relational grammars start with these things, often not bothering to show the details of constituent structure.)

Another example is case assignment. X’ theory and Minimalism treat this very seriously and in the most cumbersome way. Here I feel that they’ve lost their way: was this really a terrible problem that needed to be solved again? Traditional grammar was actually pretty good at case assignment, and used far simpler terminology. GG’s forte is not handling case, it’s handling transformations.

Another lesson from programming is relevant: elegance is relative to the machine. Syntacticians (again, not only Chomsky) have spent way too much time worrying about the efficiency of their systems. Just one example: X’ theory decides that having general rules VP > NP, VP > NP NP, VP > NP PP, etc., is messy and we should instead let entries in the lexicon specify what frame they need: e.g. cry doesn’t need any object, put needs NP PP. Does that make the grammar simpler or not?  Maybe for the grammarian; we don’t know if it’s better or not for the brain.

The thing is, we know almost nothing about the machine we’re running on, i.e. the brain.  You can’t optimize for a machine if you don’t know its specs (and its hangups and limitations). The very little we do know suggests that our way of thinking about algorithms is probably a very bad way to think about mental abilities. Brains are not like a CPU running a program. They are more like 100 billion CPUs each running an extremely simple program. Its methods (e.g. in the visual system) run toward millions of sub-processes addressing tiny little problems (“is there an edge here?” “did my little bit of data change recently?”).

I don’t think any linguistic theory really makes use of this information, though cognitive linguistics may be getting there. One corollary I’d strongly suggest, though: the brain is probably fine with messy, encyclopedic data in multiple formats. Everything can be linked or stitched together; very little is refactored as new data comes in. Half of the general rules that linguists discover probably don’t exist at all in the brain; they’re historical facts, not brain facts.

I just finished an older introduction to Chomsky, Chomsky’s Universal Grammar by V.J. Cook (1988), and it’s actually more annoying than Chomsky. That’s because it foregrounds all of Chomsky’s worst ideas: universal grammar (UG), the language organ, and principles & parameters. Cook leads off with these things because he presumably finds them the most interesting for the outside world. Ironically, by his own account, these are precisely the ideas that are largely ignored or rejected by psychologists, language acquisition specialists, programmers, and language teachers.

Chomsky’s first books were quite neutral about the psychological status of his grammar– he was after a description of the sentences produced within a language, nothing more, and did not claim that speakers used that grammar in their brains. He has since become ever more convinced that not only is grammar preprogrammed in the brain, it’s programmed according to his system. And yet he develops his system entirely based on intra-theoretical concerns; he has never had any real interest in biological systems, genetics, neural behavior, or even language acquisition.

He even maintains that word meanings are innate, a position which is positively barmy. He finds it perfectly obvious that a word like climb is innately provided by UG. When you hear this sort of thing (Chomsky is not the only offender), take note that words like climb are all they talk about. Did the ancients really have genetically given concepts like airplane, microscope, neutron, phosphate, compiler?  How about scanning electron microscope?  How about generative semantics? It’s simply impossible that our poor little genomes can contain the entire OED; it’s also easily demonstrable that concepts do not neatly coincide between languages. (Takao Suzuki’s Words in Context has a very nice demonstration that words like break are far more complex than they seem, and can’t be simply equated to any one Japanese word.)

On the plus side, innatism on words doesn’t really come up much; on the minus side, Chomsky has doubled down on innatism in syntax, in the form of principles and parameters. This is the idea that UG contains all possible rules, and an actual human language consists of just two things: a small list of binary settings, and a rather longer list of words.

The examples that are always trotted out are pro-drop and head position. Supposedly, Italian is pro-drop and English is not– that is, English requires pronouns and Italian doesn’t.  Got that? Might have to explain more. Not quite so cut-and-dried as all that. Think about it.

Head position is a little harder to explain, but it basically means that the ‘important’ word goes first or last. English is head-first, because we have V + O (kill things), prepositions (on top), and head-first NPS (the one who laughs). Japanese is head-last in all these areas.

One problem: this is hardly binary either. There are good arguments that some languages don’t have VPs at all. Chinese has both prepositions and postpositions, and it isn’t alone. English is only mostly SVO; there are exceptions. Relative clauses arguably don’t attach to the noun at all in Hindi, but to the sentence. Chinese has RelN order combined with V+O.

You could ‘solve’ all this by multiplying parameters. But that only reveals the meta-theoretical problem: the parameters notion makes the theory unfalsifiable. For any weird behavior, you just add another parameter. Cook claims that no one’s found any grammars that don’t match UG, as if that’s a point in favor of the theory.  In fact it’s a point against: UG has been made refutation-proof.

Chomskyans do make a pretty strong claim: children should be able to set a parameter based on very little input– maybe just one sentence, Carnie boldly says. And the evidence from language acquisition… does not back this up at all. Children do not show evidence of randomly using one parameter, suddenly learning a setting, and thereafter getting it right. They show little evidence of learning overall abstract rules at all, in fact.  They seem to learn language construction by construction, only generalizing very late, once they know thousands of words.  See my review of Tomasello for more on this. (Also discussed in my ALC.)

Finally, there’s the infuriating arguments for the language organ. Chomsky, and each of the Chomskyan textbooks, invariably bring out the same tepid arguments. For some reason they always bring up Question Inversion. E.g. what’s the question form of this sentence?

The man who is tall is John.

Chomskyans love to run this through a number (usually two) of impossible algorithms. E.g., reverse every word:

*John is tall is who man the?

Or, reverse the first two words:

*Man the who is tall is John?

All this to come up with the apparently amazing fact that we reverse the subject and the verb:

Is the man who is tall John?

This is supposed to demonstrate the importance of constituent structure: the “subject” is not a single word, but the entire phrase The man who is tall. And this is entirely true! Constituent structure is an important building block of syntax, in every goddamn theory there is. It doesn’t prove UG or any version of Chomskyan syntax.

Plus, the “non-UG” alternatives are pure balderdash; even a completely dense child can see that no one talks that way. Cook talks about “imitation” as a (wrong) alternative to UG, but the default position would seem to be that children are trying to imitate adult speech. Their initial questions are very obviously simplified versions of adult questions. E.g. where bear? instead of where is the bear? The only rule the child needs here is to use only the words it understands.

There’s a gotcha in the sample sentence: there are two is‘s; a child might be tempted to invert based on the wrong one:

*Is the man who tall is John?

The claim is that children get this right without ever hearing examples of such nested sentences. This is the “poverty of the stimulus” argument: children learn or know things that they can’t pick up from the evidence. But the Chomskyans never check to see if their assumption is correct. More empirically oriented linguists have, e.g. Geoffrey Sampson, who found that corpora of language use do include quite a large number of  model sentences.

Moreover, the Chomskyans show little interest in what errors children do make, or what that might mean for syntax. It’s not the case that children always get questions right. They particularly get wh- questions wrong: What that man is doing?

Now, all the language organ stuff turns out to be, in the end, not very important. The Chomskyans forget it by Chapter 3 and so can we. Still, it annoys me that Cook or Steven (The Language Instinct) Pinker lay such emphasis on it, as if it was the Key Insight that separates Chomsky from the clueless masses. The fact that the same simple arguments and examples come up in each exposition should be a clue: this is more an incantation than any kind of knowledge.

Ironically, for such a Chomsky booster, Cook has a short passage that makes some trenchant criticisms of X’ theory. “One feels that the same sentences and constructions self-perpetuate themselves in the literature…” He regrets that X’ theory seems to have narrowed its focus considerably: there’s little discussion of the wide variety of constructions that earlier GG looked at.

Whew! Sorry, had to get all that off my chest.  Now to see if I can finish The Minimalist Program.








Agents of Mayhem

I picked this up in the Steam sale, but I think I’m done. Though very few of my friends play it, so my guess is that not many people will care.


Must be an RPG if you have to talk to gremlins

I love the Saints Row games, and this is by the same studio, so it seemed promising. To a first approximation it is a Saints Row game– just continuing the trend of downplaying the gang angle and upplaying the superheroics.

If Overwatch was a single-player game, it’d probably be like this. Apparently the bad guys, called Legion, have taken over the world, in a bright colorful future, but the titular Agents are on the case. You have a bunch of international agents (though you start with just 3); you more or less have to learn how to play each one, though you can play favorites; you fight cartoon supervillains and their minions. You have what are pretty much special powers on a short cooldown and an ult on a long one.

There’s also races, Legion hotspots to shut down, cars to drive, so it also feels like a Saints Row game.  They even kept one of the weirdest little mechanics of SR: you can “compliment” citizens with a gesture, and they’ll mime one back. There are fleur-de-lis and lots of purple.

You only play as one character at a time. But you have a squad of three, and can switch between them with the mousewheel. And you’ll need to, because a) you’ll need certain characters to whittle down shields and… um, other-shields. (There are two types.) And b) the characters you’re not using recover health, which is the way to get through long boss fights.

What I’m really mad at right now: the piss-poor checkpointing. I couldn’t defeat a boss– OK, fair enough, now I know what to do.  Only there are three stages to this fight, and the checkpoint is before the first one. And really none of the stages are fun or interesting; it’s dash up and do some damage to a turret or the boss, then hide while he uses his weapon, rinse and repeat for more than half an hour. And there’s no way to change the difficulty during a mission, which is simply incredible.

That’s the worst thing, but there’s other ways that the game just falls short.

  • The characters… oh lord. By the time of SR4 its characters– Pierce, Shaundi, Kinzie, even Johnny Gat– felt like old friends. The Agents are all kind of brash and chattery, but not very likeable. They have different abilities, but they’re far less differentiated than Overwatch heroes.
  • In general the writing is kind of excruciating. I get it, it’s Saturday morning cartoons, but even on that level it could be way better… cf. Handsome Jack in Borderlands 2.
  • You get gadgets from each mission, and there’s a load of customizable options, and there’s little guidance on what sort of build you will need. It seems way more fussy and detailed than the story demands.
  • Each agent levels up separately, which puts the new ones at a disadvantage.
  • There’s also a wide range of currency equivalents, which also feels fussy and tedious. Didn’t they realize that SR4’s ‘cache’ worked just fine? Now you have shards and upgrade cores and cash and a bunch of other stuff. (I don’t even know what the cash is for yet.)
  • The locations run heavily to Futuristic Skyscraper and Futuristic Corridors, and the enemies are all Futuristic Minions.
  • It’s set in Seoul– and the city looks good– but there’s about zero local color. Lots of Korean on signs, but since you basically don’t interact with the locals it could have been set absolutely anywhere.
  • One of the unusual pleasures of SR was its diversity…SR4, for instance, just has one white dude in its ensemble cast.  The Agents are multinational, but the cultural depth is about a millimeter. There’s a Brazilian agent, for instance, who speaks… Spanish. (Not that they even bothered with a Spanish-sounding actress.)  There’s an Indian agent, a female, named Rama. I dunno, this is like an Indian game having a white hero named Jesus– who’s a woman.  And despite the setting in Seoul, there’s not a single Korean or even East Asian character so far.
  • Another annoyance: the game plays at Ultra graphics level for me– except it spoils the stupid Hack action; the timing is off.  It’s fixed by moving down to High, but it seems to me they could have made some sort of adjustment for your FPS.
  • And besides the checkpointing problem… good lord are the missions interminable. the one I was on was two hours or so. I’d finish one bit, there’d be a checkpoint for the same mission, and I’d wonder if it was inviting me to replay it… no, it was more frigging supervillain lairs to take over.
  • No clothing shops.  Again, didn’t they play their own games?  Dressing up in SR was fun.

All that was pretty negative, and I have to say (like some of the reviews I’ve seen) that it’s not bad. It’s mostly mindless fun. All the agents get a triple jump, which is pretty fun to move around with. The basic idea is good, and it looks nice.

(I was thinking of picking up Cuphead in the Steam sale too, but decided to wait on that. I’ve seen playthroughs and I fully expect to, like, not even defeat the carrot.  Maybe another year.)


Kentucky Route Zero

I’m both early and late to this party: Kentucky Route Zero came out in 2013, but it’s an episodic game and 4 of 5 episodes are out. The last one should be out, oh, any day now.

Edit: and it is!


On a magic realist tour, always stop for the music

It’s a weird little game, though if you started with Grim Fandango, threw in some García Marquez, and marinated it in Southern Gothic, you’d end up about here. It’s mostly text adventure, but it makes effective use of some evocative, beautiful visuals. It largely tells a tale rather than letting you shape it, but your choices affect your experience immensely. And everything, from tone to which character is the protagonist, is subject to change.

The basics: you start out playing a truck driver named Conway, who gets lost trying to deliver a shipment of antiques. He stops off at a gas station and learns that the address he’s looking for is more or less in neverland– it’s on the titular Route Zero, an underground highway that you can’t get to by normal means. He’s sent on an increasingly bizarre quest to find the entrance to this highway.

Along the way he picks up a very motley crew of other strange loners: Shannon, a girl he finds in an abandoned mine; a boy named Ezra who hangs with a giant eagle and whose parents have disappeared; Junebug and Johnnie, traveling musicians who happen to be robots, though no one is gauche enough to hassle them about it; Cate, who runs a tugboat along an underground river and also serves as a midwife. We end up learning quite a lot about each of them and their predicaments.

A lot of fantasy is empowerment fantasy. Not here. Magic realism is a sort of inversion of Samuel Beckett: ultimately the universe is bleak and tragic, but damn if we aren’t going to have some fun along the way. The story of KRZ is full of terrible things: a flooded mine, unscrupulous corporations, infuriating bureaucracies, debt, decay, and medical emergencies. Against all this, there’s only friendship, kindness, and music. The story hints that Conway has a tendency to look for escape in a bottle. But there’s other kinds of escape, even if only momentary, like the sudden dizzying pans or zooms in KRZ’s visuals where you realize that the flat-seeming images are really 3-D modeled.

There are a lot of references to other works… let’s just say that very few of the names in the story are random. It’s not intrusive, though, just a nod to fellow travelers.

I mentioned Grim Fandango as being closest to what KRZ is like as a game.  You don’t really have the puzzles, however, or the hope of a happy ending. (We’ll see. I hope at least someone in the story gets one.) You make choices, almost always by choosing a line of dialog.


OK, not a fascinating choice, but it’s the only screenshot I had that showed choices.

I’ll warn you right now: it seems like your choices don’t impact the overall story at all. (But we’ll see when Act 5 comes out.) You get about the same story in the same order no matter what you do. And yet the choices aren’t meaningless; they’re a low-key form of roleplaying. You can choose to be distanced, or empathetic. You can intensely pursue your quest goals, or you can accept digressions.  You can define some of the characters’ pasts and how they feel about them.

In some ways the game, without redefining the basic idea of a dialog tree, makes it work better than almost any other game. The big Bethesda and Bioware games almost always give you three basic options: be nasty, be helpful, or don’t get involved. The choices here may not be highly consequential, but they’re generally all reasonable, at least.

The story opens out quite a bit in Act 4, where you’re travelling on Cate’s tugboat, making various stops. At each one you choose which character you want to follow. So here you can really only get half the story, though apparently (I haven’t tried replaying it) you get hints of what happened in the other branch.

Oh, a warning that might avoid some surprised swearing: the game has three save slots, but it doesn’t remember which one you used last. I thought it hadn’t saved my progress at one point, but it had– I just had to choose the right save slot.

Will you like it? Well, if your idea of a game is “shoot all the things”, maybe not. I think it has its longueurs; on the other hand, I’m eager to see how it all comes together in Act 5. For the most part it’s aiming at a particular strain of melancholy, leavened by some comedy and bemused folksiness (none of the characters quite knows what’s going on, though some are less troubled by this than others). Mostly it hits its marks.

Sometimes it’d be nice if it really gave into the weirdness, gave you some of the exhilaration of parts of (say) Edith Finch. But that would probably spoil the quieter bits, which you’d rush through to get to the set pieces. This is a game where some strangers bonding over mushroom hunting (next to an underground river), or deciding whether or not to talk to the dog in the straw hat, are as important as pursuing Conway’s increasingly unlikely delivery.





Hittin’ Gibbon

If you wait long enough to read one of the classics, maybe it’ll be conveniently forgotten. Or maybe you’ll just pick it up anyway. I just finished Vol. 1 of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the hot bestseller of 1781. This volume covers the period from AD 180 to 395, in 956 closely printed pages.


Julian. Not accidental that he’s depicted in philosopher’s robes

Should you read a history written 237 years ago? Well, sure, if you want to. Gibbon is old-school history, which means it’s all about the Great Men and the far more numerous Not Great Men. But he’s quite readable, he relies closely on primary sources, and it’s pretty hard to make this swath of history dull. Not only were the emperors a motley crew of heroes, tyrants, and perverts (sometimes all of the above), but the topic of disaster never loses its allure.

I can’t say how much Gibbon has held up as history– he’s probably pretty good at what he does, which is retelling the major wars and events of each reign. Look at a more modern history, like this one from Adrian Goldsworthy, for more of a social and administrative overview.

What does Gibbon think went wrong? Well, he’s big on the influence at the top: there were too many timid, tyrannical, or cruel buffoons in charge. And he’s big on the morale of a society– he thinks Republican Rome was a lovely combination of martial vigor, civic virtue, law, and manliness. (One of his worst epithets is “effeminate”.) Yet these are probably only old-fashioned ways of saying what Goldsworthy pointed out: the empire was fatally weakened by internal strife and an out-of-control army long before the barbarians took over.

Gibbon is, by the way, horribly and casually racist. He can’t resist calling the Persians effeminate (and prone to luxury and tyranny), the Jews anti-social and narrow, the Africans ineffectual and stupid, the steppe nomads as ugly and lazy. (They’re lazy because they don’t grow crops, you see. Adam Smith made the same mistake, not realizing that some regions just can’t support agricultural states.) Yet by his own account the Romans were despotic, often faithless and cruel, and not “manly” at all. The racism is completely gratuitous– he’s perfectly capable of soberly describing the respectable Persian religion and recognizing the virtues of their armies.

He’s also completely in favor of empire, Roman or British; manly nations should just spread out over the globe as far as they can, though again, by his own showing, no one has ever made these huge empires last too long without falling apart.

He also has a rather parochial kind of aristophilia, in that he naturally prefers and argues for whatever most resembles the British kingdom of his own day. He doesn’t like democracy or too much power in the hands of the people; he doesn’t much like absolute monarchy; it’s evident that he expects and wishes the Roman Senate would act like the British aristocrats of his day: rule the country in a more or less benign way, consult with each other, support a congenial ruler though holding the ultimate upper hand, and serving as the officers of both military and civil administration. I doubt the Republic was really what he imagined it was, and the imperial-era Senate certainly wasn’t. He clearly understands both why the Emperors needed to be generals, and why the Roman state was ultimately weakened because of military rule.

For much of the last 200 years, the book has had a slight tincture of scandal, because of his treatment of Christianity. I’d had the vague impression, in fact, that he was an atheist. Not at all; in fact he goes out of his way to talk about the Deity and Providence and how all the heretics were wrong; there’s really nothing here that a Christian could really object to. What earlier generations hated, of course, was that Gibbon wrote as a historian and not as a partisan. He downplays the persecution of Christianity (really, most emperors ignored it; only Diocletian really cracked down on it, and for a relatively brief period); he is not impressed with the Christians’ doctrinal squabbles or fearsome counter-prosecution of pagans; and he’s quite sympathetic to Roman religion. (Though he really hates Nordic religion.) He criticizes the luxury and venality of the 4C bishops, and is just a bit sarcastic about the miracles of the ecclesiastical sources. (He points out that if the sun really darkened during the Crucifixion, it’s rather surprising that Roman naturalists never mentioned it.)

An unexpected hero of the book, in fact, is the emperor Julian, who reigned just from 361-3, and received the title “the Apostate” because he reversed his uncle Constantine’s imperial embrace of Christianity and attempted to restore paganism. His apostasy is more excusable when you learn that the people who taught him were the same people who murdered most of his family. He had a natural leaning toward philosophy and loved hanging around with Neo-Platonist teachers; but he turned out to have an aptitude for war and statecraft as well. He turned back some Germanic invasions, reluctantly was acclaimed emperor by his troops, was personally abstemious and workaholic, and won the East by accident, when the emperor Constantius died. He advanced into Persia with some remarkable victories, inspiring his soldiers and dashing about the battlefield like a second Alexander… and then took a Persian javelin in his liver. Oops! The Romans kind of fell apart, extricating themselves from Persia only at the price of a significant loss of territory.

An alternative history where Julian lived longer would be interesting. It was probably too late for paganism– but the fact that most of his army flip-flopped from Christian to pagan and then back again, as his career waxed and suddenly ended, shows that the religious struggle was far more chancy than later events made it look.

Gibbon goes on, perhaps too much, about the politics of the intra-Christian squabbles, but doesn’t really bother to explain the theological problems. He simply assumes that the later-orthodox position is obviously right. This does a disservice to his own story, since in this period Arianism was actually dominant, and he can’t really explain why. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that if it weren’t for a few historical accidents, one of the “heretic” sects would be orthodoxy and the other would be obviously wrong.

Another curious topic: the extension of Roman citizenship. The Greek attitude toward citizenship was like Trump’s: make it as hard to get as possible. The Romans extended citizenship first to their Italian allies, then to more and more subjects, and finally (in 212) to all non-slaves within the Empire. Gibbon more or less disapproves of this: he’s all about the manliness, and obviously the city of Rome had lost its martial abilities and then its pre-eminence, well before the barbarians started causing trouble. But (say) Colin McEvedy thinks that this was one of Rome’s great strengths. The city itself could afford to decline because more and more people were willing to fight and die for the Roman name and civilization. (To the end, the Greek “Byzantine Empire” called itself and its people Romans.) If it had kept citizenship as a prize for itself, its empire would be as short-lived as those of Athens or Macedonia.

I’m not sure if I’ll go on to Volume 2… in many ways Vol. 1 tells you all you need to know. It ends just as the Germans are invading and the Huns aren’t far behind; the actual fall of the Western Empire in the next 80 years is just anticlimax.

A little linguistic note: you have to watch out for a few words that have changed meaning in 237 years. E.g. of one Gothic leader Gibbon says “the love of rapine and the hatred of Rome seconded, or even prevented, the eloquence of his ambassadors.” This could easily be taken as the opposite of what he means. We’d say that these things endorsed or preceded his diplomacy.

(Perhaps you’re wondering if a Rome Construction Kit is in the future? That would be fun, not least because I’d love to improve my Latin. And ooh, the world needs a history that puts all the macrons back on the Latin names. But no, this is just side reading for now.  Maybe later…)



Projects: Verdurian, French

I’ve been working on a few projects. One is making flags for the nations of Ereláe. You can see what I’ve done so far here.


Rather more surprising: I’ve been translating a French novel. No, you haven’t heard of it; that’s why I’m translating it. 🙂  I hope the author won’t mind my naming it: it’s Damien Loch by Shan Millan. It’s a fantasy novel,  but a rather satirical and contrarian one. It’s more or less “What if your asshole neighbor turned out to come from another world… but he was still an asshole?”

One of the fascinating bit about translating is how styles and wording differ between even quite similar languages. Conlangers, take note! One way to put it is: if the word-for-word gloss from your language sounds just like English, you probably haven’t worked out your language’s style enough.

For me at least, the problem is that reading the French original, the French style starts to sound natural, and the English ends up strange and wooden. So of course I have to go over the English and make it sound, well, English.

In return, Shan is translating the Language Construction Kit— the book— into French! I tried to do this myself a few years ago, and didn’t get very far, mostly because of the same style problem. I could make a French version myself, but it would be horribly awful. 

Anyway, this will eventually be very exciting for English fantasy fans, and French conlangers.

The other project came out of my work on syntax: I decided to finally update the Verdurian grammar. In the syntax book I want to explain how you can use modern syntax to inform your conlang’s grammar, you see, and I thought I’d better do it myself first. (Not that there wasn’t syntax in the grammar before, but now there’s more.)

I’ve also taken the opportunity to make the grammar easier, and harder. Easier, in that I can explain some things better, and get rid of what I now think are confusing presentations. (Also, there will be glosses for all the examples, a practice I now think is indispensable.) Harder, in that I don’t feel that I have to explain basic linguistics in every grammar, especially since the ‘easy’ route is already there in the form of guided lessons.

(No finish date yet, but it shouldn’t be too long.)

(I’m also hoping to include actual Verdurian text, for people who have the right font.)

Ask Zompist: Alphabetical order

Is there a good methodology or series of questions one should ask themselves when determining what the “alphabetical order” will be of one’s alphabet or other writing system? Is there any particular reason why “A” should be before “B” and that before “C”?


Great question— the answer may be a bit disappointing. The obvious thing to do is to look at natural language alphabetical orders. Only…

  • The alphabet was really only invented once— by the Canaanites, some time after 2000 BC. Everyone else, including the Jews, Arabs, Greeks, and Romans, adapted their system and kept their order.
  • We really don’t know why that order prevailed. No one even seems to have any good guesses. The World’s Writing Systems never, so far as I could see, covers the topic.

(There are actually two attested ancient orders, you can see a comparison here.)

(Also, technically, the Canaanite writing system was a consonantal alphabet, or abjad. Later, partial vowel symbols were used. The Greeks were the first to represent all their vowels.)

So far so disappointing, but we also have the example of the Brāhmī script, which is the ancestor of Devanāgarī and other Indian and SE Asian scripts. This arose around 300 BC, and the interesting thing about it is that its order is phonetically motivated. Letters are grouped by point of articulation (it starts क ख ग घ ka kha ga gha), and the secondary order is from the back of the mouth to the front: ka…, ca…, ṭa…, ta…, pa… Finally there’s semivowels and then sibilants. A linguist couldn’t have done a better job. The Brāhmī order very likely influenced the order in Korean and Japanese.

(The a‘s aren’t just part of the letter— in these systems a symbol has an inherent vowel. So क alone is ka. You add diacritics for other vowels: कि ki, कु ku, etc.)

There’s one other scheme that might appeal to you: mnemonics. A real-world example is the iroha order for the Japanese kana. It’s a poem which includes every character in the syllabary just once, and still serves as an alternative order for the kana.

Since there aren’t many real-world examples, I think a conlanger is also entitled to use any crazy system they can come up with…