languages


I’m at the point in my book where I can’t fit everything in. So, it can overflow here! The “School of Names” (mìngjiā) is one of the also-rans of ancient Chinese philosophy— they didn’t make a big splash at the time, and unlike (say) the Mohists, they don’t appeal any better to modern tastes.

Anyway, perhaps their best known piece is 白马论 Bái mǎ lùn (White Horse Essay), by 公孙龙 Gōngsūn Lóng, which attempts to prove that a white horse is not a horse. It’s a little reminiscent of Zeno proving that movement is impossible: one can admire the argument and even be perturbed by it, but feel that surely if the dude believes it for reals, he’s confused at best.

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Anyway, I decided to attempt a translation, since the Old Chinese (OC) here is not (generally) too hard, and because at least half of it is pretty amusing. It’s written as a dialog; to simplify things I’ve divided the lines into blue and red. My comments are in black. The original text and Donald Sturgeon’s translation are here.

If anyone wants to criticize my translation I’d be happy to take corrections!

白马非马,可乎?
Bái mǎ fēi mǎ, kě hū?
white horse not horse, can Q
Can it be said that a white horse is not a horse?

OC has no copula, but it does have a negative copula, fēi. (Wikipedia makes a big deal of OC not having a separate adjective class— words like bái are more like verbs— but nothing in the essay depends on this; bái mǎ works just like “white horse”.

可。

can
It can.

何哉?
Hé zāi?
what EXCL
How so??

马者,所以命形也;白者,所以命色也。命色者非命形也。故曰:“白马非马”。
Mǎ zhě, suǒyǐ mìng xíng yě; bái zhě, suǒyǐ mìng sè yě. Mìng sè zhě fēi mìng xíng yě. Gù yuē:“Bái mǎ fēi mǎ”.
horse NOM / whereby name shape PT / white NOM / whereby name color PT / name color NOM not name shape PT / therefore say / white horse not horse
“Horse” names a shape. “White” names a color. What names a color does not name a shape. Thus I say, “A white horse is not a horse.”

Zhě is a nominalizer, so if you see something like mǎ zhě you can take it as “horsiness”, or “being a horse”, or (as is probably meant here) “the concept ‘horse'”. You’ll notice  a lot here; it’s a factual evidential, but (I think) pretty weak in meaning.

有白马,不可谓无马也。不可谓无马者,非马也?有白马为有马,白之,非马何也?
Yǒu bái mǎ, bù kě wèi wú mǎ yě. Bù kě wèi wú mǎ zhě, fēi mǎ yě? Yǒu báimǎ wèi yǒu mǎ, bái zhī, fēi mǎ hé yě?
exist white horse / not can call not.exist horse PT / not can call not.exist horse NOM / not horse PT / exist white horse call exist horse / white SUB / not horse what PT
Having a white horse, that can’t be called having no horses. The state of not having no horses, is that not a horse? Having a white horse means having a horse; a white one, how is it not a horse?

Blue doesn’t bother to address Red’s first sally.  He makes the common-sense argument that having a white horse certainly means having a horse.

求马,黄、黑马皆可致;求白马,黄、黑马不可致。使白马乃马也,是所求一也。所求一者,白马不异马也;所求不异,如黄、黑马有可有不可,何也?可与不可,其相非明。故黄、黑马一也,而可以应有马,而不可以应有白马。是白马之非马,审矣!
Qiú mǎ, huáng, hēi mǎ jiē kě zhì; qiú báimǎ, huáng hēi mǎ bù kě zhì.
request horse / yellow black horse each can send / ask white horse / yellow black horse not can send
If you ask for a horse, a yellow or black one can be sent; if you ask for a white horse, a yellow or black one cannot be sent.

Shǐ bái mǎ nǎi mǎ yě, shì suǒ qiú yī yě.
make white horse be horse PT / this number request one PT
Making “white horse” the same as “horse” makes both requests the same.

Suǒ qiú yī zhě, bái mǎ bù yì mǎ yě; suǒ qiú bù yì, rú huáng, hēi mǎ yǒu kě yǒu bù kě, hé yě?
number request one NOM / white horse not different horse PT / number request not different / if yellow black horse exist can exist not can / what PT
If the requests are the same, then a white horse is not different from a horse; if what is requested is no different, why is that a yellow or black horse is possible in one case but not the other?

Kě yǔ bù kě, qí xiāng fēi míng.
can and not can / it together not clear
Possible and not possible, clearly these are different!

Gù huáng, hēi mǎ yī yě, ér kěyǐ yīng yǒu mǎ, ér bù kěyǐ yīng yǒu bái mǎ.
thus yellow black horse one PT / and can should exist horse / and not can should exist white horse
Thus yellow and black horses are the same, in that one can say that there is a horse, but not that there is a white horse.

Shì bái mǎ zhī fēi mǎ, shěn yǐ!
correct white horse it not horse / indeed PFV
Indeed we have shown that a white horse is not a horse!

The quickest route to success is to show that “horse” and “white horse” are not the same thing. And they’re not; Red gives a real-world example where the two are not equivalent at all.  They refer to different sets.  In one sense she’s won: she’s shown that “white horse” is not identical to “horse”.

以马之有色为非马,天下非有无色之马也。天下无马可乎?
Yǐ mǎ zhī yǒu sè wéi fēi mǎ, tiānxià fēi yǒu wú sè zhī mǎ yě. Tiānxià wú mǎ kě hū?
so horse it exist color make not horse / heaven-under not exist not color it horse PT / heaven-under not horse can Q
If a colored horse is not a horse, then since the world has no colorless horses, do you say that the world has no horses?

马固有色,故有白马。使马无色,有马如已耳,安取白马?故白者非马也。白马者,马与白也;马与白马也,故曰:白马非马也。
Mǎ gù yǒu sè, gù yǒu báimǎ.
horse firm exist color / thus exist white horse
Horses definitely have colors; thus there are white horses.

Shǐ mǎ wú sè, yǒu mǎ rú yǐ ěr, ān qǔ bái mǎ?
correct horse no color / exist horse if stop only / safe seek white horse
If horses had no color, then only “horses” exist; how could you look for a white horse?

Gù bái zhě fēi mǎ yě.
then white NOM not horse PT
Thus a white one is not a horse.

Bái mǎ zhě, mǎ yǔ bái yě; mǎ yǔ bái mǎ yě, gù yuē: Bái mǎ fēi mǎ yě.
white horse NOM / horse give white PT / horse give white horse PT / thus say / white horse not horse PT
A white horse is horse-and-white, horse-and-white-horse. Thus I say, a white horse is not a horse.

Blue doesn’t seem to understand (or just ignores) Red’s point. He keeps insisting on the point that if you have a white horse, you have a horse.  But that doesn’t prove much— you could equally say that if you have a white horse, you have a mammal.  A horse is-a (is a member of the category) mammal, but “horse” and “mammal” are different concepts.  Red says as much in the last line— “white-horse” and “horse” are two different concepts.

Neat word derivation: Tiānxià “(what is) under heaven” = “the earth”.

Translators: always remember OC is trying to play gotcha with you. In this case it uses 耳 ěr which is usually ‘ear’, but in this case means ‘only’. Similarly 足 zú is normally ‘foot’ but sometimes means ‘enough’.

马未与白为马,白未与马为白。合马与白,复名白马。是相与以不相与为名,未可。故曰:白马非马未可。
Mǎ wèi yǔ bái wéi mǎ, bái wèi yǔ mǎ wèi bái.
horse not.yet with white make horse / white not.yet with horse make white.
A ‘horse’ not yet with ‘white’ makes a horse; ‘white’ not yet with a ‘horse’ makes white.

Hé mǎ yǔ bái, fù míng bái mǎ.
join horse with white / double name white horse
Combining horse and white is the compound name “white horse”.

Shì xiāng yǔ yǐ bù xiāng yǔ wéi míng, wèi kě.
this appear and with not appear with make name / not can
(This is to use an uncombined name for a combined thing, and is inadmissible.)

Gù yuē: Bái mǎ fēi mǎ wèi kě.
thus say / white horse not horse not can
Thus I say, “A white horse is not a horse” cannot be.

I give Sturgeon’s translation for one sentence as I couldn’t figure it out.  I’m also not sure what Blue is saying, except that he’s trying to point out that “white horse” is a combination of concepts.  What we’d like him to say is that A^B implies A, but he still wants to deny Red’s contention.

以“有白马为有马”,谓有白马为有黄马,可乎?
Yǐ “yǒu bái mǎ wèi yǒu mǎ”, wèi yǒu bái mǎ wèi yǒu huáng mǎ, kě hū?
with “exist white horse make exist horse” / mean exist white horse make exist yellow horse / can Q
Given “having a white horse is having a horse”, does that mean having a white horse is having a yellow horse?

未可。
Wèi kě
not can.
It isn’t.

以有马为异有黄马,是异黄马于马也;异黄马于马,是以黄马为非马。以黄马为非马,而以白马为有马,此飞者入池而棺椁异处,此天下之悖言乱辞也。
Yǐ yǒu mǎ wèi yì yǒu huáng mǎ, shì yì huáng mǎ yú mǎ yě; yì huáng mǎ yú mǎ, shì yǐ huáng mǎ wéi fēi mǎ.
use exist horse make use exist yellow horse / this different yellow horse to horse PT / different yellow horse with horse / this with yellow horse make not horse
Given “having a horse is having a yellow horse”, then a yellow horse is different from a horse; if a yellow horse is different from a horse, then a yellow horse doesn’t serve as a horse.

Yǐ huáng mǎ wéi fēi mǎ, ér yǐ bái mǎ wèi yǒu mǎ, cǐ fēi zhě rù chí ér guān guǒ yì chù, cǐ tiānxià zhī bèi yán luàn cí yě.
use yellow horse make not horse / and use white horse make exist horse / this fly NOM enter pond and coffin outer.coffin different place / this heaven-under it perverse speak disorderly phrasing PT
To take yellow horses as not horses, and yet take white horses as being horses, is to have flying things in the water and the inner and outer coffins in different places; this is perverse and random speaking.

To be honest I’m kind of tired of Red and her horses.  She is perfectly willing to make deductions about horses and colored horses like a normal person (note that she never says that yellow and brown horses are not horses).  It’s clear that the classes are different, but let’s move on and understand how they’re related. (To put it another way: if you point out that there are problems with ‘(not) be’, you’re probably right, and the solution is to be more precise.)

有白马,不可谓无马者,离白之谓也。不离者有白马不可谓有马也。故所以为有马者,独以马为有马耳,非有白马为有马。故其为有马也,不可以谓马马也。
Yǒu bái mǎ, bù kě wèi wú mǎ zhě, lí bái zhī wèi yě.
exist white horse / not can name not horse NOM / leave white it call PT
Having a white horse cannot be called having no horses; this is called separating out whiteness.

Bù lí zhě yǒu bái mǎ bù kě wèi yǒu mǎ yě.
not leave NOM exist white horse not can call exist horse PT
Without separating it, having a white horse can’t be called having a horse.

Gù suǒyǐ wéi yǒu mǎ zhě, dú yǐ mǎ wèi yǒu mǎ ěr, fēi yǒu bái mǎ wèi yǒu mǎ.
thus thereby make exist horse NOM / alone with horse make exist horse only / wrong exist white horse make exist horse
Thus why it’s taken as having horses, it’s only because horses make for having horses, and it’s incorrect to say that having a white horse makes for having horses.

Gù qí wèi yǒu mǎ yě, bù kěyǐ wèi mǎ mǎ yě.
thus it make exist horse PT / not can make horse horse PT
Thus if it’s taking as having horses, you can’t call a horse a horse.

Not sure I follow Blue’s point, but let me point out the interesting word 为 wéi. The root meaning is “make, do”; in Dàoism they highly value 无为 “not-doing”.  You can also use it in the sense of “act as, fulfill a role”, which is how I think it’s being used here.  And that in turn is not far from being a copula “be”.  Though in fact that’s not where Mandarin’s copula comes from… it comes from 是 shì ‘this’.

白者不定所白,忘之而可也。白马者,言白定所白也。定所白者,非白也。马者,无去取于色,故黄、黑皆所以应。白马者,有去取于色,黄、黑马皆所以色去,故唯白马独可以应耳。无去者非有去也;故曰:“白马非马”。
Bái zhě bù dìng suǒ bái, wàng zhī ér kě yě.
white NOM not settle SUB white / forget it and can PT
Whiteness does not determine what is white— this can be neglected.

Bái mǎ zhě, yán bái dìng suǒ bái yě.
white horse NOM / speak white settle SUB white PT
“White horse” speaks of whiteness determining what is white.

Dìng suǒ bái zhě, fēi bái yě.
settle SUB white NOM / not white PT
What determines what is white, is not whiteness.

Mǎ zhě, wú qù qǔ yú sè, gù huáng, hēi jiē suǒyǐ yīng.
horse NOM / not go take to color / thus yellow black all therefore accept
“Horse” does not specify a color; thus a yellow or black horse is acceptable.

Bái mǎ zhě, yǒu qù qǔ yú sè, huáng, hēimǎ jiē suǒyǐ sè qù, gù wéi bái mǎ dú kěyǐ yīng ěr.
white horse NOM / exist go take to color / yellow black all therefore color leave / therefore only white horse alone can accept only
“White horse” does specify a color; thus yellow and black are removed by their color; only a white horse can be accepted.

Wú qù zhě fēi yǒu qù yě; gù yuē:“Bái mǎ fēi mǎ”.
not go NOM not exist go PT / therefore say / white horse not horse
What is not excluded is not what is excluded; therefore I say “A white horse is not a horse.”

Again pointing out differences in behavior or implication between “white horse” and “horse”.  I thought we’d established that a few bamboo strips ago, but you can never have enough supporting arguments in philosophy.  Blue apparently backs away slowly at this point— we never learn if he was convinced.

The hardcover LCK is now available!

lck

It’s published through Lulu rather than Amazon. The price is a little ouchy ($34.95), but it’s solid and looks like it’ll stand up to the sort of intensive, exhaustive reading you should apply to my books. And if someone doesn’t approve of conlanging, it’s heavy enough to hurt when thrown at them.

It’s also a new edition! The typography is redone (same font as ALC); typos are corrected; and I’ve taken the opportunity to rewrite the aspects section, which has bugged me for years. I will update the softcover and Kindle versions sometime early in the new year (it’s too disruptive during Christmas season).

Oh, you want to hear more about aspects? Well, the problem is that terminology has become more precise. The traditional grammatical term “perfect” was used for a lot of things, but mostly for completives (the activity has been completed) or perfectives (the event is seen as a whole, not as a process).

“Perfect” should now be used for events of current relevance. It’s like saying “This happened, and you can draw the obvious conclusion from it.” E.g. “I’ve already eaten (so I don’t want dinner)”, or “John has arrived (so we can start the party)”, or “I’ve been to Greece (so I know all about gyros)”. “John’s arrived” also implies that John is still here, unlike “John arrived”; similarly “I’ve eaten” implies that I’m not hungry, unlike “I ate”. The Russian ‘perfect’ is really a perfective, while the French imparfait is an imperfective.

After a few requests, I’ve decided to put out a hardcover version of the Language Construction Kit. I’m also taking the opportunity to create a new edition (1.2): better typography, correction of typos, referring to the SCA2 instead of the SCA, and an update of the text.  I’m updating the text now, then there will be the usual process of proofing before it’s available.  This will be a different distributor so I don’t know how fast they are, but it should be done in a month or so.

lck

One reason I’m announcing this now, before it’s done: if there are errors you’re aware of in edition 1.1, feel free to e-mail me to make sure they’re corrected, preferably sometime in the next few weeks.

(I will update the paperback and Kindle versions once the hardcover is done, some time in the new year.)

Xephyr from the ZBB suggested a combined LCK + ALC hardcover.  I think that’s a great idea and I’ll probably make that available too, once the LCK alone is done.

Edit: Revising is done, and I’ve ordered the proof copy.

So, one of the conlangs I worked on this year was Sehimu Thinara, the magical language for the card game Serpent’s Tongue.  The game is now shipping, so go buy a couple dozen.

st-logo

The game’s head sorcerer, Christopher Gabrielson, approached me with kind of an emergency request– they had some people working on it but there was a disconnect, and they needed something fast.  So I reworked the vocabulary they already had and worked out the grammar.  Christopher and Jeremy Scherer did a lot of the initial work and carried on my stuff.

The game attempts something I wouldn’t have thought possible: it makes people speak in a conlang!  Sehimu Thinara (ST) is the secret language of the universe, you see; spells are orders spoken in the language.  I’m told that players take to the idea pretty well.  The game itself only makes you say words that are on the cards, but they wanted a whole language to generate them reasonably, and for later use.

They had developed an alphabet and phonology, so I worked with that.  Anyway, since gamers will be expected to say these words, it wasn’t a good idea to make them learn unusual sounds.  (As for the alphabet, the Serpent’s Tongue folks have access to far better artists than me!)

They had also worked out a vocabulary which divided the letters of the alphabet into six spheres (zokrul): quantum, soul, mind, biology, force, matter.  Now, this is the sort of non-naturalistic feature probably only a non-linguist would create, but I went with it, because a magical language should have some strange but satisfying features.  I think it’d be really disappointing if the secret language of mages built into the structure of the universe turned out to be just like Dutch or Jaqaru or Luo.

I added another such feature: reversing the phonemes in a word reverses the meaning.  E.g.:

  • ketig fire / gitek ice
  • devop acid / poved base
  • fekhar woman / rakhef man
  • sauhu war / uhuas peace
  • zhowa circle /  awozh point
  • pivda easy / avdip difficult

(The word construction method uses a lot of the possible phonological space, and generates words that sound very non-Latinate, like avdip above.  It’s interesting that simply using more voiced stops makes for words that seem very odd to an English speaker.)

The language is optimized for casting spells, which are in effect imperatives addressed to the laws of magic.  So ketig as an utterance is actually a command for something to be on fire.  An object can be specified, of course: rakhef ketig, set the man on fire.

As should surprise no one who knows my languages, there’s quite a bit of derivational morphology.  You can make a root into a noun with –a, or after a vowel –ra; thus thina ‘know’ > thinara ‘knowledge’. The general adjectivizer is –i, or after a vowel –li, thus ketigi ‘fiery’ or ‘flaming’, zhowali ‘circular’.  With verbs –u has a passive meaning: ketigu ‘flamed’ or ‘set on fire'; sehim ‘hide’ > sehimu ‘hidden’.

A cute touch, I think: syllables belonging to each of the six spheres serve as derivational infixes.  E.g. –da– belongs to the Matter sphere, and names substances or objects: gayit ‘move’ > gadayit ‘vehicle’.  Or –na– belongs to Mind and names persons, so bo-w ‘cast a spell’ > bonaw ‘mage’.  There is no 1st person pronoun, but bonaw generally serves in its place, along with ezhow ‘self’.

There is a 3rd person pronoun for each sphere, to be used for referents in that sphere, which is effectively a gender system.  Not something I’d normally impose on beginners, but as the spheres are basic to the game and to the vocabulary, it seems fair.

Ordinary sentences can be distinguished from spells by the use of a tense/aspect/mode prefix, such as u– present, is– past imperfect, me– past perfect, yau– irrealis.  Thus Rakhef u-ketig ‘the man is on fire'; Rakhef yau-ketig ‘the man may be on fire’.

There’s also a pure aspect particle bab which can be modified iconically in various ways to express the precise nature of the action: e.g. ba expresses that the action started but didn’t stop; ab that it stopped; baba that it was repeated; baab that it was prolonged.

The syntax is SOV; subjects and objects are separated by the clitic an-. Thus Bonaw an-rakhef baba me-ketig ‘the mage kept setting the man on fire’.

Here’s one more glimpse, a more complicated sample sentence:

Suya saukh-da imi-pabodez me-dimsu imi-obawta, ezhow an-ulani-ra lo depav-a u-abu.

SUB every-object in-world PERF-lose IN-day / self SEP-hope-NOMN and strong-NOMN PRES-be

When all is lost in the world, I am hope and I am strength.

Edit: The whole grammatical sketch is here.

The Conlanger’s Lexipedia is now available at Amazon.

http://www.zompist.com/lexipedia.html

The paperback is out now; the Kindle will be available in a few days.

Perfect for conlangers, conworlders, language freaks, firefighters, actuaries, Methodists, snipers, spies, baritones, lepidopterists, Mind Flayers, and gnolls!

So, where’s the book? I ordered the proof copy today. As soon as it comes, I’ll do some intensive editing and correcting, and then GET IT OUT THE DOOR.

Each step seems to be taking just a little longer than I expect. But the end is near. Tell all your loved ones to buy you a copy!

About ten minutes ago, I finished revising the second part of The Conlanger’s Lexipedia. (There are two parts because Word, bless its malfunctioning heart, cannot handle the entire text.)

So, I need victims readers! If you think you could read the whole thing in a relatively short period (the next 2-4 weeks) and offer some feedback, drop me a line at markrose at zompist dot com.

There’s a fair amount of physics and biology and an ungodly amount of Greek, Latin, and Chinese, so if you have expertise in those areas, please mention it.

(I’ll revise it and then need some more reactions, so if I get enough responses you may be in the next batch of readers.)

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