languages


When Against Peace and Freedom came out, I promised to create a conlang if I sold 200 copies.  That goal was reached awhile back; in fact the total now stands at 346. (Which is still, well, suboptimal. The LCK, by contrast, has sold over 10,000 copies.)

mars-month

But no matter, I decided to create Hanying, the language of Areopolis, and it’s finally done!  In fact, you really get three languages for the price of one:

  • Old Hanying, the English-Chinese pidgin that develops later in this century
  • Hanying Creole, the creole of a hundred years later, largely relexified from Brazilian Portuguese
  • Modern Hanying, the descendant of those languages 2700 years later, in Morgan’s time

Here’s a quick comparison. First, Old Hanying, where you can see the English and Chinese roots directly:

Xuputi xwo Fat “Xirtsun, bai kamyen, yo ženmin ma, dei meibi tiŋ dis xik, dei zhende xinren?”
Subhūti say Buddha / (World-lord), in future / have people Q / they maybe hear this teach / they true believe
Xirtsun represents Mandarin shìzūn and did not catch on in general.
Subhūti said to the Buddha, “Lord, will there be people who, hearing these teachings, have real faith in them?”

Next, Hanying Creole, which introduces many Portuguese words:

Xuputi xo ButaDonu, vo ta žẽči ke, tiŋ dis xik da ae sĩ krer da?”
Subhūti say Buddha / lord / future have people Q / hear this teaching sub and yes believe sub

And finally Modern Hanying, where sound change has ruined everything, and a mass of agglutinated verb particles have fused to form an intimidating verbal complex:

Subuti ləzešó soʔ Boz, “Orad, ləyoméžai uyeʔ lesəd šeso ləyozíŋar jerə ləyokəyér kæš?
Subhūti 3-past-say to Buddha / honored / 3-fut-irr-exist pl-person this teaching 3-fut-hear-sub true 3-fut-believe-sub and

Still to come: the 50th century alphabet.

Advertisements

The Language Construction Kit explains that sound changes are usually regular, and provides a few examples. Advanced Language Construction adds information on where in a society sound changes tend to start, how they tend to spread through society, and how morphosyntax tends to change over time. But what kinds of sound changes are generally how common? Are there any rules about that? What kinds of sound changes tend to happen together with what other kinds of sound changes? When sounds change, are there usually any rules about that aside from “Sound A, under B conditions, becomes Sound C”?  And what resources are there on all these topics? 

–Raphael

First, the easy part: the LCK has a list of common sound changes (p. 169, in edition 1.2). You won’t go wrong with any of them.  In particular, the ones identified as lenitions occur just about all over.

If you’re going to be doing this a lot, you might look at another book on historical linguistics— I like Theodora Bynon’s or R.L. Trask’s books, both called Historical Linguistics.  If those are not readily available, any intro from a university press is probably good.

The old ZBB has an enormous thread full of sound changes.  It’s tedious to browse but it does have ideas from around the world.

http://www.incatena.org/viewtopic.php?f=10&t=1533

You can also, informally, look through my numbers list, especially in families with a proto-language listed. You can see a lot of sound changes at a glance. (Admittedly many are obscured by different romanizations.)

I don’t know if anyone has catalogued which are the commonest sound changes, but I’d say not to worry about it too much.  Choose sound changes you like, and which twist the source words in an interesting way. You can’t really criticize a sound change for being weird, especially if at least one natlang does it!  Weird things do happen in language.

Try to think about changes affecting categories of sounds.  E.g. it’s better to have a change that affects all voiced consonants between vowels, rather than one that affects just /d/, or different ones for each consonant.  Especially with lenitions, or simplifications of consonant clusters, your people are likely to approach similar sounds in similar ways.

With vowels, sometimes you can build a chain of changes, such as the Great Vowel Shift in English. Think of it as one vowel moving into another’s territory; that one then moves to escape it, triggering more changes.

Adjoining languages may share sound changes, even if they’re unrelated. E.g. it’s presumably not entirely coincidence that French and German, unlike most of their neighbors, developed ü ö and the uvular R.  Vietnamese has developed tone, like Chinese, though most other Austro-Asiatic languages have not.

Finally, your next question is probably going to be “How do I know when I’m done?” My answer is roughly “When your sound changes affect every word in your sample.” You can also try to impressionistically compare your family to natlangs of a similar time depth. E.g. Latin vs. French is a good example of 2000 years of change; Old vs. Modern German is a good example of 1000 years.  (Or look at written vs. spoken French— written French is a pretty good phonemic representation of the 12th century spoken language.)

 

Areopolis-Map

It’s beginning to look like a language!  Here’s a sample of Modern Hanying:

“Meyésapə na yem sənázeyaže boʔ ugiši šo nær toʔ ulorugi,” ləšo, wi mænu ləforəiye læsə bəume yuŋ menso. “Lesəd tedoji vyæžəl bəi dweži…  səyonákəyerar wegəl gebəpo mezə́, yə meréš izaf læmi wei fehomo.”

No, not going to give glosses yet, but I’ll give you two clues:

  • Most of the morphemes here derive from English, Mandarin, or Portuguese.
  • The text comes from one of my Incatena pages.

It’s not all done yet, but I just finished one of the sample texts, which is always a nice milestone.

Plus, it’s two or three languages for the price of one, since I’ve also worked out Old Hanying (ca. 2100) and Hanying Creole (ca. 2200), as well as Modern Hanying (ca. 4900).

(I have the above text in Hanying Creole also, but giving it here would make things too obvious…)

So Norman Gimbel just died.  I never heard of him either, but he wrote the English lyrics to “The Girl from Ipanema”, so it’s a nice opportunity to compare lyrics and versions.

Here’s the classic Stan Getz / Astrud Gilberto version, and Gimbel’s lyrics:

Tall and tan and young
And lovely the girl from Ipanema
Goes walking and when she passes
Each one she passes goes: Ahhh!
When she walks she’s like
A samba that swings so cool
And sways so gently that when she passes
Each one she passes goes: Ahhh!

Oh, but he watches so sadly
How can he tell her he loves her
Yes, he would give his heart gladly
But each day when she walks to the sea
She looks straight ahead, not at he

This is the quintessential bossa nova song, and it feels like the ’60s, which is a strange thing to feel these days. Things were, if anything, far worse worldwide, but there was a sense of optimism despite that– the sense that right now things were changing for the better. Bossa nova somehow evokes that: super cool, sweet, and tinged with sadness.

Bossa nova means “new bump”, but bossa here apparently means “knack, charm, allure”. As for Ipanema, it’s a beachfront neighborhood in Rio– still fashionable when I was there in the 1990s. In the 20th century, development and coolness spread from downtown southwestward: first Botafogo was the premier beach, then Copacabana, then Ipanema.

Here’s the Portuguese version, performed by the original composer, Tom Jobim, and the lyricist, Vinicius de Moraes:

The interesting thing is that the English lyrics aren’t a translation at all, not even loosely. The only thing the two songs have in common is the notion of a girl walking in Ipanema.

Olha que coisa mais linda
Look what a beautiful thing
Mais cheia de graça
So full of grace
É ela, menina
It’s her, the girl
Que vem e que passa
Who comes and passes by
Num doce balanço
with sweet swaying
A caminho do mar
On the way to the sea

Moça do corpo dourado
Girl with tanned body
Do sol de Ipanema
from the Ipanema sun
O seu balançado é mais que um poema
Her swaying is more than a poem
É a coisa mais linda que eu já vi passar
It’s the most beautiful thing I ever saw
Ah, por que estou tão sozinho?
Ah, why am I so alone?
Ah, por que tudo é tão triste?
Ah, why is everything so sad?
Ah, a beleza que existe
Ah, the beauty that exists
A beleza que não é só minha
The beauty which isn’t just for me
Que também passa sozinha
Which also passes alone
Ah, se ela soubesse
Ah, if she knew
Que quando ela passa
That when she passes by
O mundo inteirinho se enche de graça
The whole world is filled with grace
E fica mais lindo
And becomes more beautiful
Por causa do amor
Because of love

One more thing to note– Portuguese is rich in words for ‘young woman’– in this song alone we have garota, menina, moça.

Here’s another version I like, sung in English and some Portuguese by another Brazilian artist, Joyce:

Also worth noting: there was an actual girl from Ipanema– Helô Pinheiro, who was 17 when she apparently walked by Moraes, in 1962. Here she is on the beach:

helo-pinheiro

Pinheiro parlayed the fame from the song into a modeling and TV hosting career.

By the way, Moraes was 49 at the time, so, just as well he only sat and watched her.

The second draft is almost done, so it’s time for a page on the book on my site.

Syntax-Front-Cover

What’s in the book?  Well, I just wrote a whole page on that, so just go read it!

I think I’ve written a book. Now we must see whether this is so. As was foretold in the prophecies, this is where I ask for readers.

elvisleft

Contact me if you’re interested and have the time over the next few weeks— markrose at zompist dot com. I usually get more offers than I can handle, so get your offer in fast. 🙂

If you’ve only read the LCK, that’s fine; if you’re a Herr Professor Doktor of linguistics, that’s also fine.

I just finished Language acquisition and conceptual development, edited by Melissa Bowerman and Stephen Levinson (2001), and I want to write down what I learned while it’s still fresh in my mind.

You may recall the book report on Everett & Jackendoff and their feud over innatism. The issue there is Chomsky’s longstanding contention that language learning is far too hard for children, therefore they must have a head start: grammar and vocabulary are already hard-wired into their brains. All they have to do is figure out which of a small series of switches to flip to get the grammar (“oh! verbs go last here!”) and work out that dog means Inbuilt concept #293291.

This book is a report from the trenches of language acquisition; if anyone knows how it goes, these people do. I note, by the way, that this is one of the few fields dominated by women: 20 of the 30 authors of these papers are female. Yay for linguistics!

There is no knockout punch— unsurprisingly, there’s a lot we don’t know about how children learn languages. And this book, at least, doesn’t have too much to say about how children learn syntax, much less whether they do so using Minimalism, Arc Pair Grammar, Role & Reference Grammar, etc. It’s mostly about the first three years, the first words learned, and what that tells us about children’s conceptual system.

The biggest news seems to be:

  • Children understand things far earlier than was once supposed. E.g. Piaget thought that children didn’t acquire the notion of object permanence till 3 years or so; we now know they have it at 5 months. He also thought that children didn’t understand the concept of time till about 8; but in fact they are clearly able to remember and refer to past events, and anticipate and refer to future events, at not much more than 1 year of age.
  • At the same time: universal, basic concepts are more elusive than ever. Languages really do divide up conceptual space differently, and this is evident in children’s speech from the beginning.

The object permanence result is due to better, cleverer technique: rather than relying on the baby’s actions, we only check what they’re looking at. Basically: babies can be surprised, and look longer at unexpected outcomes. So you show them a doll being placed behind a screen, then remove the screen. They’re surprised if they see no doll there, or two dolls.

Many of the authors refer to Quine’s problem. Quine envisioned a linguist eliciting words from a native. A rabbit goes by, and the native says gavagai. Does this mean “rabbit”, or “hop”, or “fluffy tail”, or “unspecified set of rabbit parts”?

Now, the linguists can’t bring themselves to say that Quine is just being a jerk. But there’s a pretty clear answer to this problem: we aren’t tabulae rasae; we’re animals with a hundred-million-year evolutionary history of perceiving objects, especially moving objects, and double especially animals. Some things are very salient for humans— we’re built to see rabbits as objects with a characteristic shape, size, and activity pattern. We’re not built to focus on rabbit tails or miscellaneous rabbit parts.

Early proposals were that children use some all-purpose generalizations: words are likely to refer to the most salient entities; words are normally not synonymous.

Going beyond this, there were assumptions that children would learn nouns before verbs, closed-class form words before content words, shape before materials, and that they would probably learn universal concepts first. This little list of assumptions turns out to be wrong: it depends on the language.

  • Many languages are far more verb-oriented than English. Kids still learn a lot of nouns, but sometimes the proportion of verbs is far higher.
  • Often very specific verbs are learned before abstract spatial words.
  • English children learn to pay the most attention to shape; Maya kids pay the most attention to material.

As for universal concepts, it’s worth looking in detail at an example provided by Levinson. The language is Tzeltal.

Pach-an-a bojch ta y-anil te karton-e.
bowl-put-cause.imp gourd at its-down cardboard-that

The intended translation is “Put the bowl behind the box.” But just about every detail in Tzeltal is different.

  • The shape and spatial information is largely encoded in the verb, not in nouns. Pach– means “place a bowl-shaped vessel upright on a surface.”
  • Corollary: the two NPs refer mostly to material. Bojch is really a word for a gourd; karton can refer to anything made of cardboard.
  • “Behind” is a relative term, which doesn’t exist in Tzeltal. Instead, an absolute frame of reference is used. “Downward” can refer to absolute height, but here it refers to horizontal location, because of a geographical particularity: Tzeltal territory is on a slope, so “downhill” also means “northward”.

Do children really master this system? Of course; they have a pretty good grasp of the slope system by age three. They also master a wide range of very specific verb forms rather than relying heavily, as English-speaking toddlers do, on “up/down”.

Another neat example: English toddlers quickly learn to distinguish “put ON” from “put IN”. Korean children divide up this semantic space quite differently, using at least seven verbs.

  • kkita means “fasten tightly”– this includes putting the top on a pen, placing Lego bricks together, putting a piece in a puzzle, placing a cassette in its box, or buttoning a button.
  • nehta means “place loosely”– e.g. put a book in a bag, or a toy in a box.
  • pwuchita is used for juxtaposing surfaces– e.g. placing a magnet on the fridge.
  • nohta is used for placing things on a horizontal surface.
  • for clothes, you have ssuta for hats, ipta for the body, sinta for the feet.

All this is fascinating because philosophers and linguists are apt to take English categories and assume they are universal concepts: UP, DOWN, IN, ON. Nope, they’re just projecting English words onto Mentalese. There is no stage where children use “universal” concepts before using language-specific ones. (Indeed, there’s evidence that children understand the language-specific concepts well before they can say the words.)

Does all this “affect how you think”? Of course. Levinson tells an amusing anecdote: he almost got his truck stuck in quicksand when his Australian Aborigine companion told him to “swerve north quick”. Levinson just couldn’t calculate where north was fast enough.

There’s also interesting tidbits like, did you know that there is a gradient between comitative and instrumental? It goes like this:

1 – give a show with a clown
2 – build a machine with an assistant
3 – captured the hill with his squad
4 – performed an act with an elephant
5 – the blind man crossed the street with his dog
6 – the officer caught the smuggler with a police dog
7 – won the appeal with a highly paid lawyer
8 – found the solution with a computer
9 – hunted deer with a rifle
10 – broke the window with a stone

In English, as you can see, we use “with” for all of these. In a multitude of languages, these meanings are divided up linearly. E.g.

  • Iraqi Arabic: 1-8 vs 9-10
  • Swahili: 1-6 vs 7-10
  • Slovak: 1-9 vs 10
  • Tamil: 1-2 vs 3-10

That’s pretty neat!

Anyway: there’s still a lot of argument on how exactly children learn, whether they start with particular cognitive abilities, whether they have particular linguistic abilities. Many authors point out that innatism doesn’t really help reduce the problem. E.g. to see if dog matches Inbuilt concept #293291, you pretty much have to have a sense of what a dog is. If you have that, what good is the inbuilt concept?

You could try to save innatism by multiplying the number of inbuilt concepts. E.g. you include the 10 steps of the comitative/instrumental gradient, and both Korean and English positioning concepts, and both English and Tzeltal directional systems. But this is only complicating the child’s problem. Rather than finding quick matches between the words they hear and a small number of universal concepts, they have to consider hundreds or thousands of alternative conceptual systems.

It’s also worth pointing out that parents are far more helpful than Quine’s native informant. People don’t just say words at random. As Michael Tomasello emphasizes, language is often presented as a commentary on a situation the child already understands, such as moving toys around with her mother. There’s a lot of repetition; the parents’ language is emphatic and simplified; the parents are not trying to confuse the child with talk of bags of rabbit parts.

BTW, this is in theory the last book I’m consulting for my syntax book.  So, I’ll soon have a first draft, at least.

 

Next Page »