languages


I’m writing a grammatical sketch of Biblical Hebrew for the Middle East Construction Kit, and I could use someone who knows Biblical Hebrew.

Basically I need some proofreading of morphological tables, some help glossing Hebrew non-Bible inscriptions, and the ability to produce syntactic variants of Bible verses.

That is: I can take most of my sample sentences from the Tanakh. But it’s very useful to show close variants of a sentence. E.g. “The woman is very beautiful” (2 Sam. 11) might be contrasted with “The woman is not very beautiful”, “Is the woman very beautiful?”, etc. (I do have grammars and such, but I want to make sure my examples are correct, and not filled with student-level errors!)

As ever, I’m markrose at zompist dot com.

Jeffrey’s book, Langmaker: Celebrating Conlangs, is out!

File photo of Jeffrey conlanging

Well, the print edition has been out for a couple weeks, but the Kindle edition is finally out too. The Kindle Create program was not cooperative. First, it refused to import the base document, so I had to import a plain text version and redo all the formatting. And then the program got slower and slower till it was almost unusable. It’s fine for touchups but not so good for actually formatting your book.

But never mind that, it’s done! Admire the editing, and Jeffrey’s work too! Did I mention how much groovy Fith is?  And the lovingly satirical Tev’Meckian?  And bask in over a thousand conlangs which will make 2005 live for you once again.

I’ve finally opened a file for “things to add to the Syntax Construction Kit, 2nd edition.”  Because syntax keeps happening. I’ll give you two examples, both of which come from my board.

Gapping with pronouns

Ser pointed out that you can say

I thought I could save you, and you me.

Now, this is an instance of Gapping (p. 305). The interesting bit is when you compare it to French, where you can’t do it:

*J’ai pensé que j’ai pu te sauver, et tu m’.

I think you can say “…et toi moi”, but that’s the point: je and te are no longer independent words, but clitics or even affixes on the verb. Ser also pointed out another fact leading to the same conclusion: you can’t coordinate the verb alone, as in

*Je t’écoute et aide.
I hear and help you.

You have to say Je t’écoute et je t’aide. Though Je t’écoute et t’aide is acceptable, suggesting that the object pronouns are more firmly fixed to the verb than the subjects.

(There is other evidence too, such as the difficulty of adding any other material within the French verbal complex. People often resist this concept, because the spaces in the written language make the morphemes feel like separate words!)

Can + aspects

I wrote a lot in the SCK about the English verbal complex, but Xwtek pointed out a restriction I wasn’t aware of, namely that can + perfect is disallowed:

The snakes should have coordinated with the city.
The snakes may have coordinated with the city.
The snakes could have coordinated with the city.
*The snakes can have coordinated with the city.

Your first thought might be that this is a semantic restriction. But the negative is fine:

The snakes can’t have coordinated with the city.

What about other aspects?  Can + passive is OK: I can be persuaded.

Can + progressive seems tricky:

?I can be going to Vyat right now.
While you sand that down, I can be thinking about the next step.

Why this should be, I have no idea! But it’s pretty neat that after sixty years of syntactic study, the English verbal complex holds a few more mysteries.

You may be wondering, or if not you should: what’s my next book?

It’s books. But the next one should be my Quechua reference grammar.

cusco-market

Based on some quick quizzes on Twitter and the ZBB, it seemed that people are more interested in a reference grammar than a textbook. Which is good, because I more or less have one! I wrote the grammar (and a dictionary) for my own use when I was studying Quechua in the 1990s.

It needs quite a bit of work yet, partly to make the text as good as possible, and partly because I need to go over some of the source materials in much more detail. But, that work is underway now.

If you’ve been following the blog, you’ve probably seen that I’m also doing research on the Middle East. Now, in theory this should be no harder than distilling all of India or China into a book. But, well, it isn’t. China is largely the story of one people and language. India is much more miscellaneous, but it’s mostly one civilization, whatever exactly that means. I could cover everything from Sumer to Khomeini in one volume, but it would mean compressing each bit into near unrecognizability.

So, my current idea is two books. One will cover the Ancient Middle East— concentrating on Mesopotamia, the Levant, and Persia, more or less up to Alexander. (That is, I don’t expect to cover Egypt or Anatolia in detail.) That’s certainly doable. After all, histories of Mesopotamia alone have to cover a lot of this material, because its empires were all over the Levant, and were eventually conquered by Persia. And most of the area was occupied by Semitic speakers, and shared a good deal of culture and cosmology. The obvious languages to cover would be Sumerian, Akkadian, and Hebrew.

There are a couple of really interesting puzzles to cover:

  • How did agriculture get started, and more importantly, why? People seemed happier without it.
  • How did one unimportant subgroup of Semites, of the same language and culture as the entire Levant, come up with a fervent monotheism?

Naturally, the latter question could take over the whole book, but I don’t intend to let it. I just read a history of ancient Israel, and though it’s interesting, what I crave is precisely the larger context. The Bible, and thus most historians, present Israel as somehow totally distinct from their neighbors. But they weren’t, at all; they basically spoke the same language, and indeed if you read a little closer they actually had enormous trouble keeping separate from those neighbors. And then there’s the tantalizing Persian connection— they interacted closely with the other monotheistic religion in the area. More on that later.

Book Two would cover the same area from about 600 to the present. That’s mostly the Islamic era, but also includes the very interesting 600s, when the age-old war between the Byzantines and Persians heated up, well, more than it ever had. The languages covered would be Persian and probably Arabic.

Clever people may note that there’s a gap of nearly a millennium in between. That’s intentional. I expect to cover the Persian part of the story, but what’s missing is the Greeks and Romans, and early Christianity. That’s nowhere near as new to most of my readers, I think; and covering them would require a different base area anyway.

Now, that’s plenty to do, but one day recently I woke up with my head full of Xurno. That is, I was thinking about the plot for Diary of the Prose Wars, my unfinished Almean novel. I read over the material I had. I think it’s in worse shape than I remembered, but that’s fine. The real problem was the plot, and I worked on that a bit. (For what it’s worth, it does focus the mind a bit when one’s own country is going to pot. “Oh, that’s how awful authoritarian regimes are formed.”) This won’t be a high priority, but apparently my subconscious was working on it, and I look forward to seeing it do some more.

 

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.

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…)

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