Language evolution and the icëlani

Posted by Glenn Kempf on 13:22 7/18/02

In reply to: Language evolution and the icëlani posted by Glenn Kempf on 9:58 7/4/02

I just wanted to respond to the last messages by Mark, Luca, and Gareth:

1. To Mark: I read your essay on the "package metaphor," but I'm afraid that it was only a partial help. Even portraying language exchange as involving a "cloud" of inferences, assumptions, and prejudices rather than cold, hard information, it still sounds as though they're exchanging something. The art metaphor was a bigger help, since it serves as a reminder that what is "exchanged" is not necessarily something that we humans can express in words as such.

Good to know that Eteodäole can be expressed orally, in writing, or in gestures. (I had thought about gestures as a feature of icëlani language, but the idea of anatomically pre-modern hominids using sign language seems ot have been done to death already.) Your comment on each medium "losing and gaining something" reminds me of a comment by Ursula K. LeGuin (again) in her book Always Coming Home (an interesting example of an imaginary culture, since it's less a novel than a collection of stories, legends, plays, essays, recipes, anthropological notes, etc. concerning her fictional people, the Kesh); Le Guin's Kesh consider writing and speech more as two languages that can be translated into each other.

With regard to attitudinal particles...I've spent the last couple of days looking at the languages and conlangs I know that contain such features (including Barakhinei's phatic particles and Kebreni's verb forms :-), and concluded that I should try to be less prejudiced against them. My basic objection to the more elaborate attitude particles is that they feel too "artificial" to me, as if "real" people wouldn't talk that way...but I know that there are languages that grammaticalize things that English doesn't (the honorific forms in Japanese and Korean are a classic example, as are diminuitive forms and emphatic and interrogative particles in many languages). I guess that it's a matter of getting used to features of this type, so that they seem "natural" (the examples in Kebreni are a help).

2. To Luca: Moveable morphemes are a new one on me, too; like Mark, I'd be interested in knowing how the meaning might differ. My initial reaction would be to think that moving a morpheme to the beginning or end (or to the middle) would change the emphasis on it. For instance to use the word mangiavano ("ate"), from the example: if the first element is the emphasized one, mangi-av-ano focuses on the fact the the girls ate the apples (instead of throwing them, say), av-mangi-ano focuses on the fact that the action took place in the past (imperfect), and ano-mangi-av on the fact that multiple people were involved. Nouns and verbs would presumably have matching emphasis in most cases. On the other hand, maybe that idea is too simple... I'm not sure whether it gets far enough away from the "traditional" view of grammar. Any reactions?

3. To Gareth and Mark: "Closer to the verb" rings a bell with me too, although the only examples I can think of likewise involve syntax, not moving morphemes. Many languages certainly move elements of a sentence to the beginning or end to emphasize them. Mark mentions Russian in his Language Construction kit as an example: the subject in a Russian sentence can be placed at the end or the beginning, with an effect that somewhat parallels the use of indefinite and definite articles in English (which Russian doesn't have). This was a favorite topic of a Russian professor (and native speaker) I had in grad school; her classic example was as follows:

V biblioteku prishyol mal'chik. (Into library came boy.)
"A boy came into the library."

Mal'chik vzyal knigu i ushyol. (Boy took book and left.)
"The boy took a book and left."

More prosaically, if a language that normally has an SOV word order fronts the object (OSV) to emphasize it (the boy took a book), that might count as "toward or away from the verb," if the verb's position is fixed--although I'm not sure.

A separate issue I wanted to ask about: the idea of "adpositions"--words that can serve as either prepositions or postpositions (sometimes depending on the context or dialect). I've come across examples of these in other people's conlangs, but not in any "real-world" languages. Are there any real examples of this? Or of two related languages where one uses prepositions, and one postpositions?

Word order seems to play a part, since VO languages seem more inclined to use prepositions, and OV languages postpositions (or modifid-modifier and modifier-modified constructions more generally), so if a language evolves from SOV to SVO or VSO (perhaps under external influence), the adpositions might change as well. Once again, are there any real-world examples?

For prepositions/postpositions, you can read prefixes/suffixes as well, especially since it seems that the one can shade into the other. The sci.lang FAQ mentions the case endings in Finnish as having evolved from postpositions that began as separate words and then merged with the noun, rather than being able to be used alone.

I understand that some languages are primarily prefixing, while others are primarily suffixing; most Indo-European languages seem to be both, with some difference in categories of usage between the two. For instance, in English, most prefixes indicate changes in quality--negation, repetition--within a particular part of speech (unacceptable, reopen), while many, if not most suffixes also involve a change from one part of speech to another--verbs into nouns, nouns into adjectives, etc. (careless, lionize). The old standby "antidiestablishmentarianism" contains several examples of the above, including suffixes that change it from a verb ("establish") into a noun, an adjective, and back into a noun again. Of course, many endings fail to follow this rule: king --> kingdom.

Does such a pattern in fact exist in English, or am I just imagining things? Or perhaps using the wrong categories?

Ad onlelán,

P.S. After starting this message, I read Hans-Werner's comment (and Mark's reply) as well. It seems to me that moveable morphemes of the type described fall into two categories: those that significantly alter the meaning of a statement by moving (like -qa in Quechua), and those that do not. (I don't know of any significant difference in Russian between Yesli by ya znal and Yesli ya znal by ("If I had known"); any Russian-speakers please correct me.) Presumably, the former would be of more interest to most conlangers... :-)

Mark responds:

I don't know about adpositions-- that would be a good question for sci.lang.

I think it's probably true that English prefixes tend to alter meaning, while suffixes are more grammatical. Hmm, are there any English prefixes that change part of speech?

To make a reply, or see replies, see the index page.