In conlang parlance, a naming language is a language sketch which is designed only for generating names in a work of fiction. Naming languages are sometimes held in low regard by conlangers as not being "real" languages, but this is an unnecessary bias. A naming language is like a minimalist painting: it only consists of a few strokes, but it should suggest the shape of something much bigger, and when done well it has a beauty and an elegance of its own.

Also, often you just don’t have time to create a full language. And that’s how it was with Yakhat: I needed a language to provide placenames and personal names for one of the tribes in the story, but I didn’t have the time or the interest to develop a full-blown lang for them. So I made a naming language.

All you need for a good naming language is two things:

  1. A phonology
  2. Some basic morphology

Yakhat phonology is very simple. I want the language to be reminiscent of the languages of Southeast Asia, so I pick out the following consonant phonemes:

p   t   tʃ  k
b   d   dʒ  g
bʱ  dʱ      
    s   ʃ
m   n
    l, r 

Some unusual things to note: we have a single series of aspirated stops, but the labial and dental members are phonetically voiced, while the velar member is voiceless. At a featural level, all of these stops are unspecified for voice, but the labial and dental members are phonetically voiced because they lie further forward in the oral cavity and thus easily fall prey to spontaneous voicing. And why is the aspirated affricate missing? Here I imagine that there once was an aspirated affricate /tʃʰ/, but that this member became deaffricated and gives the /ʃ/ phoneme shown above.

Meta-linguistic concerns actually drive most of the decisions above. I like the digraphs bh and dh, but I dislike ph and th, since English speakers are likely to pronounce those as [f] and [θ] respectively. Furthermore, /tʃʰ/ is nearly impossible to romanize well, as you either choose the abominable chh, or you use ch and then find some other way to indicate /tʃ/. The conjectured sound change above justifies me avoiding it, and gives me an excuse to include /ʃ/, which I had already used in several names that I liked very much.

To this basic phoneme set, I add a few basic phonotactic constraints and some phonological processes, which I won’t cover in detail here. You’ll see some of them in action below.

On to morphology. For the purposes of my language, I created exactly two morphemes: a patronymic suffix -lik, and a reduplicative suffix for collective plurals. The patronymic is unremarkable. The primary character from this tribe is named Keshlik /’kɛʃlɪk/, the son of Keishul /’ke:ʃul/. In the derivation of that name you can observe a few phonological processes at work, such as syncope of an unstressed vowel, but otherwise there’s little to say.

The reduplicative plural is much more interesting. The hometown of the primary character is Khaat Ban [kʰa:t ban], and the people from his town are known as the Khaatat [kʰa:tat]. This collective plural is formed by reduplicating the vowel and final consonant of the stem: Khaat Ban gives Khaatat, those from Louk Ban are the Lougok, and those from Bhut Ban the Bhudhut, etc. You can observe several phonological changes in these forms. For example, voice and aspiration are both neutralized in codas, so that Bhut has the underlying form /bʱudʱ/ which is realized as [bʱut] in the simple name, but the underlying form of the final consonant reasserts itself in the reduplicated form.

And that’s it! With a relatively simple phonology, a few phonological rules, and some morphemes I have a naming language, but one that has just enough depth to suggest that a complete language underlies it. I don’t know what the stems of the names mean, and I don’t need to. If I ever decide that I need to elaborate Yakhat further, I’ll already have the groundwork laid down to create something fuller.

Next time: Praseo, and the challenges of developing something for a language family you already have.

This week’s entry in the Weird Linguistics category isn’t so much "weird" as "amazing". But I have to stick with the title I’ve got.

You are probably familiar with the Indo-European language family, the family to which most of the languages of Europe belong. Proto-Indo-European was originally the language of a semi-nomadic group on the steppes of modern-day Ukraine or Central Asia, who began a series of expansions some 7,000 years ago spurred by a series of technological advances— especially farming and the chariot. Their prehistoric expansion eventually brought them all the way to the Atlantic Ocean and the British Isles. In the east, they came to the northern part of India as part of the Aryan Invasion, and a far-flung group known as the Tocharians got all the way to Western China.

Indo-European Expansion

Indo-European Expansion

I find it astounding to consider that some random group of nomads managed to strike the cultural-linguistic jackpot, so that their descendants pushed all the way from Central Asia to eastern India and western Europe in prehistoric times—and to eventually dominate most of North and South America as well. I’m even more astounded by the fact that we can reconstruct this expansion from linguistic and archaeological data thousands of years after the fact.

But this is not even the most impressive pre-historical linguistic expansion that we know of, which brings me to my real point. The real champions of geographic expansion are not the Indo-Europeans, but the Austronesians.

Austronesian language dispersion

Austronesian language dispersion

The Austronesian languages include Hawaiian, Fijian, Tagalog, Malayan, Maori, and hundreds of other languages spoken throughout the Pacific and Madagascar. The Austronesians expanded from their original homeland on the island of Taiwan in a series of waves spaced throughout prehistory, but while the Indo-Europeans were going overland, the Austronesians were going over the sea. And boy did they get around: not only did they populate all of the islands of Polynesia, Micronesia, and the Philippines, but they also turned west and got all the way to Madagascar. This latter fact is tremendously surprising: Madagascar wasn’t settled primarily by Africans crossing the relatively narrow Mozambique Channel, but by Austronesians who had to cross the Indian Ocean from Borneo to get there.

This is, to me, far more impressive than the Indo-European expansion. No Austronesian society ever had hulled ships, but they still managed to navigate the vastness of the Pacific and cross the monsoon-wracked Indian Ocean centuries before any other civilization would attempt the same thing.

Yet even this is not the most far-ranging language family we know of. No, that distinction belongs to the Dené-Yeniseian languages.

Dené-Yeniseian language dispersion

Dené-Yeniseian language dispersion

The Indo-European languages are the ones that all English speakers are familiar with, and you’ve probably at least heard of several Austronesian languages. But chances are that you have never heard of even one of the Dené-Yeniseian tongues. Do you see that little green smudge in the middle of Siberia in the map above, just north of Mongolia? Those are the Yeniseian languages, a nearly-extinct family of languages spoken by the indigenous peoples of Central Asia. There are only six known languages in this family. Only two of them survived into the 20th century, and only one of them (Imbat Ket) is still alive today. But we are lucky that it has survived, because the evidence that we have of the languages has proven them to be the only known pre-historical linguistic link between the Old World and the New.

The American cousin of the Yeniseian languages is the Na-Dene language family, which comprises several branches found in Alaska, Canada, California, and the American Southwest. The dispersal of this branch is something of a story in itself, with Na-Dene speakers occupying a large continuous area in the northernmost part of the Americas, but with distant relatives much further south. This southwestern branch contains the most famous tribes of this family: Navajo and Apache are Na-Dene languages, and these languages are the only ones whose names might be familiar to the average English speaker.

The distance from the heart of Siberia to southwestern America is even greater than the distances covered by the Austronesians. Yet while we understand the history and the expansion of the Austronesians and the Indo-Europeans very well, the Dené-Yeniseian languages mostly present us with mysteries. No one knows where their original homeland was. No one knows the motive for their expansion, or if it can even be called an expansion. We don’t know how or when the Proto-Yeniseians crossed from Siberia into America, and we don’t know why the American branch of the family is split into such distant northern, southern, and western lines. There are conjectures and guesses about all of these things, but precious little that we can identify as fact.

Nonetheless, I find that this linguistic relationship surprises me more than any other. It’s one thing to know, abstractly, that the Americas were populated from Asia at some point in the distant past. It’s quite something else to boil that fact down into a set of cognates, and to be able to say with some certainty that these two languages separated by thousands of miles of ocean and ice in fact sprang from the same ancestral tongue. It’s the most amazing thing in linguistics.

This being the second post in my series about weird linguistics, I’d like to point out that it’s not necessary to travel to strange and exotic climes in order to find bizarre grammatical features like ergativity. English itself is plenty weird. Today I’ll demonstrate this by discussing negative polarity.

English is a simple language in many respects. We have barely any case system to speak of, minimal verbal morphology, and a simple consonant phonology. Our vowels are a little baroque, and our spelling is awful, but overall it’s not too bad. But there’s one thing that we’ve managed to muck up pretty badly, and it’s something so simple that in many languages you never have to think about it at all.

I’m talking about not doing things. Or, as we linguists like to call it, negation.

First, observe how a negative sentence in English is formed:

  1. I eat fried octopus.
  2. I don’t eat fried octopus.

The English negative adverb is not, but of course you can’t just add not to an affirmative sentence. Instead, you have to have do-support, where the word do gets thrown in there just so that not (the lazy bum) has something to lean on. Unless, of course, there’s a modal verb or other auxiliary verb floating around, or a few other conditions apply. It’s a bit of a mess.

This is simple stuff, though. What I really want to talk about today is something even more pernicious called negative polarity. In English we have some words which are not themselves negative words, but which normally only occur when there is some other negative word in the sentence. These words are called negative polarity items (NPI). Let me crib some examples from Wikipedia:

  1. I didn’t like the film at all.
  2. *I liked the film at all.
  3. John doesn’t have any potatoes
  4. *John has any potatoes.

(In linguistic literature, the asterisk is used to indicate ungrammatical utterances.)

The thing to notice here is that the NPI’s at all and any are not themselves words that convey negation. Nonetheless, those words are only allowed to occur in sentences which are negated with not, while examples (4) and (6) are ungrammatical for attempting to use those words in a positive context.

The rules for NPI can get really complex. For example, it is widely believed that they can only occur in downward-entailing contexts, though to explain some additional properties of NPI’s a more robust notion of veridicality is required. For example, NPI’s are allowed in questions, even if the questions are not negative:

  1. Did you see anything?
  2. Do they have any octopus?

And they can occur when qualified by adverbs such as hardly:

  1. They cook hardly any seafood right now.

Sentence (9) above becomes ungrammatical if hardly is removed, yet somehow it becomes grammatical again if the sentence is qualified differently:

  1. *They cook any seafood right now.
  2. They cook any seafood that you can catch.

The reasons for this have to do with the veridical interpretation of habitual aspects and future time… which is all that I will attempt to explain about that. Read the linked article above about veridicality if you’re interested.

Now as a native English speaker you do all of this intuitively, and so you never have to spend a moment’s conscious thought on downward entailment and veridicality. (Lucky for you.) You can even invent new negative polarity items on occasion. But next time it comes up that a non-native speaker uses an NPI incorrectly, do be nice to her. This stuff is harder than it looks.