I’m a few days late posting this (because reasons), but I’m very excited to post this interview I recently did with the folks on Conlangery, about the languages of Storm bride, and a bunch of other questions regarding fantasy literature and language creation. You can listen here:

We talk about:

  • How I got into linguistics and conlanging
  • Why there’s only two sentences of actual conlang in Storm Bride
  • Why most fictional languages in SFF suck
  • Ursula K. LeGuin’s Always Coming Home and other SFF works that at least try to get it right
  • How to present strange phonologies without terrifying your readers
  • Cultural appropriation issues when conlanging based on an real languages and cultures
  • Other stuff that I can’t remember.

This was the most fun I’d had in a while! Hope you like listening.

For a while now I’ve been putting up articles at jsbangs.conlang.org which relate to elements of the setting, languages, history, and philosophy behind my published works. I haven’t made a very big deal about it, though, mostly because I wanted to make sure that I had a critical mass of articles before I publicized it, to avoid sending people to an empty site.

Well, I guess it’s full enough, because here you go: more than you wanted to know about Storm Bride and other fantasy works-in-progress. The site is still very incomplete, and I have a dozen TODOs written to myself about topics that I still want to cover. I refrain from writing all of the articles right away, since I suffer from worldbuilder’s disease as it is, and writing encyclopedia articles about my creations sometimes threatens to get in the way of actual stories. But I do get to write the encyclopedia articles at some point. Right now you can see a bunch of articles relating mostly to Storm Bride, including a pretty complete description of the Praseo language, and some details about the Yakhat which never quite made it into the published book.

I intend to trickle articles up onto that site, and I’ll make an announcement here whenever I hit certain milestones. For now, though, feel free to poke around and let me know if there’s anything you particularly like or want to know more about.

This is complete enough that I’m ready to post it here: the grammar of the Praseo language. The syntax section isn’t complete yet, and I don’t have any longer sample texts or the lexicon up yet, but there’s a decent bit of morphology, phonology, and enough to get a feel for the style of the language.

For those who don’t have the time or patience to read the whole thing, let me present just the first and second person pronouns, which have a lovely, bizarre feature of trading place in polite speech.

First and second person nominative pronouns

The first and second person subject pronouns are formed of compounds between the demonstrative prefixes and pronominal suffixes, similar to the third person demonstratives. However, there is no distinction between proximal and distal in the first and second persons, and there are additional considerations of rank and politeness which affect the choice of pronouns. Second person pronouns are distinguished by gender, but first person pronouns are not.

Speech between equals

When social equals address each other, they used the following pronouns:

Person Singular Plural
1 nioa ai
2masc niśa aśi
2fem niśe aśa

These forms are considered the unmarked forms, and are used in all social situations where differences of rank do not need to be observed. This includes speech between people of similar ages, and interactions between the leaders of enna regardless of their age.

Speech between unequals

When there is a distinction of rank that must be observed, then the first and second person pronouns are reversed in the singular—that is, the first person singular pronoun from the chart above is used as the second person pronoun, and vice versa. In this scenario the gender of the first person pronoun is qualified by the gender of the interlocutor. The plural pronouns are unchanged. The following chart illustrates this (perhaps redundantly):

Person Singular Plural
1 (masc. interlocutor) niśa ai
1 (fem. interlocutor) niśe ai
1 (mpl. interlocutor) niśi ai
1 (fpl. interlocutor) niśa ai
2masc nioa aśi
2fem nioa aśa

The rationale for this has to do with the cultural use of honorifics and “social ownership”. The word nioa literally means “this one of mine,” but the significance of this possession varies according to the social situation. In a conversation between equals, a speaker presents himself as self-owned and self-referential, without any relationship of ownership or deference to the other speakers. Thus the word nioa, “this one of mine,” can be used to refer to the self, and niśa, literally “this one of yours,” refers to the interlocutor.

However, in a conversation between unequals, both parties will refer to the other with an honorific which indicates their relationship. These honorifics typically are suffixed with a possessive pronoun. The following short dialog will illustrate:

Ezeioa         pazetsyaśoa  ka?
Grandmother-my call-PERF-me QUESTION?

Child: My grandmother, did you call for me?

Bandeioa      kuyaśu?
Grandchild-my where-is-PERF?

Elder: My grandchild, where were you?

Niśe       satsú     yaśu.
This-yours beach-LOC is-PERF.

Child: I was at the beach.

Niśa       mantsya ma   nioa    patsu     zitsyatsu.
This-yours needs   that this-my something carry-it.

Elder: I need you to carry something for me.

Note, first off, that the child begins by addressing the elder with the honorific ezeioa, “my grandmother,” and that the elder in turn begins by addressing the child as bandeioa, “my grandchild.” The use of these ranked terms establishes the relative position of the speakers. In the second round of the dialogue, the child refers to himself with the pronounniśe, “this yours”, which is contextually understood to be an abbreviation of nibandeiśe, “this grandchild of yours”. (Note, too, that though the child is male he uses the form niśe, with the feminine possessive ending -śe because he is addressing a female elder and allowing himself to be “socially owned” by the elder.) The grandmother, in like fashion, refers to herself as niśa, literally “this yours (m.sg.)”, understood as an abbreviation of “this grandmother of yours”; and she addresses her grandson with nioa “this mine.”

This reversal of first and second person pronouns only occurs in the singular. The first-person plural pronoun ai is used in conversations between unequals without change, except for one wrinkle: the plural ai cannot be used with the clusive meaning “me and you” or “we and you” when the speaker and the person addressed are of unequal rank. In cases of unequal rank, the meaning “me and you” must be conveyed by niśa ta nioa, with an explicit conjunction, and “we and you” must be ai ta nioa or similar.

I’m toying with a Sanskrit-esque conlang. At the moment this is likely to be just a naming language, but there’s a good chance that I’m going to need to expand it later, so I want to make sure I get off on the right foot.

But this poses the question: what is Sanskrit-esque? I’m mostly concerned with phonology and mouth-feel, not syntax or morphology—which is convenient, since I know basically nothing about Sanskrit beyond its phonology. A little brainstorming suggests the following characteristics:

  1. A four-way stop contrast, with all combinations +/- voice and +/- aspirated for most places of articulation
  2. Palatal and retroflex consonant series
  3. a as the most common vowel, followed by i
  4. Syllabic sonorants, especially r
  5. Lack of w, but v and y very common.
  6. Onset clusters of the form Cr, but few/no other onset clusters
  7. Vowel length distinction
  8. Relatively few word-final consonants, and those that occur are usually nasals or h

I found this Sanskrit text as a good language sample, from which I drew most of the preceding observations. Obviously some of these are generalizations about Sanskrit romanization and not necessarily about phonology per se, but since my end-goal here is to create a Sanskrit-flavored naming language, observing the romanization conventions is part of the deal.

Now I further complicate my requirements by noting that I already have a decent number of names in use for this setting, which I have to retrofit without completely destroying. Let’s start with the city formerly named Wyrnas, a grotesquely cliche pseudo-Welsh name. My initial concept of this language used the digraph yr to indicate a syllabic [r], so this name can be changed to Vrnas with almost no change in actual pronunciation. But what a wonderful difference in flavor! I’m off to a good start.

Next is Corath. This name doesn’t violate any of our rules outright, but that final -ath doesn’t sit right. Obvious alternatives would be Coratha or Corathi, which are merely okay. While looking at these names I thought of simply geminating the th to Corattha, which seems just right.

On to Gocem. I’m pretty sure that CoCeC is not a possible word-shape in Sanskrit, so we have to change at least one of the vowels. But the most minimal change here seems like the best: Gocam

(Note that I’m editing purely for flavor here, without any concern for the morphology or phonotactics of the target language. This is fine as a first step, though later of course I’ll have to figure such things out.)

I won’t go through the rest of the 20-ish names that would have to be retrofitted, since this is just a preliminary sketch. But I’m heartened that the retrofit seems to be possible.

In my previous posts about toddler language acquisition, I’ve largely talked about my younger child, who is currently aged two-and-a-half. You might think this is because my older child, aged four-and-a-half, has already passed most of the more interesting milestones.

This is the opposite of the truth.

Our oldest son Ciprian has had severe language acquisition delays, for reasons that no one knows. For whatever reason, he never passed the linguistic level of a typical two year old, knowing about two dozen single words, and that’s all. He never progressed to simple two-word sentences, he acquired new words very slowly if at all, and his pronunciation remained idiosyncratic and difficult to understand. This was combined with a variety of difficult behavior issues, such as an obsession with running water (he would turn on the water in the sink and watch it for hours if we’d let him), and self-harming when he was frustrated or angry.

It’s hard to overestimate how frustrating this was. When he wanted something, Ciprian would simply shout "Give give give" over and over, and you would have to guess what he wanted from context. (He also didn’t know how to point to request things, an essential pre-linguistic skill that he never mastered.) If you couldn’t figure it out, then you had to prepare yourself for a bout of screaming and self-harming.

Earlier this year, shortly before his fourth birthday, we said enough was enough and sought help from his pediatrician, and then the child psychologist that she referred us to. Unfortunately, all we got was a bunch of negatives: he isn’t autistic, his hearing is fine, and he isn’t cognitively impaired. The technical term they deployed was just "developmentally delayed", without any suggestion of the reason. This was less than encouraging. Eventually, the best thing we could do was just to enroll him in a preschool to give him more opportunities for stimulation, and talk to the school district about special education. The local district offers pre-K special education for qualifying students, and after their assessment they quickly assigned him a speech therapist and an early childhood specialist.

This was the best thing we’ve ever done for Ciprian.

It’s now six months later. While it would be great to say that things changed overnight, the reality is that we saw only marginal improvements for the first several months. His self-harming behavior decreased and his overall mood improved, but we only saw incremental additions to his vocabulary and no significant breakthroughs in his overall language. That was, until about six weeks ago, when for some reason the floodgates opened.

It feels like his vocabulary has doubled or tripled. He’s added a variety of English and Romanian words, and has started to use them more appropriately, where before he would indiscriminately apply the few words he used to virtually everything, making it very difficult to discern what he actually wanted. He’s become scrupulously polite, always saying "please" and "thank you" when making requests, in both English and Romanian. But most importantly, he’s started actually using sentences. Now, he actually says "I want cookie" when he wants something, and life is good.

His sentences aren’t grammatical yet. For the most part they’re two- and three-word collocations. And there’s still a long ways to go—he isn’t remotely like a normal four-year-old yet, and his little brother is significantly ahead of him. But for the first time in years, it feels like we’re actually getting somewhere.

So what am I thankful for this year? I’m thankful for a fifty-item vocabulary, for two-word sentences, and for my awesome kid Ciprian.

Time for another toddler language update! Today’s topic: gender agreement and past tenses.

For the most part, my younger son doesn’t exhibit have any gender agreement yet. He has only a handful of adjectives, and for they’re fixed forms, usually the masculine. However, there’s one word that he has acquired in the feminine form: obosită "tired".(The reason for this acquisition is that the word is most often applied to his mother. Yes, that sounds like a bad joke, but it’s true.)

This leads to some amusing mismatches, as when he says of himself Sebi obosită ("Sebi is tired [fsg]"), or when he talks about the horses near our house and says Cai obosită ("The horses [mpl] are tired [fsg]"). We do usually correct him when he makes mistakes of this sort, but as you might expect this isn’t terribly effective.

The other exciting development is that Sebi appears to be acquiring (slowly) the past tense. We have heard him occasionally using past-tense forms over the past few weeks, but it seemed likely that those were fixed forms. Today, however, I heard him correctly and appropriately contrast the present and past of a ploua "to rain". When returning to the car after preschool it was raining, and he repeated after me plouă! ("It’s raining!"). This is a word that he’s used frequently, but once we reached the car he pointed to the window and said A plouat geam ("It rained [on] the window"). This is the first time I’ve ever heard him switch from present to past tense on a verb, and a ploua is not a verb that we use most often in the past tense. So I don’t think this is something that he acquired as a fixed form, but rather appears to be him accurately applying regular past-tense morphology.

This acquisition is still intermittent, at best, and I expect it’ll be some time before he regularly uses any past tense, regular or irregular. But it is a fun milestone.

My wife always said that I should keep a log of some sort about my kids linguistic development. And while I haven’t kept a detailed log, here I am blogging about it for the second week in a row.

So: pronouns. As mentioned before, proper use of pronouns is something that children acquire late, but partial use of pronouns develops quite a bit before that. What’s interesting here is the differing rates at which English and Romanian pronouns have been acquired. Because Romanian is pro-drop, pronouns are relatively uncommon in Romanian speech. For this reason, Sebi already uses the English pronoun I fairly consistently, but has not acquired any Romanian pronouns at all. He even mixes the two languages:

I făcut caca.
I went poopy.

The only thing approaching a Romanian pronoun that either child uses is the syllable [tu:], which represents an interesting conflation of the Romanian pronoun tu (you, sg.) and the English word too. The reason for the conflation is that both English and Romanian tend to locate these words at the end of utterances, in similar contexts, and with both words bearing the prosodic stress:

Do you want some, **too**?
Vrei şi **tu**? (Lit. "Want also you?")

Because of this coincidence, both children use the syllable [tu:] with a variety of meanings, including "me, too," "also," and "let me do it." As I noted with the discussion of verb inflection, the kids tend to use second-person forms with first-person meanings, based on what they most often hear.

Despite these few examples of confusion between the two languages, the kids already seem to have a good understanding of the differences between the languages and the contexts in which each is used. Their teachers at preschool say that they never hear the boys using Romanian words at school, and at home they seem to switch effortlessly into Romanian. They have even begun to exhibit some awareness of translation, the notion of a statement in English having an equivalent in Romanian and vice-versa. I’d say that this portends good things.

My kids are young and are just beginning to speak in sentences. This in interesting, first because their linguistic development is bilingual, and secondly because I’ve never before had significant exposure to young children speaking a language other than English at this stage in their linguistic development. And now I’m getting a chance to observe something I’ve always wondered: when children learn a language with highly verbs, which forms do they learn first?

Romanian, like most Romance languages, inflects the verb for agreement in person and number in a variety of tenses. By way of illustration:

eu merg         I go
tu mergi        you go
el merge        he goes 
noi mergem      we go 
voi mergeţi     you (pl.) go 
ei merg         they go

Romanian is also pro-drop, meaning that pronouns are usually omitted when they occur as the subjects of sentences. So, given that a child learning Romanian hears a wide variety of verb forms with little way of distinguishing them at first (pronouns are one of the later syntactic features that small children acquire), which form do they use when they first start speaking?

The answer is: it depends, and it’s different for different verbs. This is not the answer that I was expecting. And what it depends on, as far as I can tell, is the form in which the child most often hears the verb, especially when its directed at him.

For example, my youngest always uses "want" in the 2sg form v(r)ei. This is because he most often hears the word used in questions like the following:

What do you want?
Ce vrei?

The word "give", on the other hand, is always dau, the 1sg form, because of the frequency of statements like "I’ll give you…" or "Do you want me to give you…?" (That second one involves an infinitive in English, but a finite verb in Romanian.)

A surprising number of verbs have been acquired in the imperative, most notably vino "come". The reasons for this should be obvious. Since the Romanian imperative is usually identical with the 3sg, there are a number of verbs in which it’s unclear which form has been acquired—and since the differences between imperative and indicative are certainly beyond him at this point, I doubt that the question is even answerable. He judges identifies imperatives solely by pragmatics, and he uses the imperative form even in clearly indicative contexts. Just today I heard Sebi vino used where the intended meaning was clearly "Sebi is coming", despite the morphologically imperative verb.

Most surprisingly, there’s a handful of verbs which have been acquired as a past participle, especially făcut "do" and dormit "sleep". This probably reflects the frequency with which these verbs are used in the past tense, since the normal Romanian past tense is synthetic, formed with the present-tense form of avea "to have" and the past participle. Sebi does sometimes use the auxiliary with the participle, but it seems very doubtful that he actually understands this as periphrasis at this point, as opposed to a fixed phrase.

Finally there is a single verb which has been acquired in the first person plural: rugăm "(we) pray". I find this adorable.

This is a small sample size (n=2), and only one language, but I would expect that results from other languages would be similar. What I wonder about, now, is how child language evolves in languages with really complex systems, such as polypersonal agreement, object incorporation, or other polysynthetic features.

While listening to Conlangery recently I was impressed by one of the host’s suggestion to "try different things and see what works." It’s an anodyne, nearly cliché bit of advice, but it prompted me to wonder: how, exactly, does something in a constructed language "not work?" After all, you’re inventing a language. You get to make up the rules; whatever you invent works if you say it does. Doesn’t it?

Yet anyone who has been conlanging for more than a few months will recognize that this isn’t actually the case. I felt this intuitively, but it still had trouble articulating what exactly it meant for something to "not work" in an invented language. So I’ve compiled a list below of common conlang failure modes. These are things which frequently happen to conlang creators which cause their languages to go awry, and I think that almost all conlangers should be able to recognize many of the items on the list. More importantly, I’ve tried to articulate why each of the mishaps represents a failure, and how they detract from the artistic integrity of the conlang.

Relex: A relex is a language whose vocabulary exists in a close correspondence with the language creator’s native language. Relexes are a hallmark of new and naive conlangers, and they mostly represent a failure of imagination. Languages differ enormously in the structure of their vocabulary — why repeat what you already know?

Syntactic relex: A more sophisticated version of the relex, the syntactic relex mimics not the vocabulary but the grammar of the creator’s first language. This, likewise, is a failure of imagination, but it’s much subtler and is something that even sophisticated conlangers fall into periodically.

Excessive ambiguity: The language, as designed, is not really usable for communication because it presents too many opportunities for misunderstanding. No matter how creative or artistic a conlang is, it must still function (at least in theory) as a medium of communication. This is actually a hard error for most conlangers to fall into, since conlangers tend to hate unclarity, and the human language facility is remarkably tolerant of ambiguity.

Excessive specificity: The language, as designed, is not really usable for communication because it requires the user to encode too many different aspects of the utterance. There are myriad different things that languages can encode, but there is no language that encodes all of them. Many conlangers get overly excited about all of the different things that their language could mark, and try to throw in all of them. This results in a bulky, unwieldy morphology and syntax that resembles no real-world language.

Unlearnability: The language can’t be learned by ordinary humans, because it uses structures that aren’t natural for human minds. Occasionally, as with Fith, this is a deliberate design choice, but more often the language creators intended for the language to be human-speakable, but failed by choosing an unsuitable underlying model. Lojban seems to suffer from this flaw.

Incoherence: The parts of the language don’t fit together, and there are gaps or clashes where the mismatched parts meet. The language’s phonology might make mutually exclusive demands of its word-shapes, or the syntax might contain valency-changing operations which are superfluous in a non-configurational grammar. This usually indicates that the conlanger has included an interesting linguistic feature without understanding how to use it or considering its consequences for the rest of the grammar.

Artificiality: The language is unnatural in some way or another, and this unnaturalness marks the language as artificial. Any aspect of the language (phonology, morphology, syntax, vocabulary) can show these telltale signs of artifice. Occasionally this is a deliberate artificial choice, but more often this is a result of the conlanger attempting to create a naturalistic language and failing.

Aesthetic failure: The most difficult and subjective failure. Most conlangers begin their languages with a particular artistic purpose in mind, whether that goal is phonoaesthetic, morphosyntactic, or lexical. But sometimes the language fails to meet its creator’s goals. This failure is so idiosyncratic that almost nothing can be said about it in general, but anyone who has ever tried and failed at an artistic endeavor will understand what it is like.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the origins of the Yivrian passive (and how it’s related to the Praseo passive, and if Praseo even has a passive). Eventually I wrote up the following, which I am very pleased with:

In Common Yivrian (CY), the thematic vowel of the verb has three grades1, which are reflexed in Yivrian (Y) but with different semantics:

Base        -yā
Focus       -yō
Intensive   -yū

The base form is most commonly used and has unmarked semantics. The focus form is used when the verb itself carries the discourse focus. This form becomes the Yivrian passive, and is the topic of the following discussion. (The intensive form in CY is outside of the scope of this discussion, but it eventually becomes the Yivrian reflexive.)

In CY the default word order was SVO, though the case-marking allowed for mild nonconfigurationality, with the order of subjects and objects relative to each other and to the verb being unconstrained. This word order was exploited for discursive purposes, with the utterance-initial position serving to indicate focus. Nouns had no additional marking for focus, but as mentioned above when you wished to focus the verb, the thematic vowel of the verb ending changed:

Unmarked word order:

[CY]    Daθu   leθθyā  nawimu.
        Bird    eat     worm-ACC
        "The bird eats the worm."

Verb-focused word order:

[CY]    Leθθyō      nawimu      daθu.
        eat-FOCUS   worm-ACC    bird
        "It *eats* the worm, that's what the bird does."

This could be used with stative verbs as well:

[CY]    Hāðiyōhi            yīse.
        Be-beautiful-FOCUS  woman.
        "The woman is *beautiful*."

This latter case has survived essentially unchanged into Yivrian, where an intransitive verb can be marked for focus by being marked with -o and moved to the beginning of the sentence.

[Y]     Harayoa             nayiise.
        Be-beautiful-PASS   that-woman.
        "That woman is *beautiful*."

However, the semantics and syntax of this sentence are somewhat changed from what they were in CY, due to the concomitant changes to the transitive case. The transitive verb-focused statements were reinterpreted as passives due to the following three changes:

  1. The accusative case marker was lost. Since previously verb-focused sentences could have VSO or VOS word order, this caused an ambiguity.

  2. To disambiguate agents from patients in verb-focused transitive sentences, the agent was marked with the instrumental case.

  3. Once the agent was marked by the instrumental case, the now-unmarked object was reinterpreted as the syntactic subject, and the verb-focus marker was reinterpreted as a passive marker.

Yivrian retains vestiges of this system in its word order. The unmarked word order for active transitive sentences is SVO, but passives are VS(A), with the agent optionally indicated by an oblique argument in the ablative case. (The Yivrian ablative conflates the old instrumental and locative cases.) For examples of each type:

[Y]     Doth    lethya  na.  
        Bird    eat     worm.
        "The bird eats the worm."

        Lethyo      na      dathun.
        Eat-PASS    worm    bird-ABL.
        "The worm is eaten by the bird."

The VS(A) word order for passives was the normal word order throughout the classical period, and passives with the SV(A) word order that more closely mimicked the active word order were rare. They become more common in post-Classical Yivrian, as the passive significance of the verb marking becomes more salient and the verb-focusing origins of the construction are lost.

For intransitive verbs the passive -o retained its role as a marker of verbal focus. However, once -o was understood primarily as a passive transformation, the argument-reducing aspect of the passive voice was applied to intransitives as well. Thus, if you wish to omit the subject of an intransitive verb, you must apply the passive morphology to it as well. This is a special case of the verb-focused intransitives discussed above.

[Y]     Volassumyoa.
        "Someone sure is being stupid."

Finally, ordinarily subject-less verbs such as weather verbs were influenced by this pattern. In CY (and in both Praseo and Tzingrizhil), such verbs take the ordinary verbal ending -a, but in early classical Yivrian we find them occurring oftentimes with -o, and by the late classical period the passive marking of such verbs has become obligatory.

[Y]     Lavyon          kayana.
        rain-PASS-FUT   tomorrow.
        "It will rain tomorrow."

  1. These grades are very similar to the ā/ō/ū grades found in the stative nouns (Yivrian nouns of emotion), and probably are etymologically related.