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.

Yivrian has been conceived as a member of a language family, though none of the other members of the family have ever seen significant development. This presented me with a challenge and an opportunity when I sat down to write my current WiP, since it’s set in a part of the world that doesn’t speak Yivrian, but one of its sister languages Praseo.

Praseo, known as Praçí in an earlier incarnation, is the language of the city of Prasa (formerly Praç) and its environs. Praseo was originally conceived as a Portuguese-like relative of Yivrian, and it retains several features from that early stage: nasal vowels, several syllable reductions, and vocalization of coda -l to create lots of diphthongs ending in -o. However, over time that Portuguese flavor has largely been lost, partly because my conception of the conculture of the Yivrian cultural area changed quite a bit, and partly because the Yivrian lexical base was hard to warp into something that felt Romance-like. The current incarnation has phonoaesthetic elements of Japanese and Pacific Northwest Native American languages to go with the Portuguese substrate, but it retains enough similarity to Yivrian to feel like a member of the same family.

But I may be getting ahead of myself. Let me show you a chart of Yivrian’s close relatives:

There is not a lot of breadth here, as the near relatives of Yivrian number only two (plus a possible, unnamed third language which I haven’t included in the chart above, since it’s little more than conjecture at this point). For brevity, I often refer to the languages mentioned above with the following abbreviations:

  • PY (Proto-Yivril)
  • CY (Common Yivrian)
  • OY (Old Yivrian)
  • OTz (Old Tzingrizil)
  • Y (Yivrian)
  • Pr (Praseo)
  • Tz (Tzingrizil)

[Speaking from an in-universe perspective:] Yivrian, Praseo, and Tzingrizil are all attested, literary languages that had hundreds of thousands of speakers during the classical period and are quite well-documented. The “old” languages Old Yivrian and Old Tzingrizil are also attested, though much more sparsely, while the ancestral languages of Common Yivrian and Proto-Yivril are only known through reconstruction. There is a pretty high level of intelligibility between OY and OTz, though the daughter languages are all mutually unintelligible.

[Speaking from a conlanging perspective:] My Yivrian lexicon includes the ancestral Common Yivrian forms for all of its entries (except those that are borrowings or later coinages, obviously), which means that I have a pretty large CY lexical base to use for deriving other sister languages. The challenge that this presents, though, is to create forms that are phonoaesthetically pleasing and linguistically plausible for the other daughter languages. Y itself doesn’t have this problem, since all of the CY forms in the lexicon were created by extrapolating backwards from Y, but I find that the sound changes from CY forward to the other daughters require a lot of tweaking. Next post I may go into detail on a few of the problems I encountered and some solutions that I worked up for them.

But using Praseo for my WiP actually presented a bigger problem. Namely, the people in the book don’t actually speak Praseo yet.

The book I’m working on is set in an early part of the Yivrian history, at the stage of Old Yivrian and Old Tzingrizil. The story takes place in and around Prasa, but at the time of the story Prasa had been settled by explorers from Tsingris for only about two generations. So the characters are largely speaking OTz. But I don’t want to use OTz for my names and language snippets, because OTz is ugly. I have strong phonoaesthetic expectations for my conlangs, especially those that are going to go into books. I consider OY and OTz to be intermediate stages, and I don’t much worry about tuning them, but this means that they aren’t suitable for use as the main conlang sources in a novel. Furthermore, I have to keep my readers in mind — it would be really confusing if I publish three different novels in different time periods, and all of the place names were slightly different in each book due to linguistic shifts.

To get around these problems, I established a policy which I intend to follow from here on out. All place names and language snippets appear in the canonical, classical form of each language, which is generally the latest developed form of the language in con-historical time. Furthermore, wherever possible place names are given in the form of the local language, regardless of the language of the speaker or POV character in the story. That is, the city of Prasa will always be called Prasa, since that’s its name in Praseo, despite the fact that in Y the name is Parath, and in Tz it’s something else yet.

But all of this is just backstory and extra-literary justification for my linguistic decisions. The actual work of creating Praseo is still underway, and next week I’ll talk about some of the challenges.

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.