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Re: Polysynthesis & Oligosynthesis

From:Dirk Elzinga <dirk_elzinga@...>
Date:Monday, August 26, 2002, 18:12
At 5:30 PM +0100 8/25/02, Tim May wrote:
>|Date: Tue, 6 Oct 1998 20:07:05 -0500 >[...] >|Tom Wier wrote: >|>=20 >|> Hawksinger wrote: >|>=20 >|> > Thanks to Nova oligosynthetic nature, this allows for very thorough >|> > color terminology when needed. >|>=20 >|> Could you explain this a little more? This is quite interesting... >| >|Sure. Oligosynthesis is an idea that goes back to Whorf. He mentions >|it briefly in Linguistic Structures of Native America but the heart >|of it was in 2 unpublished papers now on microfilm at the University of >|Chicago. He believed that Uto-Aztecan lgs were made up of a very >|small number of elements (35 if I remember correctly) and that all >|words and apparent morphemes were made by combining those to get >|the forms we normally call words. This not the same as aglutination >|where you take a basic root and derive new words from it nor is it like >|polysynthesis where one word =3D one sentence (an oversimplification I >|know). Rather these elements have no independent existence. Now 35 is >|too small for me, so Nova currently stands at 980 (of which about 70 >|will soon be discarded in the next reform). Of these, 148 are >|inflectional morphemes, 157 are particles and words that can stand alone >|(e.g. numerals and the equivalents to prepositions), and 675 that I call >|Incohates that are used to make 'words'. > >According to another old post, Dirk Elzinga's seen those papers of >Whorf's, and he's on the list now, so maybe he could supply more >information if there's anything further of interest to be said.
I'm here, and yes, I do have (very poor) copies of the Whorf material. Your quote from Brad pretty well sums up the story for Nova, but I thought it would be interesting to show you what Whorf did with Nahuatl. He posits a set of formatives, each of which is larger than a phoneme (usually) but smaller than a "root" (in the Paninian or Indo-European sense). He calls such formatives "elements", and claims that Nahuatl words are most insightfully analyzed as collocations of such elements. The thirty-five elements he posits for Nahuatl are given below; they are taken directly from the paper (transcription notes: <CH> is /tS/; <C> is always /k/, <QU> is always /k_w/, <Z> is /s/, and <X> is /S/). Group 1. The element is a monosyllable consisting of a consonant followed by a farily fixed and characteristic vowel. CHA fill space, take space, fill, occupy, displace, replace. MA extend, reach, overtake, stretch forth. NA go or be close, or connective - between, across, through. PA pervade, go through, across, beyond, and esp _over_. QUA stand, rise, endure. TA be original, basic, pure (uncommon). TLA set, settle, sink, rest, fix, stop; definite. YA go, advance, lead. ME be even, regular, smooth, or straight. PE spring, begin start, dash, sweep or drive. QUE agitate, surve up, shake forth. TE lay, lie; a barrier, limit, division, edge; row, line. CHI, -CH form, shpae, make, outline, appearance, completeness. LI move, agitate. (not common) MI, -N pass, go by, cease, end; terminus; evanescence. PI draw in or together, contract, converge, pull, hold. QUI, QU-(a, e) take, draw back, retract, back, backward. CHO run, flow, run through; swift motion. LO, LEU-, LIW-, LW-, -L go around, turn, curve, bend. PO expand, broaden, open, disperse, dissipate, lose. TO project, throw out, stream, radiate. YO be inner, be alive; inner life, heart, essence; hidden, dark. Group 2. In this small group the element consists of a single vowel. A remove, eliminate; space, distance, room ,void, absence. E lift, heave, raise, rouse, excite, kindle. I enter, come, appear, within, take in. (this element, through a secondary stem IT, may be represented by a letter -T from which the vowel has dropped.) Group 3. Group 3 contains two elements with characteristic consonant but flexible, variable vowel, which however avoids becoming the vowel _a_. N, NE, NI, NEU, NO self, same, equal, alike, likewise. YE, YUH, IW- be so, be a fact, be already accomplished. Group 4. The consonant is a sibillant [sic], the vowel comes after the sibillant and is entirely variable. TZ- a general meaning of _closure, contraction, and suppression_, which is somewhat differentiated according to the vowel, giving three secondary forms of the element: TZA close, press, enclose. TZI, TZE subside, reduce, inhibit, restrain, depress. TZO come together, contract; shrink, withdraw. X- (XA, XE, XI, XO) separate, divide, part, break, cut, end. Z- be one - in the forms ZE, ZI, ZO chiefly: unite, combine, agree, be continuous, uniform, simple, monotonous, unbroken. in the form ZA chiefly: be alone, apart, separated; first, prior - but also sometimes unite. Group 5. The same sibillant consonants as in Group 4, but with vowel before the sibillant and meaning entirely different from that of same consonant in Group 4. Vowel variable but usually _i_. ITZ, -TZ project, especially convergingly or sharply. IX, -X out, forth, exterior, face, front, manifest. IZ, -Z come, appear, arouse. Group 6. Two elements that are 3essentially simple consonants, the attendant vowel being freely variable and either before or after; or it may disappear. C- (CA, CE CI, CO, -C) interior, in, at, be contained, located; from within. W (WA, WE, WI, O, UH) send, go, or extend away, off, forth, along; send, convey, let go; long, large. He gives some examples of lexemes which have been broken down into these basic elements. Such include: ilpia 'to bind' from -LW 'go around' (secondary form -l, il) and PI 'draw together' cochi 'to be asleep' from CO 'inner' and CHI 'appearance, vision' and 'doings, behavior' patla 'to change, exchange something' from PA 'across' and TLA 'set, put' cama-tl 'mouth' from Ca 'interior' and MA 'extension'. And so on. Whorf also speculates that with only 35 elements, a script could be designed which was at once ideographic and phonetic. It's an interesting exercise, but I don't think that anyone takes the idea seriously as the basis for natural language description or analysis. Brad's idea to use oligosynthesis as a generative principle for conlanging, OTOH, is a stroke of genius. His 980 element list for Nova is not too far removed from a basic Navajo root list compiled by Young and Morgan; they had only about 2000 forms. Maybe there's something to it after all. Dirk -- Dirk Elzinga Man deth swa he byth thonne he mot swa he wile. 'A man does as he is when he can do what he wants.' - Old English Proverb