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a grammar sketch...

From:Yoon Ha Lee <yl112@...>
Date:Friday, September 29, 2000, 18:11
...for an unnamed language I've been thinking of working on, but haven't
actually started yet as far as choosing phonemes, word-generation,
anything like that.

The ideas:

4 "genders":
the unstable genders: unchanging-by-choice, changing-by-choice
the stable genders: must-unchange (or must-not-change), must-change

These can be further modified (I'm thinking some sort of
consonant-inflection) to indicate whether the state is "intermittent"
(something might be in the category "must-change" during the winter but
"must-unchange" in the spring, to give a really hastily cooked-up
example) or "constant" (the word *always* has such-and-such gender).

I should add I'm not even sure whether "gender" is the right term here,
but instead some sort of "case," because the idea is that words may cross
boundaries if they are considered "intermittent."

4 cases:
actor: that which is responsible for what happens
actee: that which is affected by what happens
accomplice: that which helps accomplish what happens
action: that which happens

I suspect there are more standard names I should be using, because this
is looking like another active case system.  These are shown by inflection.

Something like "I gave her flowers" would render casewise:
I: actor
her: actee (the intent of the action is to make "her" a gift-recipient)
flowers: accomplice (the flowers were complicitous in the giving-act)
giving: action

Again, I'm not certain I can really call this a case system, because the
"action" would be "case-marked" here.  I'm toying with the idea of
"verbs" and "nouns" being replaced by "instantives" and "generics."
The idea of "giving" would be a "generic," whereas a "gift" (in the
example above, the flowers) would be an "instantive."  But if you said
something like "Gift-giving makes me happy," "gift-giving" would be in
the generic.  I have the bad feeling that I'm confusing myself here by
trying to think in terms of OOP and instantiating members of a class.
:-/  If this doesn't make sense I'll drop the system.  (Is there a word
for when you noun a verb, like "Running is fun"?  I can't remember seeing

The verifiable tenses are:
  relative past
  relative present
  relative future
The unverifiable tenses are:
  legendary (remote past, legend, myth)
  prophetic (remote or unknownable future, i.e. the speaker doesn't expect
    to live to find out whether his/her/its pronouncement came out right)

These also appear by inflection.  (See below.)

(Explanation of "relative" comes below.)

Utterances have two levels of organization, sentence-level and
cycle-level.  A cycle is a group of sentences.

"Neutral" word order is (action) (actor) (actee) (accomplice) though
because of the cases you don't *have* to say things in this order.

Right now I think of this as a tree:

         /    |     \
      actor actee accomplice

A cycle is the organization of up to 4 sentences in the same pattern.
One sentence functions as an "actor," one as "actee," etc.  If you have
less than 4 (less than a full cycle) there are "null" utterances that are
inserted as placeholders (I'm thinking some brief, abbreviated phrases
invoking Deity or Elements).

Possible example (though not a very coherent one; I have to think about
this some more) in neutral word order:

I gave my friend the flowers.  (action--the point of what was described)
I bought some flowers.  (actor--the flowers are acquired)
I visited my friend.  (actee--the friend was "acquired")
I walked to the store.  (accomplice--the store is only important as a means
  of getting flowers, which facilitate the rest of this trite story)

Notice the actual temporal order is 4-2-3-1 (sentence numbers).

From what I'm thinking right now, a "cycle" isn't so much a "paragraph"
in the English (or French, or German??) sense, as sort of a compounded
sentence.  I'll have to think about provisions for indicating
conjunctions.  I visualize a cycle as a trinary tree (depth one) of 4
trinary trees (of depth one)--a recursive structure.  If I knew more
about real linguistics I would probably be able to quote Chomsky or
something at this point.  :-(

As for relative tenses: "relative present" refers to the time-frame in
which the action-sentence occurred.  Anything before that is in the
"relative past" (or possibly legendary), and anything after that is in
the "relative future" (or possibly prophetic).  The *actual* clock
time-frame of the relative present may in fact correspond to the "real"
present, past or future.  (I'm thinking of this sort of like a movable
C-clef.  I'm a viola player....)  This is how you can figure out the
temporal order of a cycle.

Back to structure: it's considered somewhat informal/brusque or
"staccato" to use two or more "null" sentences in a cycle, e.g.

I visited my friend.  (action)

A formal/polite speaker, to sound more "legato," might use a reciprocal
construction to say:

I visited my friend. (action)
She waited for my visit.  (actee)

I'm sure people in a hurry can ditch this convention.  I'm not all that
sure it makes sense, but for the moment I like the idea.

Why do cycles matter?

At the sentence-level, the actor/actee/accomplice all inflect for tense,
which I guess would look like subject-verb agreement (for a language that
has tense-agreement?), except the "verb" (action) doesn't inflect for tense.

The action not only has the "action" case-marking, it also inflects for
the position-in-cycle, i.e. whether the sentence is an actor-sentence,
actee-sentence, etc.

Anyway...just some ideas I've been scribbling to myself.  I have the bad
feeling I'm attempting to do clumsily, with insufficient "real"
terminology, what others have probably done before, much more
gracefully..  Pointers for reading or websites would be appreciated.

Yoon Ha Lee