Theiling Online    Sitemap    Conlang Mailing List HQ   

Not relying on inflections alone... [quite long]

From:Harald Stoiber <hstoiber@...>
Date:Tuesday, December 24, 2002, 22:31
Merry merry merry Christmas to everybody!!!!! :-))

These days I stumbled over a very useful feature of the german language
which enables it to literally use whatever nouns come along - even from
languages which have a completely different grammatical system. The
nifty trick is contained in the articles. In German I often have the option
to omit the article, thus, relying only on inflections:

Ich vergebe ihm.

As it is in English, the direct object (accusative case) specifies the
objectionable matter which is forgiven. The indirect object (dative case)
labels the target of the forgiving. Well, so far that's nice. But when it
comes to the following sentence, the system begins to show problems:

Ich vergebe Diebstahl.
I-NOM-SING forgive-PRES-IND-SING theft

I didn't display the case of "theft" in my translation because there are
actually two possibilities in the german original:
1) the fact or deed of theft. This would clearly result in implicitly
marking it as direct object in the accusative case.
2) somebody named "Diebstahl". Well, seldom will it happen, but solely
using the inflectional system incurs the penalty of not being sure about
each and every distinction. If somebody named "Diebstahl" is to be
addressed then the case is clearly dative and, as such, marks the
indirect object.

Summing up, we have the uncertainty between "I forgive the deed of theft"
and "I forgive the deed(s) of somebody who is named 'theft'". This was just
a more or less harmless example. Just imagine a word that isn't as simple
as "theft". Let's translate a sentence with an unknown word, like:

Ich vergebe Nechralx.

Whatever "Nechralx" is... is it a person, any other entity that can be some
sort of culprit? Or is it the bad deed or even sin itself.... or himself... or
herself? There the real and major problem arises with just inflecting
words without a fallback mechanism. Isn't it vital for a language to get
the basic idea of the role that a part of a sentence plays within the whole?
This should even be made sure in those cases where the part itself can
not be understood otherwise.

Latin had this problem significantly. Even nowadays there is a site on the
internet which offers world news in latin. They didn't find a way to properly
inflect "New York Times", so they just leave it uninflected in mid-sentence
for the reader or listener to find out for themselves - if they are lucky. Ok,
back to German because it fortunatly _has_ a fallback for these cases.

The secret is kept in the nature of articles. I could fix the above example
by saying:

Ich vergebe dem Nechralx.

"dem" is the definite article denoting dative case for masculine or neuter
gender - assuming that a "Nechralx" is not female gender (which would
require "der" for the preceding article).

Conclusion: If the word is incapable of receiving the proper inflection,
then there is a backup-mechanism preceding the word and carrying all
grammatical information as needed. I will realize such a handy mechanism
in my current conlang.

Greetings and merry christmas again,

A mind all logic is like a knife all blade.
(Rabindranath Tagore)