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A really odd language: Tolborese

From:Nihil Sum <nihilsum@...>
Date:Monday, September 2, 2002, 1:47
How Tolborese was born...

A little while ago I posted a proposal for a grammar feature in a new
language. The thread was called "A concept" and started at message 76412. It
was based around a patient/agent "cross-referencing" system, where every
agent takes a marker to show the person and number of its patient, and every
patient takes a marker to show the person and number of its agent.

Christophe Grandsire responded and pointed out the redundancy in this
system. I have changed the concept quite a bit -- having incorporated bits
of Bantu grammar -- but have left this redundancy in, for reasons I will
explain below (in fact, the reasons are at the bottom of the message).

The basic (tentative) grammar of Tolborese:

-Ergative, with word order PVA. The redundant cross-referencing system will
probably allow flexibilty though, so I will have to toy with this some more.
-Adjectives follow nouns, and take a prefix for the "class" of the noun
(there's that Bantu stuff). Nouns usually do not take a marker for their own
class, having lost these due to the patient/agent markers.
-Agent/patient cross-referencing system: agents marked for their patient,
patients marked for their agent.


aP markers (prefixed to patients to show their agent):

        sg      pl
1       si      isi
2       mo      uvo
3       ka      aka

pA markers (prefixed to agents to show their patient):

        sg      pl
1       yu      eye
2       pa      ava
3       su      uzu

So we might have the sentence |kahutuk kuat suzabak| meaning "the dog bites
the man". In this sentence, ka-hutuk means "a man, as acted on by a third
person singular agent", and su-zabak means "a dog, as acting upon a third
person singular patient".

AKAhutuk kuat SUzabak
aka-man bite su-dog
the dogs bite the man

KAhutuk kuat UZUzabak
ka-man bite uzu-dog
the dog bites the men

AKAhutuk kuat UZUzabak
the dogs bite the men

AKAzabak kuat UZUhutuk
the men bite the dogs

(keep in mind the location of "man" and "dog" in this sentence is the
opposite of English, being Patient-Verb-Agent)
I've done away with marking a noun for plurality, and instead rely only on
changing the prefix taken by the other noun. This means that the plurality
of a noun is marked always on another word!
It also means that the sentence marks the number and person of the agent and
patient, but not on the noun.

Pronouns may be included or omitted, depending on whether they need to be
there to take a prefix or not. Notice in the following sentences:

mim EYEzabak
the dog(s) sees us

mim YUzabak
the dog(s) sees me

SIzabak mim
I see the dog(s)

... there is no way to tell whether the dog is singular or plural! I think I
will leave this tendency to ambiguity. If necessary, the actual word for
"I/we", |lang|, may be included.

sizabak mim uzulang
I see the dogs

sizabak mim sulang
I see the dog


Ripped off from Bantu languages is the idea of "noun classes". Each noun, in
theory, takes a prefix to indicate to which class it belongs. Any adjective
modifying the noun takes the same prefix. The result is that in a language
like Swahili, most noun-adjective pairs are alliterative!
In Tolborese, all nouns fall into a "class". I'm going to come up with
considerably more numerous and specific classes than the Bantu languages
use. However, the noun itself is usually NOT marked with its own class
prefix. The class is only marked should the noun be followed by an
adjective. For example, since I have bugger-all in the way of vocabulary so
far, the man mentioned above is in the "people" class (singular bu-, plural
wa-), while the dog is in the "animals" class (singular zi-, plural vi-).

Let's add an adjective to the "biting" sentence: "resh" meaning

kahutuk BUresh kuat suzabak ZIresh
that dog bites that man

AKAhutuk buresh kuat suzabak VIresh
those dogs bite that man

Notice that the plurality of "dog" here is marked in two places, neither of
which is on the word "dog"! Same with "man":

kahutuk WAresh kuat UZUzabak ziresh
that dog bites those men.

(The "people" and "animals" classes are not entirely correct. I'll explain
it later. More on these and other noun classes as I make them up.)


Marking person and number elsewhere leaves the verb free to take more tense
prefixes without becoming overlong.

TImim eyezabak
the dog is (in the middle of) seeing us (now)

PUTImim eyezabak
the dog is not seeing us

PULAmim eyezabak
the dog did not see us

JANGmim eyezabak
the dog has begun to see us

LAJANGmim eyezabak
the dog had just begun to see us

PULAJANGmim eyezabak
the dog had not begun to see us (yet)


The reason why I left in what is clearly redundant is mostly just because it
is so counter-intuitive for an English speaker like myself. And as I've said
before, counter-intuitive is cool. But I've got some other excuses too:
Marking both participants means I could move them around, using different
word order (PVA, AVP, VAP etc) since it is clear which is the patient and
which is the agent.
Leaving the verb unmarked means I can come up with all kinds of very
specific tenses and moods without having to inflect these for each person
and number.
I like the fact that the plurality and type of a noun are marked exclusively
on OTHER words, and can also be ambiguous if these other words are left out.

More on Tolborese as I develop it. Love to hear any comments, criticism,
suggestions, or problems to overcome.


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