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Twenty-word language challenge

From:Jim Henry <jimhenry@...>
Date:Wednesday, June 16, 1999, 19:29
I thought about asking everyone to come up with a 20-word
isolating language (or a 20-morpheme agglutinating language,
which would amount to the same thing in terms of difficulty, I think)
and post to the list after you're done.  But Charles had already
posted a draft of his.  So I went ahead and posted a draft of mine
(only 15 words used so far, but I think I'll rethink what some of
those should mean).  Now here's the general invitation to the list.

Make up your language; post a draft fairly quickly, and post
revisions several times during the next twenty (20) days.

The language should have exactly 20 morphemes, or words
(depending on whether you go for the isolating or agglutinating
form; I think (poly)synthetic languages are ruled out by the exactly
20 words requirement).  Describe the phonology and grammar as
much or little as you like, but let's try to have relatively throrough
lexicons by the end of the 20 days.  I think we should also try for
sample texts, but I'm not going to suggest any specific one that
would tie down the semantic domains of our languages.

Here I'll repost the message from Richard Kennaway (1991) which
gave me the idea for this.

From: Richard Kennaway CMP RA <jrk@information-systems.east->
Date: Thu, 19 Sep 91 19:59:32 BST
Subject: Ticato?

I recently remembered an article I read more than twenty years
ago.  The
magazine Science Journal (you won't have heard of it; it only lasted
few years before merging with New Scientist) had a monthly
column by
Edward de Bono on lateral thinking.  Each month he would set a
and the readers' solutions would be discussed in a later issue.

One of the problems he set was of relevance to conlang: design a
language with no more than 20 words.

To my surprise, I found that the library here has a complete set of
so here's the problem as he stated it:

"It has become fashionable to be impressive through being
Does efficiency in communication involve extending the means of
communication by adding new words or does it involve making
better use of
words already available?  There does come a time when existing
prove too cumbersome to describe a new concept and a new word
necessary.  At other times an apparently complex concept can be
simplified by clever use of familiar words.

"Suppose your vocabulary was to be limited to 20 unalterable
These words would have to suffice for ordinary day to day living, not
technological communication.  They could not be supplemented by
expression, tone, gesture, or sign language.  Nor is picture material
allowed but simple indicative pointing is allowed.

"The words do not have to exist at present.  You can invent any
with which you would like to communicate particular meanings.
The words
could be used separately or in any sequential manner.  What are
your 20?"

Would any conlang-ers like to attempt the exercise?  He didn't
grammar - feel free to develop anything in the spirit of the exercise.
Note that the words are "unalterable" - no inflections.  "Solutions"
which involve coding tricks, such as using the twenty words as
letters to spell out the real words, are right out.

The word I used as the subject of this message is from one of the
languages which readers submitted.  I won't explain it, as the
concept it
expresses seems to me so fundamental to this problem that it
influence everyone's solutions if I did.

Richard Kennaway          SYS, University of East Anglia, Norwich,
Internet:            uucp:  ...mcsun!ukc!uea-

Jim Henry III
*gjax zaxnq-box baxm-box goq.