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Re: THEORY: irregular conlangs

From:Thomas R. Wier <artabanos@...>
Date:Thursday, September 30, 1999, 23:31
Daniel Andreasson wrote:

> Hejsan allihopa. (Hello.) > > In Sociolinguistics class today we had a discussion > about irregular forms in languages. You know, strong > verbs and adjectives, etc. "Go, went, gone". > "Good, better, best". Obviously it is the most > frequent verbs and adjectives that are irregular. > The question is why. We got the explanation that > because they are so frequent, you can produce it > faster if it is a lexeme rather than a conjugation.
This is one of those arguments that seems great on the surface, but it fails to explain a lot of things in rather fundamental ways. For example, if economy of production is so important, why would there be any advantage of having "was/were" over *"beed"? The irregular forms that are attested in the modern language, just in terms of the number of syllables needed to be produced, are identical: "was" and "were" are monosyllables, just as *"beed" would be. Indeed, when children first comprehend morphology, their tendency is to take the dental suffix and stick it *everywhere* -- so that you get "beed", "seed", etc. The tendency is to remove irregularities if possible -- and occasionally this does occur to even high frequency words (e.g., In Chaucer's time, the past tense of "help" was "holp", and only later acquired the dental suffix -ed, making it regular). The best answer to this question is that language is not an isolated system: it's a social system that exists in a social context, including temporal artifacts of earlier periods. Wittgenstein said it best (and I am heavily paraphrasing here): language is like an ancient town, with remnants of the most ancient buildings and structures, crooked alleyways, eclectic architecture from every period it's been through. Of course, as time goes on, some of those buildings and aspects of the city will decay and collapse, making way for new paradigms of architecture in the city. The city, though, is intimately linked to the people living in it -- as is language. It lives or dies in a direct relation to the life of the inhabitants (language users). (I know, I know, that kinda sounds like an evasion -- the problem is there is no one simple answer, but see below.)
> It seems to me that there should be some correlation > between frequency and irregularity.
If there is, it is that in the social context of the person learning the language, there is a need to learn the remnants of older periods of language use, because those remnants are still used, albeit no longer in any systematic way. For example, there was a period when the vowel gradations we see in many English verbs (e.g., sing - sang - sung) was a regular process of derivation, something roughly analogous to the way Hebrew works today. But as time went on, new paradigms came into being -- the most important one being the Germanic languages' development of a dental suffix (called "dental", because it always was articulated at the teeth, whether a /t/ or /d/). This development basically blew the old ablaut vowel gradations out of the water, as productive processes go, because it was, for them, perceived to be easier to suffix something rather than change the internal structure of the root. Nonetheless, the old system didn't just disappear: all new verbs that were created acquired the new ending, but the old retained their previous system side-by-side the new one, in an uneasy harmony. As I said above, sometimes the old system was, for individual verbs, leveled out by the new suffixing system, but this remained, and remains, a scattered, haphazard process.
> Anyway. My two questions. What do you guys think > of this? And do you do this in your conlangs? > AFAIK, in most languages the copula verb is > irregular, but most conlangs seem to be very regular.
Well, not all natural languages have a copula (Chinese doesn't). In those that do, there's nothing inherent in the system making it more likely to be irregular in the way I've described. Japanese, for instance, has two (2) irregular verbs (although whether one was a copula, and whether Japanese even has a copula, escapes me). And, speaking of regularities in general, Quechua regularly applies the plural suffix -kuna to derive plural pronouns: they have none of this mincing about with grammaticalized "I" but "we", "he" but "they": =F1oqa 'I' qam 'you (singular)' pay 'he/she' =F1oqayku 'we (excl.)' =F1oqanchik 'we (incl.)' qamkuna 'you (plural)' paykuna 'they' (Thanks to Mark Rosenfelder, wherever he is, for his page on Quechua grammar.)
> Am I right or wrong? I know many of you (as I once) > want an extremely logical language, one that you > have to invent because there aren't any logical > natlangs. But those of you who persue a natlangy > touch of your conlang, how far do you go in your > irregularities?
The best way to make your language look really naturalistic is to layer regular systems over one another. This can be just like I described for English above, just within one category of words like verbs, or it could be for pit the semantic makeup of words against, say, their phonetic form. So, for example, my language Phaleran used to be completely regular with its morphology, until equally regular phonetic changes came along causing blurring of the original patterns: 'dominion, kingdom, state' Case ending singular plural Nominative (none) phai=FEar phai=FEarna Accusative -i phai=FEari phai=FEarnai Dative -uo phai=FEaruo phai=FEarnawo (< *phai=FEarnauo) Benefactive -(e)s phai=FEares phai=FEarn=E2s (< *phai=FEarnaes) Instrumental -(e)nto phai=FEarento phai=FEarn=E2nto (< *phai=FEarnaento) Durative -(e)k=FB phai=FEarek=FB phai=FEarn=E2k=FB (< *phai=FEarnaek=FB) Abessive -(e)=FE=FEa phai=FEare=FE=FEa phai=FEarn=E2=FE=FE= a (< *phai=FEarnae=FE=FEa) (You can see that here: <
and you can see an example of where the inflectional system has undergone further changes from the original Proto-Phaleran in Phaleran's pronominal system: <> ) =3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D= =3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D= =3D=3D=3D=3D=3D Tom Wier <artabanos@...> ICQ#: 4315704 AIM: Deuterotom Website: <> "Cogito ergo sum, sed credo ergo ero." Denn wo Begriffe fehlen, Da stellt ein Wort zur rechten Zeit sich ein. -- Mephistopheles, in Goethe's _Faust_ =3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D= =3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D= =3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D