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
(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":
qam 'you (singular)'
=F1oqayku 'we (excl.)'
=F1oqanchik 'we (incl.)'
qamkuna 'you (plural)'
(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
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
Benefactive -(e)s phai=FEares phai=FEarn=E2s
Instrumental -(e)nto phai=FEarento phai=FEarn=E2nto
Durative -(e)k=FB phai=FEarek=FB phai=FEarn=E2k=FB
Abessive -(e)=FE=FEa phai=FEare=FE=FEa phai=FEarn=E2=FE=FE=
(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:
Tom Wier <artabanos@...>
ICQ#: 4315704 AIM: Deuterotom
"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_