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Re: Error rate, Circumlocution, and Cappucino

From:Yahya Abdal-Aziz <yahya@...>
Date:Wednesday, September 28, 2005, 14:32
Hi all,

On Mon, 26 Sep 2005, Paul Bennett wrote:
> Am I alone in hating this kind of linguistic journalism completely lacking > any kind of linguistic know-how? > >
No, I love it! At least they're talking about language, getting people to perhaps think outside the linguistic square ... Of course, their Malay example is back-to -front! :-) Wouldn't expect too much accuracy from the BBC, now would you? To be fair, let me quote: 'These fabulous examples have been collected by author Adam Jacot de Boinod into The Meaning Of Tingo - a collection of words and phrases from around the world. "What I'm really trying to do is celebrate the joy of foreign words (in a totally unjudgmental way) and say that while English is a great language, one shouldn't be surprised there are many others having, as they do, words with no English equivalent," he says.' I think this aim is totally unexceptionable, and can't see that getting more people interested in how language works could possibly harm either the science of linguistics nor our ability to conlang. I also don't understand why you seem to believe that a journalist need to be an expert in order to write a review, for a general audience, of a book intended for a general audience. "... the joy of foreign words ... " ... and their utility, too! How, without these foreign words, could the news editor have ever composed the banner headline: "SEPOY RUNS AMOK; BERSERKER IN BARRACKS"? Well, OK, "RUNS" is arguably English ... :-) ...[snipt]
> What can you say about the acceptable error rate within your conlang(s)? > Does it easily tolerate sloppy grammar, or unusual accents, or poor > articulation?
Well, I've only just begun ... but! Here's my thought - every natlang that I know of permits many different ways to say much the same thing. Some aspects (!) of grammar may be quite forgiving, yet others are almost inviolable. Agreement of case, gender, number and tense are essential in most IE languages, but almost entirely optional (where expressible) in most Austronesian languages. These have a strong tendency to express meaning thru word order. Therefore, it's my guess that most natlangs have evolved and preserved distinctions which were at one time (and may still be) important to their speakers. To the extent that a conlang is naturalistic - that is, models a natlang - it would want to tolerate some kinds of error much more readily than others. Building redundancy into the conlang would seem a sensible approach - after all, we humans tolerate low-level inconsistencies much better than high-level ones, so the occasional slip in say, number agreement or tense should not totally destroy the meaning of an utterance. For example, if a speaker has been referring to a plural referent, such as "les maisons", giving attributes such as "grandes" and "oranges", a human listener could readily forgive calling them also "orgeilleuse" in the singular instead of "orgeilleuses" in the plural. Perhaps the listener would be more nonplussed by them also changing gender from feminine to masculine, if the speaker said instead "orgeilleux". Any natlang that has absorbed many speakers of different origins will, I think, has perforce adapted itself to the sound distinctions they were accustomed to make in their original languages. Accordingly, it may have adopted some sounds that were once foreign to it, or it may have gradually assimilated one sound to another, as the pair lost its distinctive force. For example, in English we now pronounce "pair" and "pear" identically, yet the spelling tells us it was not always so. My ideal conlang would have few rather than many distinct phonemes, to more readily accommodate speakers of different origins and abilities. There's no point in having a distinction between a trilled and a flapped /r/ if half the population is unable to produce the trill. Each phoneme, and again, each of its allophones, would have a broad range of acceptable articulations. An example of this in a natlang is Malay, which has essentially three vowels /a/, {/i/, /e/}, and {/u/,/o/}, despite its orthographic five: a, e ,i ,o ,u. You could call for "Porridge!" in Malay by yelling "Bubor!", "Bubur!", "Bobor!" or "Bobur!" - where the vowels u and o have approximately the same values as in Italian or Spanish. Or you could use a vowel intermediate between the two. The difference between all these forms of the {/u/,/o/} vowel is not phonemic; the phoneme has wide range of acceptable articulations. This to me is desirable in a conlang that will be a lingua franca. However, I would expect a more isolated society and language to distinguish between articulations in ways that others find difficult. Most Europeans find four or more of the Arabic consonants very difficult to learn to pronounce; yet almost everyone everywhere has trouble learning to pronounce almost every consonant in the languages of the Kalahari Bushmen. In short - I think a trade language should be much more accommodating than the language of an enclave, or indeed of a priestly sect. The language should fit the clime ... In his reply to you, I note that Doug Dee makes the point that Esperanto, among others, makes important distinctions with minimal means, often just changing one vowel. This was one of the reasons I gave up on Esperanto long ago, as being unsuited to we frail, error-prone folk. I don't think I'd want to make a trade language use any less than two phonemic changes per morphemic distinction. For example, I'd contrast -am with -in, but not with -im or -an. But such precision and subtlety might be useful in a priestly or courtly language, readily differentiating the initiates from the hoi polloi. Which leads me to: ...[snipt ... on Circumlocution] Interestingly, the extinct initiation language of Mornington Island, Damin, used many fewer morphemes than the parent language. Most of the parent language's words were strictly taboo. This required a greater level of abstract thinking, and more circumlocution, than the parent language. It also required, I think, great self-control to speak it correctly, since the grammar was essentially that of the parent, but the grammar's rules were applied to a highly restricted vocabulary. The teaching of self-control, so necessary in cooperative hunting, was a prime goal of most Australian initiation practices. Perhaps, when I finally build a conlang, it too will have a special-purpose ritual dialect (or two) with little tolerance of - but great scope for - error. The heightened danger of breaking a taboo should serve to induce fear - or is that a proper awe of the supernatural? - in the neophyte. It would certainly mark the supernatural as entirely distinct from the profane world in which the neophyte had grown up. Having distinct languages for "women's business" and "men's business", as many Austra- lian languages do, would serve to further define the social structure. Regards, Yahya -- No virus found in this outgoing message. Checked by AVG Anti-Virus. 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