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Changing worldviews with language (LONG)

From:Harald Stoiber <hstoiber@...>
Date:Sunday, November 3, 2002, 4:49
Hello everybody,

How do we actually express ourselves? Making up conlangs also triggers this so very
simple but indeed momentous question. Sometimes devising grammar seems to me like
a big puzzle game - putting things together, always excited whether they will or will not
fit neatly. The idea of universal grammar has something appealingly metaphysical indeed.

And this is what I ultimately strive for. I want to create a language which - when I
form sentences in it - makes me say things that render myself astonied. I wish to get
bewildered by meaning that unfolds from the previously unthought which, in turn, emerges
from the formerly unspoken. Lateral thinking... promising clue worth to ponder for more
than just a little space! Thank you, Mat! :-))

The question is: Can this conceptual achievment be taken in one step? Can we simply
create an entirely novel tool of expression which will open up our minds when used?
But if we experience what George Orwell so brilliantly described in 1984 when he
introduced the term "oldthinker", if we remain oldthinkers in our freshly created
personal "newspeak" this would require us to design several other "approximant"
languages in order to approach the conceptual barrier a bit more carefully. If nouns
should all vanish then we would then have to do away with them gradually and not at
once - just as an example.

Watching the conlang list for a while now I have noticed that far to few considerations
have been articulated about previously unseen ways of structuring the scope of grammar.
People tend to stick with the well-known word classes and principles (like transivity
etc.) because they might see language as new sounds. Thus, they converse about
phonology. They love the visual implications of new languages. Hence, they debate
about writing systems and scripts. But what about the grammatical implications of

One trivial example that just came to my mind:
"I eat pizza at the restaurant."

Here I am not talking about peculiar details of the English language. What I will point
out are two philosophical distinctions which are quite interesting from a language
designer's point of view:

The prepositional phrase "at the restaurant" obviously specifies a location. But which
location does it specify? We are used to assume that the pizza and the eating person are
in the same location. Consequently, we lazily specifiy one location for three (!)
parts of the utterance: the subject "I", the object "pizza" and the present-tense activity
"eat". Wouldn't it sound odd to our conceptual conditioning if we heard something like
"I at the hotel eat at the airport pizza at the restaurant"? So, what we have here is a
typical out-law situation. Language as we know it (and as it is duplicated by many
conlangers) is strictly and neatly adapted to this physical (so-called) reality as we
experience it all day during our lives. When it comes to metaphysics or unusual
disposition of whatever kind, then conventional language has to become fuzzy because
its scope of ideas and concepts has been exceeded.

Another consideration that took me some weeks to realize can be found in the way a
preposition works. To clarify my thoughts I will formally define a predicate named
"eat" using the following argument structure: "eat(x,y)". "x" is the active participant
who performs the process of eating and "y" is the passive participant who experiences
the process of being eaten. With the location description "at the restaurant" we have
two distinct ways to represent this information. First we could of course expand our
freshly defined predicate "eat", thus: eat(x,y,z) - whereas "z" is the location where the
eating takes place. Viewing it this way, a preposition adds to the valency of the verb.
It provides extra details about the state or activity - as do agents, patients, indirect
objects and so on.

A second way to formally express my example sentence can be derived from quite
a different mental perspective. If we are to describe location details of the verb, then
why not modify the verb using a verb. Or in a purpose-oriented predicate notation:

I know that this is rather an unorthodox notation but here I wish to apply a predicate to
a predicate's core: I want to predicate the verb itself which excludes any arguments.
Implicitly, I assume that the "result" of "at" will be a modified "eat" predicate, then
containing location information as well. Modifying verbs is the essence of adverbs.
Of course, we all know that "at the restaurant" is a locative adverbial phrase.

Can you see the difference? Any kind of adverb can be represented either as another
qualifying argument of the predicate (which certainly means that the verb's valency
must provide for it) _or_ we can explain that adverbs in fact modify the verb and,
thus, effectively replace a more general verb with a more definite one. The difference
is in the lexicon! For non-core arguments we need adverbial constructions. Of course,
you already knew this. But let's take everything one step further:

If we wanted a most universal and generic language with a lexicon full of concepts,
then why restrict those concepts by any pre-defined valency? What about agentive,
patientive and focus adverbs, for example? Clearly, it will take one major
sacrifice from us, namely convenience of speech. But if we can dispense with that
we could represent _all_ arguments as adverbs. Check this: No core arguments for
any verb! And if we'd like to get in fact perverse, then whatever verb occurs in a
sentence... isn't it just a modification of universal existence? Isn't it just another
adverb of "to be"? And if we got rid of a verb's core arguments because we even
got rid of traditional nouns and verbs themselves, then we have silently resolved
the conventional idea of transivity...

Thus, concluding my wild philosophical speculations: *g*
One way to build a universal grammar could be a corybantic system of nested
verb modifiers (actually partially exceeding the scope of common adverbs).

I hope that my thoughts made at least some sense to you. ;-)


A mind all logic is like a knife all blade.
(Rabindranath Tagore)


John Cowan <jcowan@...>
Muke Tever <mktvr@...>