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SpecLing #1: A Language Without Verbs?

11 Nov

This is the first in a series of posts on the subject of speculative linguistics, the study of language in a speculative context.  For example, studying constructed languages(conlangs), possible forms of alien communication, languages which violate earthly linguistic universals, etc.  Basically, it’s the application of real-world linguistics to non-real-world linguistic occurrences.

In this post, I’m going to talk about an interesting hypothetical situation involving a human-usable language without verbs.  I am going to get a bit technical, so to start I’ll give a short overview of the issues involved, and a refresher on some basic terms:

Parts of speech:  A verb is a part of speech, along with things like nouns, adjectives, adverbs, etc.  It is generally considered that all human languages have at least two parts of speech, verbs and nouns.  When linguistics study pidgins–contact languages developed by two groups who speak un-related languages–there are almost invariably nouns and verbs, the suggestion being that these two categories are required for human language.

Content words vs. function words:  Verbs, like nouns and adjectives, are “content words”.  That means they contain some inherent meaning.  Function words are things like prepositions and articles, which have a grammatical use, but don’t contain basic concepts like nouns and verbs do.

However, if you look at a verbs, you can see that they do in fact have some similar grammatical elements beyond the basic concept they represent.  Tense, mood, aspect, person, number, etc, are all functions of verbs in various languages.  You can abstract out these features into function words, and in fact some languages do.

Something else to consider is that most languages have a very restricted pool of function words, whereas they can usually contain any number of content words–one for every concept you can devise.  And yet not all languages have the same number or even a similar set of function words.  So the question becomes, could you, by expansion of the categories of function words of various types and with assistance from other content categories, split up the responsibilities of the verb category?

Each part of speech consists, in the most basic sense, of a set of responsibilities for the expression of thought.  The only difference between function words and content words is whether there are some higher concepts overlaid on top of those responsibilities.  Now, there are, to an extent, a finite number of responsibilities to be divided among the parts of speech in a language.  Not all languages have the same parts of speech, either.  This suggests that we can decide a priori how to divide out responsibilities, at least to an extent.  Assuming that a part of speech is merely a set of responsibilities, and knowing that these sets can vary in their reach from language to language, it is possible that we could divide the responsibilities between sets such that there is not part of speech sufficiently similar to the verb to allow for that classification.

Even that conclusion is assuming we’re restricted to similar categories as used by currently known human languages, or even just similar divisions of responsibility.  However, that isn’t necessarily the case.  There are, to my mind, two major ways to create a verb-less language:

1. Vestigial Verbs: As this is a topic and a challenge in language that has interested me for a long time, I’ve made several attempts at creating a verb-less language, and over time, I like to think they have gotten less crude.  One of my early efforts involved replacing verbs with a part of speech I called “relationals”.  They could be thought of as either verbs reduced to their essence, or atrophied over time into a few basic relationships between nouns.  Basically, they are a new part of speech replacing verbs with a slightly different responsibility set, but sharing a similar syntax, otherwise.  I was very much surpsied, then, while researching for this post, to come across a conlang by the name of Kēlen, created by Sylvia Sotomayor.  She also independently developed the idea of a relational, and even gave it the same name.  Great minds think alike?

Although our exact implementations differed, our ideas of a relational were surprisingly similar.  Basically, it’s what it says on the tin, it expresses a relationship between nouns(noun phrases).  However, they have features of verbs, such as valency–the number of arguments required by a verb, and Kelen included tense inflections, to represent time, although my own did not, and rather placed temporal responsibility on a noun-like construction representing a state of being.

An example of a relational, one that appears to be the basic relational for Sotomayor’s Kelen and my own conlang is that of “existence”.  In English we would use the verb “to be”: “there is a cat.”  Japanese has the two animacy-distinct verbs “iru” and “aru”: “Neko ga iru.”  Kelen makes use of the existential relational “la”: “la jacela” for “there is a bowl.”  In my conlang, the existential relational was mono-valent, somewhat equivalent to an intransitive verb, but Kelen can express almost any “to be” construction: “The bowl is red.”: “la jacēla janēla”, which takes a subject and a subject complement, and is thus bi-valent.  In English we have a separate category for these kind of verbs, “linking” verbs, as opposed to classifying them as transitive, but both categories are bi-valent, taking two arguments.

2. No Verbs: Another experiment of mine in a verb-less language took what I consider to be the second approach, which is to simply eliminate the verb class, and distribute its responsibilities among the other parts of speech.  Essentially, you get augmented nouns or an extra set of “adverbial” (though that’s an odd name considering there are no verbs, it’s the closest equivalent in standard part of speech) words/morphemes.  This requires thinking of “actions” differently, since we no longer have a class of words that explicitly describe actions.

My solution was to conceive of an action as a change in state.  So to carry the equivalent of a verbs information load, you have two static descriptions of a situation, and the meaning is carried by the contrast of the two states.  A simple, word-for-word gloss using English words for the verb “to melt” might be a juxtaposition of two states, one describing a solid form of the substance, and the other a liquid form: “past.ice present.water”.  There are all sorts of embellishments, such as a “manner” or “instrumental” clause that could be added: “past.ice present.water instrument.heat”, for example.  (The word after the period is the content word, and before is some grammatical construction expressing case or tense.)

 

There are probably many more methods of creating a verb-less language.  A relational language would probably be the easiest for the average person to learn, because of the similarity to a verbed language.  However, a statve language doesn’t seem impossible to use, and depending on the flexibility of morphology and syntax in regards to which responsibilities require completion in a given sentence, could be an effective if artificial method of human communication.

 

Next time, I’m going to consider the possibility of a noun-less language.  I’ve never tried one before, and honestly I don’t have high hopes for the concept.  Especially if it had normal verbs.  How would verb arguments be represented in a language without nouns?  Well, that’s really a question for the next post.

If anyone has some thoughts on the usability of a verb-less language, or the structure, or can recommend me some natlangs or conlangs that eschew verbs, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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6 Comments

Posted by on November 11, 2013 in atsiko, Conlanging, Linguistics, Speculative Linguistics

 

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6 responses to “SpecLing #1: A Language Without Verbs?

  1. Imralu

    November 19, 2013 at 4:50 PM

    Something I do in most of my languages is to essentially replace all verbs signifying the agent of that verb. For example, instead of “drink” there is “drinker” or “one-who/that-which-drinks”. Instead of saying “I drink water” you say “I am drinker of water.” Things like past tense can be marked with more nouns, like one meaning “one who or that which used to be X”. So you get “I am one-who-used-to-be drinker of water.” (Don’t worry, it doesn’t need to be as long as this English approximation.)

    Of course, this requires that you have something to mark the predicate. (Well, you could use context.) In one of my languages it’s a little, non-inflecting particle “i”, which I call a “predicative particle” but you could also argue that it’s a copula, the one verb in the language. In another language I’m making, this is done with a set of predicative prefixes added onto any content word, such as “a-“, below, which means “she is”. This essentially creates a verb, but there is still no lexical distinction between nouns and verbs. It’s omnipredicative – all nouns can take this prefix with no surprising change in meaning. It also makes the sentences quite flexible, for example:

    Kuari a-huna-ka huana
    woman she’s-drinker-of.it water
    “The woman is drinking water.”
    (If the listener knows there’s a woman but not what she’s doing.)

    Huna-ka huana a-kuari
    drinker-of.it water she’s-woman
    “The one drinking water is a woman.”
    (If the listener knows someone’s drinking water but not their gender.)

    You could even mark where the predicate begins with intonation, meaning that if you want to analyse this as a copula, the only verb in the language is just a change in pitch … which is pretty abstract.

    For the closest thing you’ll get in a natlang, check out the Salishan languages, like Lushootseed. There’s some nice (pretty much awesomely unpronounceable) example sentences for things like “The coyote runs” and “the running one is a coyote”. It was something like “runner the coyote” versus “coyote the runner:” Sadly (IMO), it appears that the Salishan languages do actually have distinct word classes but their difference is so slight that it has often been overlooked.

     
    • atsiko

      November 20, 2013 at 3:27 AM

      Well, I’m on the side that making technical distinctions when the practical effect is the same is a bit pointless. Having a “drinker” implies the existence of a concept of drinking as a verb, even if you don’t have a verb class, per se.. (Although depending on circumstances, that could be purely an artifact of translation into English.) It seems an artificial way to “get rid of” verbs, since you’re basically shoving the “verbiness” into the lexicon as opposed to the grammar. But it’s an interesting exercise, and you have to wonder how much your own native language forces you to think in that manner.

       
      • Imralu

        November 20, 2013 at 7:12 AM

        >>Having a “drinker” implies the existence of a concept of drinking as a verb.<>(Although depending on circumstances, that could be purely an artifact of translation into English.)<>It seems an artificial way to “get rid of” verbs, since you’re basically shoving the “verbiness” into the lexicon as opposed to the grammar.<<

        I don't follow as to how this is "artificial". What would be a "natural" way to get rid of verbs? Are Kelen and the similar concept you had more "natural" ways to get rid of verbs? Essentially what Kelen has done, is to whittle the verbs down to a small closed class of vestigial verbs, call them relationals, and then have the nouns handle the rest of the verbiness. What I've done with Ahu is hack all of the verbs down even further than Kelen has, to exactly one, a copula, and then stop it from inflecting or doing anything remotely verb-like, call it a particle, and then have the nouns handle all of the rest of the verbiness. It's essentially a more extreme version of Kelen. Surely by "artificial", you weren't suggesting that a more "natural" way to get rid of verbs would be the idea discussed above with "past.ice present.water", where actions are not referenced directly, but must be inferred from discriptions of static states at various points in time.

        The extreme is very interesting though. I suppose you could express "I drank" as "external water then internal water in my body". "I caught a fish with a rod" could be expressed as "free fish then fish on my rod then fish in my possession". I'm not sure how far you could practically take this idea though, but it would be a fun experiment. If you take this further, please post more about it.

         
  2. Imralu

    November 20, 2013 at 7:14 AM

    Ah. The way I quoted you swallowed up a whole bunch of my text. Sorry about the double post.

    “Having a “drinker” implies the existence of a concept of drinking as a verb.”

    Well, yes, the concept of drinking exists. I don’t know what you mean by “a concept of drinking as a verb” though. Verbs are a class of word, not a class of concept. “A concept of drinking as an action” makes sense to me.

    In any case, what I’ve translated as “drinker” is an underived root morpheme, unrelated to any hypothetical verb “to drink”. Actions exist as a concepts and to not have words to refer to actions directly is quite extreme. What all actions have is an agent, an entity that performs them. What I have done is populate a lexicon with descriptions of entities defined by various qualities, whether relatively permanent (such as species, gender, chemical composition) or quite transient (such as location, speed, manner of locomotion etc). Some of these, you may argue, are “semantically verbs” (ie. words for actions), but trying to define a class of verbs semantically, where no syntactic difference exists is futile. It would be impossible to decisively find the edges of the great semantic class of “verbs”. The Ahu word “kagu”, for example, means an annoying thing, a nuisance, that which annoys or bothers. Is that an action, a state or an entity?

    What I’ve done with Ahu and Arahuan is to acknowledge the concepts of entities and actions as real things that people will want to talk about, but to have a grammar that does not arbitrarily require one class of word (which happens to mostly describe actions) to follow one set of rules and another class of word (which tends to describe entities) to follow another. The result is that you can have some words that have a strange mix of describing both permanent and transient qualities at the same time.

    For example, the Ahu word “lam”, expressed as a noun phrase in English means “sleeping person or animal”. If you add a diminutive infix meaning ‘(literally) small’, you get “latsim” which means “small sleeping person or animal”. It’s the kind of word that parents might use affectionately to say their child is asleep. The particle “i”, as I mentioned above, introduces the predicate and when the subject is omitted it takes on more of an existential “there is” (or “something is”) meaning, so together “i latsim” can more or less mean “our little one is asleep” or “there’s a little person asleep”.

    An augmentative infix (meaning “a big one”) added to “bali” (one who punches) creates “bahali” means “a big guy who punches”, and if you use that with a passive and say “na i se bahali” (1s PRED PRF.PASS punch.AUG) it means “I got punched by a big guy”.

    “(Although depending on circumstances, that could be purely an artifact of translation into English.)”

    What does the “that” refer to here?

    “It seems an artificial way to “get rid of” verbs, since you’re basically shoving the “verbiness” into the lexicon as opposed to the grammar.”

    I don’t follow as to how this is “artificial”. What would be a “natural” way to get rid of verbs? Are Kelen and the similar concept you had more “natural” ways to get rid of verbs? Essentially what Kelen has done, is to whittle the verbs down to a small closed class of vestigial verbs, call them relationals, and then have the nouns handle the rest of the verbiness. What I’ve done with Ahu is hack all of the verbs down even further than Kelen has, to exactly one, a copula, and then stop it from inflecting or doing anything remotely verb-like, call it a particle, and then have the nouns handle all of the rest of the verbiness. It’s essentially a more extreme version of Kelen. Surely by “artificial”, you weren’t suggesting that a more “natural” way to get rid of verbs would be the idea discussed above with “past.ice present.water”, where actions are not referenced directly, but must be inferred from discriptions of static states at various points in time.

    The extreme is very interesting though. I suppose you could express “I drank” as “external water then internal water in my body”. “I caught a fish with a rod” could be expressed as “free fish then fish on my rod then fish in my possession”. I’m not sure how far you could practically take this idea though, but it would be a fun experiment. If you take this further, please post more about it.

     
    • atsiko

      November 20, 2013 at 4:14 PM

      First I would like to apologize. I came across more strongly than I intended. I meant less to criticize your approach, and more to question whether you could truly remove verbs from a human language.

      And yes, what I meant by saying you were just moving verbi-ness into the lexicon that you had a semantic class of verbs. In English, we would get the semantic equivalent of your “lat” by applying a nominalizing suffix to the verb “sleep”, since as best I understand it, your “lat” is basically equivalent to out English “sleeper”. Which is what I meant about an artifact of translation. Perhaps it would seem less like semantic slight-of-hand if we were using a different language with a slightly different equivalent of “lat”.

      Rather than an artificial way to get rid of verbs, I really meant the distinction was artificial. For example, we could apply a nominalizing suffix similar as English “-er”, and then an affix denoting a temporary state to imply a non-verbal version of “to sleep”. Is that word any less non-verbal because it was originally derived from a verb? I honestly don’t know. Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t.

      You ask a good question about Kelen. Are relationals in fact vestigial verbs? I think you could make a good argument that they are not, but are actually an altered version of a particle/case marker. Not saying that is so, just that an argument could be made.

      I accept now that the same could go for your languages. I am too unfamiliar with your grammar to make an argument either way.

      Assuming I do find your method of removing verbs artificial, I could not then argue that my method or that of Kelen is more natural. They’re all unnatural.

      I confess I had not considered the distinction between semantic verbs and syntactic verbs. Going by my definition of verbs above, you are correct, since I defined them by responsibilities and not by root meaning, and that is the method you have used to remove them as a distinct class in your languages.

      Thanks for the interesting discussion.

       

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