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Category Archives: Conlanging

You now, constructed languages? Love ’em.

Creating Unique Fantasy Worlds: Background

In my last post, as sort of a prelude to the complex topic I’d like to discuss here, I talked about ways to create fantasy cultures based on real cultures and the advantages and disadvantages of this method.  I’m going to start out this post by talking about such counterpart cultures again, but this time, I’m going to focus on the difficulties of creating a truly original culture and how the common use of counterpart cultures undermines such attempts.

 

So, counterpart and generalized Earth cultures make up a great deal of the fantasy landscape.  The exert an enormous influence.  On both the types of stories that are common, and on reader expectations.  I’m going to talk about reader expectations first.

Readers expect certain things when they pick up a book.  These are based on the cover, the blurb, the author.  But also on their past experiences with the genre.  If they’re used to parsing and relating to stories and characters in a pseudo-medieval European setting, they’re going to have difficulty relating to a character in a different setting, because setting informs character.  Also, writers and readers in the genre have developed a set of short-cuts for conveying various forms of information from the writer to the reader.  A reader is familiar with the tropes and conventions of the genre, and writers can and almost inevitably do manipulate this familiarity in order to both meet reader expectations and violate them without going into a wall of text explaining the violation.

Both the writer and the reader of high fantasy have an understanding of the concept of the knight.  Or at least the version in Europa, our faux medieval European setting in which so many fantasies take place.  So when a writer introduces a character as a knight, it’s shorthand for a great deal of information which the writer now does not have to explain with long info-dumps about the history of European chivalry and feudalism.  There’s a strong tension in fantasy between world–building and not info-dumping, because for the most part, info-dumps get in the way of the story.  You don’t want to drop craploads of information on the reader all at once because it interrupts the story.  But you need them to understand the background in order to put the story in context.  Why would a fighter give his opponent a chance to ready himself and get on an equal footing when the stakes of the battle are the conquering of the kingdom?  Because his culture holds honour as one of the highest moral values.  Would sneaking up behind him and stabbing him in the back be easier, have a higher chance of success, and not put the kingdom at risk?  Sure.  So would shooting him with an arrow from behind a tree.  Or two hundred arrows in an ambush as he walks through the forest.  But it would be dishonorable.  And then he might do the same to you.  The same reason why parley flags are honored when it might be so much simpler for one side or the other to just murder the guy.

People do all sorts of dumb shit because it’s “the right thing to do” or perhaps because due to complex cultural values or humans being shitheads, the short-term loss helps uphold a long-term gain.  The tension between the obvious solution in the moment and why it might be foolish in the larger context is a powerful way to drive conflict in the story.  But teaching the reader larger context is a heavy burden when they don’t have any real previous understanding of it.  By using Europa as our setting, we get all that context for free because the reader has previous experience.

The same goes for any sort of counterpart culture.  Rome or Japan have a large collection of tropes in say Western English-speaking society.  Readers will be familiar with those tropes.  So if you want a bit of a break from knights and princesses, why you can take a quick detour through samurai and ninjas.  Or legionnaires and barbarians.  Sometimes these are just trappings on top of the same style of story.  Sometimes these new settings and tropes introduce new things to the story that are really cool.  But because even then, audiences have less exposure to various renderings of these tropes or perhaps the real history underlying them, they can be even more stereotypical or empty than Europa fantasy.

And even in terms of world-building they can do the same.  The writer has to communicate less technical detail to the reader and they don’t have to world-build as deeply because they have less need to justify their setting.  When you just know that knights and princesses and stone castles are real, even if you don’t know how they work exactly, you don’t worry so much about the details.  When something is clearly made up and not based on real Earth history, the questions about how things work and would they really work that way given the frame the author has built can become more of a suspension of disbelief killer.  There’s a joke that some things are just too strange for fiction.  Sure they happened in real life and we have proof.  But in stories, most people most often expect a sort of logical cause and effect and that if a thing happens, it has a good reason based in the story or world-building.  If something could happen once in a thousand tries based on sheer luck and it happening in your story is an important plot element, readers are much less likely to suspend disbelief than if it happens 754 times out of 1000 in the real world.  So your world-building needs to make some sort of logical sense to the reader if you want your plot to hinge on it.  And when you have the weight of genre history behind you, readers are far more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt than if you’re the first person doing it ever.

And that’s why fantasy counterpart cultures are so popular.  We know from Earth history, our only referent of a real history that actually occurred, that the things thus depicted (sorta, kinda, if you squint a bit) really did occur and function in a world rigidly bound by physical laws.  Unlike a world bound only by words on a page written by one dude who probably doesn’t even remember the six credits of world history he took in high school.

And as a very meta example of my point, I have now written two long posts full of info-dumping that I’m demanding you read before I even start talking about what I promised to talk about: how to overcome all these hurdles and actually create unique and original worlds and cultures for your fantasy story.

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SpecLing #2: A Language Without Nouns?

Better late than never, I thought I’d talk today about the possibility of a language without nouns.  Last time, I talked about a language without verbs, and delved into what exactly defines a part of speech.  Here’s a quick recap:

  1. Parts of speech can be defined in a few ways: lexically, where a given root is only acceptable as one part of speech; syntactically, where a their location in the sentence and the words surrounding them are applied to the root, and there may be no lexical distinction involved; and morphologically, where a category of roots undergo a specific set of morphological processes.
  2. Nouns are content words, meaning they have a meaning that can exist independently of a sentence.
  3. Verbs and noun roots in English can in fact switch categories.  You can bag your groceries by putting them in a bag, and rope you some cattle with a rope.

 

There have been several languages and language families put forward as lacking nouns.  Tongan, Riau Indonesian, the Salishan languages of Oregon.  In the case of Riau, it seems words are lexically underspecified–that is, they can be used in any category.  In Salishan languages, you have what is often considered to have a verbal category, while not having a nominal one.  So, the word for “dog” is actually a verb meaning “to be a dog”  The same goes for being a man.  One mans.

 

A question arises here:  While “man”-ness is a verb syntactically and morphologically in Salishan languages, is it possible to argue that these “verbs” aren’t just nouns by another form?  In the previous paragraph, I used the word “man” as a “verb” in English.  Are such verbs in Salishan merely placeholders for a true noun?  One difference in using verbs as opposed to nouns is the removal of the tedious “to be” constructions in English.  “He is a man.” requires more words than “He mans”.  That brings is back to the issue of the multiple definitions of a part of speech.  Lexically, its reasonable to say a language with such constructions lacks nouns.  Morphologically, if a root undergoes the same processes as words that are verbs, it’s reasonable to conclude it’s a verb.  The only argument to be had in this case is syntactic.  A predicate requires a verb.  If a Salishan pseudo-verb can be a predicate all on its own, then doesn’t that imply it’s actually a bona fide verb?  But verbs must be nominalized to become arguments of another verb, in which case you could argue they aren’t.  Now, the truth is that a noun/verb distinction has never been 100% delineable, so I think it can be argued in good faith that these roots are truly verbs.

In which case, it’s much simpler to conclude that we can have a language without nouns than that we can have a language without verbs.

 

As far as methods to construct a noun-less grammar, we have:

  1. Stative verbs as in Salishan
  2. I don’t know?  Any suggestions?
 

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SpecLing #1: A Language Without Verbs?

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

 

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