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.