tenpo pini lili la, mi kute sin e lon pi toki pona kepeken sitelen pona ni tan jan Waputo.
time finish small CONTEXT 1 hear again OBJ existence ATTR Toki Pona by.means.of picture good DEM from person RobWords
‘I’ve heard again about Toki Pona recently via this nice video by RobWords.’

kama la, mi kama jo e olin lili lili tawa toki ni lon lawa mi.
coming.up CONTEXT 1 come.to have OBJ love small small toward language DEM in head 1
‘I’ve come to have a little bit of an intellectual crush on the language since.’

It kind of fascinates me with its rather elegant information-structuring morphology in spite of its reknowned smallness (it smol!). Regarding that trait, it’s also known to be very flexible, though consequently polysemous and decidedly reliant on context. I hope the above toki wasn’t ike—I’ve got no proficiency, I’m just sitting here with several browser tabs open (and some background knowledge in linguistics) to piece things together, as one does.

o pona e toki mi.
IMP improve OBJ language 1
‘Please correct my language.’

mi kama sona e ijo sin la, mi pilin pona.
1 come.to know OBJ thing additional CONTEXT 1 feel good
‘I’m happy to learn more.’

I’m a doctor (of philosophy) now!

I had been working on a Ph. D. in German Language since what feels like forever—more accurately, since February of 2017. As the proverb goes, “Good things come to those who wait,” so last month, the revised version of my thesis has finally been published by Language Science Press’ Advances in Historical Linguistics series.

Cover of the book: A simple, text-oriented design stating the author, title, and series information in white on a cool red background

Carsten Becker. 2024. Genusresolution bei mittelhochdeutsch beide: Eine Analyse im Rahmen der Lexical-Functional Grammar (Advances in Historical Linguistics 1). Berlin: Language Science Press. DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.10451456 (🔓). [Worldcat]

LangSci was my first shot at submitting my thesis to a publisher at the suggestion of both a colleague-friend and my supervisor, so I’m beyond happy this worked out and my baby found a home in this newly formed series. It now even happens to be its initial volume, and I hope to fill those shoes adequately, what with setting the tone, first impressions etc. etc. May many other interesting books follow!

Since my thesis is published now in fulfillment of the one remaining requirement for the degree Dr. phil., today, I was able to pick up my diploma from University of Marburg’s Department of German Studies and Arts at long last, after having passed my defense already in September 2022 (that’s common procedure in Germany, unknown to most). Working on my thesis cost me lots of dedication and some nerves over the years, a few thousand hours of mostly my spare time certainly, and it’s like an era of my life has come to an end. Even though it’s certainly an achievement, being done still feels a little unreal. After all, you’re never really done while riding the academic rollercoaster.

What’s the book about?

The book’s title translates to English as “Gender resolution of Middle High German beide [‘both’]: A Lexical-functional Grammar based analysis.” For the purpose of this blog post, I will only scratch the surface of what the main title entails. I suppose that alone needs enough unpacking, so let’s look at some backgrounds first.

German infamously inflects the definite articles of nouns for case, number, and gender: der, die, das, den, dem, des. But it doesn’t stop there—oh nein! It also declines its attributive adjectives for those categories. Adjective declension extends to other kinds of noun modifiers as well, for instance, determining quantifiers like beide ‘both’. In today’s German, the nominative and accusative cases feature only one plural marker in the adjective declension’s strong (ST) paradigm for all of its three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. This marker is -e, exemplified in (1) by the adjective gut ‘good’.

    1. gut-e Männer
      good-NOM.PL.ST men[M]
      ‘good men’
    2. gut-e Frauen
      good-NOM.PL.ST women[F]
      ‘good women’
    3. gut-e Kinder
      good-NOM.PL.ST children[N]
      ‘good children’

That hasn’t always been the case, however. In Old High German (c. 750–1050 CE; Braune & Heidermanns 2023; Schmid 2023)—Old English’s West Germanic cousin from the hilly and mountainous regions in central Europe that underwent the accordingly-named High German Consonant Shift—all three genders were distinguished in the plural, as (2) illustrates: -e /e/ for masculines, -o /o/ for feminines, and -iu /iu̯/ for neuters.

    1. guot-e man
      good-NOM.PL.M.ST men[M]
      ‘good men’
    2. guot-o frouwūn
      good-NOM.PL.F.ST ladies[F]
      ‘good ladies’
    3. guot-iu wīb
      good-NOM.PL.N.ST women[N]
      ‘good women’

A few centuries later, in the Upper German subgroup of Middle High German (MHG, c. 1050–1350 CE; Paul et al. 2007; Klein et al. 2009, 2018), there still used to be a distinction between masculine–feminine -e /ə/ and neuter -iu /yː/. That is, in agreement morphology, references to grammatically masculine or feminine referents in MHG are usually marked by the masculine–feminine form, so it’s guote ‘good’ which occurs in (3a–b) in relation to both man ‘men’ and vrouwen ‘ladies’. (Note that when I stick to the term MHG for brevity in the following, I’m referring only to Upper German of that period.)

    1. guot-e man
      good-NOM.PL.M+F.ST men[M]
      ‘good men’
    2. guot-e vrouwen
      good-NOM.PL.M+F.ST ladies[F]
      ‘good ladies’
    3. guot-iu wīp
      good-NOM.PL.N.ST women[N]
      ‘good women’

Tangentially, but not so tangentially, the word wīb, wīp ‘woman’ in (2c) and (3c) is a notable lexical exception to the principle of correspondence between the conceptually associated social gender of a person-noun and grammatical gender: it denotes a female person in its semantics, but formally, that is, in terms of morphology, it’s neuter instead of feminine, like the famous Mädchen ‘girl’ (but also see wife!). Thus, you’ll usually find guotiu ‘good’ in this context. Anaphoric reference by pronouns, however, quickly switches to feminine in accordance with the (adult-)female semantics very typically. That is, you’ll normally find si ‘she’ in reference to wīp ‘woman’ rather than ‘it’.

The prologue of the Nibelungenlied provides a prominent example along those lines. See how in (4) even the adjective sc[h]œne ‘beautiful’ displays the feminine form in spite of being an attribute of neuter wīp ‘woman’. This is formally ungrammatical and as far as I can tell not the most typical usage—neuter schœneʒ would be expected—but it nicely highlights how semantics can have a strong effect on gender agreement even in written texts.

  1. Ez wuohs in Búrgónden ein vil édel magedîn, daz in allen landen niht schœners mohte sîn, Kriemhilt geheizen: si wart ein scœne [sic] wîp.
    it grew in Burgundy a much noble girl[N] that in all lands not of.more.beauty could be Kriemhilt[F] named 3SG.F.NOM became a beautiful-ACC.SG.F.ST woman[N]
    ‘In Burgundy, a young noblewoman was growing up [such] that nothing more fair could be found in any of the lands, Kriemhild by name: she became a beautiful woman’ (Nibelungenlied 2:1–3; de Boor & Wisniewski 1988: 3, after manuscripts A and B)
Late-medieval book illustration. Two knights in full armor on horses fighting each other with spears. The left knight and his gray horse are wearing matching red-green checkered cloaks, the one on the right and his black horse are wearing likewise matching yellow cloaks with black shields upon which a left-facing prancing silver lion with a golden crown is depicted. The spear shaft of the right knight is broken as the knight on the left is on the verge of falling off his struggling horse, sporting a head injury with blood gushing in spite of his helmet and apparently parrying the blow with his shield. Five damsels in simple blue, red, pink, and green dresses, three of which with white bonnets, are watching the fight from a balcony. The two on the left gesture as though adoring their favorite (or taking pity on the loser?), the three on the right as though in discussion.
Zwēn vrume rīter strītent umbe den prīs. Rīche vrouwen gewartent in. Two valiant knights are fighting for glory, noble ladies are watching them (Heidelberg, Univ. Lib., Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 52r; photo: Heidelberg University Library)

Now let’s get to the heart of my survey: What about mixed-gender reference to a man and a woman simultaneously? Since -e marks both masculine and feminine reference in MHG in the strong nominative and accusative plural, you might expect e-forms in combined cases as well. And if you’ve ever studied a Romance language you may remember the rule that as soon as one man joins an all-female group, the whole group will be treated as grammatically masculine. Well—not so here! In cases of mixed-gender animate reference, we can frequently observe neuter forms instead as a kind of fall-back strategy based on semantics rather than morphology.

An example of this phenomenon from my data is given in (5). Observe the neuter form beidev ‘both’, ultimately relating to Ulrich and Elsbeth, a heterosexual couple. (Funny spellings are due to quoting from historical sources verbatim. Note that the letters u and v were still used interchangeably at the time, as were i and j. The letter ſ is a historical variant of s.)

  1. vlrich vnd frow Elzbet […] diſen prief / den ſi beidev habent gebeten ze ſchriben
    Ulrich[M] and Mrs. Elsbeth[F] […] this charter that 3PL.NOM both-NOM.PL.N.ST have asked to write
    ‘Ulrich and Mrs. Elsbeth […] this charter that they both have asked to write’ (Wilhelm et al. 1932–2004: 4,176:26–27; No. 2843, Salzburg, 1297; photo)

Neuter is also what appeared in my data for inanimates, very regularly independent of any combinations of grammatical gender, as in (6a) with masculine Hof ‘farm’ and feminine Mule ‘mill’, and in (6b) with all-masculine zehenden ‘tithe’ and Garten ‘garden’.

    1. den Hof […] vnd di Mule / di er paidev […] hot
      DEF.ACC.SG.M farm[M] […] and DEF.ACC.SG.F mill[F] REL.ACC.PL he both-ACC.PL.N.ST […] has
      ‘the farm […] and the mill that he both has […]’ (Wilhelm et al. 1932–2004: 3,254:35–37; No. 2011, Seitenstetten, Amstetten district, 1294; photo)
    2. vnſerne zehenden […] vnde ainen Garten […] div wier baidiv fvr reht aigen her haigen braht
      our-ACC.SG.M.ST tithe[M] […] and a-ACC.SG.M.ST garden[M] […] REL.ACC.PL.N we both-ACC.PL.N.ST for rightful property here have brought
      ‘our tithe […] and a garden […] that we [i.e. three brothers] both have brought here [i.e. as subject matter of the hearing] as rightful property’ (Wilhelm et al. 1932–2004: 2,472:10–14; No. 1201 A/B; Heiligkreuztal abbey, Biberach district, 1290)

In a few cases, combined reference even to two men triggered neuter agreement, even though the referents’ grammatical properties as animate masculines are compatible. Of course, there are also cases where the formally expected masculine–feminine form actually does appear for mixed-gender groups, though this is a minority pattern in my data. All in all, the observed distribution of agreement markers makes one wonder in which morphosyntactic contexts, how often, and why these patterns occur, unexpected at first sight as they may be.

Miniature from a late-medieval manuscript showing a young man and woman in individual dancing pose. Both are wearing long gowns, his blue, hers red. Both have long, curly blonde hair (his chin-length, hers hip-length), wearing a wreath of orange-ish flowers on their head. Over his head is situated a coat of arms with a red arrow-like shape on gold, pointed at the top left, over her head a closed helmet facing the viewer, adorned with four-pointed antlers on whose tips are growing red flowers.
Ein junchērre unde ein vrouwelīn, diu tanzent beidiu. A courtly young man and woman, who are both dancing (Heidelberg, Univ. Lib., Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 70v; photo: Heidelberg University Library)

The phenomenon of languages using certain strategies to resolve a clash of grammatical features in mixed-gender groups is called—you guessed it—gender resolution. As the examples above show, MHG beide ‘both’ is notorious for displaying it in its declension form when its reference is to two distinct entities, especially when it refers to persons of incongruous (semantic) gender. This even goes for combined references containing morphologically ungendered personal pronouns like ich ‘I’ or du ‘you (SG)’, since they as well often implicitly encode information about the referenced person’s gender at the semantic level in context. For combinations of two inanimate nouns, there’s apparently a tendency for semantics to cause neuter across the board.

Moreover, referents of beide ‘both’ don’t need to be formally introduced into discourse by a coordination construction as we’ve seen in (5) and (6). For instance, in (7), the names Agnes and Lukas are syntactically part of different constituents.

  1. das vur Agnes mit h[er]n Lukas hant […] het gegeben ze coͧffenne ir hûz in kurdewenre gaſſen […] vn[de] hant bedi v[er]iehen […]
    that Mrs. Agnes[F] with Mr. Lukas[M] hand […] has given to buying her house in Cordwainers’ Alley […] and have both-NOM.PL.N.ST testified
    ‘that Mrs. Agnes with Mr. Lukas’ authority […] put up her house in Cordwainers’ Alley for sale […] and [they] have both testified, […]’ (Wilhelm et al. 1932–2004: 5,156:11–16; No. N 202, Strasbourg, 1281)

How exactly both referents of beide are introduced into the grammatical context doesn’t matter so much because the quantifier very often modifies a pronoun like si ‘they (PL)’, which refers back to the pair collectively, or may itself act as a pronoun, like e.g. still in modern German Sie beide mögen Schokolade ‘Both of them like chocolate’ or Beide sind glücklich ‘Both are happy’.

Language scholars have been aware of how the neuter serves as a resolution gender in the older stages of Germanic languages at large—not just in German, and it’s still attested for modern Icelandic and Faroese—at least since the 19th century. It’s also one of these things that, surprisingly, nobody’s yet had a thorough look at (i.e. morphosyntactically analyzed the crap out of) for MHG. That is, at least not regarding actual manuscripts especially of mundane, non-literary prose texts instead of only late 19th/early 20th century scholarly editions with regularized spelling and potentially even regularized grammar of the famous chivalric romances in verse. And this is the little knowledge gap that I mainly tried to address with my thesis.

Line drawing of two knights running against each other with spears in full armor on horses. A gleeman on the left beats a shouldered drum with a stick and is playing a flute with the other hand, another on the right blows a cornett (?).
Ein vil unbereiteʒ bilde von zwēn rītern bī der tjoste unde zwēn spilman mit ir ziuc. An unfinished drawing of two jousting knights and two gleemen with their instruments (Heidelberg, Univ. Lib., Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 196r; photo: Heidelberg University Library)

Interestingly, you can apparently still find neuter with mixed-gender reference even in older contemporary German, although in individuating rather than aggregating contexts, since grammatical gender is only distinguished in the singular anymore. An example from the novel Stiller by the Swiss writer Max Frisch (1911–1991) that I happened to come across a while ago is given in (8a). Here, the neuter form jedes ‘each’ refers to Anatol Stiller and Sibylle, his affair.

  1. Stumm saßen sie auf der Erde, […] jedes mit einem Halm zwischen den sorgenvoll-verbissenen Lippen
    mute sat 3PL.NOM on the ground […] each-NOM.PL.N.ST with a stem.of.grass between the sorrowful_sullen lips
    ‘Mutely they were sitting on the ground, […] each with a stem of grass between their sorrowfully sullen lips’ (Frisch 1954: 332–333)

While jedes looks like a typo from the point of view of modern Standard German since masculine jeder would be the expected resolution form for animates, it’s warranted historically, as evidenced by neuter æintwederez ‘either one’ in (9) relating to Ulrich and Margret. Also compare e.g. neuter unsereins ‘one like me’ (more literally, ‘one-of-ours’).

  1. der ſelbe vlrich / oder fraw Margret […] ſi leben peidev ſamte / oder ir æint­we­derez
    the same Ulrich[M] or Mrs. Margret[F] […] 3PL.NOM live both-NOM.PL.N.ST altogether or 3PL.GEN either-NOM.SG.N.ST
    ‘the selfsame Ulrich or Mrs. Margret [… if] they are both living altogether or either one of them’ (Wilhelm et al. 1932–2004: 4,352:3–9; No. 3141 A/B, Brixen, 1298)

Reading suggestions

If these not quite so brief remarks piqued your interest—maybe also as a conlanger—and you want to look deeper into grammatical gender and associated resolution phenomena, the following three monographs might be starting points.

  • Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. 2016. How gender shapes the world. Oxford: Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198723752.001.0001 (🔒). [Worldcat]
  • Corbett, Greville. 1991. Gender (Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139166119 (🔒). [Worldcat]
  • Wechsler, Stephen & Larisa Zlatić. 2003. The many faces of agreement (Stanford Monographs in Linguistics). Stanford: CSLI Publications. [Worldcat]

Aikhenvald and Corbett mostly approach the topic from the perspective of linguistic typology, Aikhenvald additionally has a socio­linguistic angle based on her fieldwork. Wechsler & Zlatić deal with the morphosyntactic side by example of Serbo-Croatian (i.e. Bosnian–Croatian–Montenegrin–Serbian). This last book is probably the least geared toward casual readers of the three, but chapter 8 is concerned with modeling gender resolution in terms of a theory-driven explanation of empirical data that may be worth a look and also informed my own research.

With a special focus on how grammatical gender manifests in German, as well as the semantic, social, cultural, and political complexities involved, these three references might also make interesting reading (in German):

  • Klein, Andreas. 2022. Wohin mit Epikoina? Überlegungen zur Grammatik und Pragmatik geschlechtsindefiniter Personenbezeichnungen. In Gabriele Diewald & Damaris Nübling (eds.), Genus – Sexus – Gender (Linguistik – Impulse & Tendenzen 95), 135–189. Berlin: De Gruyter. DOI: 10.1515/9783110746396-005 (🔓). [Worldcat]
  • Köpcke, Klaus-Michael & David A. Zubin. 2017. Genusvariation: Was offenbart sie über die innere Dynamik des Systems? In Marek Konopka & Angelika Wöllstein (eds.), Grammatische Variation: Empirische Zugänge und theoretische Modellierung (Institut für Deutsche Sprache Jahrbuch 2016), 203–228. Berlin: De Gruyter. DOI: 10.1515/9783110518214-013 (🔒). [Worldcat]
  • Kotthoff, Helga & Damaris Nübling. 2018. Genderlinguistik: Eine Einführung in Sprache, Gespräch und Geschlecht (Narr Studienbücher). Tübingen: Narr Francke Attempto. [Worldcat]

Köpcke and Zubin have also published on German gender in English, for instance, Zubin & Köpcke (2009) (🔒) and Köpcke, Panther & Zubin (2010) (🔒).

Besides gender resolution, number resolution is of course also a thing, and I’ve been wondering if any languages, natural or invented, have formalized politeness resolution. German hasn’t despite the prominent T–V distinction, so mixing informal/intimate du and formal/distant Sie in address always leads to awkward phrasing. [Edit & NB: German doesn’t conflate familiar and polite address in the plural like e.g. French does with vous — CB, 2024-05-09]

tl;dr

In texts from the Upper German dialect group of Middle High German (c. 1050–1350 CE), neuter plural forms instead of masculine–feminine ones can often be found in agreement forms referencing mixed-gender groups of men and women collectively. This is striking because it seems unmotivated on purely morphological grounds. Neuter agreement forms can also be found more generally in combined reference to things regardless of their individual grammatical gender. I surveyed faithful transcriptions of medieval manuscripts from two source collections with regard to the detailed grammatical contexts involved in triggering neuter gender agreement in combined reference by example of beide ‘both’. My aim was to gain a more nuanced understanding of the phenomenon than what the main reference works on Middle High German and a previous study from the 1970s provide.

References

  • de Boor, Helmut & Roswitha Wisniewski (Hrsg.). 1988. Das Nibelungenlied. After Karl Bartsch’s edition. 22nd edn. (Deutsche Klassiker des Mittelalters). Mannheim: Brockhaus.
  • Braune, Wilhelm & Frank Heidermanns. 2023. Althochdeutsche Grammatik. Vol. 1: Phonologie und Morphologie. 17th edn. (Sammlung kurzer Grammatiken germani­scher Dialekte, A. Hauptreihe 5). Berlin: De Gruyter. DOI: 10.1515/9783111210537 (🔒). [Worldcat]
  • Frisch, Max. 1954. Stiller. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. [Worldcat]
  • Heidelberg, University Library, Cod. Pal. germ. 848. [Heidelberg Univ. Lib.; HSC]
  • Klein, Thomas, Hans-Joachim Solms, & Klaus-Peter Wegera. 2009. Mittelhochdeutsche Grammatik. Vol. 3: Wortbildung. Tübingen: Niemeyer. DOI: 10.1515/9783110971835 (🔒). [Worldcat]
  • Klein, Thomas, Hans-Joachim Solms & Klaus-Peter Wegera. 2018. Mittelhochdeutsche Grammatik. Vol. 2: Flexionsmorphologie. Berlin: De Gruyter. DOI: 10.1515/9783110523522 (🔒). [Worldcat 1, 2]
  • Paul, Hermann, Thomas Klein, Hans-Joachim Solms, Klaus-Peter Wegera, Ingeborg Schröbler & Hans-Peter Prell. 2007. Mittelhochdeutsche Grammatik. 25th edn. Tübingen: Niemeyer. DOI: 10.1515/9783110942354 (🔒). [Worldcat]
  • Schmid, Hans U. 2023. Althochdeutsche Grammatik. Vol. 2: Grundzüge einer deskriptiven Syntax. 2nd edn. (Sammlung kurzer Grammatiken germani­scher Dialekte, A. Hauptreihe 5). Berlin: De Gruyter. DOI: 10.1515/9783110782493 (🔒). [Worldcat]
  • Wilhelm, Friedrich, Richard Newald, Helmut de Boor, Diether Haacke & Bettina Kirschstein (eds.). 1932–2004. Corpus der altdeutschen Originalurkunden bis zum Jahr 1300. Berlin: Erich Schmidt. http://tcdh01.uni-trier.de/cgi-bin/iCorpus/CorpusIndex.tcl (2023-09-23). [Worldcat]

New text on the frontpage, and a cause for celebration

The text on the Ayeri website’s landing page (itself an anacronism these days?) with its evocation of strange, fictitious lands where the language is supposed to be spoken has long slightly bothered me, seeing that I haven’t come up with substantial world-building for this long-running conlanging project of mine so far. Thus, I have recently—and rather ad hoc—come up with a new text that is more plain about Ayeri. Just as with the old text, I’ve tried translating it into Ayeri to give a taste right off the bat.

Manisu ya Benung. Bukuno narānena Ayeri! Ang Ayeri narānas manisa (narāntiyanas), sinā le ringyang suyan berdayyena luga pericanjya-ikan. Eng da-lomasāra edanya yām ku-ibangas tiyo, siyā ang ming ajāy narāneri nay sungkoraneri narān. Eng kadāra eda-baloybenung nilanjyas si ang avancon macamley vehanena, linyeley tiyo palung naynay si ang tiyāy ling pericanjya misisānyam neprisānena nay valyanyam sinā tiyayang. Valyu pecamanas eda-baloyyena!

The text goes as follows. I hope it’s in line with the Grammar, since I’m feeling quite out of practice. A thing I noticed is that there’s no way to handle clauses that function as constituents (object clauses, adverbial clauses, etc.) in Ayeri in the same rather elegant and concise way you can do this with ing-participles in English (“[…] working out ever more details of which has served me as a creative outlet for playing with language and linguistics for many years”). I thus had to rephrase the translated text a bit.

  1. Manisu ya Benung. Bukuno narānena Ayeri!
    welcome LOC=Benung storage language-GEN Ayeri
    ‘Welcome to Benung. The Ayeri Language Resource!’
  2. Ang Ayeri narānas manisa (narāntiyanas), sinā le ringyang suyan berdayyena luga pericanjya-ikan.
    A.AN=Ayeri language-P.AN fictional conlang-P.AN REL.P.AN.GEN P.INAN.TOP=raise=1SG.A amount[TOP] detail-PL-GEN for year-PL-LOC=many
    ‘Ayeri is a fictional language (a conlang) whose amount of detail I have raised for many years.’
  3. Eng da-lomasāra edanya yām ku-ibangas tiyo, siyā ang ming ajāy narāneri nay sungkoraneri narān.
    A.INAN.TOP=such=serve-HAB-3SG.INAN this[TOP] 1SG.DAT as=field-P.AN creative REL.P.LOC A.AN.TOP=can=play-1SG.TOP language-INS and science-INS language
    ‘It has thus served me as a creative field where I can play with language and linguistics.’
  4. Eng kadāra eda-baloybenung nilanjyas si ang avancon macamley vehanena, linyeley tiyo palung naynay si ang tiyāy ling pericanjya misisānyam neprisānena nay valyanyam sinā tiyayang.
    A.INAN.TOP=gather-3SG.INAN this=site.web[TOP] thought-PL-P.AN REL A.AN.TOP=document=3PL.AN.N.TOP process-P.INAN construction-GEN thing-PL-P.INAN creative other and.also REL A.AN.TOP=make=1SG.TOP during year-PL-LOC realization-DAT theory-GEN and enjoyment-DAT REL.DAT.GEN create=1SG.A
    ‘This website gathers thoughts documenting the construction process, and also other creative things I made over the years for the realization of theory and the enjoyment of what I created.’
  5. Valyu pecamanas eda-baloyyena!
    enjoy-IMP browse.through-P.AN this=page-PL-GEN
    ‘Enjoy browsing through these pages!’

Unfortunately, WordPress’ WYSIWYG editor makes it rather impossible to properly align interlinear glosses in linguistic examples anymore, to my best knowledge. On the other hand, I suppose that this kind of markup is a very special need of very few people (insert Star Trek joke here).

In other news, you can also tentatively follow this blog on the Fediverse at @/blog@/ayeri.de now (remove the slashes after the @ signs), because I wanted to try out Matthias Pfefferle et al.’s cool new ActivityPub plugin (markup beyond basic HTML would likely be gone anyway if viewed through the likes of Mastodon, Firefish, Lemmy, or Kbin). There’ll also be great news about my Ph.D. endeavors coming up soon-ish, I hope. 😀 A blog post giving a glimpse into what I wrote my thesis about that’s hopefully accessible enough for other conlangers as well is already in the pipeline for this occasion.

Incidentally, Ayeri is celebrating its 20th birthday this December, and this realization has just completely caught me by surprise. 😅 Bavesangas mino, I suppose, and briyu-briyu! 🎉🥂

“Silent Night” in Ayeri

In December 2022 I posted on my Mastodon account a photo from the Berlin State Library’s Unter den Linden branch featuring a pinboard on which were posted festive tags with Christmas greetings in a slew of languages spoken by library patrons. User Scott Hühnerkrisp wondered whether there already exists a translation of Stille Nacht into Ayeri. I replied that it would be a challenge for the Christmas break. Even though it’s past Christmas now and this year’s is still a ways off, I wanted to make good on it. This is Sirutay ternu kaluy, my attempt to translate the Austrian Christmas carol Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht—to English speakers known as Silent Night—into Ayeri.

🔽 Download the PDF file
⚙️ View the LaTeX source

Other than that, I submitted my PhD thesis in May last year and defended it in September, at long last—it’d been over five years since I started working on it formally. Add to this my subsequent relocation halfway across Germany to Berlin, where I’m teaching an Old High German intro class this semester and continue working for my doctoral advisor at least until spring 2024 (see also: academic job insecurity, short-term contracts, “perpetual interim”). That doesn’t mean I’m done PhDing yet, since my alma mater requires theses to be published to award the title. So, I’m also trying to find time to revise my manuscript again. I already have a publisher to offer it to in mind and hope to do so by summer.

Stylistic experiment: Tahano Hikamu and blackletter

I’m a doodler. More specifically, I’m in the habit of doodling random words and sentences when watching TV. Moreover, ever since I started toying with adapting Ayeri’s Tahano Hikamu writing system to a style that resembles blackletter, that idea hasn’t let go of me, and it’s become part of my idle doodling. I briefly mentioned the idea of a blackletter-style Tahano Hikamu in the grammar (p. 61–62) along with a small example, but I’ve never really documented it seriously.

So, blackletter. What does this have to do with Ayeri, since it undeniably takes some of its aesthetic of sound and spelling not from European languages but rather from southeast Asian languages? And what’s more, its ‘native’ writing system does so as well—maybe even turning some of the features of real-world syllabic alphabets typical of that region up to eleven. On the other hand, so-called Gothic scripts (see e.g. Knight 1996: 320–322, or if you read German, Schneider 2014: 28–85; this is not directly related to the Gothic language and its alphabet) are a western-central European variation of the Latin alphabet which came into fashion in the middle ages. They survive in the shape of blackletter print for certain purposes up to the present day.

Roman and blackletter styles
Roman (italic) and blackletter styles (Source Serif 4 Italic; UniFraktur Maguntia)

Here in Germany at least (and no doubt in other parts of the Germanic-speaking world as well), you can still find blackletter typefaces for instance in the mastheads of newspapers, on pub signs, beer labels, and other things that are supposed to evoke either a long-standing tradition or rustic folklore. Unfortunately, blackletter also has a dark side: it is also associated with the Nazi era and continues to be used in connection to fascist, nationalist, and racist ideas. In my exploration of and toying with this style, I expressly distance myself from such ideologies.

One key characteristic of Gothic scripts—of which blackletter typefaces are a variant—is that they emphasize vertical lines, making characters tall and narrow, like the windows in Gothic cathedrals. Another one is that the round parts of letters are broken up into multiple strokes, with the ‘feet’ of stems typically bent to the right (Schneider 2014: 29). According to Schneider (2014: 28–29) ‘gothification’ of the Carolingian minuscule can be observed first in the Anglo-Norman area, i.e. England and northern France, and also in Belgium in the late 11th and early 12th century. She writes that the style then made its way into central Europe from the mid-12th century on, spreading from west to east. Gothic book hands and blackletter typefaces with their intricate joining together of angles, straight and curved lines, and sometimes even added embellishing hairlines and tittles may lead to very intricate, at times playful shapes in spite of a stout overall look.

What brought me to combine two such disparate things as Gothic scripts and Ayeri’s writing system, anyway? For one, I’ve been working for the Handschriftencensus research project for the past few years. Handschriftencensus is a meta-catalog on the transmission of all medieval texts in German language by way of manuscripts. In real-life small talk, I like to say it’s basically the Yellow Pages of German codicology research. At the office, we don’t work with old codices directly, however, one of the pre-pandemic perks my job included was participating in excursions to and workshops at libraries such as the Heidelberg University Library’s historical collection and to get literally hands-on with old books there. When not traveling, digitized manuscripts have to suffice. Looking at writing from several hundred years ago is thus part of my current job, and I can’t deny that manuscripts hold some fascination for me, as the photos in this article probably suggest.

A view of the manuscript, St. Gallen, Kantonsbibliothek, Vadianische Sammlung, VadSlg Ms. 302, part 2, fol. 25r, with people's hands around
Getting hands-on with St. Gallen, Cantonal Lib., Vadian Coll., VadSlg Ms. 302 (e-codices, HSC). Displayed here is pt. 2, fol. 25r. Not all medieval manuscripts are this lavishly decorated. Most are drab and practical, made to be used, not treasures to be marveled at.

Secondly, I’ve long found southeast Asian scripts such as Balinese, Burmese, Javanese, Khmer, Thai, etc. intriguing both regarding their system of writing and their look, which also had an influence on Tahano Hikamu. Several years ago, I stumbled upon an image on Wikipedia of the title plate of an 1898 book commemorating queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands’ accession to the throne in 1890. The issue of European colonialism (again, with its history of violence, exploitation, and lingering socioeconomic problems) aside, what especially caught my intrigue here is the first line, which combines Javanese writing with the European blackletter style.

Javanese text written in blackletter style on the title page of a book
Text in Javanese script on the title page of a book printed in Semarang, Indonesia, in 1898 (Koninklijk Huisarchief via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Both the Latin alphabet and the Javanese script emphasize the vertical axis, which opens up a possibility for stylistic experimentation with Gothic style features in an alien environment. If something like this is possible, shouldn’t it also be possible in my script? Tahano Hikamu’s consonant letters as well are mainly built on a lattice of vertical strokes, so there shouldn’t be a problem either to adapt them to broken lines and curly feet. In some cases, it proved even possible to adapt the shape of Latin letters to the ‘gothicized’ Ayeri script directly. The following chart gives an overview of the characters and diacritics with the exception of numerals, which I’ve so far neglected to experiment on.

Chart of blackletter-style Tahano Hikamu characters
Chart of blackletter-style Tahano Hikamu characters

The following correspondences exist, in some cases also independent of the particular style of Tahano Hikamu:

  • TH pa — Lat. n
  • TH ba — Lat. a (double-storey shape)
  • TH na — Lat. i, j
  • TH nga — similar to Lat. w
  • TH va — Lat. r
  • TH ra — similar to Lat. g (looptail shape)
  • TH ya — Lat. u
  • TH fa — Lat. m
  • TH sha — similar to Lat. B
  • TH kha — similar to Lat. R

The diphthong marker appears turned on its head in the above chart (4th line, 5th item from the right), resulting in what looks similar to the quarter rest in music. This is a stylistic variation I have recently experimented with, in part also because I keep forgetting preposed diacritics when doodling words as described initially. Starting with a base stroke thus often rescues the attempt to write a word, so it’s a beneficial feature to keep. The basic grapheme in its ‘canonical’ orientation is straightforward enough to be adapted as well, though. The letter ga posed the greatest challenge, similar to Latin g, which itself has invited stylistic experiments by both scribes and typographers over the centuries as well. For instance, look at the gs in James Todd’s (2015) article on designing the Essonnes typeface, which he samples from a version of the classic Didot. Aren’t they glorious with their serifed lower bowls?

Will you see more of Ayeri written in this style, maybe even a cohesive text? Frankly, I have no idea what the future holds, since I’m still working on my dissertation and am intent on finishing it this year. Small indulgences like writing this blog article already leave me with a slightly bad conscience about neglecting my off-hour duties (working on your PhD is usually an unpaid hobby in German academia, at least in the humanities, and yes, people are not happy about it).

Suffice it to say, doodling in this style has renewed my appreciation for the toil of medieval scribes. It’s a slow and arduous way of writing if you want it to look good, even when it’s just to write a few lines.

  • Knight, Stan. 1996. The Roman Alphabet. In The World’s Writing Systems, edited by Peter T. Daniels and William Bright. New York, NY, and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 312–332.
  • Koninklijk Huisarchief. 2013. Book title commemorating Wilhelmina’s ascension, Semarang 1898. Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain). [Link]
  • Schneider, Karin. 2014. Paläographie und Handschriftenkunde für Germanisten: Eine Einführung. 3rd ed. Sammlung kurzer Grammatiken germanischer Dialekte, B. Ergänzungsreihe 8. Berlin and Boston, MA: de Gruyter. DOI: 10.1515/9783110338676.
  • Todd, James. 2015. Making Fonts: Essonnes. I Love Typography (June 12). [Link]
Private photos of:

‘A Grammar of Ayeri’ Available as Print-on-Demand

  • A Grammar of Ayeri is available from Amazon now, too, so I am assuming you can now indeed order print copies through the regular book trade as well as straight from Lulu.com. 🤓❤️📘

If you’ve visited the Grammar page or the Grammar project’s GitHub page recently, you will have noticed that I finally decided to publish a version 1.0 of A Grammar of Ayeri on October 1st. While this is a big step forward that took me some courage, I didn’t announce it in a big way, because I have reason to make a somewhat bigger announcement still today.

That is, I’m excited to announce that you can now also buy print copies of the grammar! Moreover, this happens to be in time for Ayeri’s 15th birthday in December—something I only noticed the other day. A few people have suggested making print copies available on demand in recent months, so you can now order my Ayeri grammar as a real and full-fledged book from Lulu.com. Since I decided to give the book an ISBN (978-0-359-09583-4), it should also become available to booksellers of your choice sometime in the next 4–6 weeks. Here’s what the beauty looks like:

The digital version of the grammar will remain available free of charge and with fully disclosed sources, that is, I explicitly intended this as Open Access.

A Grammar of Ayeri provides an overview of the language’s phonemic inventory and an analysis of its phonotactics, an in-depth description of its writing system, as well as a detailed description of its morphology and morphosyntax. Interstitial chapters try to shed a light on Ayeri from a typological perspective, both regarding morphology and syntax. I incorporated a number of blog articles from recent years, so if you’ve been following my blog, you know what to expect. All discussions contain fully-glossed examples for illustration, especially to help with the more technical parts.

Even though I worked on this book for a little more than two years, there are some topics I mention in the grammar without elaborating on them. Since there is always more to do, I had to draw a line somewhere. Topics left for future consideration will thus probably result in blog articles again sooner or later, so stay tuned. A list of errata may likewise follow.


Besides having been asked for print copies, I’ve been asked why I chose to self-publish, and the main reason is that I don’t really see straightaway which kind of publisher I might want to offer the manuscript of this book to, elaborate as it may be.

For one, it does not fit established paradigms of either fiction or non-fiction publishing. The book’s subject is essentially a work of fiction, yet it’s not narrative, but a piece of formal documentation of a conceived abstract object: a made-up language. Moreover, as I see it, conlangs are up to the whims of their creators (at least while they’re alive) and are thus entirely arbitrary when it comes to documenting and analyzing the diversity of human language from the perspective of linguistics—unless, for instance, you do a study on conlanging as a social phenomenon, study and compare the way individual conlangs are made and what that says about their creators, or utilize them as a didactic tool to teach linguistics. In my opinion, the immediate value of a grammar of a personal artistic language to linguistic epistemology is debatable. Lastly, due to the book’s presentation as a scholarly text, it will only appeal to a small readership, which is not exactly profitable. But mainly, I think, the difficulty is in being this weird hybrid of fiction and non-fiction, or fiction in the guise of non-fiction.

Maybe I’m being overly pessimistic with this assessment. Maybe the very aspect of being fiction in the guise of non-fiction might be a selling point in the future (but again: to what kind of publisher?), provided I could still keep my work online because “selling out” is the last thing I want to do. So far at least, no comparable effort has been professionally published to my knowledge, and there exist a few works with a similar scope as mine that I’m aware of, for instance, Étienne Poisson’s Siwa grammar, Martin Posthumus’ Novegradian grammar, and Matt Pearson’s Okuna grammar.

Update on the Grammar Writing Process IX

And there I thought that the manuscript of my Ayeri grammar was basically done … Looks like I will have to do some reanalysis of noun phrases and adjective phrases after all. This blog article is a cross post from Conlang-L. While Jeffrey Brown already said over there that the apparent N⁰-to-D⁰ thing (in parallel of apparent V⁰-to-I⁰) shouldn’t be a problem, the question of what to do with APs hasn’t been answered yet. I’m leaving the comments on this article open because I’d like to know if the below is a reasonable analysis.

(In case the pictures of trees and stuff below appear too small on your screen, click to enlarge.)


OK, since two of you suggested to summarize what I’m uncertain about specifically … Ayeri is a VSO language, and I analyzed it previously as having the following basic sentence structure for transitive clauses where the subject NP is not a pronoun (view this email in a fixed-width font to see the examples and charts lining up):

As I said in my original post, I analyzed my conlang’s syntactic structure in terms of LFG, so the c(onstituent)-structure tree above contains functional annotations instead of relying solely on bar levels in order to identify syntactic functions; non-branching pre-terminal bar levels are moreover typically pruned for tidiness. ↑ = ↓ means that the semantic content of the current node is simply passed on to (or actually, united with, as in set theory) the next higher node; (↑ SUBJ) = ↓ identifies the current phrase as the superior node’s (and ultimately IP’s) subject, etc. This way, Ayeri relies on an extended head for its verb (the head of VP is empty but its functional equivalent is found as the head of IP), so that it is still “configurational,” also since I⁰ still c-commands V⁰’s modifiers this way.


I should add that the verb—normally branching off of VP to the left as V⁰—is analyzed here as being found in I⁰ instead. This way, I⁰ holds the inflected verb, its sister XP optionally holds e.g. an adverb. S contains the arguments of the verb: the left NP is the subject, its sister is the VP we extracted the verb from, and VP’s daughter is the object NP. So in linear order we get verb–subject–object (or VSO for short) for the constituents.


Now, the thing that is still puzzling me is that Ayeri very regularly places modifiers after heads, and since there is no agreement morphology on adjectives, adjectives follow their heads immediately to keep scope unambiguous, even though they are adjuncts and not complements. Complements move up further to the right if an adjective is present: NOUN–ADJ–COMP. To give an example:

  1. {Ang vacya} John koyās dano gindiyēri.

    ang=vac-ya Ø=John koya-as dano gindi-ye-eri

    AT=like-3SG.M TOP=John book-P green poem-PL-INS

    ‘John, he likes the green book of poems.’

Here, the adjective dano ‘green’ follows its head, koyās ‘book’ rather than the head + complement koyās gindiyēri ‘book of poems’ to signal that its head is ‘book’ rather than ‘poems’ (‘*green poems’ are maybe the kind of poetry colorless green ideas prefer, I don’t know). Functionally, this construction should be in no way different from the ‘normal’ constituent order N–COMP–ADJ. It’s simply a quirk of Ayeri to invert the order of complement and adjective/adverb, although as we will see below have seen above, this quirk is motivated.

Here, the part in question is the f(unctional)-structure labeled ‘OBJ’ for its function as an object: its lexical head (‘predicator’) is ‘book’, which subcategorizes for a complement. This requirement is satisfied by the subordinate f-structure labeled ‘COMP’. The object also contains an adjunct function (ADJ), and the only member of the set is given as the adjective ‘green’. The question is now, however, how to analyze this in terms of c-structure. In LFG, functional heads are regarded as co-heads of their equivalent lexical categories, which is why I⁰ and V⁰ are regarded as functionally the same: both functional and lexical heads of the same kind (verbal, nominal) write their semantic features into the same f-structure. The strategy of verbs should thus in principle also be applicable to D⁰ and N⁰, with D⁰ as NP’s extended head. However, I have so far analyzed NPs with adjuncts and complements in the following way and was wondering if this is correct:

While it is generally possible to adjoin a phrasal node to a phrasal node, the restriction according to LFG’s annotation rules is that phrasal nodes adjoined to another phrasal node either need to be unannotated (I suppose, this means ↑ = ↓) or not to embody an argument function, however, COMP is an argument function. For nouns, I suppose one could still invoke lexocentricity—the word as such identifies the NP as a complement, here by way of its case marking. This does not work for all phrase types, however, since e.g. CPs as complements of predicative adjectives (nice [CP that you’re here]) do not mark case. I was wondering therefore if the following analysis might not actually be better, also because it parallels the way Ayeri handles verbs:

The head noun is found as a functional head D⁰ here, while N⁰ itself is empty, however, its complement is still in place. This parallels how V⁰ is empty, while the object, as V⁰’s complement, is still constructed as a daughter of VP. This also allows for annotation of the nodes according to the rules, or at least without bending them, as far as I can tell.

A question arising from this is how to deal with determiners. Since I modeled my analysis in (1) on Bresnan et al.’s (2016) analysis of Welsh—which they analyze as not using Spec as a parametric choice—I implicitly assumed for Ayeri as well not to make use of Spec. This means that I analyzed determiners like ‘my’ or sinya ‘which’ (as an interrogative pronoun) as heads of DP which are complemented by an NP, as in (6a). However, with the analysis in (5), can I still follow this strategy and have [DP [DP NP]], as in (6b), or is it preferred for DP not to recursively include another DP for some reason? This is probably a Syntax 101 question, but I’ve never really had a Syntax 101 class.

I mentioned above that adjectives can have phrasal complements. If an adverb is present, complements of adjectives move up as well, but adjective phrases do not have a functional equivalent. So what would I do there, if the strategy outlined for nouns in (5) is followed mutatis mutandis? Would I simply put an AP inside another AP, or would I maybe rather use DP, since adjectives are a nominal category in my conlang?

  • Bresnan et al. (2016) define an extended head as follows: “Given a c-structure containing nodes N and C and a c- to f-structure correspondence mapping φ, N is an extended head of C if and only if N is the minimal node in φ–1(φ(C)) that c-commands C without dominating C,” or more simply: “X is an extended head of Y if X is the X′ categorial head of Y […], or if Y lacks a categorial head but X is the closest element higher up in the tree that functions like the f-structure head of Y” (136). There is no mention that N/X must be of a functional category, just that it must be the closest higher-up node of C/Y that c-commands but does not dominate C/Y at the same time. The AP—AP construction in parallel to the analysis of DP—NP and IP—VP should thus work, if I’m understanding this correctly.
  • Bresnan, Joan et al. Lexical-Functional Syntax. 2nd ed. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2016. Print. Blackwell Textbooks in Linguistics 16.

Update on the Grammar Writing Process VIII

I wrote earlier this month that I had been revising the index of my Ayeri grammar. I also noticed that a discussion of verbs with predicative complements like tav- ‘become’, maya- ‘feel’, etc. has been missing so far. I completed and added those things yesterday, respectively. This also means that the manuscript is basically finished since it should now include everything I meant to discuss, and it should be rather presentable. However, hold your horses, it still needs another round of proofreading to weed out mistakes that have crept in due to adding and deleting index tags from the source files, as well as mistakes which are due to my not being a native English speaker, or just plain lapses.

Update on the Grammar Writing Process VII

Oh wow, it’s been a full hundred days since I last gave a report here about my progress. The project is still going on, in case anyone wondered.

After littering the LaTeX source files of the grammar with index tags in April, I’ve been working on clearing them up again for the last 3 weeks or so to make the keyword index actually useful. And while I’ve been at it, I’ve been fixing the one or the other issue I’ve come across as well—spelling, formatting, content. I had hoped to be done with this task by June 1st, but just as usual, everything is taking twice as long as expected. Let me tell you, it’s pretty annoying to go through all page references one by one, and to check whether they’re leading to actually relevant information.

I seriously want this off my desk as soon as possible now, even though I’ve learned a lot by writing this book. However, it’s been preoccupying me for long enough—on July 3rd, it’s going to be 2 years. July 1st is the deadline I gave myself, though knowing my perfectionist tendencies, it’s probably rather going to be August: I’ve been considering to ask some native English speakers I know for some additional proofreading.

I also feel a little guilty about spending so much time on writing this grammar instead of working as hard on my Ph.D. project for university: there are about 1,800 commits to the repository (about 1,000 in the last 12 months alone), and if we assume that each one equals about 45 minutes of work on average (reading takes a lot of time, which is balanced by correcting small things), this amounts to 1,350 hours. This, in turn, is about equal to 34 weeks on a full-time job. On the other hand, I suppose I should be fine if I’ll continue working on my thesis with as much zeal as on the grammar, once the grammar book is done for the time being. Blood, sweat, and tears, etc. Anyway, I’ve come so far with this book project, I don’t want to put it on hold indefinitely, especially now that it looks like the end is only weeks away. And then I can hopefully move on.

Update on the Grammar Writing Process VI

Incidentally, it was the 600th day since I started working on a refined version of the Ayeri Grammar just yesterday. I’ve spent the last 2 weeks proofreading the chapter on syntax and I’m now ready to go back to the start and proofread the whole book again. You can see the very raw manuscript containing the first round of corrections right after writing the chapters and under it the batch waiting for the second round of proofreading in the first photo. The second photo shows that it’s not an inconsiderable amount of paper—and I printed it as 4 pages per sheet.

I’ve said before that I definitely wanted to have a bound copy of the book myself once it’s done (maybe in summer?), so I’ve looked a little at print-on-demand services recently since I figured that other people might want to have one as well. Apparently, whether you use Amazon’s CreateSpace or Lulu.com, a paperback the size I’ve been considering—15.6 × 23.4 cm with approx. 480 pages—can be produced for about $16, so about €13, which sounds pretty reasonable. You even get an ISBN and distribution included, though I have no idea whether a very small profit margin for the author is already factored in as well (we’re likely talking quarters per copy here). I’m certainly not expecting to sell many copies, since conlangs are a pretty specific thing, but if I made the one or the other buck this way which I could then reinvest in running this site, I’d not be entirely unhappy. Since I like to use print and digital in parallel especially with textbooks, I’m planning to keep up the PDF version of the grammar for free. This is essentially what Language Science Press does, minus the peer review they also provide. If anyone were to want a print copy, they could order it in addition and pay a reasonable price for getting a proper book. I think this is a pretty fair offer.

  • Just in case you’re reading this after the grammar’s been published and wonder why the finished book costs a bit more than $16: There’s a big bookseller’s margin slapped on top of the production price. If I sell a book directly via Lulu.com, I will get part of that margin. Otherwise I may get up to $1 for a copy sold. In any case, Lulu.com keeps a percentage (I don’t know how much it is exactly) of the revenue as a service fee.