Tag Archives: conlanging

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.

Update on the Grammar Writing Process V

Happy new year, everyone! I suppose it’s time again to provide a brief update on my progress with writing my grammar of Ayeri. The whole last year I’ve been trying to figure out describing its syntax formally. This will continue to preoccupy me for the time being also in the new year because verbs are still not fully described, and complementizer phrases (used for complement clauses, relative clauses and such) are lining up to be next. Then, I will also have to work on correcting some things in the sections on raising and control with regards to syntactic typology (I should have figured out constituent structure first), and also describe pronominal binding. And after this, I will have to go back to the beginning of the chapter and fix things for consistency and do proofreading.

The compiled PDF is now close to 400 pages (in A4 format, but with generous margins because LaTeX) without frontmatter, appendices and backmatter, and 400 pages is what I had wanted the main part to be at most once everything is done. The section on the syntax of verbs alone is already almost 100 pages long currently, though granted, verbs are probably the most complex part of the language (or any language?), and all those diagrams take up an awful lot of space. I will definitely have to shave some pages off after writing will be done hopefully some time later this year, though, and especially the argumentative parts are probably predestined for some literal cutting to the chase in spite of my trying not to ramble unnecessarily. The description of Ayeri’s alphabet might also rather go in the appendix. Years at university have taught me that good writing can’t be produced on the spot, anyway.

Honestly, sometimes I wish I had an editor to look over my writing to guide me with it. With the syntax chapter especially, I wish someone could check the plausibility of my hypotheses and analyses once writing is done, too. And then, there’s still proofreading of the whole grammar to do. My English may be pretty good overall, but I’m always somewhat distrusting my abilities as a non-native speaker. Proofreading one’s own writing is generally hard in my experience, though, even in one’s native language.

Update on the Grammar Writing Process IV

Grammar writing has gone slowly again for the past couple of weeks, which is mostly due to reading up on things. I have now arrived at discussing verbs, which are the most complex part of speech since they are at the head of clauses—not just structurally, but also functionally. Important questions right now are:

  • What evidence is there for a constituent S which holds all the verb’s arguments besides the fact that verbless clauses exist complete with predication?
  • Is there a VP in hiding? This requires performing tests on constituency as well (there is a way to say does so as well, so there should be a VP even if the verb word itself is the head of the superordinate IP).

This is to say, I assume that Ayeri’s basic sentence structure looks essentially like this:

The sentence 'Ang konja Yan pahiley' ('Yan eats a cookie') charted in terms of LFG

And then, there are some further questions which I’d like to answer:

  • Austronesian alignment gave the impetus for Ayeri’s strategy of marking one certain NP on the verb, however, after reading Kroeger (1991) it became clear to me that there are strong differences between the real thing and what I have. This is mostly due to not consistently following the original model but falling back on structures familiar from German and English. Thus: what is a so-called ‘trigger conlang’ of which Ayeri is supposedly a prominent example,1 and how is Ayeri actually positioned in this regard?
  • In consequence, how does Ayeri deal with more complex sentence structures, for instance, involving raising and control, as opposed to what Kroeger (1991) describes?
  • Ayeri basically grammaticalizes topic marking by way of agreement morphology. How (un)typical is this with regards to typology? (e.g., see Li and Thompson 1976 for something very old and basic)
  • Does the way in which Ayeri deals with topicalization have any effects on binding? Topics are supposed to operate outside of the functional hierarchy which Bresnan et al. (2016) propose as an important factor in pronominal binding.
  • Since I’ve been trying my hands on an LFG-based analysis, how do verbs behave regarding assigning roles in argument structure? (Dalrymple 2001: 203–215, Bresnan et al. 2016: 329–348)

To be honest, when I started working on Ayeri in 2003, I would not have understood a word of what Kroeger (1991) writes, so it was basically clear from the beginning that there’d be large inconsistencies with regards to the intention of playing around with Austronesian alignment. The thing is, besides Tagalog’s infamous marking of the ang phrase’s role on the verb (actor, goal, direction, beneficiary, etc.), whatever that phrase is syntactically, It also has effects on raising, control, and binding, which I have long ignored out of a lack of knowledge and awareness of these grammatical processes. Even when I tried to come to terms with Ayeri’s syntactic alignment in an often-clicked blog article in 2012, I applied some of the tests discussed there only mechanically, without actually understanding what they’re about.

It also may be noted that Kroeger (1991) analyzes It as the subject because of consistencies with syntactic traits usually associated with subjects, though with the added complication that it’s not fixed to its conventional position as the specifier of VP.2 You can also see It variously analyzed as focus or topic, which is terribly confusing especially when you don’t know a lot, and this confusion had a major impact on what I ended up with in Ayeri. It will also be necessary, thus, to look at whether the logical subject and the syntactic subject in Ayeri coincide. My gut feeling is that they do, which would make Ayeri more similar, in fact, to analyses of the basic clause structure of Celtic languages such as Welsh or Irish (compare, for instance, Chung and McCloskey 1987, Sadler 1997, Dalrymple 2001: 66, Bresnan et al. 2016: 130–138).

  • Bresnan, Joan et al. Lexical-Functional Syntax. 2nd ed. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2016. Print. Blackwell Textbooks in Linguistics 16.
  • Chung, Sandra, and James McCloskey. “Government, Barriers, and Small Clauses in Modern Irish.” Linguistic Inquiry 18.2 (1987): 173–237. Web. 11 Aug. 2017. ‹http://www.jstor.org/stable/4178536›.
  • Dalrymple, Mary. Lexical Functional Grammar. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2001. Print. Syntax and Semantics 34.
  • Kroeger, Paul R. Phrase Structure and Grammatical Relations in Tagalog. Diss. Stanford University, 1991. Web. 17 Dec. 2016. ‹http://www.gial.edu/wp-content/uploads/paul_kroeger/PK-thesis-revised-all-chapters-readonly.pdf›.
  • Li, Charles N. and Sandra A. Thompson. “Subject and Topic: A New Typology of Language.” Subject and Topic. Ed. Charles N. Li. New York: Academic P, 1976. 457–485. Print.
  • Sadler, Louisa. “Clitics and the Structure-Function Mapping.” Proceedings of the LFG ’97 Conference, University of California, San Diego, CA. Ed. by Miriam Butt and Tracy Holloway King. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications, 1997. Web. 12 Aug. 2017. ‹https://web.stanford.edu/group/cslipublications/cslipublications/LFG/2/lfg97sadler.pdf›.
  1. The oldest message on Conlang-L (itself the oldest conlanging group on the internet I’m aware of) which uses the term ‘trigger’ to refer to case/voice marking I could find is by John Cowan, dated December 16, 1995. The archives 1991–1997 seem to only survive archived by the Wayback Machine anymore. Search for the time stamp, “Sat Dec 16 13:09:06 1995”, on the linked archive page to read the message.
  2. This is probably not much of a problem for the likes of LFG or HPSG, but likely more of a problem for generative grammar.

Update on the Grammar Writing Process III

I’ve recently done a lot of proofreading of basically anything besides the introduction chapter of the new Ayeri Grammar. I did this to weed out errors I’ve previously overlooked and also to make sure that what I’d written earlier in the morphology chapter was consistent with the rather extensive work I did in order to come to terms with why certain pre- and suffixes should be clitics. This detour took quite a while—from January to April—but it was probably worth it, since it clarified some questions I had. My quest for clarity on clitics versus affixes in Ayeri culminated in a lengthy blog article, a version of which, revised in parts, can be found in the new grammar as section 3.2.5.

Starting to document Ayeri’s syntax is the logical next step now after I tried to describe its phonology and morphology as well as I could. So, what I’m up to now is trying to describe the morphosyntactic structure of the various syntactic constituents: noun phrases, verb phrases, adjective phrases etc. Since there is very little agreement morphology in Ayeri, this should be rather straightforward for the most part, except for verb phrases (I recently discovered that Dalrymple (2001) contains a whole lot more examples than Bresnan (2016), so that might come in handy). Currently, however, I’m still only concerned with NPs and DPs. What’s still making me self-conscious about all this is that I still have never really studied syntax formally, as I pointed out earlier. So, if you take a look at the grammar and see something implausible, please let me know!

When I tried to figure out clitics in Ayeri earlier, I also came up with a lot of examples of coordination, and one thing I wondered is if the following is actually reasonable.

An attempt to describe formally the distribution of the progressive clitic over two coordinated verbs

What you can see here is an attempt to apply LFG to an example sentence which contains a coordinated constituent: manga sahaya rangya ‘is coming home’ is coordinated with nedraya ‘sits (down)’. The question now is, how to formally describe that manga as the (enclitic) progressive marker is to be understood as distributing over both verbs, sahaya ‘comes’ and nedraya ‘sits’? I actually looked up a few articles (Belyaev et al. 2015; Kaplan and Maxwell 1988; Maxwell and Manning 1996; Peterson 2004) and at least took a casual glance at them, but nowhere did I see any discussion of how to indicate when certain markers in the verb phrase distribute to multiple conjuncts. Instead, I could only find discussions of how to indicate the distribution of the subject to conjuncts. The distribution of the subject is also indicated in the argument-value matrix on the right in the illustration above, namely, in that the first verb’s SUBJ(ect) is connected by a line to the second verb’s empty SUBJ slot.

The question I now have is whether connecting items this way is possible also for other features, like ASP(ect). From what little I know, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be plausible to analogize here, but I might as well be wrong. If you know, please let me know as well. What is slightly frustrating is that a lot of times, you can only easily find information on English.

Also, I’ve been working on writing this grammar for almost a whole year now. Wow.

  • Belyaev, Oleg, et al. “Number Mismatches in Coordination: An LFG Analysis.” Proceedings of the LFG ’15 Conference, Tokyo, Japan, 18–20 Jul. 2015. Ed. by Miriam Butt and Tracy Holloway King. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications, 2015. 26–46. Web. 25 May 2017. ‹https://web.stanford.edu/group/cslipublications/cslipublications/LFG/20/papers/lfg15belyaevetal.pdf›.
  • Bresnan, Joan et al. Lexical-Functional Syntax. 2nd ed. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2016. Print. Blackwell Textbooks in Linguistics 16.
  • Dalrymple, Mary. Lexical Functional Grammar. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2001. Print. Syntax and Semantics 34.
  • Kaplan, Ronald M., and John T. Maxwell, III. Constituent Coordination in Lexical-Functional Grammar. Palo Alto, CA: Xerox PARC, 1988. Web. 18 Apr. 2017. ‹http://www2.parc.com/isl/groups/nltt/xle/coord.ps›.
  • Maxwell, John T., III, and Christopher D. Manning. “A Theory of Non-constituent Coordination Based on Finite-State Rules.” Proceedings of the LFG ’96 Conference, Rank Xerox, Grenoble, France, 26–28 Aug. 1996. Ed. by Miriam Butt and Tracy Holloway King. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications, 1997. Web. 18 Apr. 2017. ‹https://web.stanford.edu/group/cslipublications/cslipublications/LFG/1/lfg96maxwellmanning.pdf›.
  • Peterson, Peter G. “Coordination: Consequences of a Lexial-Functional Account.” Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 22.3 (2004): 643–679. Web. 18 Apr. 2017. ‹http://www.jstor.org/stable/4048099›.

Update on the Grammar Writing Process II

A problem I have recently come to see with conlanging is that while a whole number of people may research a natural language at any time, each researcher contributing to scholarly discourse from their area of expertise, your typical conlanger is working on their fictional language all by themselves. I’m no exception with regards to this. This also means, however, that only you are acquainted with your conlang, which also means that while fleshing it out, you have to be a kind of jack-of-all-trades if you want to do it well. On the other hand, a single person does not have talent for or interest in all areas of a field to the same degree, nor can you know everything about a field as variegated as linguistics. In addition to this, acquiring some deeper knowledge and experience just in a part of a field takes time.

While writing my new Ayeri grammar, describing phonology at least roughly, and morphology with a little more attention to detail seemed fair enough.1 Describing a language, however, doesn’t end at elaborating on how to form words. Syntax is just as important, as it describes how to form larger units of meaning, which is certainly no trivial issue either. Since Ayeri’s structure departs from English in some basic ways, it definitely warrants more serious attention.

Most conlangers I know seem to be mainly interested in morphology, and may even go so far as meeting formal syntax theories with suspicion. Moreover, I have never had a proper introduction to syntax myself either, for instance, in class at university. However, since Ayeri is rather different from German or English, I have long had an itch to figure its syntax out in a more structured way, in order to find out and describe in standard terms what I have been doing so far without giving it too much of a second thought. Since I’ve been trying to keep up a certain level of seriousness in the grammar, simply stating that Ayeri is VSO and heads mostly go first, and treating everything within 5 pages won’t do. Dealing with such a complex topic this superficially does not seem satisfying to my own curiosity and ambition. I am hoping that finding out more about Ayeri’s syntax will uncover more remaining blank spots, the filling of which would allow me to add yet more depth.

A colleague of mine had suggested to get acquainted with Lexical-Functional Grammar, actually with regards to my day job as a grad assistant. Describing Ayeri in this framework, however, might be interesting as well, since LFG was developed with flexibility in mind so that configurational, non-configurational, and mixed languages can all be dealt with in a straightforward manner. With its VSO constituent order, Ayeri may fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, though this needs further analysis, which I can’t provide just yet. I have been trying to work through Bresnan et al. (2016), but I realized that trying to study these things on my own is no adequate replacement for correction by teachers, since it’s too easy to accidentally gloss over important details by reading a textbook without discussing its contents. Furthermore, this book presupposes familiarity with common structuralist paradigms, such as Generative Grammar (Carnie 2002/2013 seems to be a popular introduction), Government and Binding, and X-bar theory, which it seems reasonable to acquaint myself with before I continue.

Yet, I am impatient to keep on writing, since I really don’t want to let the grammar drift off into negligence again this time. I had written some 20 pages on syntax earlier this month, however, I realized that much of what I had written is probably wrong, since, for example, I disregarded lexical integrity as a fundamental principle with regards to what I assume to be clitics, simply for the reason of not being aware of this principle for the lack of formal training in a very formal discipline. For the time being, I have deleted what I wrote about the phrase structures of DPs/NPs and AdjP/AdvPs from the PDF in the main development branch on Github (‘master’) to not spread misinformation. Once I know more and have reevaluated some things, development on this part will go on in the ‘trunk’ branch, which I will merge back into ‘master’ once I am confident enough that my analyses are at least not completely off.

Thus, for the time being, the grammar will have to pause at morphology, and hopefully not for another 5 years. Alternatively, I may need to find a way to adequatly describe how to form clauses and sentences without getting too deeply into theories, at least provisionally, if that is possible.

  • Bresnan, Joan et al. Lexical-Functional Syntax. 2nd ed. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016. Print. Blackwell Textbooks in Linguistics 16.
  • Carnie, Andrew. Syntax. A Generative Introduction. 3rd ed. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Introducing Linguistics 4.
  • Spencer, Andrew and Ana R. Luís. Clitics. An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. Print. Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics.
  • Zwicky, Arnold M. On Clitics. 1977. Arnold M. Zwicky. 21 Apr. 2015. Stanford U. 21 Apr. 2015. Web. 22 Jul. 2016. ‹https://web.stanford.edu/~zwicky/on_clitics.pdf›.
  1. I will still have to rewrite some things with regards to cliticization, though. For instance, I am not quite sure whether manga with verbs is inflection or rather a special clitic; the term ‘bound word’ from Zwicky (1977) I used in the grammar hasn’t stood the test of time. I’m currently reading up on more recent research and positions on clitics in Spencer & Luís (2012), so corrections to the morphology chapter will follow eventually.

Link: Ayeri Grammar GitHub Repo

This place has been going rather quiet for the past 2 months, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been working on Ayeri—quite the opposite, in fact. While there hasn’t been much activity here on this blog, a lot more is currently going on at the Ayeri Grammar repository on the code-sharing site, GitHub.

I’ve been trying to add a few pages every day for the past 7 weeks so that I am currently at about 110 pages (examples and tables take up so much space!). Since the whole thing is quite a bit in flux, I don’t want to give a straight download link to the fully compiled document yet, but you can nonetheless take a look at everything I’ve written so far.

Review: Peterson, The Art of Language Invention

  • CLARIFICATION: David J. Peterson contacted me about providing an image featuring Ayeri’s script for his book in fall 2014, and it has subsequently appeared in the book (see the blog post of October 1, 2015, “You’ve Got Mail”). As a contributor, I received a signed specimen copy of the book after it had been launched in late September 2015 and decided myself to review it; all of the below is my own opinion. Even though I can’t be fully unbiased in my judgement anymore due to contributing to the book and receiving praise in it, I have still tried to be as fair as possible by highlighting both good and bad characteristics of the book in a constructive manner according to my own experience after over a decade in the community. I urge you to also read other reviews for a more balanced view.

'The Art of Language Invention' by David J. Peterson
‘The Art of Language Invention’ by David J. Peterson
From Horse Lords to Dark Elves to the language-affine TV watcher – David J. Peterson’s personal behind-the-scenes of language creation. A review.

Why is it that we make up languages, of all things? Why not write? Why not draw, paint or sculpt? Why not compose? For me at least, this recent tweet summarizes it nicely (although I also do photography):

I can’t draw well and I’m not confident in my writing, so creating #conlangs is my arts and crafts.
Robbie Antenesse (@robbieantenesse), October 4, 2015

Making up languages is maybe not a mainstream hobby (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing in my humble opinion), but it’s still a valuable creative outlet for a good few people, and also for me. And for David J. Peterson, who gained his laurels in the community with his creating the Dothraki language for the wildly popular HBO series Game of Thrones, based on the novel series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.

In his freshly published book, The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words behind World-Building (292 pages, Penguin 2015, ISBN 978-0-14-312646-1, $17), David J. Peterson explores how the Craft came into being, from the 12th century German nun Hildegard von Bingen to today’s sprawling online community, additionally drawing on a stockpile of anecdotes from the early days of the internet and his own experiences with creating languages both for fun and for money, which form the heart of the book. The meat, then, is a basic introduction to linguistics for those interested bystanders and fans who want to make their first tip-toe steps into deeper waters.

A thing I really liked about Peterson’s book is that Peterson is very honest from the get-go: you will not find quick success if you seriously intend to make up a language or several and want to do it well. It takes time. It takes work. And it’s totally worth it getting engrossed in descriptions of the myriad of fascinating twists and turns that languages make to get meaning across. A sense of the joy of building up, destroying, improving, and also of solving puzzles can be deeply felt especially in the “Case Studies” after every main chapter of the book, in which Peterson discusses his own approaches to the respective topics while creating his languages. These are also the parts that contain background anecdotes about his work with TV producers and are probably the most entertaining parts of the whole book, for seasoned language tinkerers and people interested in some insider information on the TV shows’ production alike.

But even in the ‘meat’ chapters and in spite of linguistics being a rather academic topic with lots and lots of technical vocabulary, you will find Peterson’s original humor breaking through even the most dire technical discussions by referencing Harry Potter, Soundgarden, Michael Jackson, werewolves, cranky printers, and discussing the absolute and utter awfulness of onions among other things. Oh, and cats. This is 2015, after all, and we all love cats on the internet. Needless to say, since this is an introductory book, discussions of more complex aspects of language are sometimes a little simplified, though usually in a reasonable way that allows you to expand on later. There is only so much information you can put between the two covers of a 290-page book, anyway, and Peterson says so himself. For the $17 the book sets you back, you will get a whole lot of information, though.

Another aspect worth noting from a long-term hobbyist’s point of view is that Peterson never fails to make it clear that English is not the standard average language, but that it has its own peculiarities (apart from its infamously baroque spelling system) which everyone who is serious about creating languages needs to take into consideration lest he or she unwittingly rip off English. In a similar vein, Peterson frequently encourages his readers to do their own research into languages both natural and artistic in order to broaden their understanding and to develop a feeling for what is natural and possible. After all, a master needs to know his or her tools, and for a creative use of linguistics, it’s no different.

While Peterson’s book is not the only guide to creating languages for beginners – the other big one is Mark Rosenfelder’s Language Construction Kit – he covers some crucial aspects that Rosenfelder only touches on briefly, if at all, with a good amount of depth for the purposes of this introductory book. These topics are, for example, syllable structure and language change regarding semantic drift and grammaticalization. Moreover, Peterson presents some basic considerations on the development of writing systems and the effects different writing implements crucially have on their evolution.

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Language is devilishly complex. This cannot be denied, and especially the first chapter drives this point home with its insane density of information that would probably cover the contents of a few weeks of an Introduction to Linguistics class. It is not easy ploughing through this even as a seasoned conlanger, though things get more digestible once the reader has made his or her way through. Promised. Interestingly, the chapter on phonology is the longest of the book, taking up about twice the amount of pages of each the morphology-and-syntax chapter and the one on language change. Strictly speaking, the latter two are no less complex and interesting topics to explore, and I wonder if things could have been balanced better if the phononlogy chapter had been thinned out a little for better legibility. Sounds and sound structure are important to give a convincing impression, since that is what people will hear on screen or, by proxy, read on the page, but it’s by far not the only important part in language design. I think what the book would have generally benefitted from to keep a balance between information density and readability is more suggestions for where to read more on a given topic.

As far as clarity of writing goes, I think it’s fair to say Peterson writes as eloquently as he speaks in front of audiences. However, it is slightly peeving nonetheless that he regularly uses terminology like “subject” and “object” or “causative” but only introduces the respective concepts several to dozens of pages later. The book is equipped with a small glossary at the back (besides phrasebook sentences from his conlangs and a page index), but that unfortunately does not contain all technical terms he uses either, making the text a little hard to follow at times for those readers who have never had any formal training in language.

It is also very nice that the book contains a whole lot of examples, though experience has shown that even a minimal amount of glossing is very helpful in understanding what is going on, especially for created languages whose grammar is usually only known to their creator. Peterson dutifully urges his readers in the introductory chapter to remember that when they develop their own languages and want to discuss them with others. Unfortunately, though, he does not follow his own advice for the greater part of the book. Thus, it is sometimes hard to quickly glance the phenomenon he is referring to in his explanations of language examples just from the phonetic (or phonemic?) transcriptions of lines in foreign scripts he gives along with English translations, especially when the differences between two example sentences are subtle.

It would also have been very nice if more examples in the morphology chapter had come from reasonably accessible and well-documented natural languages instead of almost only Peterson’s own. I know that this is a book on constructed languages from Peterson’s point of view, but he mentions himself how it’s always good to look at what natural languages do. This point of criticism goes hand in hand with my request for more reading recommendations above, basically, since an absolute newcomer would probably first go and look up the referenced languages to learn more. At the very least it would have been helpful to name-drop these languages in the descriptions of phenomena; you often wouldn’t even have to resort to very exotic ones.

Another thing that slightly peeved me is how the morphology chapter makes it seem a little as though languages always morphologically express case and gender. It is not uncommon that they do, but it’s not always the case (Nice to meet you, English!). You don’t need tables upon tables of declensions and conjugations, and a fair share of the world’s languages doesn’t even make use of the concept of gender or noun classes. For a first step, it may be reasonable to not go wild immediately (from a Eurocentric point of view), but at least it should have been said more explicitly that not all the world’s languages work like classical Indo-European ones with maybe some feature erosion for modern descendants. I also missed a reminder that languages tend to leave holes in paradigms and that syncretism is most definitely a thing (for example, the difficult thing about German definite articles is that six word forms cover sixteen paradigm slots, not that articles decline as such).

A thing that conlangers go into much too rarely is writing systems like Chinese, and while Peterson touches on that topic, a little more in-depth explanation about phonetic parts and semantic parts of Chinese characters in the fashion of Mark Rosenfelder’s page on ‘Yingzi’ would have been helpful, especially in comparison to the attention given to other kinds of writing systems. Korean presents the very interesting case of a featural alphabet made to mimic Chinese characters, but has unfortunately been omitted completely.

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So, what is the takeaway of my ramblings? For one, you get a whole lot of bang for the buck. Peterson’s book is chock-full of information and a good way to get you going if you’re interested in creating your own language. For everyone else, it’s a nice round trip through the engine room of language, though for this purpose it’s maybe a little too technical at times. As a seasoned conlanger, I was more interested in the anecdotes behind Peterson’s work than the actual explanations and definitions of linguistic concepts, though, and would have liked more information in this regard, for example about George R. R. Martin’s reactions to Peterson’s work and the slight changes Peterson made to details in Martin’s work. The book could use some more clarity in places and more suggestions on literature, but should overall be a good toolbox that nicely complements similar works, such as Mark Rosenfelder’s Language Construction Kit, which is also recommended reading for fledgling conlangers.

  • Peterson, David J. The Art of Langauge Invention. From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building. New York: Penguin Books, 2015. Print.