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July 13, 2010

Now this is the part where it is explained why “doing things in sixes” was part of the plan, as stated in the introduction. While it’s the most common, and has largely become standard in the modern world, not every language uses a decimal (base-10) system for counting. There are or have been languages which use(d) base 4,5,6,8,12,15,20, or 27 instead, and possibly others. If you count “double-radix” number systems (for example, later in their history the Sumerians used a counting system which alternated in base 6 and 10, for a pseudo-base 60)  then there are even more. By accident and for reasons which had nothing to do with this project, I found some benefit in counting in base 6. (If you use the fingers of one hand as the digits 0-5, and the other hand for another digit in the “6’s” place, you can count to 35 instead of 10… that’s the simple version. I also came up with a way which allows you to easily count up to 46655 on your fingers. In yo’ face, decimal system!) With some experimentation, I also found some reasons to favor using base 6 in math over base 10. So I figured, as long as I’m doing an exotic language, I might as well make use of this. I should also give the hypothetical speakers of this language, at least on an unconscious level, as many reasons as possible to think of six as being some kind of universal basis for everything. Of course it’s possible that most of my “coincidental” (read: deliberate) insertions of 6 wouldn’t really affect people in that way. But even so, it gives some structure to work with if nothing else.

(Also, I worked out that Pi to the first 12 decimal places is 3.050330051415 in base 6. Because I’m insane. I also figured the 13th digit just to make sure the 12th doesn’t round up. It’s 1, so no.)

Now it wasn’t until later that I realized, hey, if I’m going to be doing the letters in groups of sixes, then it’s possible to generate random words using charts and a six-sided die…! That would certainly be away of avoiding my usual word-making tendencies. Of course, I reserve the right to throw out any random constructions which don’t seem to work well or are already being used as another word. Also, the system of charts I designed ended up being fairly complicated, partly to make the phonetics use “unbalanced” (not every sound is used equally often in a language). So for the names of the numbers, I decided to randomly match each of the numbers from 1-6 with each of the vowels and each of the stops in V-C order, then use the full charts to completely randomly generate a word for zer0. This should make these words as distinctive from each other as possible. It ended up with:

  • One  –  en
  • Two  –  om
  • Three  –  ing
  • Four  –  ab
  • Five  –  ug
  • Six  –  yd
  • Zero  –  ijahed

Possibly amusing side note: I had to throw out the very first randomly generated word for zero because it came up as “ab” – which is already being used as four!  Yeah, that’s not gonna work. Anyway, if we use a fairly simple way of stating larger numbers, one can count higher using these:

  • twelve  –  om yd
  • eighteen  –  ing yd
  • twenty-four  –  ab yd
  • thirty  –  ug yd

There’s some question whether “yd” should be pluralized in some manner, and /or if there should be some kind of equivalent of “and” or “with” or suchlike between the sixes and the ones. An example of both at once would be the decimal number 26 (42 in base 6) being spoken as “four sixes and two”. That’s something to deal with later, I guess.


Phonetics, Part 2

July 11, 2010

Step 7: Vowels

On the other hand, having  6 vowels is quite reasonable. On this, I decided to take the really lazy way which makes things easy to type, which is probably fine because I haven’t used this particular set of vowels in any of my other experiments:

  • a  –  /a/  (“ah”)
  • e  –  /e/ or /ɛ/  (“eh”)
  • i  –  /i/  (“ee”)
  • o  –  /o/ or /ɔ/ (“oh”)
  • u  –  /u/  (“oo”)
  • y  –  /y/  (“ee” except with lips rounded, like “oh” or “oo”)

When working things in my head or on paper, one doesn’t need to worry about typing issues. While I could have just spelled some vowels with two-letter combinations, I don’t yet know if Eljan will be using dipthongs (two-sound “blends”, usually 2 vowels, as opposed to a single sound which is sort of partway between things) and don’t want to limit my options at this point. Or I could have used otherwise unused consonant letters, but spelling things something like “xljcn” looks rather strange. (Accent and/or diacritic marks don’t count. I’m using an American keyboard, so that would be no easier to type than phonetics symbols.)

Step 8: Syllable Structure

Long story short, I eventually decided on this pattern for most of the words:

[C1]-V-[C3]  or  [C1]-V-C2-V-[C3]  or  [C1]-V-C2-V-C2-V-[C3]  or  [C1]-V-C2-V-C2-V-C2-V-[C3]

  • Where V is any vowel (also any dipthong if it ends up using those),
  • C1 is any consonant but is more often a stop, but is quite often not present (hence the brackets)
  • C2 is a consonant which is not a plosive stop, and quite often not a nasal stop either. If it’s not a nasal stop (that is, one of the non-nasal sonorants) then it usually flows from one syllable to the next, without clearly being the beginning or end of either. If it is a nasal stop, then it ends a syllable.
  • C3 is a stop consonant, either kind. It’s not always present either but more commonly so than C1.

This kind of pattern, combined with all the consonants being voiced by default, might end up sounding rather sing-songy most of the time. Well, why not?

Step 9: Tonal or Atonal

Hey, do you know what would make it even more of a sing-songy language? Make it a tonal one! Plus that’s more exotic too. That would be absolutely perfect for…


No, wait, I can’t distinguish tones. Like, at all. People tell me I normally talk like a robot with a slightly odd accent. I might be able to figure out a half-decent way to design a tonal language anyway, but then after the next few posts I’d probably have to go on a 3 or 4 month hiatus to figure things out. So atonal it is by default.

Phonetics, part 1

July 9, 2010

There’s more grammar issues, but they’re still work in progress. Besides, even if they were nominally finished, I’m not posting things out of sequence even if there’s considerable delay between the finished parts and the actual posting of them.

I’m basing things around the number 6, but 6 is probably too few consonants to work with. So instead I’m going with 2 sets of very restricted categories of consonants, and 6 of each per category. My first few attempts to work out some possibilities ended up with things that tended to result in words that sounded like crap or were too hard for me to pronounce personally. Eventually I ended up with:

Step 5: Stops

One of the two sets is 6 “Stop” consonants. This is further evenly subdivided into 3 voiced plosives and 3 nasal stops. The plosives are /b/, /d/, and /g/. These are pronounced like one would expect. Their unvoiced counterparts (/p/, /t/, and /k/, respectively) are allophones in Eljan, meaning that they’re treated as the same sound for the purpose of word comprehension (so, for example, saying “tet” will be understood as “ded”, assuming such a word existed). Either is fine, it’s just that the voiced versions are the preferred usage when both are equally easy to pronounce. Which is probably most of the time.

The nasal stops are /n/, /m/, and /ŋ/. The first two are also pronounced like one would expect. The last one is sort of a hybrid of /n/ and /g/, like the end of the word sing. For convenience, this will be simply written as “ng” like most languages which use the latin alphabet do.

Step 6: Non-Nasal Sonorants

Here’s where things get a bit exotic (well, exotic from the perspective of a typical English speaker, anyway). The other set of consonants consist of /l/, /j/, /w/, /ɦ/, /ʎ/, and /ɥ/. So…

/l/ and /w/ are, again, expected sounds given the letters.
/j/ is actually equivalent to the english y, like in yes. (/y/ represents a vowel sound in phonetic notation.)
/ɦ/ is the voiced counterpart of /h/, which are nearly as different from each other as /t/ and /d/. Both /ɦ/ and /h/ are also allophones in Eljan, and again the voiced version is preferred. This sound will be spelled “h” for convenience.
/ʎ/ is pronouned like /l/, except the tongue is further back when it touches the roof of the mouth, at about the position where it would be if one were saying /j/ instead (except the tongue doesn’t actually reach up that high when one says /j/.) It can sort of be considered a hybrid of /l/ and /j/ but closer to /l/. Again for typing convenience, this sound will be spelled “lj”.
/ɥ/ is exactly like /j/ except you also simultaneously move your lips like you were trying to say /p/, /b/, or /w/. Apparently a possible alternate way of writing this sound in phonetic notation is /jʷ/, so “jw” will be the spelling convention.

There you have it, the 12-consonant inventory: b, d, g, h, j, jw, l, lj, m, n, ng, w. Which apparently uses only 9 letters. Huɦ.

Creating the Grammar, part 2

July 8, 2010

Corrections were made to part 1; there might still be errors in it, and I might still make similar mistakes later on. Apparently having experience in learning languages without having a background in linguistics does not impart the knowledge of how to properly use linguistics jargon.

Step 3: Morphological Typology

This is probably best described as a sliding scale rather than a set of categories, which looks like this:

Isolating  <->  Synthetic  <->  Polysynthetic

Assuming I’m not screwing up the terms again, an Isolating language is one which uses few to no affixes (“affix” collectively refers to prefixes, suffixes, or any of a number of other less common types of “fixes” like interfixes or circumfixes) and only a small number of compound words. A commonly given example of an Isolating language is “Chinese” (not that there’s only one “Chinese” language). A polysynthetic language uses both to a considerable degree, to the point where an entire sentence may consist of a single word with a number of affixes glommed on. A commonly given example of this is Inuit (AKA Eskimo). Synthetic is in between – the usual example for this is German. English apparently falls between Chinese and German on this scale.

Since my previous experiments appear to mostly be approximately German-level Synthetic, and I don’t personally know very many languages at the extreme ends, it’s going to be either highly isolating or highly polysynthetic. Polysynthetic languages appear to be complex (to me, anyway, not much experience with them) and the watchword is “simple”, so Isolating it is.

There’s another aspect of morphological typology: Agglutinative <-> Fusional, but this often isn’t a very significant distinction for Isolating languages, so we won’t bother with it yet.

Step 4: Adposition position

English speakers usually use the term “preposition” when they are referring to what linguistics jargon calls “adpositions” (prepositions are a specific type of adposition). In the sentence “I go to work”, “to” is an adposition. Unfortunately, my recent crash course in linguistics terms has left me confused on how to properly use the terms associated with this subject, so I won’t bother. (Note to technical writers: stop being obtuse! Kthksbai.)  After messing around with everything I have so far in my head, it seems like the most logical basic structure for for an ergative isolating VOS language should be this:

Verb – Adposition – Object – Marking Article – Subject

…But it’s hard to say for sure, since I don’t know any ergative isolating VOS languages. So, the sentence “I go to work” in that structure would come out as “Go to work the I”. (Where “the” is an ad-libbed placeholder for something which has no direct English equivalent.)

Creating the Grammar, part 1

July 7, 2010

Step 1: Preferred Word Order

This refers to the most common order of subject, object, and verb that a language uses. For example, in English, the preferred word order is SVO (subject-verb-object). This doesn’t mean that speakers of a particular language always do things that way, or that there aren’t situations where it is acceptable or even expected to use a different order, just that this is the “proper” order under most circumstances. Some languages have two or three preferred orders (in which case the order being used has an effect on focus, nuance, or meaning). Those with complex but flexible grammar occasionally have no preferred order. But to keep things simple, we’ll use just one.

SVO and SOV I rejected immediately. These are by far the most common, and I’m going for “exotic”. VSO is third most common. But it’s not really that rare, either, so it’s out too. OVS is the rarest. But languages which use only OVS as a preferred word order, while they do exist, are almost unheard of. I’m going for “exotic”, not “alien”, so… That just leaves OSV and VOS. Since my previous experiments mostly used either SVO or OSV, and I’m trying to do something rather different than usual… by process of elimination it’s going to be Verb-Object-Subject.

Step 2: Morphosyntactic Alignment:

This is somewhat related to word order; the shortest way I can think of to explain it would be that this is how a language “marks” which part of the sentence is what. English lacks a morphosyntactic alignment [previous statement is probably incorrect], which is kind of unusual, and is the simplest possible way of doing things – but since all of my previous experiments didn’t bother with it, “none” is not an option here.

According to the online resources I read, the options are: Accusative, Ergative, Split Ergative, Phillipine, Active-Stative, or Tripartite. I’m not explaining them all here, as it would take far too much space. Let’s just say that the only one which seems to fit both my “simple” and “exotic” criteria is Ergative. Basically, it means that the only thing which gets “marked” (with an article or affix, for example) is the subject of a transitive verb. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry about it yet.

However, after abstractly messing around with the concept in my head for awhile, I think I figured out why a pure ergative alignment, as opposed to the more complex split-ergative, is fairly rare – sometimes it doesn’t play nice with ditransitive ambitransitive* verbs (that is, verbs which can be either transitive or intransitive) unless the word order is SVO or OVS. Since I’m using neither of those… avoid creating ditransitive ambitransitive* verbs if possible? I’ll just leave it at this for now and revisit the issue later if it becomes a problem.

*The term “Ditransitive” was originally used in error, should be “ambitransitive”, is now corrected

Startup time

July 7, 2010

Over the years I have done a number of language-creation experiments, mostly in my head. When I originally started out, this was for the purpose of creating a “global language”. I was not aware of Esperanto or its descendants at the time. Later, after learning of them, I rejected them as being “too eurocentric”. Even later, with the invention and proliferation of the internet, I figured one would develop on its own, in time. Instead I turned more towards the idea of encouraging the diversity of human thought by creating new languages and preserving old ones. The two goals are not mutually exclusive; my ideal in this regard is that most people would know three languages: A native “micro-language” of which many thousands exist, a global “lingua franca” of which only a few (or just one) exist, and any one other.

I’ve noticed that every time I study a new language or try a new language-creation experiment, a little bit of it “sticks” permanently, and I am slowly and unconsciously developing a “perfect” language in my head. Well, perfect for me, I don’t know about anyone else. But this blog is not about that language (which I am currently calling “Niyo’a kwaj”). Rather, what I will be doing here is starting from scratch on yet another new experiment and posting the results in public. “Eljan” has not been created yet. I have only a vague idea at this point what it will be like. Each post will be a few steps behind where I actually am in regards to developing it, to minimize “emergency backtracking”. (As in, Oops I just noticed that this does not work very well because blah blah blah, so disregard the last post, etc.) The name “eljan” is a corruption of “elang” which is short for “Experimental LANGuage” – kind of lazy, I know, but it really seems like I should call it something if it’s going to be displayed in public, and I have virtually nothing which to base the name on yet. It’s always possible it will be named something else later.

So, to start it off, the basic concepts which I am using to create this language are:

  • Create it methodically rather than haphazardly like I usually do it.
  • Deliberately go outside my normal tendencies when it seems reasonable.
  • The watchwords will be “simple” and “exotic”. By exotic I will generally (but not always) mean something which isn’t common for real-world languages, but not unheard of either. Both terms are subjective however, and I will use them however I see fit.
  • At least at first, the assumption will be that any theoretical speakers are from an isolated stone-age tribe.
  • Any elements to the language which can be numbered will be based around the number 6, when possible. (I have reasons for this which will be explained later.)