In my research binges, I still run into stuff that people do with language that I would never have guessed. But…often I forget they exist if I don’t write them down. So here were my top five “What the heck, language?” moments this month:
5. Legge romanization. Let he who is without sin, etc.–I have personally used <r> to represent /x/. If you don’t yet have the transcription experience to cringe here, just trust me that it’s an iffy choice motivated only by my own arbitrary aesthetic preferences. I’m not trying to make a functional romanization that somebody’s actually going to use!
And I guess in that spirit I shouldn’t judge James Legge too bad for his attempt to romanize Mandarin, because he certainly wasn’t trying to make a functional romanization that somebody would actually use. (Cue shock jock #owned airhorn please?)
Legge has a distinction between K and K. No, I mean literally italicized K. It’s a different sound. Also a Z that’s just Z again but in a blackletter font.
Listen, my conlang motto has always been that you should do whatever appeals to you and nothing is objectively bad. But…you shouldn’t do that.
4. The expression to the bitter endcomes from rope vocabulary. The bitter end is the end of the anchor rope that you tie to….the bitts, which is the the ship accessory that exists purely to tie an anchor rope to. Somehow this all feels so cosmic and fractal.
3.Interrogative verbs. Rather than subbing in a WH-word or adding a question particle, in some languages you can switch in a verb that contains interrogative-ness.
So if you want to make “You do X” into a question–“What do you do?”–you might use a verb that literally means “do what?” Other meanings interrogative verbs sometimes cover are “happen what?” “say what?” The examples of this grammar are in the paper at the link, from several North American and Central American languages and language families (Chickasaw, Tongva, Cupan).
2. Some languages, like Kannada (India), distinguish between people known to the speaker and people not known to the speaker in their indefinite pronouns. One version of “somebody” for people you recognize; one version for people you don’t recognize.
1. This one’s a bit unfair because it’s an exonym. But I do just need to get it off my chest that there’s a language spoken in Vanuatu that linguists still call Port Sandwich.
As you translate, you’re often going to come across phenomena that nobody’s ever mentioned to you a word for. It can be hard to know where to even start. If you try to chunk that last sentence for translation you might run into “can be hard to know” and realize…is can an adverb here or what? Why are there so many verbs? How am I supposed to know how my inspiration language handles a phrase like that without even knowing what I’m looking at?
I got nostalgic about the words I was so puzzled over when I started creating languages, so here’s my best attempt to define some of them for curious newbies.
auxiliary verb: First, what you really came here for: the reason there are so many verbs.
One strategy languages use to introduce new meanings is to chain or combo verbs up together. In the very long term, this is the first step in the arduous journey of making new verbal grammar like the -ed in “walked.” In the short term, it just looks like verbs getting stacked together.
All the verbs that don’t constitute the main meaning of the sentence, but just modify it, are auxiliaries. In “can be hard,” can is the auxiliary verb to be. Auxiliary verbs in English include should, would, could, can, will, must, shall…
complementizer: In the sentence “I hear that Lee loves ducks,” that is a complementizer.
Complex sentences can be very confusing for beginner conlangers because our mainstream schooling in English doesn’t typically get into this level of syntax. A complementizer makes an entire sentence act like an object (or another part of the sentence.) Consider “I believe that Lee has a duck.” “I know that Lee watches Game of Thrones”.
In English, “that” and “how” are possible complementizers, so if you see those, perk up your ears.
gerund: In the sentence “I love grooming my duck,” this use of the -ing suffix makes the verb groom into a noun, so it can be the object of love. Verbs made into nouns by the -ing suffix are called gerunds in English.
As you’ll see below, the other strategy is to make groom a special verb form, “to groom.” We consider that one still a verb because complex linguistics reasons (I think, I actually did no research to confirm.) This one is definitely a noun.
Which is weird because you can say “I love slowly grooming my duck.” …You know what, let’s not talk about gerunds anymore, I’m getting nervous. I think I almost took an advanced syntax undergrad class on this and then dropped out. Damn it.
infinitive: In sentences like, “I know to groom my duck,” the verb groom is in a special form called the infinitive. It’s called that because it has no tense or aspect. It just…is.
Verbs with no specified tense or aspect are used for different purposes in different languages and has different formats. But in English, the place where you’ll probably be most confused is in sentences like the one above, where the infinitive signals that the verb phrase that it starts is acting as the object of another verb. Verbs within verbs.
indirect object/oblique: In the sentence “I gave that duck to Lee,” duck is the direct object and Lee is the indirect object or oblique.
“Recipients” are the only type of oblique–you wouldn’t say that in “I dunked the duck in the lake,” in the lake was an oblique. We like having a specific word to talk about recipients because, across languages, they tend to be treated with special grammar for whatever reason. For more try looking up the dative case.
intransitive/transitive/ditransitive: An intransitive verb has no object. An archetypical intransitive verb is something like “Lee sobs.” (Poor Lee!)
That can’t take an object at all–you can’t say “Lee sobs the duck.” What would that even mean? Meanwhile, a transitive verb can have an object, like in “Lee helps the duck.”
I was constantly confused about intransitive/transitive until I learned about ditransitivity, because it makes a good mnemonic–imagine that “trans” as a term for the object of a sentence and you can see that “intrans” has no trans, “trans” has one trans and “ditrans” has two transes! They’re verbs like “I give Lee the duck” that allow two “places” to be filled by two types of objects.
relative clause: This is the whole clause “The person that loves dogs“. The particle connecting “the person” and “love dogs” is called a relative pronoun. It takes a whole sentence and relates it to a noun. In English, “that,” “which”, and “who” are some possible relative pronouns, so if you see them, be on the lookout.