The lip of Tulan and 5 other November language facts

Happy #Lexember everybody! (For you lost SEO pulls, that’s a December event where conlangers create one word each day. It’s fun, go for it!) Here are five language facts for inspiration this month:

5. You might (or might not!) know that many prepositions start out related to body parts. (Consider back, behind, and fore-head.) Many of these are listed in the fantastic 2002 World Lexicon of Grammaticalization by Bernd Heine and Tania Kuteva. What’s especially interesting here to me is how you can see how different body parts are more top of mind or central in different languages; otherwise we’d expect to see, like, “back” is always a back, “behind” is always a butt. But instead we get these awesome relationships:

  • lip > locative. Colonial Quiché gives the example in the text, where the literal translation of ‘They came from Tulan’ is approximately ‘They came (of) Tulan’s lip’.
  • According to the Oxford Handbook of Case, the Bengali dative case morpheme comes from the word for ‘hiding place’ or ‘armpit’. I mean, really, the armpit is a pretty evocative part of the body; it kind of sucks that it’s so funny to Westerners. Something could definitely be “soft as an armpit”, but I’m never going to write that metaphor because, armpits.
  • shoulder > up in multiple languages in Africa and Oceania.
  • breast > front. I’m having a really hard time telling from the text if they mean a boob or “the chest”, but they do distinguish chests from breasts, so if they don’t mean boobs, I don’t know what they mean. This is interesting because it’s a (comparatively rare?) example of grammar that has a “default” female body. Feminism!

4. The vocative is a common case. But when you think about it it, isn’t it completely bizarre? It’s the only common case that has a pragmatic function rather than a semantic or syntactic one. I mean, it would be like if we had a case for whispering, wouldn’t it? Language is weird.

I was especially interested to learn that there are languages where there’s a vocative for a person in sight and a different one for a person out of sight, and that they tend to have weird suprasegmental morphologies even in languages where that’s unusual, like being distinguished only by vowel length or stress pattern. (This, also, from the Oxford Handbook of Case. …Look, I just found out the whole series existed.)

3. Something like 80% of languages have a morpheme that changes verbs to agent nouns (like -er in farm-er.) But, according to work done in Word Formation in the World’s Languages, only something like 60% have a morpheme that changes verbs to patient nouns (like -ee in testee). Other cross-linguistically common noun-creating morphemes are “thing for X-ing” and “place of X”.

2. Here’s one from my own extensive human research (aka eavesdropping): hearing somebody say I couldn’t used to be able to do it blew my mind and made me start deconstructing the English potential can/could, which is an amazing example for us conlangers of how polysemy (multiple meanings) and splitting the paradigm among forms can be useful. Think about what this English paradigm looks like:

  • Positive present potential: I can do it.
  • Positive past potential: I could do it.
  • Negative present potential: I can’t do it.
  • Negative past potential: I couldn’t do it.
  • Now here’s the twist. Positive perfect? past potential: I used to be able to do it  (but can’t anymore.)
  • Negative perfect past potential….what is it? Do you have this in your speech? I have some slightly non-standard options: I didn’t used to be able to do it (but now I can), and this speaker’s I couldn’t used to be able to do it. Maybe some people with what’s called “positive anymore” (use of the word anymore in a positive statement to mean “from that point until the present”, I believe) could say I used to be able to do it anymore? My grasp on positive anymore is a bit tenuous. Does anyone have anything else or is this a hole in our English paradigm?

A newer conlanger would probably make each of these its own morpheme, but you can see how English a) appears to use a completely different modal verb as the past tense of can and b) has one option for which there’s a positive but no negative, which itself is formed with a different modal verb (use) and a different form of can (“be able to”). Woof. It’s a lot to handle, but this is the kind of thing natural languages do and it gives so much texture and crunch to a conlang. (Plus makes you look real smart.)

1. There are like, multiple languages where determiners get conjugated for tense. Example from the Oxford Handbook of Tense/Aspect–Chamicuro has na for ‘the’ if the sentence is in the present and ka for ‘the’ if the sentence is in the past. This seems like such a diachronic wormhole.