Interview with Sylvia Sotomayor

February 19th, 2009 by David Peterson
 
Sai interviews Sylvia Sotomayor about the history and grammar of her language, Kēlen, as well as her reasons for conlanging. Kēlen is most well known for not having verbs – at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, it has “relationals”, a sort of closed class of copulas.

Sylvia Sotomayor has been conlanging since she was 14. She has a B.A. in Linguistics from UC Berkeley. A Kēlen grammar, dictionary, and some texts can be found at http://www.terjemar.net/kelen.php. Notes on the planet Terjemar can be found there, too. She currently lives in Claremont, California, with too many cats and not enough computers.


Sylvia is one of my favorite conlanging people,
if that makes sense (for those familiar with the linguistic concept of iconicity as espoused by John Haiman, I’m not using the term “conlanger” here for a specific reason: to emphasize Sylvia’s person-hood). I was glad to have met her at LCC1, ecstatic to see her again at LCC2, and am looking forward to seeing her once again at LCC3.

The nice thing about talking with Sylvia—or listening to this interview, for example—is that there’s so much that’s immediately recognizable. To an extent, this is true about all conlangers, but I in particular find that in many ways, Sylvia and I are on the same wavelength. For example, about John Quijada’s fantastic talk at LCC1, she says (starting at around 25:04):

“John Quijada’s talk was…was like, ‘Oh, that’s right, I know all this stuff; I’m supposed to take all this into consideration’, but do I? No. Of course not… (Laughter.)

“I try to, and I will probably consciously try to a little more now, for…for a while at least, until I forget again.”


Ain’t that the truth!
In conlanging—especially in the naturalist school—there are so many variables to keep track of, and, if you’re like me, which of those variables you devote the most attention to seem to be directly related to what you’re most interested in at the time. Then you’re reminded of the fact that, for example, metaphor is everywhere, and if you’re not careful, you’ll unconsciously copy the structural metaphors of your own language, or those you know well. It’s definitely something to keep in mind, but there’s just so much going on all the time…

Another fascinating correspondence is something that I think is generally true of a number of conlangers. In response to Sai’s question about whether or not she’s fluent in Kēlen, Sylvia says (at around 10:03):

“I have basically the structure memorized. … But the vocabulary not so much. So, you know, I can like figure out, okay, this noun would go here, and that noun would go there, and I may not know exactly what they are, but I know all the little things in between.”

Now, granted, there are a few exceptional conlangers who are fairly fluent in one or more of their languages (Sally Caves?), but most of us—myself included—experience exactly what Sylvia describes. For each of my languages, for example, I have a few nouns and verbs I can reliably reproduce, but for the most part, it’s all structure. I know the structures of my languages even better than I know the orthographies—and I love my orthographies!


What makes this most interesting is its relationship to language-learning, in general.
In one of my previous lives as a graduate student of linguistics, I served for three years as a teaching assistant for an undergraduate class on first and second language acquisition. Granted, there are a number of competing theories about everything, undergraduates don’t get the full story on anything, and it seems like there’s an asterisk at the end of every fact and/or universal, but when it comes to acquisition, there is a generally agreed-upon tendency amongst ordinary language learners:

  1. Children are great at learning rules/structures; they’re not as great at learning vocabulary items.
  2. Adults are great at learning vocabulary items; they’re not as great at learning rules/structures.

Perhaps you’ve seen something like this if you’ve attempted to learn a new language late in life. I, for example, can probably rattle off a hundred words and more in Arabic, Russian and even Middle Egyptian, but ask me to produce a grammatically correct conjunctive in German, and I’m sunk.

If this is true (let’s say it is, for the sake of argument), what can we say about language creators and their languages? We should be able to rattle off hundreds of words in our languages—that’s supposed to be the easy part! And yet, in Kamakawi, for example, I can sooner produce a relative clause that requires the embedded verb to be both passive and applicative than fill out what the nouns and verbs are in that same sentence (I usually end up with the same words in every sentence: “woman”, “fish” and “hug”).


There are a couple of things that can be said about this.
First, is there some sort of inherent difference between learning natural language structures and learning invented language structures? If there’s something we do that better allows us to learn the structures of our invented languages, can we isolate it, and apply it to natural language learning? And honestly, what’s the deal with conlang vocabulary? Adults are supposed to be able to learn about twenty new words a day! Perhaps we should start working with flashcards… Couldn’t hurt, I suppose.

Audio edited by Virgo Audio Production Services and Sai Emrys; music by Gary Shannon.

LCC2 – Lila Sadkin – Tenata: Dissolving Lexical Categories

February 18th, 2009 by David Peterson
High Quality Video (.mpg)Program (.pdf)Tenata Relay text

Lila Sadkin discusses the grammatical structure of her conlang, Tenata, in terms of how a speaker of Tenata divides her language into parts of speech. Tenata does not end up having the categories of noun, verb, adjective, adverb in the same way most languages one usually comes across use them, and instead has “semantic roots,” “nominal inflection,” “verbal inflection”, and “discourse particles.” These are the four parts of speech to a Tenata speaker, and each one is present in (almost) every Tenata sentence.

Lila Sadkin received her BA in Linguistics from the University of Florida in May 2007. She has been interested in language all her life and her study of linguistics has vastly improved the quality of her conlanging. Tenata is her first “real” conlang, drawing inspiration from Native American languages and Chinese, and she has plans for many more in the works, all of which exist on her con-continent. She also enjoys science fiction, cooking, computery things, photography, and has pursued other artistic endeavors with varying degrees of sucess. She is indebted to Dr. Hardman at the University of Florida for her inspiration to head along the path of linguistics in science fiction.


Most would agree that it’s a rare thing for a linguist to even recognize the existence of conlanging.
And if that’s rare, it’s a miracle to find one sympathetic enough to allow one to do an undergraduate thesis that, essentially, is a conlang. In fact, I had never heard about it in my entire life until I met Lila Sadkin at LCC2. That is, essentially, what Lila’s Tenata was: an undergraduate thesis. In linguistics.

Wild, huh?

Tenata itself is an interesting experiment. Most human languages are pretty stuck with, at the very least, nouns and adjectives. Every so often you come across a language like Hawaiian that has a lot of words that can appear in a ton of different lexical categories (a given word can be a noun, adjective, adverb, verb and preposition), but the lexical categories themselves remain (for example, in Hawaiian, there is fairly definite word order, and tense particles are only associated with verbs, articles with nouns, etc.). If one wants to find a language with either no lexical categories, or vastly different ones from those one finds in the real world, one is forced to turn to conlangs, where the creator is allowed more elbow room, so to speak, than the mandates of a natural language allow.

[Note: Around the four minute mark, someone near the camera (or near a microphone of some kind) starts doing…something. Eating a candybar? Crumpling up a piece of paper? What’s going on there?!]

This video is part of the 2nd Language Creation Conference, held at UC Berkeley on July 7-8, 2007, and hosted by Language Creation Society.

We would like to add closed captioning / subtitles to all the videos from LCC2, including this one. If you are willing to help, install Subtitle Workshop, and email your transcribed .sub file to lcs@conlang.org. In return, you’ll get credit and a free copy of the DVD with this video.

Interview with Thomas Payne

February 17th, 2009 by David Peterson
 
Professor Thomas E. Payne is a research associate at the University of Oregon, international linguistics consultant for SIL International, and author of several books, including Describing Morphosyntax, Exploring Language Structure, The Twins Studies, and Perspectives on Grammar Writing.

We discuss Dr. Payne’s work with SIL International in its efforts to preserve endangered languages, conlangers’ use of Describing Morphosyntax, phonosemantics, what constitutes a language, and more.


I found this post rather inspiring, for personal reasons.
For conlangers, there are several important things to remember and consider here. For example, there is such a thing as phrasal meaning (i.e. areas of languages where the meaning is not the sum of its parts). This can be with something as small as a compound, or as large as an expression. It’s not easy to replicate, but it’s worthwhile to pursue, if your aim is a naturalistic conlang.

Another thing to think about are the phonosemantics of a language. If a conlanger doesn’t pay specific attention to the non-morphological relationships between words, there’s a good chance something from one’s L1 will creep in. For those not listening right now, what I mean is the phenomenon that has, for example, resulted in the following English words: glossy, glass, gleam, glow, glisten…

Thomas Payne’s Describing Morphosyntax has done a lot for conlanging, and this post kind of adds to his legacy as…what to call him? The unwitting honorary conlang linguistic consultant? Whatever it is, there’s something to be got from Thomas Payne’s work—something that we’re able to use profitably. That’s a really nice thing.

(P.S.: “Snerdy” sounds plenty negative to me!)

Edited by Sai Emrys and Arnt Richard Johansen; music by Gary Shannon, and Dr. Thomas Payne leading the Northwest Sacred Harp Singers.

LCC2 – Donald Boozer – Dritok: The Sound of No Voice Speaking

February 12th, 2009 by David Peterson
High Quality Video (.mpg)Talk Slides (.ppt)Program (.pdf) – Dritok website and primer (.pdf)

The Drushek speak a language devoid of voicing and employ a gestural component to denote semantic functions and some morphemes. How does one transcribe the hisses, clicks, fricatives, and silent gestures of such a language?

Don Boozer lives in Ohio and is currently the head of the Cleveland Public Library’s Know-It-Now.org, a 24/7 live reference service for students. He has increased the library’s holdings of relevant books in the field of conlanging by purchasing copies of the Klingon translations of Gilgamesh and Shakespeare, Elgin’s dictionary and grammar of Láadan, and Salo’s A Gateway to Sindarin, among others. He has also presented programs on conlangs in literature and films and the basics of language creation, as well as published articles on conlangs including an upcoming one on introducing conlanging to teens. His on-going projects include working on languages for inhabitants of his conworld, Kryslan, which include Umod, Elasin, and Dritok and learning Ancient Egyptian as part of an online study group.


It’s rare that one comes across something wildly different traveling around the online conlanging world.
It’s even rarer to find something wildly different that the conlanger in question can demonstrate live.

Donald Boozer’s presentation on Dritok at LCC2 was an event. If you take a look at the language of the Drushek—specifically, the phonology—it looks like a bunch of gobbledygook. It’s a mess! Look at the way Database Wilson (that’s a nickname for Don I just came up with) transcribes the first line of “The North Wind and the Sun”:

V2&=sx:w.q’t. s’.s’ pr.np’. D5^Q5=V2&=zn.t’.z* P4&^D1>>tf.p*.o.

What is all that noise?!

Well, it turns out it’s Don’s transcription system for Dritok: An entirely voiceless conlang.

“That’s a nice story,” I thought to myself, “but I need to see it to believe it.”

At LCC2 I saw it, and now I’m a believer.

While watching a video is never the same as watching something live, this video is not to be missed. You get to hear Don pronounce a lot of Dritok, and pretty soon you kind of get a feel for it. This also was one of the better question and answer sessions (you even get to hear my disembodied voice towards the end [and you can hear Sai’s gigantic laughter throughout (there’s no better word for it than “gigantic”)]). All in all, it was one of the better presentations I’ve seen at an LCC.

This video is part of the 2nd Language Creation Conference, held at UC Berkeley on July 7-8, 2007, and hosted by Language Creation Society.

We would like to add closed captioning / subtitles to all the videos from LCC2, including this one. If you are willing to help, install Subtitle Workshop, and email your transcribed .sub file to lcs@conlang.org. In return, you’ll get credit and a free copy of the DVD with this video.

Introduction to the LCS Podcast

February 11th, 2009 by David Peterson
 
In this inaugural edition of the Language Creation Society Podcast, Sai Emrys and David Peterson explain what conlangs are, why someone would want to do such a strange thing as create their own language, what the Language Creation Society is all about, and the future of this podcast.


Ahh, creaky voice…

For those unfamiliar with linguistic terminology, creaky voice is the term for what my voice sounds like. My old phonetics professor at UCSD asked me once, quite honestly, if it hurt to talk the way I do. I haven’t the slightest idea how I do what I do, or why. It seems natural. That’s how I got the nickname “Creaks” at Berkeley.

I think the importance of goals in language creation can’t be overstated. If there is no stated goal (or, perhaps, no obvious goal) that a given conlang is trying to achieve, how is one to evaluate or interpret it? The answer is, one evaluates it based on whatever goals one creates, or attributes to the language, even if this is done implicitly.

Now, if it comes to that, I’d say there’s something wrong with the presentation. Who knows what associations the viewer has built up in their mind? Here’s a nonce example from a made-up conlang:

Yo te amo.

Without a gloss, someone will look at that and think it’s another romlang (and not a very good one, if it’s so close to Spanish). Of course, if you gloss it…

/1sg.Sbj.”to be” DEF. walrus-NOM./
“I am the walrus”

…things change quite a bit.

Sometimes the unstated goal, as Sai mentions in this episode of the podcast, is just to create “what sounds good” or “what feels right”. For outsiders, this is important to know when looking at a language. When evaluating one of these languages, how natural, how original or how logical a language is simply doesn’t matter. For these truly personal projects, what’s interesting is to then try to analyze what it is that the creator finds pleasing and/or appropriate. Chances are an unreflective language creator may be mimicking the patterns of whatever languages they’ve come into contact with, but sometimes what makes sense to one is senseless to another. That in itself can be interesting.


To reiterate a point made in the podcast,
this blog is what we all make of it. The thing itself is strong kind of an experiment, and we’re interested in experimenting further. If you have ideas for the blog, or come across something interesting on the wilds of the internet, let us know. Anything that is of potential interest is interesting to me. 🙂

Edited by Virgo Audio Production Services; music by Gary Shannon, and Scotto Hlad.

Welcome to the Language Creation Society blog/podcast

February 10th, 2009 by Sai

We’re moving from a plain ol’ RSS feed for the podcast to a wordpress.org blog, right here.

Podcast subscriptions should be unchanged by this (though may be affected by the FeedBurner merger w/ Google).

It’s brand-new now of course, but soon we hope to have some regular text entries to go with the podcasts.

Anyway: we’re looking for contributors, both for the podcast and the blog. If you’re interested in writing or speaking (or singing!) for the conlang audience, please let us know. (David Peterson will be leading the writing effort.)

The criteria are the same: have something to say that’s interesting to a broad set of conlangers, and do it in a way that’s high quality. We’ll handle as much or as little of the technical & hosting parts as you want; you just have to come up with the content.

Speaking of podcast contributors: Matt Arnold, LLG President, is joining the LCS podcast with a revamp of the “About Lojban” series.

Matt already announced this on lojban-l, but: if you have suggestions for what you’d like to see on or contribute to the podcast relating to lojban (or other logical languages), please email him (he’s CCed).

We hope to be able to bring you other specialized podcast series in the future.

If you’re still not subscribed: go to http://feeds.feedburner.com/conlangs.

Recent podcasts: an interview with Thomas E. Payne (author of Describing Morphosyntax, aka “the conlanger’s bible”); high-quality video of Donald Boozer & Lila Sadkin‘s talks from LCC2; and an introductory discussion of what conlangs are in the first place.