Posts Tagged ‘lcc’

LCC2 – Sylvia Sotomayor – Verblessness in Kēlen

Friday, June 18th, 2010


Everyone knows Sylvia makes kickass brownies and cupcakes (and cakes).
Or, let me rephrase that: Everyone now knows that Sylvia makes kickass brownies and cupcakes. Because I just told you.

And it’s true. I’ve had them. I’ve had them all.


That aside, this is Sylvia’s LCC2 talk on Kēlen.
For those who have heard of Kēlen but don’t know much about it, this is a good place to start. (Well, that and the Kēlen website.)

This is our second Kēlen-related podcast. You can find the first (an interview with Sylvia) here. Listening to both of those, I think, we’ll give you a good background on Kēlen.

But for even more, there have been two interesting Kēlen developments recently. The first is the launch of the Kēlen Word of the Day Blog. The title pretty much tells you the story: Go there, and you’ll find a blog that will introduce you to one new word of Kēlen every single day (plus some lovely pictures of Sylvia’s cats). I can’t remember exactly who came up with the idea for a word of the day site, but I’d like to think it was me, and that I suggested it to Sylvia (see this way I can angle for more brownies). It has since spawned a number of other word of the day blogs (one for Kamakawi, one for Rejistanian, and several other sites that aren’t necessarily word of the day blogs, but are conlang-specific blogs [for more, check out the Conlang Blog Aggregator]), and the result has been nice (I’ve certainly enjoyed reading the various blogs that have resulted).

The other thing is an interview Sylvia did for the Australian ABC radio series Lingua Franca. In it Sylvia discusses Kēlen as well as conlangs in general. To listen to the interview, you can go to the Lingua Franca website here.


As a conlanger, listening to this talk is fun, because it gets me thinking.
One wonders how one might get by without verbs, but in listening to how Sylvia solves a lot of the problems one faces when creating a verbless language, ideas abound. After spending some time over the past few years with Sylvia and Kēlen, I can now think of tons of ways to get things done without verbs. If one were to sit down and plan this out, then, the question is not how to create a verbless language, but what type of verbless language would one create. I think Kēlen has proved that it’s possible: It’s now on us to see what kind of variety can exist in the category of verbless languages.

Any takers?

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 conference@conlang.org.

Interview with Jeff Burke

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010
 

David interviews Jeff Burke, the creator of the Proto Central Mountain family of languages, and author of The Spirit-Weaver, a novel Jeff has been working on for the past fifteen years. In this interview we discuss his languages, his writing, and the role conlangs play in literature.

mp3Jeff’s Blog


Jeff is a bit soft-spoken and reserved
—or, at least, that’s what I first noticed about him when I met him at LCC2. By the time he had finished his talk, though, he had my attention—and that of everyone else who’d been watching (including Arika Okrent).

Jeff’s conlanging approach is much closer to historical reconstruction than to modern “drag and drop” conlanging. The approach is not necessarily unique (Tolkien, of course, worked from proto languages, and many conlangers today do the same), but Jeff’s implementation is impressive. If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend taking a look at Jeff’s LCC2 talk (the one I linked to above) to see just how he does what he does. (I’d also recommend his recent post to Conlang about Proto Central Mountain which can be found here.)


Totally off-topic.
I can tell I was using my external microphone in this interview. I think its permanent malfunction is a blessing in disguise, and future listeners will, no doubt, be grateful not to hear my popping p’s… My apologies. 🙁


Yet again, in this interview, we’ve come to the issue of language (or conlang) ownership.
And, of course, we came to the same conclusion: There’s no good answer right now. In one respect, neither of us is legal experts, so us discussing the topic is kind of silly. At the same time, it’s a relevant topic for us both, each of us having conlangs that may one day enjoy popular use. Personally, I’m rooting for The Spirit-Weaver to get published and enjoy success, as that will, once again, raise the legal question of conlang ownership in the public sphere.

Jeff suggests, in his interview, that conlangs will one day fall under copyright as artistic works. If this were to be the case, then one wonders: Will conlangers receive royalties if others use their language to create some sort of commercial work (e.g. a book of poems)? Will conlangers be able to successfully challenge derivatives in court (say a relexification of a given conlang)? And is that a desirable future?

Looking at other media, it seems that things are going the other way. It’s easier than ever to download songs, albums, movies, television shows, etc. for free, whether legally or illegally. Artists themselves are venturing forth into the new digital world, some embracing it. One of the most famous examples is probably Radiohead’s “pay what you want” digital release of their album In Rainbows (a fascinating response to the controversy surrounding their previous album, which had, in its entirety, been leaked on the internet a month before its scheduled release), but other artists in other media have followed suit.

A few weeks ago, several video game developers got together to offer the Humble Bundle: A set of five full games with no DRM that one could purchase for whatever amount one wished. As of this writing, the event generated over $1 million for the developers and for charity. Billy Corgan and the newly-reformed Smashing Pumpkins have also gotten into the game, releasing one song at a time from their new 44 song concept album Teargarden by Kaleidoscope free on their website (and, by the way, what I’ve heard so far is incredible; I suggest you give it a listen [it’s free; why not?]).

That aside, I’m of the opinion that Jeff is right, and that some time in the near future we will see some form of copyright being applied to a conlang—perhaps as a result of the recent interest in using constructed languages in other media (most notably film and television). One wonders, though, given the general progression of copyright in the new digital age, will this be a step forward, or a step backward?


It’s been a little over a year since LCC3, and it’s nice to look back.
I always feel energized after an LCC. I’m looking forward to LCC4 (which is still in the planning stages, but will happen, rest assured).

Thanks to our podcast backlog, it’s been about a year since this interview took place. Jeff has since finished The Spirit-Weaver, and is now editing. Hopefully we’ll hear some news from him some time in the near future about the status of The Spirit-Weaver. I’ve got my fingers crossed!

Audio edited by Maximilian Krickl; music by Gary Shannon.

LCC2 – John Quijada – Language Personalities

Monday, November 30th, 2009


Everyone who saw John Quijada’s LCC1 talk will undoubtedly remember it forever.
I know I will. John’s LCC1 talk set the bar pretty high, but I think he was up to the challenge.

The first time around, John gave us an introduction to the role that metaphor plays in language—something vitally important for a conlang, yet oft ignored (or tacitly assumed). This time, John introduces us to the concept of Sprachgefühl, or “Speechfeeling”: The way in which a language’s sound system works to give the language a consistent “feel” or character.

Before commenting, just to get an idea of how much fun a John Quijada talk can be, I urge you to jump to the 11:30 mark in the video above (I know a video that’s more than an hour long can be daunting). Just take a look and a listen to John’s example (the part where he asks if anyone can identify the language being spoken). This guy has a fine ear for language—one of the best I’ve ever seen.


Now for the meat of the talk.
The question John explores is how to create a phonaesthetic feel for one’s language: How to effect a perception one is going for, and how to change the feel, perhaps, of what one already has going.

John starts with an examination of phonetic/phoneme inventories. What John points out is that certain elements (an abundance of “guttural” or back consonants, a series [or more than one series] of consonants with a secondary articulation, rounded front vowels, etc.) will be noticeable, and will stand out to the listener. It’s completely unsurprising for a language to have, say, /p t k m n/ (if anything, their absence will make the language noticeable [think Hawaiian]), so it’s the other elements that will help to distinguish a language.

John goes on talk about phonotactics (allowable syllable structures, etc.), and then morpho-phonology (reduplication, stress shifts, mutation, sandhi—definitely watch the whole thing to get all the specifics), but there seems to be an enduring theme throughout the entire talk.

Essentially, there are target areas in any language that have the potential to give that language a particular feel. For example, if you allow for CVC syllables, where two syllables come into contact thus (CVC)(CVC), it gives rise to the potential for something to occur which will give a language a particular Sprachgefühl (and, of course, I’m talking about those two middle consonants). Any number of things can happen: (1) Nothing; (2) progressive assimilation (total or partial); (3) regressive assimilation (total or partial); (4) lenition, etc. And if this change is consistent throughout the language, suddenly that phonological phenomenon becomes a characteristic part of the language which listeners will pick up on and identify.


Jump to 41:30, if you will.
(Or just wait for it to come up, and take note of it when you get there.) This is, perhaps, the most useful part of the talk for a conlanger. Here, John takes a contentless sentence (Apo ket olua taraskentel brihaprai) and manipulates it to produce sentences that sound radically different. Basically, the idea is that what you have with the first sentence is the phonemic version, but through synchronic sound changes and sandhi effects, the phonetic version can sound radically different—and furthermore, that the same language can be made to sound very different without changing the structure, or even the phonology.

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 conference@conlang.org.

LCC2 – Clint Hutchinson – Universal Semantic Markers

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009


It’s funny.
Many of the conlangers in the audience during Clint’s talk (myself included) were immediately fascinated by the machine Clint used when he was a court reporter. In fact, if you look at the progress bar on the video, you’ll notice that Clint’s talk ends when the bar is about a quarter of the way through. Most of the video is actually his question and answer session, and most of the questions are about Machine Shorthand.

Conlangers, though, by their very nature, find language fascinating, so I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising. After all, in Machine Shorthand, we conlangers in attendance were presented with a radical representation system that most of us, I’d wager, had never encountered. There’s a fantastic moment on this video somewhere after the halfway point where Clint shows exactly how one types “stop”, and how it shows up on the paper, and after he finishes his explanation, everyone in the audience says, “OHHHHH!!!” It’s priceless.


As for the actual content of Clint’s talk,
the system he presents (and to see it, since you can’t see the whiteboard in the video, take a look at the LCC2 program) makes sense, given his background. Clint has a degree in linguistics, learned several languages with different scripts, and worked as a court reporter, and what you have in his system (this is on page 43) is a kind of classificatory that would be very useful to a court reporter who knew a bit about language and linguistics.

For a conlanger, it does, I admit, make me wonder…

What if (and bear with me if this has already been done or pondered already) one created a kind of meta language which could be translated automatically into a conlang? It might use some markers similar to what Clint has come up with, but, of course, they would have to be expanded, but if it worked, it would be quite handy for someone with four or more languages.

Here’s what I’m envisioning. Let’s say you have a sentence like “I saw a bird”. That would be translated into four of my languages below as follows:

  • Kamakawi
    • Ka mata ei i fuila.
    • /past-new.subject see 1sg.pronoun object bird/
  • Zhyler
    • Ivželer matlarum.
    • /bird-accusative see-past-1sg./
  • Kelenala
    • Ma yu ay yo.
    • /1sg.pronoun past see bird/
  • Njaama
    • Lí k’óó!á wa tekaané sá.
    • /object bird 1sg.pronoun perfect-see 3sg.pronoun/

Now, if you’re just dealing with these four languages, you don’t need a lot of information. Basically, in the meta language, you encode the lowest common denominator for each sentence. The code would look something like this:

V[“see”, past, perfect; N1(exp), N2(stim)], N1[“1sg. pronoun”, 1st person, singular, exp, subject(new), definite], N2[“bird”, 3rd person, singular, stim, patient, indefinite]

Yes, this seems like overkill, but here’s the payoff: If you enter that, the idea is it will automatically generate the correct translations in each of those four languages.

The way it work is this. Take one feature, the “subject(new)” feature. For Zhyler, all it needs to see is “exp” and “1st. person” and it’ll know how to deal with it, so it’ll see “subject(new)” and ignore it. The same with Kelenala and Njaama. Kamakawi, though, will see “subject(new)”, and know that the marker out in front will have to be ka and not ke or kae.

Obviously, it’d be much more complicated than this (for example, each language would have to have an entire set of rules just to interpret this information, and then to get the words in the right order), but if it worked…man! You could write a text in this semantic meta language and it could be instantly translated into dozens of one’s own conlangs!


As a final thought,
I love the way the LCC casts such a wide net in terms of presenters and attendees. We get all different types of conlangers, and others who aren’t conlangers but are creative, interesting, and interested people. The result is a kind of bubbling cauldron of linguistic creativity that gets to bubble up and boil over for a weekend. It’s both inspiring and a lot of fun.

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 conference@conlang.org. In return, you’ll get credit and a free copy of the DVD with this video.

LCC2 – David Peterson – The Evolution of Sidaan

Sunday, May 10th, 2009


Sai speaking:
 


David’s not kidding when he says he’s a serial monogamist conlanger—’prolific’ is more like it.
If you take a look at his site, you’ll find 12 languages. Some of them are quite elaborate, with well-made orthographies (in font form!) as well as a wide range of language classes borrowing from paradigms all over the world.

That’s not all of it, though; he also has done a fair amount of meta work as well. There’s his Sign Language IPA (with a signed conlang to go with it!). There’s his FAQ on ergativity which is, IMHO, the best explanation I’ve read thus far (with Thomas Payne’s in Describing Morphosyntax a close second).

He’s contributed to the community, too; being a speaker at each Language Creation Conference (LCC1: “Down With Morphemes” ppt; LCC2: this (plus the morpheme workshop); LCC3: Orthographies, Fonts, and Philosophy) and a great collaborator and things-getting-doner behind the LCS and this podcast.

His five hilarious articles for the Speculative Grammarian and his blog are pretty exemplary of what he’s like in normal interaction: a combination of productive and light-hearted I see too rarely.

The Smiley Award that he created is one of the best examples—it displays real interest in others’ work, from both technical and personal perspectives. Incidentally, this is something that we-as-the-LCS would like to extend at some point in the future, to create a yearly competition for conlangers, à la the Interactive Fiction awards. If you have ideas for challenges that would interest the whole community, please let us know.

(I do have to say that his taste in web design is not exactly my normal style, though… )



David speaking:
 


Of my three LCC talks, this one was by far the least popular.
Realistically, this shouldn’t have been a surprise, since no one had ever heard of Sidaan, I hadn’t done much with it, and historical syntactic change isn’t a real crowd pleaser. I must admit, the lackluster reaction is probably what led me to all but abandon the project (I don’t think I’ve worked on the language since).

Despite that, I’m glad I did it, and I’m glad it’s up somewhere, and this is why. The thing to take away from this talk, in my opinion (well, if you’re a conlanger), is that (again, in my opinion), we need a different metric for naturalness than what we’ve got. If a conlanger is limited to what has occurred in the history of the extent or dead natural languages, then creating a naturalistic language is nothing more than rolling the dice—something like creating a D&D character as opposed to an author of a novel creating an entirely new fictional character.

Specifically (and I plan on trying to spell this out at length at some point in time way off in the distant future), there must be a conlang-internal metric for determining whether a change or a feature is natural. What I attempted with Sidaan in this talk is to effect a conlang-internal change without reference to a natural language. Whether it has happened or not in a natural language is irrelevant. The question is, if the language existed at some time x as I created it, could the change I effected plausibly occur the way it did?

Regarding natural languages, then, one oughtn’t find a change that occurred in a natural language and then implement it with the idea that this is the only way to create a naturalistic conlang. Rather, if one finds out later on that a natlang’s already dunnit except worse, one should be gratified, and say, “You see? I told you it could work!”


(P.S. If teal and purple weren’t meant to go together
, just how on earth does one explain Miami Vice?) [Ed. by Sai: One word – “abomination”. Things that aren’t meant to happen seem to happen quite often… :-P]


(P.P.S. Since the talk, my fiancée and I got married, and we’re still at it.)

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 conference@conlang.org. In return, you’ll get credit and a free copy of the DVD with this video.

LCC2 – Jeff Burke – Language as Growth-in-Time

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009


You know, what strikes me as the most amusing aspect of Jeff’s opener
is that if you look at his picture (the one before his talk starts), he looks an awful lot like a president, but not Lincoln. In fact, his picture rather reminds me of George Washington, or perhaps John Adams with James Madison’s eyes…

It’s always encouraging (to me, I suppose) to hear conlangers defend conlanging as art. The problem I have with many of the arguments I’ve heard against conlanging being an art (as opposed to something else much less creative, like putting together a puzzle) from conlangers themselves is that after a bit of back and forth, I often hear something like, “Well, you can call it whatever you want; I don’t consider it an art, and what I do isn’t art.” As if that’s an argument! I don’t paint well, and what I paint most certainly isn’t art, but that doesn’t mean that painting isn’t an art—and that’s what the issue is!

I know Jeff somewhat (or I should say I’ve been getting to know him better recently), and in addition to an expert conlanger, Jeff is also a fiction writer (so when he compares conlanging to writing in the beginning, he’s not speaking hypothetically: he’s speaking from experience). I think the comparison to fiction is quite apt. Consider, after all, what fiction is. In the most basic sense, it’s a transcription of events that never occurred. One might ask, what possible use could this serve? For example, why write a story about a fictional character when there are real live people everywhere in the world who are dying and whose stories will never be heard?

Of course, if you’ve ever read or heard a fictional story that’s affected you powerfully (and I gather that most people have, even if that story was something as simple as The Giving Tree), you won’t need to hear another defense of fiction; those were arguments for long ago that have been largely settled. One thing I find interesting in the comparison, though, is how similar the activities are.


With fiction, the canvas is wide open.
A writer can write about anything, even if it doesn’t make sense. Readers, though, judge the value of the work based on its goals. Many novels, for example, try to be realistic, and the reader can then judge how realistic the book is (how lifelike the characters are, how likely the reactions of the characters are, how believable the events…). Then there are any number of books that don’t try to be realistic; that try to express something in non-literal or fantastic ways. Conlangs, of course, are quite similar.

One important difference, though (or perceived difference) is that books, in the end, should try to tell us something. It would be odd to read a starkly realistic book that began with a woman leaving her house to go to the store, and ended after she’d picked up her third item at the store, with nothing else implied. There must be a reason that the author is showing us what they’re showing us—a goal, a purpose—perhaps a lesson, or a point of view.

Conlangs don’t differ, in my experience. There is a point; conlangs aren’t merely tools. What the user or appreciator is supposed to get, though, is something conlangers don’t generally talk about—perhaps something they don’t often think about. It’s there, though; there is a point—something we’re supposed to take away. It differs language by language, of course, but these goals or ideas (worldviews?) are something that shouldn’t be ignored, either by the creator or the appreciator.


(P.S.: If you’re going to LCC3 and you have a cold,
don’t sit near a mic! [Just teasing!] Or, perhaps more generally, recall that any sound you make during someone’s talk or during someone’s question and answer session will be heard the world over, and recorded for posterity. Cosmic, huh?)

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.

3rd Language Creation Conference preview

Thursday, March 5th, 2009
 

The 3rd Language Creation Conference is only a month away.

We have a somewhat different assortment of presentations than the last two conferences.

At LCC2 we debuted three new presentation styles: minitalks (15 minute talks just about a particular language), workshops (1-2 hour hands-on practice of something), and panels / discussions. The feedback we received asked for more of these, so that’s what we’re doing. We’ve also added a new category—posters—so that people who don’t necessarily want to talk on stage can still present something of interest.

Two of our nine “posters” so far for LCC3 are in fact full exhibits in their own right. Steven Travis’ Tapissary was last displayed at the Amos Eno gallery in New York City (see it on YouTube). Donald Boozer’s Esperanto, Elvish, and Beyond was a major exhibit at the Cleveland Public Library for four months, as well as the subject of interviews in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the SETI Institute’s Are We Alone? radio show.


LCC3 also has a strong orthographic and artistic streak.

We’re excited to have the world premiere showing of a new short film, “Conlang”, by Swan Dive Films (see the sketch on YouTube).

Two of our talks come (broadly) from the world of electronic literature – John Cayley discussing Xu Bing’s Book From the Sky, and Diana Slattery about entheogen-inspired xenolinguistics, glossolalia, and her own ?orthography, Glide.

We also have several presentations on writing systems – including a presentation on Kelen’s Ceremonial Interlace Alphabet by Sylvia Sotomayor, a presentation on the practical design of non-linear writing systems by Schuyler Duveen, an introduction to orthography and font creation (with hands-on workshop!) by David Peterson, and a panel discussion about unusual orthographies.


Not being able to come in person doesn’t mean you can’t participate!

Just like with LCC2, LCC3 will be simulcast live online. You’ll be able to chat with others who are present virtually, as well as ask questions of the speaker through a moderator.

Unlike LCC2, whose simulcast was only in audio, LCC3’s simulcast will be in video, so you’ll have a better sense of what’s going on in the room.

All you have to do is go to http://conlang.org/lcc3/live.php at 8am EST on March 21st and 22nd.

Of course, LCC3 will eventually appear on this podcast as well, in higher quality.

LCC2 – Jim Henry – Glossotechnia

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009


Unfortunately, the best part of Glossotechnia,
Jim Henry’s conlang creation card game, can’t be seen (or heard) in a talk: you have to play it. For those who have never gotten a chance, or who perhaps have a good idea of how one plays, but not what it’s like, let me give you the low-down.

It may not seem like it, but let me assure you of one thing: Glossotechnia is a competitive game. It didn’t seem like it when I heard about it, but one really can’t get a feel for a game until one picks up the cards, so to speak.

The basic premise of the game is as follows. You have a deck of cards, and everyone gets a few (the number depends on how you play), and these cards have things written on them like: [k], SOV, plural, etc. On your turn, you can play a card, and that will add to the language. So, if the language doesn’t have a word order, you play your SOV card, and now it does.

As the language is being built up, there’s an over-arching challenge players are working towards: to translate a challenge sentence which will complete the game. To translate it, each player is allowed to add one word to the lexicon each turn (impossible before there’s a phonology, but even with one phoneme played, you can start to add things). As originally played, the word is defined by the player who must act it out, rather than simply saying what the word means.

Now about the competition. Each player has a vested interest in the language—either because of the secret sentence they’re trying to translate which no one else sees, or simply because they’re playing—and different opinions about the direction of the language (and luck of the draw) can lead to miniature battles regarding its construction.

For example, when I played, I decided the language had grown far too concatenative. Thus, I started to create non-concatenative elements, and a bunch of other stuff just to mess with people (e.g. taking already coined words and then coining a suffix out of the last syllable, leading to an already defined word now being composed of a root and a suffix, even though its meaning was basic). David Salo and I had quite a battle of wits going before he had to retire for the evening (which means that I won by default. Swish!).


If you can manage, you should try to make it to LCC3,
where we’ll be playing Glossotechnia. Hopefully this will become a permanent, albeit informal, feature of future conferences. (Though do note: I play to win—and I’m not above reanalyzing what has already been proposed!)

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.

The New LCS Blog and Me

Friday, February 20th, 2009
 

Hi!

My name is David Peterson. If you’re a conlanger, you may know me from the Conlang-L, from my website, or perhaps from meeting me at an LCC. If you don’t know me, I’m generally mild-mannered, about 5’8″, and enjoy ice cream (both eating it and looking at it).

I will, in essence, be the primary blogger for the LCS blog. There will be announcements from Sai, and we hope to add more bloggers as we go along, but for the time being, I’ll be posting as frequently as is appropriate.

What you can expect from me is, roughly, the following:

  • Commentary on the LCS podcast as each new episode airs.
  • Languages and linguistics news that’s generally interesting to conlangers.
  • Conlanging news.
  • Other language-related material of general interest to conlangers.

Check back here every so often to see what’s up in the wide world of conlanging, and certainly let me or anyone else know if you find something interesting, or have something to contribute. Other than that, be on the lookout for my first post, which should be up in about an hour, after I’ve had a chance to listen to the latest LCS podcast (an interview with Sylvia Sotomayor).

Interview with Sylvia Sotomayor

Thursday, February 19th, 2009
 
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.