How Many Ways Are There to Say Something?

If you’re mostly monolingual, you might imagine that the languages of the world differ in sound more than anything else. Maybe you switch the words around a little bit, but it’s mostly the same. All languages have plural and singular nouns, past, present, and future tenses, first, second, and third person pronouns – all that good stuff. Oh and the language you studied in high school has gender but whatever.

What if I told you that some languages use different nouns for when you have two of something, as opposed to three or four? What if I told you that some languages don’t change their verbs depending on when something happens, but only if it’s been done yet? What if I told you that some languages use a different word for “we” depending on whether the speaker is including you?

And what if I told you that some languages have grammatical gender, but don’t divide their nouns into masculine and feminine, but rather animate and inanimate? And what if I told you that some languages only describe direction in absolute terms, such that there are no words for left or right, only north, south, east, and west? And what if I told you that some languages not only use a different word order from our language, but can actually use any word order the speaker chooses?

There are more grammars in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Making up languages is a more popular hobby than you might imagine, but one thing that new enthusiasts often struggle with is the simply the staggering number of options open to them in creating a new language. Often it starts just with a question. What would the language of a warlike alien empire sound like? What would a logical, absolute language sound like? What would a language that everyone in the world could learn sound like? But creators of these constructed languages, or “conlangers”, are so deeply entrenched in the habits of English that they often fail to realize the potential of the questions that they themselves have asked.

Creating the Daedic-Transhumanist Creole, the language of Sethian, I tried to balance foreignness with familiarity. I wanted something which was simultaneously bizarre and easy to learn. Chinese is my primary influence for the language, and Chinese has a lot in common with English. The word order is (generally) the same – subject-verb-object, there are no case or gender systems like the languages you probably studied in high school, and in general, Chinese grammar is just very “stripped down”. Its pronouns also don’t distinguish for gender (i.e. he/she/it is all one word – in fact because there’s no case either, he and him are also the same word), and verbs are not conjugated for person or tense (i.e. go and goes are the same word, and go and went are the same word). I remember being forced to memorize tables of verb conjugations in French class and it just didn’t work out, so Chinese was kind of refreshing in that regard.

There are a few aspects of Chinese which are quite different from English that I was eager to borrow into my language. One is that dependent clauses precede what they modify. Here’s an example: “the people I know” in English is “我认识的人” in Chinese, literally “I know ‘s people.” Let’s talk about that ‘s. That’s how I’m translating “的” (sounds like “duh”), a very special grammatical particle which pulls a lot of weight in Chinese, performing multiple functions, kind of like how adding an “s” to the end of a word in English can do several different things to it.

So 的 is a possessive marker like ‘s is in English, but there’s another special thing 的 does, which is it’s a kind of adjective suffix. What if I wanted to talk about “smart people”? In English, adjectives always precede the nouns they modify (except in set phrases), but in Chinese, dependent clauses are treated just like adjectives. “Smart people” would be “聪明的人” (lit. “smart ‘s person”, although “聪明人” would probably be acceptable as well, kind of like how you could say “the people I know” or “the people that I know” to the same affect). Note how 我认识的人 (“the people I know”) and 聪明的人 (“smart people”) use the same grammatical structure, with the same particle (的) relating the modifier to the noun, 人 (“person/people”).

That’s all well and good, but what does that mean for adjectives? Well, how do you think you would say “I’m smart” in Chinese? You might’ve guessed from previous examples that 我 is I and 聪明 is smart, so all you need is “am”, right? Well, 是 is “am”, but 我是聪明 is not “I’m smart”, it’s just plain ungrammatical (although you will hear a lot of students make that mistake). So how do you say it? I’d try “我很聪明”, although “我聪明” is just fine. How can “I smart” be grammatical? Simple – 聪明 isn’t really an adjective, it’s more like a stative verb. And I would argue that Chinese doesn’t really have adjectives per se – at least not in the way English does – only stative verbs (side note: that is very debatable).

There’s a lot more to get into here – 的 has at least one more usage which is very common, and occurs in some words with real meaning, and it gets mixed up with other grammatical particles (得,地) which are pronounced the same but have very different uses – but I only wanted to talk about elements I wanted to imitate in the game’s language.

Be sure to check back here tomorrow, and let me know if there’s any subject on the game or language in general you want me to talk about!

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grantkuning

Creator of Sethian. My personal email is grantkuning at gmail. Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1158657297/sethian-a-sci-fi-language-puzzle-game Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sethiangame Twitter: https://twitter.com/sethiangame

3 Comments

3 thoughts on “How Many Ways Are There to Say Something?”

  1. Cool stuff Grant! A couple of quibbles:
    *”The word order is (generally) the same” – I’d argue that Chinese word order is significantly different from English because of the placement of adverbs: subject-verb-object-adverb vs. subject-adverb-verb-object
    *”Its pronouns also don’t distinguish for gender (i.e. he/she/it is all one word)” – This depends on how you define “word”, doesn’t it? I’d hypothesize that native speakers think of 他 and 她 as two different words with the same pronunciation.

  2. 1. Language word order is generally classified in terms of where the subject, verb, and object fall. This leads to classifications like SVO and SOV, which are the two big ones. English and Chinese both fall under SVO. I don’t disagree that English and Chinese have significantly different word order, but relatively speaking, the differences are pretty minor. Side note: The position of adverbs is something my language actually doesn’t borrow from Chinese.

    2. The Chinese word for “she” was invented by the May Fourth movement. It’s a contrivance of writing. I think the word for “it”, though, which I’m surprised you didn’t mention, is quite a bit older. There’s another word though, which you might not be aware of – 祂 – which is the pronoun for God. I really don’t think there’s much to it. Oh, and there’s another thing, which you might’ve saw while you were in Taipei – 妳 – which never really caught on in the PRC. Do you think that in mainland Mandarin speakers’ minds, you (masculine) and you (feminine) are all one word, and in Taiwanese Mandarin speakers’ minds, those yous are separate words?

    I’d also point out that my students struggled with gender in English personal pronouns – I think it’s something they’re used to thinking about in writing , but not in normal speech. Although I did go out with someone briefly who was talking about a dog (in English). After hesitating for a moment to pick the right pronoun, she went with “it”, because 它 is used for animals. But I thought it sounded weird, because usually we try to use gendered pronouns for pets, if possible.

    1. 1) I’m aware of the SVO-based classification. My point is that though Chinese and English are both SVO, the difference in adverb position makes sentences significantly different between Chinese and English – certainly compared to the difference between English and other Romance languages.
      Also, as Wikipedia points out, “Standard Mandarin is SVO, but for simple sentences with a clear context, word order is flexible enough to allow for SOV or OSV.” The 把 construction allows for (and sometimes requires) SOV in Chinese!
      2) Interesting point about 妳/你. You’re right that “it’s something they’re used to thinking about in writing , but not in normal speech”, so if we define speech as primary I concede that they are the same word. But let’s say that in writing, I use the wrong word. Is that an error in spelling or in usage? For example, I can imagine that there have been debates about whether to use 祂 or 他 in a certain context. Is this a debate about spelling? I guess in English it would probably be considered such if we were debating God/god. On the other hand, for religious monotheists, God means something different than god (the latter could refer to e.g. “a Greek god” but not to the one God)! So are those the same word or different words?

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