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CONLANG  May 2009, Week 4

CONLANG May 2009, Week 4

Subject:

Re: The art of conlang critique (was Re: how to tell when you're conlang's complete-an idea)

From:

Sai Emrys <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Constructed Languages List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 27 May 2009 13:52:45 -0700

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On Wed, May 27, 2009 at 1:25 PM, Jörg Rhiemeier <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
> There are many things that occur in only very few natlangs and
> are nevertheless perfectly naturalistic, and even if it doesn't
> occur in any known language, doesn't necessarily mean that it is
> unnaturalistic (while on the other hand, if it occurs in just
> *one* natlang, that is sufficient to award it with the hallmark
> of naturalism).

These seem to me to be different phrasings of what I said - having an
occasional rare feature is common, unattested != necessarily
unnatural, and attestedness defines at least the outside fringes of
what is 'natural but unusual'.

> However, "exotic"
> features should not be overused - if you combine 20 features
> each of which occurs in less than 1% of the world's languages,
> you are probably heading in the wrong direction.

I'd phrase this more neutrally, and say simply that if you do so, and
those 1%s are mutually independent (rather than clustering), then your
result is extremely unusual / weird for a natural language. If that's
your thing, fine, if not, change it. :-P

> * taxonomic vocabulary (as in the 17th-century "philosophical"
>  languages)

One has to caveat this one to say that there are frequently clusters
of words that are similar both semantically and formally, as well as
things like triconsonantal root systems which have forms that are
more-or-less regular transformations of those root meanings.

But a true multilevel taxonomy is a different thing.

> * stack-based syntax (as in Fith)
> * implementation of a scheme of formal logic

Aww. :'-(

:-P

> There are probably many more, not to mention languages of
> non-human beings that lie entirely outside human possibilities
> of articulation or perception (e.g., ultrasonic languages).

This of course brings up the question of what makes for a naturalistic
language for non-humans.

Do we assume the same psychological-ish universals? The same things
re. economies of features (as you mentioned above)? Anything?

> As I have said before, if, just for an example, the Afroasiatic
> family had died out without trace (or evolved in a very different
> direction), most linguists would consider a morphology in which
> the lexical meaning of a word is encoded in three consonants
> between vowels are infixed to make concrete word-forms at least
> very weird, if not unnatural.  But we know that it happened in
> Afroasiatic, so we know that it is not unnatural.

Indeed. And Alex gave me the example that clicks are rare enough that,
had they not happened to exist, we might consider unnatural.

What other features are in this category of 'stuff that could
plausibly exist naturally', but isn't actually attested in human
languages we know of?

> Second, there are features that are prescribed by the limits of
> what humans can produce, perceive and process.  For instance, no
> human language uses sounds humans cannot hear ;)

Except for those that deaf people can't hear, and people with cleft
palates can't produce well. ;-)

One could easily imagine (or even cite) cases where local populations
of humans happen to have such a variation in high enough concentration
that the language they use as a group compensates for it. (Martha's
Vineyard is canonical here.)

> Finally, there are things which *could* occur in human languages
> but *do not*, for whichever reason.  It is likely that many of
> the universals discussed by linguistis fall into this category.

Which ones? To me, this is the interesting category, because it's the
set of things to try to do. ;-)

> I would always be careful with such adjectives as "ideal" or
> "optimal".  There are usually many ways to meet the design
> criteria one sets for a project, and it is hard to say which
> solution is the best.  As you say, you usually get trade-offs
> between conflicting goals.

Correct. Which is why it is non-exclusive (there will be many 'ideal'
or 'optimal' languages for any given valuation, due simply to the
large number of choices that are entirely arbitrary and
value-neutral), as well as valuation-dependent (one can't evaluate
which is be