Parameters and Lexical Syntax

So when I am sitting around, staring at the ceiling, trying to thing of an idea for a new human communication system, I try to imagine what would be different, preferably really different. From reading “Atoms of Language,” one gets the impression that natlangs are all pretty similar and not as varied as they imaginably could be, because they are constrained in design by a hierarchy of instinctive parameters, which once chosen either dramatically or subtly decide all sorts of things about how the system will work.

One thing that the author said was unattested was lexical syntax. (Keep in mind the author is much smarter than me, so if you are of an academic bent, don’t fling feces at me, just humor me and let me discuss the things that popped into my head whilst reading and I’m calling “what he said”) By that, that he meant you don’t observe language where the neutral order for “to run” is SVO and the neutral order for “to eat” is OSV.

Of course this immediately made me want to go create a language with lexical syntax. Depending on the verb, there would be one of the six different orderings of the core participants. Depending on the adjective, there it would go before or after the phrase it is attaching to.

Another thing was that the parameters beyond “Is Polysynthetic” are sparsely documented. There are few languages that mark a verb for all its core participants and they aren’t so well studied. On the otherhand, the non-polysynthetic languages are numerous and well studied. So if you create a conlang on that branch of the parameter hierarchy, it is almost certain to be similar to a current natlang.

So from reading this book I have two ideas for a conlang. To make them work together, since a polysynthetic language tends to be nonconfigurational (i.e. not care much about basic order), I’ll need optional polysynthesis. But if it is completely optional, people won’t use it, they will stick to something familiar. So I thing it should switch on TAM (time-aspect-mode) triggers. Most TAM systems focus a lot on whats done/not done and did it happen now or yesterday. That”s been done before. What hasn’t been done before is focusing in on irrealis. So things that are in the future, mostly are possibilities, things in the present are actualities, things in the distant past are possibilities again because they’re in cloudy history.

The next feature is that I’m bored with pronoun systems that stick to person, number, animacy and gender. Why not divy up the world of core participants by solid/liquid/gas? That would be better than “it”. Why not by friends/enemies/romantic possibilities and actualities/sessile non-human/non-sessile non-humans. But I would want semantic noun classes. Arbitrary grammatical gender has been done before.

So I think I finally have a grammar to go with my word list I made a year or two ago.

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4 Responses to Parameters and Lexical Syntax

  1. SHiNKiROU says:

    I have made a language with “affiliation” system: nouns and verbs are optionally marked for:
    – cooperative
    – defective
    – hostile
    – neutral

    and found I can’t create examples of them because it is subjective language, and examples in my grammar are too general/objective to use them.

    but I wanted to keep them, affiliation on top of vowel harmony makes the language difficult.

  2. Lex Mosgrove says:

    I like your lexical syntax idea. Maybe distinguish active and static verbs by word order? Or maybe some completely different pattern? (And there should be some sort of pattern, to make it believable.)

    • matthewdeanmartin says:

      Re: active vs static.
      Yeah, that’s as good as any distinction to make.

      Re: believability
      Believability is relative to what an observers experience is. Polysynthetic would be preposterous had Siberia and North American never been discovered. Also, the whole point of language design with parameters in mind either either to (A) create something that could be expected and the parameters match the hierarchy as we know it (which would be very believable) or (B) the language departs from what parameter theory would predict. Lexical word order is something parameter theory doesn’t predict and a linguist sympathetic to parameter theory (they aren’t all sympathetic) would find lexical word order unbelievable.

      • Lex Mosgrove says:

        True. However, I was thinking believability in the sense of “makes sense on a intuitive(?) level even though it might not have been attested before (also, screw theory)” as opposed to “likely to happen because attested before”. Not sure how to explain this…