Idea for conlang pronoun system, partly inspired by Lojban

This article was originally posted on October 7,  2017 at Áya Dan, and is also archived in the Wayback Machine.

In Lojban you can declare pronouns that consistently refer back to nominals. This idea is very similar, but attempts to make the same concept slightly more naturalistic – a hybrid or “compromise” between logical and naturalistic. Most of the vocabulary in the examples given below is very European-derived, and if I took the concept further I might replace it.

Idea

With the exception of the inclusive first-person plural which is a combination of two other pronouns, pronouns take the pattern (C)V(n) where (n) is the optional letter n and, when used, signifies the plural.

In the first person there is a singular, inclusive plural, and exclusive plural: ti, tinren, and tin, respectively.

In the second person there is a singular and a plural: re and ren, respectively.

The generic third person pronoun is i, which also has singular and plural forms: i and in.

However, pronouns can also be declared with the particle let:

Let he Johano este viro. He amra katon.
(John is a man. He loves cats.)

Let xi Maria este fema. Xi amra katon.
(Maria is a woman. Xi loves cats.)

Let li Zamenhofo este mediko. Li amra katon.
(Zamenhof is a doctor. Li loves cats.)

Let lu Jepeseno este lingiso. Lu amra katon.
(Jespersen is a linguist. Lu loves cats.)

Let ri Kori este nobinari. Ri amra katon.
(Cory is nonbinary. Ri loves cats.)

Here he, xi, li, lu, and ri are assigned to the respective individuals: Johano, Maria, Zamenhofo, Jepeseno, Kori, and then the sentences as a whole are evaluated with the referent of the newly declared pronoun as the subject.

It might even be possible to extend this even further to non-pronouns, for example:

let Viki kato xel ti
(Viki = my cat)

let konlingo lingo wat homo akjo
(konlingo = language that a human makes)

Natural Gender in Klingon

This article was originally posted on August 27,  2016 at Áya Dan, and is also archived in the Wayback Machine.

Warning: Non-linguist talking about linguistics ahead.

Recently I started putting some time into learning Klingon, though I’m not capable of conversing in it and reading it is also very difficult still. My reason for wanting to learn it, more than anything else, is that it’s there.

Klingon is a language designed by linguist Marc Okrand for the Star Trek films, based essentially on a dialog written for the first film by James Doohan. It was deliberately written to be as unlike English as possible, and many of its features are also very unusual for human languages: for example its Object-Verb-Subject syntax is rare, though not unheard of. At the same time, none of its features are completely alien to human language, either.

One of the more common human-like characteristics of Klingon is the existence of gender. It’s important to note, however, that grammatical gender has nothing to do with masculinity and femininity per se. The word “gender” is ultimately derived from a Latin word that simply meant “class” or “category,” and has the same root as “genus.” While this root did have a reproductive meaning, this does not seem to be the meaning when applied to Latin words. Latin writers would talk about the “genera” of nouns but also the “genera” of verbs, by which they just meant “type,” since Latin verbs are not affected by gender, linguistic or colloquial.

From what I have read, mainly in the World Atlas of Language Structures (an extremely helpful resource for conlangers), the linguistic definition of a gender is a class of nouns with bearing on the inflection of other parts of speech (pronouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.). A language may distinguish between rational nouns (humans and gods) and non-rational nouns; or between animate nouns and inanimate nouns; or between 10 or more  categories such as plants, animals, concepts, etc. These are all genders, despite them saying nothing about masculinity and femininity. Not being a linguist, I am using the definition given by the World Atlas of Language Structures, but it’s controversial whether pronouns count. According to WALS, English has gender due to the effect that nouns have on the pronouns he, she, and it. It’s uncontroversial to say that English has natural gender, and so does Klingon.

Klingon distinguishes between (1) beings capable of using language; (2) everything else. The second gender is further differentiated into two classes: (1) body parts; (2) everything else, but this only has bearing on the inflection of the nouns themselves, specifically the formation of the plural. ghaH is the independent pronoun referring to any being capable of using language, while ‘oH is the independent pronoun referring to things and to beings incapable of language. There are also possessive pronominal suffixes, like in Hungarian, Hebrew, Arabic, and many other languages, which are influenced by the gender of the possessed noun. For example, to say “you are my loved one” you say “bangwI’ SoH.”  To say “it is my home,” you say “juHwIj ‘oH.”

It’s interesting to think about how the separation between beings capable of language and not capable of language conforms to the speciesism of Klingons, who have been shown on the series to dislike unintelligent animals such as tribbles and cats. It’s also interesting to consider the parallels this might have to the commonality of masculine and feminine genders in human languages.

Obviously this is all science fiction, but it’s interesting to think about. It also shows the many potentials for gender in conlangs beyond just masculine and feminine. It’s worth mentioning that, according to WALS, a little over half of the world’s languages have absolutely no gender distinctions in pronouns… which is interesting in the context of the debate over pronouns in international auxiliary languages. It’s interesting how many such languages distinguish some form of natural gender, even Lingua Franca Nova (people and things), despite gender’s lack of universality.

Sorry if this post rambled a bit, and if you read it, then thanks for reading.

Gender in Volapük

This article was originally posted on January 8,  2016 at Áya Dan, and is also archived in the Wayback Machine.

Volapük was constructed by Johann Martin Schleyer, a German Roman Catholic priest, in the late 1800s, after he claimed to have had a vision from God. It was the original international auxiliary language movement; the third international Volapük convention took place entirely in Volapük, which was the first time (that I’m aware of) when a constructed language was brought out of theory and into practice. The second was probably Esperanto.

Volapük eventually died as a result of infighting between the Academy and Schleyer (the Cifal or Chief) over control of the language. This same story has often been repeated in the communities of various constructed languages, such as Loglan for example. The Academy went on to make Idiom Neutral, which was very heavily influenced by Volapük, but the movement never recovered. Today there are a handful of people who still speak it, and a significantly larger number of people who study it. Personally, I am not fluent in Volapük, but I do study it, and if I ever had the time, I think it would be fun to become fluent.

Volapük, as spoken today, has three third-person pronouns: on, om, and of. On is an all-purpose pronoun, usable for both people and things. A group of men would be caled oms as a pronoun, a group of women would be called ofs, and a mixed group would be called ons. It is also possible to simply refer to everyone as on and ons. This system is the result of the grammatical reform of Arie de Jong, which happened decades after the original Volapük movement had mostly died out. Under the old system, men and things would go by om in the singular, oms in the plural. Women would go by of in the singular, ofs in the plural.

Volapük is a pro-drop language, meaning you ordinarily don’t use pronouns in the nominative except for emphasis. But the personal suffixes of verbs are exactly the same as the pronouns:

binom: He is
binof: She is
binon: It is; They (sing) are
binons: They are
binoms: They (masc) are
binofs: They (fem) are

Informally and regardless of whatever the official policy might be, genderqueer people could certainly add pronouns to Volapük the same way they do in Esperanto with e.g. “ri”. The following letters are currently used for Volapük pronouns: b, d, f, k, l, m, n, r, s, y. This leaves the following letters left over: g, p, t, v. There are other letters in the Volapük alphabet (c, h, j, x, z), but it would be hard to pluralize them in pronouns, since plurals are formed with s. The pronoun os is impersonal, and has no plural form. Yet it might still be feasible if you wanted your personal pronoun to be (for example) “oz”, and for the plural of it to simply be “ons.”

Of course, you would be likely to find the same difficulties using non-standard pronouns in Volapük that you did anywhere else.

There are also two Volapük gender prefixes, hi- and ji-, which make a noun masculine or feminine, respectively. So the Volapük word for “human” is men (derived from German Mensch), and if you wanted to say “man” you could either say himen, or you could synonymously say man. For “woman” you could say jimen or, synonymously, vom. There is no prefix that makes something non-binary, but as with pronouns, I’m sure someone could find a way if they wanted to 🙂

I find it interesting that Volapük uses “on” to represent both people and things. There are Esperanto speakers who claim that this function is fulfilled by ĝi in Esperanto, but unlike in Volapük, this has never been common or established usage except in reference to animals and babies.

I personally love Volapük; it’s a fun language with its own character, and it gets a very bad name in the Esperanto community. It’s easier to understand than it seems, once you get used to its alphabet and weird ways of assimilating words. Most of the words are derived from natural sources, and are more phonologically faithful than orthographically. This means that spoken aloud, some of them even sound more like their original root words than Esperanto words do.

Also, because Volapük has religious roots, I find the idea of talking about irreligious (or even sacrilegious) things in the language amusing 🙂

You can learn more about Volapük at volapük.com.

How universal can a language be?

This article was originally posted on October 19, 2015 at Áya Dan, and is also archived in the Wayback Machine.

For queer people, learning any language can be a very invalidating experience. Learning materials generally focus on the language that is standard, acceptable and “normal,” never on the language of non-binary or queer people. For example, a genderqueer French learner will have to do some extra research to find out about non-binary French pronouns such as iel, yel, ille, yol, and ol. It is likely that, until they are able to read the language, it will be difficult for them to even find information about such things. And using such pronouns prior to reaching complete fluency and eliminating their accent will make them vulnerable to even greater derision than non-binary native speakers.

Learning a constructed language can be even more invalidating. Constructed languages have been made with a particular goal in mind, and queer people soon discover that this goal did not involve them. As an example, Láadan is a language designed to express female thought, and a Láadan learner can expect to learn words for concepts such as “baby,” “pregnant” and “menstruate” from the very start. But perusing the dictionaries in the back of the First Dictionary and Grammar of Láadan, Second Edition, a student will find no words whatsoever for concepts like “transgender,” “transsexual” or “non-binary,” despite the fact that the first two concepts were well-known to feminists at the time of Láadan’s creation.

When thinking about the possibility of a queer language, it is hard to imagine constructing such a thing without invalidating someone. Any constructed language is very likely to push, consciously or unconsciously, the particular biases of the author. For example, if a transmedicalist were to construct a language designed to be inclusive to trans people, the author would probably make sex equivalent to gender, erase the concept of being cis or trans altogether and strictly assert the gender binary. A person who does not believe in gender, on the other hand, may choose to erase any concept of gender from their language altogether. Yet to many trans people, either of these would be less inclusive and less validating than a Romance language, whose queer native speakers have already found their own ways around the problem of binary gender.

As social agreements, languages suffer from the same fundamental problems that any social arrangement suffers, and constructed languages inherit these problems while introducing their own. We may have several answers to the ultimate question of the Universal Language, but it is also possible that we have never actually known what the question is.