Thoughts on Problematic Stuff in Mesak

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Adarain
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Thoughts on Problematic Stuff in Mesak

Post by Adarain » Fri 12 Jan 2018, 18:47

Yes, I know I have a thread somewhere on here that already has some Mesak stuff in it. But iirc it also has things on Naksult’ and UPK in there, which no longer are part of the same conworld, and it’s such an old thread that it’s probably full of misinformation anyway. So I’m just making a new one.

In this thread, I want to discuss problems I’m encountering in the development of Mesak. Said language is at this point pretty well-developed, having been worked on over the course of at least 1.5 years and having been tested in several relays. Nevertheless every now and then I keep encountering some unresolved issues. Nowadays these are mostly about the semantics or pragmatics, but some “more usual grammar stuff” also comes up sometimes.

Today I want to brainstorm a solution to a pretty subtle but deep problem: The anti-interplay between the absolutive pivot and incorporation. This’ll require some background knowledge, which I’ll summarize real quick as I do not expect anyone to have it.

The Absolutive Pivot in Mesak
Mesak, being highly ergative both in the morphology as well as the syntax, has a constraint on clause combinations: in general (but there are exceptions), two clauses can only be chained together if their Internal Person¹ is the same. As a rule of thumb, if this constraint can be fulfilled then it will; otherwise alternative strategies might be employed. Thus for example, the sentence “The man shot at the deer and the deer ran away” would be rendered in faux-mesak² as
man-ERG deer-ABS 3EP-shoot-try-3IP and ran_away-3IP
Meanwhile, the sentence “The man shot at the deer and (the man) ran away” would end up as
man-ABS deer-ESS shoot-try-ATP-3IP and ran_away-3IP
with an antipassive to feed the absolutive pivot. Now if, say, a third party fled (say a bird that got startled by the noise) then the pivot constraint cannot be fulfilled. In this case, the conjunction and can still be used, but the absolutive NP must be overtly stated in both clauses, even if one of them was clear from context.
man-ERG deer-ABS 3EP-shoot-try-3IP and bird-ABS fly_away-3IP
This is however, while grammatical, somewhat frowned upon in actual use and a fluent speakers would probably split this into two clauses.

Now, keeping the internal person of the verbs the same is a syntactic requirement of many constructions (some, like the conjunction and allow for exceptions as mentioned, albeit questionable ones only; other constructions such as relative clauses don’t work at all without the constraint fulfilled - the IP of a relative clause must be the same as the head noun), but there’s also discourse considerations: over the course of multiple sentences, it is often attempted to keep the pivot the same. This can lead to several sentences in a row featuring an antipassive to move the topic (which is most commonly underlying A) to the pivot.

So for example, the following little “tale” has the same NP in the pivot every time, allowing it to be omitted from the sentences except for the verb-marking:
her-husband-ERG woman-ABS 3EP-saw-3IP. at home was-3IP. meat-ESS prepare-ATP-3IP, for later eat-ATP-INF
“A man saw his wife. She was at home. She was preparing meat, for her to eat later.”
Tendencies of incorporation in general, and in Mesak specifically
So I assume a few here to be familiar with the hierarchy of incorporation laid out by Marianne Mithun in some apparently quite famous paper that I personally haven’t read (but I’m skimming it for exact definitions and examples). A summary of it however goes more or less as follows: Incorporation occurs in four different types which are in an implicational hierarchy, that is if a language has type III incorporation, then it’ll also have types I and II. The types go as follows:
  1. Lexical compounding, especially of type N+V → V. This is stuff like Bob is berry-picking, which exists in English, but rather unproductively so. Type I incorporation is valence-reducing.
  2. Similar to type I, but here the valence is not decreased. Thus this is either incorporation of an oblique argument, or if a direct object is incorporated then a non-core argument is promoted to object. You’d expect to find stuff like Alice hair-combed Bob here. This is often done specifically to promote an animate argument to a higher position in the syntactic structure, and if a language does not have this type then it might be a marked structure to not do so.
  3. Backgrounding of known information via incorporation: In languages with this type, incorporation can happen as a means to background NPs which are already known information. We’re now in the area of discourse pragmatics. An example I found here from nahuatl goes something like You never eat meat. — I meat-eat all the time! In the second clause, “meat” is now an established thing and can be backgrounded via NI.
  4. Classificatory Incorporation: In the rarest type of incorporation, more general nouns are incorporated into the verb to classify the kind of action. An example given from Caddo uses eye as a classier for roundish objects, leading to a sentence of the form Plums are eye-growing. (which of course just means “Plums are growing”, don’t get nightmares please)
So where does Mesak lie on this scale? Well, there are two ways of incorporation that I defined without much thought about the whole hierarchy:
  1. Incorporation of nouns or adjectives into the copula or similarly behaving verbs. For copulas this is pretty much mandatory; it can be done on other transitive verbs (e.g. “become”) and this decreases valence to intranstive.
  2. Incorporation of the classifier noun into verbs when the IP is a mass noun. This has no effects on valence.
In other words, I have type I as well as type IV in Mesak. So according to Mithun’s paper, I should also have the other two types. Type II in particular could definitely come in handy as another way to feed the pivot, acting as a sort of applicative at times, allowing to raise the required NP to direct object, so I’m definitely adding that one in.

The Problem

If you compare the use cases of type III incorporation with the requirements of the absolutive pivot, then you might notice that they pretty much act against each other - the pivot demands the restated NP to be absolutive (and then allows omission thereof), while type III incorporation would rather have be incorporate it as known information. Obviously doing both at the same time doens’t really work. Some possible solutions are:
  • Don’t care. The language can have types I, II and IV but not III. Languages do break implicational hierarchies at times and I feel like I’d have a good reason for it - type III incorporation is simply overshadowed by the more useful pivot.
  • Care too much. I don’t really want the language to break such a strong pattern, so perhaps I should just remove the type IV incorporation. However, I like it a lot. It’s quirky and adds a bit of redundancy to the pretty underspecified third person.
  • Find other applications for type III incorporation. The internal person of the verb is pretty well-handled by the pivot. But sentences often have other things as well. Perhaps, if there are other recurring nouns in the sentences, those could be incorporated.
Option three of those certainly sounds appealing, so let’s find some case where it would be used! Let’s take that story from before:
her-husband-ERG woman-ABS 3EP-saw-3IP. at home was-3IP. meat-ESS prepare-ATP-3IP, for later eat-ATP-INF
“A man saw his wife. She was at home. She was preparing meat, for her to eat later.”
Are there any other recurring NPs than the wife? Yes! The meat in fact also shows up in two clauses, and in the second one (the infinitive clause) is rather clumsily wiped under the carpet by an antipassive (it could be overtly included with essive case marking). Instead, it could absolutely be incorporated here! The incorporation would also reduce the valence in this case, as we’re incorporating from the position of a direct object; this wouldn’t necessarily always be the case. The important thing is that it’s being incorporated because it’s restating of old information and not simply to reduce the valence.
her-husband-ERG woman-ABS 3EP-saw-3IP. at home was-3IP. meat-ESS prepare-ATP-3IP, for later meat-eat-INF
“A man saw his wife. She was at home. She was preparing meat, for her to eat later.”
And I think I am content with this. One problem dealt with. Next up: derivational morphology.

¹A term I’ll be using for phenomena that unify S and P, in contrast to A, which is associated with the External Person. These terms are taken from Sadock’s grammar on West Greenlandic and make descriptions quite a bit nicer.
²I don’t think adding actual glossed examples would add anything of value here. Non-relevant markers such as numbers or tense omitted from the gloss.
At kveldi skal dag lęyfa,
Konu es bręnnd es,
Mæki es ręyndr es,
Męy es gefin es,
Ís es yfir kømr,
Ǫl es drukkit es.
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Creyeditor
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Re: Thoughts on Problematic Stuff in Mesak

Post by Creyeditor » Fri 12 Jan 2018, 19:45

I really like your way of presentation.1 I have a question though. What is the pragmatic effect of your antipassive? Is it used for indefinite objects and things like that? This might have a bearing on your problem, IINM.

Also I like your footnotes.
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Re: Thoughts on Problematic Stuff in Mesak

Post by Pabappa » Fri 12 Jan 2018, 19:59

I don't have the linguistic bg to really understand all of the terms, so i a pologize, but I don't really see how type 4 differs from type 2. E.g. in English we can say "duckhunt" as a verb, and the object can be just a type of duck such as mallards. Likewise for "I babysat the girls" etc. Eyegrow is reflexive, so other intrans/reflexive verbs in English such as "redden" could be just as well considered incorporates.

I think your system makes sense but I'd like to see examples of the type 4 construction s you're worried about. Perhaps they can be analyzed as something that would not violate the hierarchy.
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Re: Thoughts on Problematic Stuff in Mesak

Post by Adarain » Fri 12 Jan 2018, 20:23

Creyeditor wrote:
Fri 12 Jan 2018, 19:45
I really like your way of presentation.I have a question though. What is the pragmatic effect of your antipassive? Is it used for indefinite objects and things like that? This might have a bearing on your problem, IINM.
Its main use is simply to feed the pivot, or to allow omission of the direct object if it is unknown or irrelevant.

Pabappa wrote:
Fri 12 Jan 2018, 19:59
I think your system makes sense but I'd like to see examples of the type 4 construction s you're worried about. Perhaps they can be analyzed as something that would not violate the hierarchy.
For example:

Image

Fire is a mass noun of class liquid and because it’s the internal person it requires a classifier incorporated into the verb. One could analyze it as a form of agreement considering it’s actually mandatory.
At kveldi skal dag lęyfa,
Konu es bręnnd es,
Mæki es ręyndr es,
Męy es gefin es,
Ís es yfir kømr,
Ǫl es drukkit es.
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Re: Thoughts on Problematic Stuff in Mesak

Post by Adarain » Sun 04 Feb 2018, 19:42

Adarain wrote:
Fri 12 Jan 2018, 20:23
Next up: derivational morphology.
I lied. I can’t really think of a way to make an interesting forum post on derivational morphology anyway, and I’ve kinda figured out what I wanted to in the meantime. However, another thing has come to mind that needs some working on, and that is the writing system.

I usually present Mesak in a phonemic romanization. This is however quite different from its actual writing system, which is supposed to be a logography/imperfect syllabary crossover, with both ideographic and phonetic components. Making the glyphs is a long process, especially because I continously forget to work on it (the goal I set for myself a while ago is to make one glyph per day. I then promptly forgot about it and have made… two… thus far). That said, I know what kind of aesthetic I want and I do have made some meaningless letterforms to test if I like the style. When I started working on it however it was supposed to be just a syllabary, perhaps adapted from a different culture’s writing. But I’m starting to prefer a writing system that is a bit more “actually Mesak”. What I want to figure out today is the rules of the writing. How do glyphs combine into words, basically.

The language
Mesak is agglutinative and can get some decently long words, especially verbs. Roots are almost always CVC, with some limited onset clustering possible. There are nine vowel phones (in a somewhat broad transcription at least) and somewhere between 20 and 30 consonants. I’m staying deliberately vague here because of course it depends how much detail you want in your transcription to determine the amount of sounds. Perhaps the best count is 22, which counts all phonemes + the allophonic retroflex variants of /n t ⁿd ɗ/. I’ve never really figured out the syllable structure of Mesak to be honest. The majority of syllables are CV or CVC, but occasional clusters occur, especially in the onset, and geminate plosives are common (plosive clusters reduce to geminates). All in all, an alphabet would be more suitable. So let’s not do that.

The history behind writing
Mesak writing originally had one primary purpose: to write down promises in the form of contracts. These would originally be painted onto flat rocks, allowing for somewhat complex shapes and both round and straight lines. Over time however, more informal uses of writing (such as letters) became commonplace. For these, rather than wasting paint, one would simply carve into wooden slabs, or even just the inside of bark. This of course gives more restrictions on the shapes. Straight lines are much easier, especially if they go along the grain (which runs top to bottom). With the use of writing becoming more freeform, this required adapting the rather limited script to the whole range of the language. At the stage where Mesak is now, the old stone script has been forgotten, and wood has taken over as a medium. For very important stuff, stone is still used, but with the wood script.

Some assumptions
1. No one ever codified the writing system. It was a process of slow changes and adaptations from essentially ritual contracts consisting soley of logograms in fixed arrangements to freeform writing
2. While not everyone could read or write, it is more common than in most pre-industrial civilizations. Women in particular were often educated in it by their parents.
3. At the time of the transition to writing on wood syllable structure was simpler and almost exclusively consisted of CV syllables, with two exceptions: roots already were CVC in shape and could be followed by a CV syllable, and some coda consonants existed at the end of words.

Components of the Stone Script
Stone contracts would generally follow the following structure:
On one side, the current date, the signature of the person who did a favour, and what they did would be recorded (e.g. at date X, Sánot 8 iTornos¹, 2 oxen). This would be in three vertical lines.
On the back, the date at which the repayment is due, the name of the debtor and what they owe is written (e.g. after harvest of year Y, Tvrot 6 iKonnos², ¼ of the harvest). This again would be in three vertical lines.

So what would be things that have easy ways to be written? Dates, numbers, fractions, basically any object that is traded (farm animals, foodstuff, tools and weapons, land; but also labor) and names. Mesak names formally consist of a private name, a generation number, and a family name (the pragmatics of names are pretty interesting imo but beyond the scope of this. If interest is there, I’ll write up something about it). Given names are usually common word roots, both of nouns and verbs, although family names become taboo once the family is established and therefore no longer have direct meaning by the time they’re used in a contract. People are generally aware of the etymology of their family name though; and there aren’t very many of them.

Extending the script
I reckon in total there would be at least 200 symbols that were at least somewhat consistently in use. Symbols for names would be derived from whatever their name meant, generally. I reckon that not all, but at least a majority of CV syllables that Mesak allows would be accounted for by the roots that had a glyph. In other words, the existing symbols could be used as a very imperfect syllabary. And the first iteration of the script would thus work something like this:

If a word already had a logograph associated with it, you’d just write that and ignore inflection entirely. If it did not have a logograph, then you’d try and approximate its pronunciation with existing symbols. The carving-in-wood medium doesn’t particularly lend itself to making up new glyphs that are readily understood now, though some people certainly would have tried and perhaps even put a drawing and a phonetic approximation next to each other at times and a few modern glyphs might have derived from this practice. Much more commonly however, people would put two logograms next to each other with purely phonetic intent: the first (left) one would provide the onset, the right one the rime. The vowel of the two roots that were compounded as such was usually the same.

The intersting thing however is that for quite a while, only nominals (nouns, adjectives) were written this way. Verbs, much more complex in nature (and usually longer), were basically always spelled out phonetically, with each glyph standing for a CV syllable. For other words, you’d see a bit of both. Generally, the shorter the word, the more likely it’d just be written with a single logogram capturing the initial sounds and ignoring suffixes entirely. There were some problems to be fixed though. For one, while case inflection isn’t actually that important in Mesak (word order is pretty strict anyway and can handle it), posesssion inflection would be quite important to mark. And these would cause a problem, because they are prefixes that often begin with a vowel. And Mesak has no vowel-initial roots. This same problem would also occur with verbs, which sometimes have initial vowels.

There are many ways this could have been resolved. What happened here was that some glyphs representing syllables with the right vowel started being used to represent only the vowel, and received a little marker to show this. Also, in general, a practice to write syllabograms smaller than logograms emerged, which helped to disambiguate. Logograms would typically be stretched to take on ratios of about 2:1 (that is, tall), while syllabograms would be squashed to fit inside a square, and in doing so often became simplified. Once this became established, the use of syllabograms to indicate inflections on nominals started becoming widespread as well. The two common consonantal codas, /s ŋ/ also received their own symbols, derived similarly as the standalone vowels with a “no vowel” glyph. Verb roots on the other hand never really got their own glyphs and verbs continue to be mostly spelled phonetically until current times³.

Other features of the script
Spaces were never really a thing in the history of Mesak writing. For the most part, words were single glyphs anyway, except for the verb at the end, so it wasn’t really necessary, and since most words start with their root you get a similar situation to Japanese with word-initial Kanji followed by some Hiragana. However, it did become commonplace to decorate the beginning of lines, and eventually the beginning of sentence (and sometimes subclauses), giving a comma/period-like punctuation mark. Names also would often be decorated, to keep them distinct from normal words that would be spelled the same way. A line drawn to the left of a word or sentence would emphasize it. This is also used to mark quotations. A straight line down the middle is used to mark repetition. Over time the following convention got established: same size as syllabogram marks reduplication of a syllable, same size as a logogram repetition of a word, and a longer line indicates repetition of a longer block of text such as a whole sentence. Finally, a straight line to the right of a syllabogram is used to mark pregemination of the onset. Inconsistently either the syllable repetition or gemination symbol would also be used to indicate the existence of an offglide, which would otherwise be unwritten. At the end of the word, this sometimes is combined into a flourish starting at the right of the last letter and then going towards the middle, as if both lines were to be written in one stroke. Altogether, this practice is somewhat rare though and most of the times these offglides would just be left unwritten.

So… how’s it look?
That will have to wait.

¹Sán, 8th (generation) of the Tor family
²Tvr, 6th (generation) of the Kon family
³Annoyingly, one of the two logograms I’ve made thus far is for bañ- “speak”… I guess that one can be an exception.
At kveldi skal dag lęyfa,
Konu es bręnnd es,
Mæki es ręyndr es,
Męy es gefin es,
Ís es yfir kømr,
Ǫl es drukkit es.
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