Thinking Out Loud: Wordplay and Proto-Sino-Tibetan

A forum for discussing linguistics or just languages in general.
Post Reply
User avatar
Posts: 163
Joined: 05 Nov 2015 23:20
Location: Miami, FL

Thinking Out Loud: Wordplay and Proto-Sino-Tibetan

Post by Inkcube-Revolver » 10 Jul 2017 19:19

This post is, in part, a love-letter to the two-odd years I've spent digging through dictionaries, Wikipedia articles, and other sites and books on many of my linguistic queries, all in the effort to make a conlang -- a proto-conlang, to be more precise. The change in ideas every other month and the attempts to bring cohesion and order to the muddled chaos of language, riddled with peculiarities and rules that get broken and subdued by new ones. The slippery slope of phonotactics and phonology as a whole. Considering what someone thinks of when a word is said; all have to be taken into consideration, not excluding grammar, writing, etc. So believe me when I say that I get frustrated with my conlangs, all sorts of heated, bent out of shape, red in the ears and blue in the face from not being able to compose sounds in a satisfying way.
Out of context, it almost sounds like some strain of a learning disability, "Why won't these sounds I make come out the way I want them?" or even a cousin of lunacy, or a nasty breed of boredom ("I don't like how this one word fits into the scheme, so I'm going to tinker with three months's work of a hundred tiny bolts and screws until the big gears change in my favor so that this way of talking about gibberish is more sensible than that way of talking about nonsense.")

But I feel that's truly the ultimate goal with a project like this that any one of us undertake: to have our gibberish make sense. It's just not satisfying to find that a line of text in a game, or a movie, tv show, wherever, doesn't translate to anything, or that what it does translate to is word-for-word English, Ukranian, Chinese, or whatever the case. Most of the time, that's just not fun. Whether it's a simple sentence, or an 8,000 word epic poem of high fantasy and whimsy, why is translating into an encoded bottle of gobbledegook so intriguing to anyone?

In my case, at least, it comes partly from a want to express in words what I don't always get to say, what I may not be able to discuss with someone else because it's either too weird or niche or unrealistic or nonsensical, like about riding horseback through the plains of a foreign country while hunting for a magical hare, or how to ask for a favor and use certain qualifiers and honorifics when standing before a Sarvonian warlord that is the son of the thunder god, or any other made up, fantastical scenario. It brings something like epiphany understanding how my own world plays out when I see things in the perspective of another speaker based on how their language works, and replicating that sense of reframing, gaining new eyes, seeing the forest for the trees, however one puts it, into my conlangs.
This is what I've been pushing for, with semantics and metaphor being pools of thought I've been swimming in for possibly hundreds of hours. Double-meanings in punny ways are still not rampant in my conlangs, but making and using puns is a goal I have, along with being able to say anything at all in my conlangs.

I also simply like how words sound, the way they ring in my ears, the feeling that I get when a word is in tune. It makes sweet, sweet music for me ear-holes.

And now Sino-Tibetan:

For those of you not in "the know:" Proto-Sino-Tibetan is the giant reconstructed protolang for Chinese (the Sino-), Tibetan (the... Tibetan), Burmese, and many, many East-Asian languages (though not for Japanese or Korean, with their origins hotly contested). So I've been studying up on, not speaking Chinese, but essentially why Chinese is Chinese to begin with. And there's a glint of wonder in my eyes, some real high-flying glee, when I see the way patterns form with words, with how things come together and make sense, and how osbcure and superficially and truly random language is. Nobody, and I mean nobody would be able to determine that (wèi), pronounced /u̯eɪ̯⁵¹/, comes from Old Chinese /*[ɢ]ʷə[t]-s/ without some footwork (they mean "stomach" by the way, which I love). Little things like this solidify my love and appreciation for the science, with etymology by far my favorite branch of linguistic studies. When looking at Matisoff's 2009 etymology list for Proto-ST roots, I had the idea that some of the words were connected in a way that may be a stretch, but looks like a slight possibility. And if you've ever looked at the list, you might know where I'm coming from:
you've got words like */mik/ "eye", which may have been */mjak/, so they pair like so: *mik~mjak. And you've got a general word for "hair," */tsam/, a root for the sun, */nəj/, and a bunch of other nifty ones like */sni(ː)ŋ~snik/ "year" and medicine, juice, and paint apparently coming from the same root */tsij~r-tsəj/. But looking at the "Body Parts" portion of the list, you've got */mik/ and */tsam/ as above, and

"ear" (*g/r~na), "nose" (*s-na), and "snot" (*s-nap).

They all have a base of *-na in common. So setting off to dig up info, the Wiktionary page states that the meaning between "ear" and "nose" is only distinctly made through the prefixes each word has. It also takes some pleasure in showing other instances of smell and hearing being interchangeable, which is confusing to say the least. Keep in mind that much of the following is conjecture.

This draws up some tantalizing conclusions:

1. The root signified a general "perception, awareness" meaning, with the prefixes specifying what does the perceiving and sensing, which has its own problems I'll address,

2. The base root *-na means "head," and the prefixes indicate where on the head the parts are, or possibly how they are arranged on the face or head.

and if none of these prove to be "correct," or at least sensible or close enough to correct as one can go, then what does *na mean in these terms? And what of other roots that display similar issues?

These two answers have their own set of unique problems, with the foremost being how accurate the protoforms may or may not be; with how the comparative method works, these may be the best that can be currently inferred, if not already outdated by new data. Taking that with a bag of assorted spices, let's grab for the tablesalt and proceed:

With #1's reasoning, it wouldn't be too much of a stress when considering that metaphor and context really drive the way boundaries of concepts change and crumble on a daily basis, with abstraction being the root of the problem and why we force language to do work-arounds. The Indo-European root */h₂ew-/ portrays this ambiguity and dexterity wonderfully with its inferred definition "to perceive, see, to be aware of," which gives rise to forms in its daughters that range from "sight" to "hearing," with Hittite (u-uḫ-ḫi) "I see," and Latin audio "I hear, listen."
The broad meaning of "perception" allows for these contructions to occur. This also implies that the prefixes, as nominal markers of some kind, carry the actual weight of meaning "nose" and "ear" for each term. This could work, but goes against the other terms listed that seem to have nothing to do with noses and listening with */s-hjwəj-t/ "blood," */r-maj/ "tail," */s-laj~s-lej/ "tongue," */s-kri(j)-s/ "gall, bile," among others in the list. These may simply be coincidence, or there may be more to this, to which we arrive to Interpretation #2 in grabbing the pepper to aid the salt.

#2's answer to this question, that *na simply means "head," could work in a few ways, as ears and noses are, hopefully, found on most humans where they belong. The *g- and *r- prefixes for "ear" don't mean ear, but that the things on */na/ protrude a certain way, with the same case for *s- in "nose." This not only helps specify the meanings of */s-na/ and */g-na/, but also works for some of the other terms on the list:

*/s-lej/ "tongue" is something you stick out, with */lej~laj/ possibly another word for "mouth;"

*/r-maj/ "tail" is something that "sticks out "or "curves away" from what is presumably the rear or body,

*/m-kri(j)s/ or */s-kri(j)s/ "gall," is something that spills out or comes out of the liver, which may be the base's meaning,

and */s-nap/ "snot," possibly with the *-[p], would be "something that comes out of the thing sticking out of the head."

With */s-hjwəj-t/ "blood," */hjwəj-t/ could mean either "vein "or "body," as in it's "something that comes out of the body/vein," or the root could simply mean "blood," */s-hjwəj-t/ specifying exposed blood.

Let's stretch the implausibility meter even further: the prefix *g- for "ear" also shares a prefix with the numeral "two," */g-ni-s/ with it's alternative */s-ni-s/, and */g-na/ could mean "the two things sticking out of the head."

But something STILL doesn't feel quite right with these results, there's something that feels intrinsic, yet missing with these answers and where the questions really lead to: why? The longest, tallest walls in town, the inevitability of defeat and surrender for any good-hearted linguist and his research, the question that dims the light.


Everyone has a story to tell, whether they believe it or not, and with all good stories, there's a good way and a bad way to go about them. Languages are likened to living things, they prosper in numbers, they find ways to survive and carry over to the next generation of speakers, and once the last speaker of his tribe dies, so, too, does his tongue. His heritage, his roots, history, and way of thinking, his greatest tool many constantly take for granted, his words. Each word has its own history, its own story to tell, and sadly some words can only go so far back.

I hope you enjoyed my rambling.

I sit in darkness
With too much homework to do
It's snowing on Mt. Fuji

- Inkcube
I like my languages how I like my women: grammatically complex with various moods and tenses, a thin line between nouns and verbs, and dozens upon dozens of possible conjugations for every single verb.

Post Reply