Friday, October 12, 2012

To Morpheme Or Not To Morpheme?

Today I've listened to a great episode of Conlangery (, the podcast about conlangs for conlangers by conlangers. The show, incredible as ever, made me think a lot about the idea of morphemes (and what's better than a show that also makes you think?). The whole deal about morphemes started out as a note in passing at the end of episode #68 (also recommended) with no other comment than David hating them as a linguistic tool. The ideas where hugely developed in this last episode, for which I'm very grateful.

I think it is true that many think of languages and words as a string of morphemes, while this notion is being challenged lately, it did have a very strong hold upon many linguists' minds. If you think about it, the further back you go, the more people relied on morphemes. A good example could be some old English dictionaries with etymology such as the one I have. Another example would be Esperanto itself, where this is a huge problem: morphemes are everything. This is one of the biggest downsides for me. Think about the "suffixes" which can equally be treated as whole words or units of meaning, it seems Zamenhof really believed in the theory of morphemes. You have for example:

malamiko "enemy" (mal- + amiko).

Note the prefix mal- which marks the opposite of something, the antonym if you will. It can be used as a word in itself, remember that it is considered still a prefix;

malo "opposite".

Other examples include:

junulo "youngster, young person" (juno + ulo, or more "natively" jun'ul'o)
ulo "person"
vortaro "a group of words, dictionary" (vorto + aro, or vort'ar'o, with suffix 'ar' meaning "a group of, a collection of")
aro "a group".

This is done in Esperanto intensively. In the same line I find in one of my dictionaries analyzing words things like a noun-forming suffix for proto-Aryan (sic) -ti, and thus giving English tru-th, divided into the morpheme of "true" and the morpheme of "noun", and other examples are presented in Latin do-ti, dowry, men-ti, mind, mor-ti, death.

The Atlantean Affair

I still remember it being mentioned that in the script the "Latin" phrase used by the protagonist (Milo Thatch) was written and analyzed as:

Dic-es lingu-as Rom-ae (sic)

To mean "you speak the language of Rome?" Jokes about how incorrect the phrasing is aside, it is plain that they mark the "morphemes" to relate them to the morphemes of Atlantean, as exemplified in the same text:

Kag wegen-os prid-uses es-e-nen.

Which is, by the way, reworked into "Latin":

It-a, su-m ami-ce via-tor. (sic)

In this last one you can even detect a very big mistake. The idea was to translate "Yes, I am a friendly traveler", but the problem is that in that sentence "friendly" is an adjective, it modifies "traveler", it looks like an adverb, but it isn't. So it actually says, "Yes, I'm a traveler in a friendly way", I don't know, maybe he means he never mistreats his back-pack. 

So, as you can see, so dependent were they on morphemes that they thought they could just replace the -ly morpheme for adverbs (which in English can also be used in adjectives) with the Latin morpheme -e for adverbs. And therein also rests my idea about why morphemes are not the refined tool we are lead to believe and why David Peterson is totally right, here we see that the "adverb morpheme" in fact does not act as an "adverb morpheme" but as an "adjective morpheme". There's no 1 to 1 morpheme to meaning, there's no 1 to 1 perfectly determined category for each morpheme, and even when you can work them into morphemes they will back-slap you right to your face...

Morphemes, they never fail to disappoint. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

How Wide Should Your Suffixes Be?

Few doubt that suffixes or prefixes, affixes in general, are a useful tool in a conlanger toolbox, but how precise should they be? In this respect I tend to think: the broader the meaning the better. To me it's actually a lot of fun to be able to have an arrange of suffixes with broad meanings and play around with the possibilities that can be unlocked with them.

One example I am specially fond of is Esperanto's -aro and -ujo suffixes. The first one roughly means "a group, heap, collection, set, herd" and is mainly used of groups of things that form a sort of collection, such as words in a dictionary, or the human-kind in general, while the other has an approximate meaning of "jug, box, container, vessel" and it's used mainly to mean countries (containing people), or more even interestingly trees from their natural fruits. So, for example, you have vortaro to mean "dictionary, a collection of all the words", homaro "humanity as a whole", and on the other side you have Hispanujo "Spain, the country", and pomujo "an apple-tree". This brings many possibilities worth exploring. You could talk of your library as either libraro or even librujo, but they would have subtle differences.

In the case of libraro it means the collection of books that constitutes your library, i.e. your books as a whole. The second case implies the container wherein those books are set, i.e. your shelves as a whole, the whole furniture. Therefore you would have a knowledge of your libraro, but you would want to move your librujo around your bedroom. This is interesting because with only one little suffix you get two different words connected while, at the same time, subtly different in their sense.

In my languages I have tried to keep this in mind and use it, specially in Unnai. In that language I have some suffixes that have very open and broad meanings that depending on the noun or adjective they are attached shift and mean new things. There are, of course, other interesting suffixes in Esperanto, one I particular like is -ingo, a suffix Esperanto uses too mundanely and logically but that I think used in other languages or conlangs has many possibilities. It basically means "an object in which the noun to which it's attached is introduced". Let's see a practical example: fingro "finger", gives fingringo "thimble". As for ideas for conlangs one could stretch it a lot more, it could just mean "something in which other something is introduced", you could have soul + this suffix meaning "body", a poetic version, of course, or how about feelings + suffix meaning "heart"? Well as you see it has a vast number of possible ways to go.

So, to sum up, keep your suffixes open and wide you never know when you could need a stretch in meaning.