lanimed

anonymous asked:

What are your thoughts on creating your own grammatical case for a conlang?

It’s going to sound a bit hypocritical coming from the person who created this language, but I would urge extreme caution. Most of the “strange” cases you see in the world’s languages make sense given the system, and in context, the systems really don’t push the envelope. Even in a language like Tsez, the myriad local cases are fairly compositional, so it makes sense how they arose. Usually what happens in the world’s languages is the language’s system expands out to a certain point and then stops and decides it’s good. Everything not covered directly by that system is handled by metaphorical extension, adpositional phrases, combinations of cases and tenses, etc. The idea is that it’s easier to memorize 20 cases and a series of exceptions than 100 exceptionless cases. After all, if you start letting in cases that have very narrow uses, it’s hard to stop. Consider this example language with two cases: Nominative and accusative:

  • Kana sor telek. “The pigeon eats the pie.”
  • Tele sor kanak. “The pie eats the pigeon.”

Fairly obvious how that works. But you could say that there’s a difference between an inanimate thing being an object and an animate thing being an object. That’d give you this:

  • Kana sor telek. “The pigeon eats the pie.”
  • Tele sor kanap. “The pie eats the pigeon.”

And you could say the same thing about agents, too:

  • Kana sor telek. “The pigeon eats the pie.”
  • Teles sor kanap. “The pie eats the pigeon.”

And, of course, if you want to start splitting hairs, did the pigeon eat all of the pie, or just some of it? This is a distinction many languages make (i.e. accusative vs. partitive), so why not make it here too?

  • Kana sor telek. “The pigeon eats the entire pie.”
  • Kana sor telem. “The pigeon eats part of the pie.”

But that, of course, has to be filtered through the new system we’re building regarding animacy:

  • Kana sor telek. “The pigeon eats the entire pie.”
  • Kana sor telem. “The pigeon eats part of the pie.”
  • Teles sor kanap. “The pie eats the entire pigeon.”
  • Teles sor kanar. “The pie eats part of the pigeon.”

And what if there’s a further animacy distinction—say, inanimate, versus animate but not sentient, versus animate and sentient? You need even more cases to cover all that!

  • Kana sor telek. “The pigeon eats the entire pie.”
  • Kana sor telem. “The pigeon eats part of the pie.”
  • Teles sor kanap. “The pie eats the entire pigeon.”
  • Teles sor kanar. “The pie eats part of the pigeon.”
  • Kana sor muvot. “The pigeon eats the entire boy.”
  • Kana sor muvol. “The pigeon eats part of the boy.”
  • Muvoz sor kanap. “The boy eats the entire pigeon.”
  • Muvoz sor kanar. “The boy eats part of the pigeon.”

So we don’t lose track, here are our cases so far:

  1. Animate Sentient Nominative: -z
  2. Animate Non-Sentient Nominative: -Ø
  3. Inanimate Nominative: -s
  4. Animate Sentient Accusative: -t
  5. Animate Non-Sentient Accusative: -p
  6. Inanimate Accusative: -k
  7. Animate Sentient Partitive: -l
  8. Animate Non-Sentient Partitive: -r
  9. Inanimate Partitive: -m

Etc. ad infinitvm. And you can do the same thing with local cases, e.g.:

  1. On Top of Not Covering Entirely (Horizontally Oriented): -f
  2. On Top of Covering Entirely (Horizontally Oriented): -v
  3. On Top of Not Covering Entirely (Vertically Oriented): -g
  4. On Top of Covering Entirely (Vertically Oriented): -h
  5. Hovering Slightly Above Not Covering Entirely (Horizontally Oriented): -x
  6. Hovering Slightly Above Covering Entirely (Horizontally Oriented): -j
  7. Hovering Slightly Above Not Covering Entirely (Vertically Oriented): -n
  8. Hovering Slightly Above Covering Entirely (Vertically Oriented): -d

Again, ad infinitvm. There’s literally an infinite number of potential cases—going so far as having a special set of cases for every single possible lexeme at every single location and time period (so a set of cases for a specific labradoodle when it was four years and seven days and four minutes old; a new set for when that same labradoodle was four years and seven days and five minutes old; etc.). Such a system, while maximally informative, would be utterly useless. It’d be impossible to form any sentence. One might as well just take a video.

This Wikipedia article has a good list of most of the attested cases found in the world’s languages. You’ll notice that, first, there aren’t that many, and second, many of them are very, very similar. Some of them ought rightly be called the same thing, but different linguists/grammarians will have different names for them, and will use their tertiary uses to argue that it’s a different case (this isn’t a productive way to do things, in my opinion. One ought to call something by a different name as a last resort. Better to call it something that gets your reader into the same ballpark and then list the divergences). For all the really strange cases, though (for example, the ornative), if you look up the actual language, you’ll find that it makes sense in the context of the grammar, and it’s probably not all that strange or special. For example, the “ornative” is used in only one language—Dumi—and in the context, it could’ve been called an instrumental. Basically, there’s an animate comitative (with a person), and an inanimate comitative (with a weapon or some quality), and some grammarian called the latter the ornative, despite the fact that there’s no other case called “instrumental” in there.

That aside, no one can say without seeing the proposal whether or not your new case is warranted. Similarly, we can’t even say if your new case is new or not. You never know: Someone may have thought it up already. Indeed, it may already exist in a natural language. There’s usually one somewhere that does it, only weirder. In fact, we have an acronym for that on the Conlang-L: ANADEW (Another Natlang Already Does it Even Weirder). :)