Friday, June 3, 2016

Possession & State in Valaklwuuxa

When there are no nouns, how do you manage genitive constructions?

Somewhat surprisingly, the answer turns out to be "the same way you form resultatives".


Resultatives are derived predicates that indicate a final state resulting from an action. In English, we often indicate these with passive participles; thus, potatoes which have undergone boiling are "boiled potatoes"- "boiled" is the state that results from boiling.

In Valaklwuuxa, resultatives are derived by the prefix <ves->. Thus, we can have sentence pairs like "nbetsa tu txe Dxan-la." ~ "John sat down." vs. "vesnbetsa txe Dxon-la" ~ "John is sitting.", or "le-val" ~ "It's cooking" vs. "le-vesval" ~ "It is / has been cooked."

These kinds of derived predicates tend to be intransitive, but there are some transitive roots which produce transitive resultatives as well- things like "to touch" -> "to be in contact with something", or "to see" -> "to have been seen by someone".

But what happens if you try to apply that particular derivation to something which is not a process? Well...


Consider a root like <kusa> "child". If we conjugate that as "le-kusa", it means "He/she is a child"; we can also add an explicit subject, and say "kusa txe Dxon-la" ~ "John is a child." But if we add the prefix <ves->, we get "veskusa txe Dxon-la" ~ "John has a child"; and, in fact, this is a transitive predicate- the unstated object is John's child.

(In fact, possessive predicates actually tend to be ambi-transitive; if additional description of the object is needed or implied, one uses the transitive conjugations; but if not, the intransitive conjugations are also acceptable. This is fairly weird for Valaklwuuxa verbs, where transitivity tends to be quite explicit, but omitting explicit transitivizers or detransitivizers eliminates extra syllables in a situation where different conjugation paradigms usually eliminate ambiguity anyway.)

Now, if I want to say something a little more complicated, like "I see John's child", I can relativize that object, and get "xe-lwokx txe veskusasa txe Dxan-la" (where <lwokx> is the root for "to see something")- note that the inverse voice suffix <-sa> must be used to relativize the child, rather than the child's possessor (John).

The Semantic Connection

In theory, these two usages of <ves-> could be related in two general ways:

1. Accidental homophony- they are two separate prefixes that happen to sound the same, due to historical sound changes or something.
2. Two uses of the same morpheme- somehow, one semantic operation actually covers both cases.

Strange as it may seem, the correct answer is actually (2). This is, in fact, one and the same prefix in both cases, and is in fact modelled on a similar prefix <es-> in Lillooet Salish. This paper explains the morphosyntactic evidence for considering <es-> to be one morpheme in Salish, but for Valaklwuuxa it is sufficient to simply assert that, yes, this is one thing because that's how the conlang was defined, as long as we can provide a reasonably coherent definition for it. That's gonna take a little bit of formal semantics.

One tenuous semantic connection is to consider that possessing something is itself a state, so it makes sense to have a stative marker on possessed things. Similarly, we can conceive of things "having" states. Many languages in fact do this- in Spanish, for example, one is not hungry; rather, one has hunger, and the use of one verb, "to have", to express both possession and the perfect aspect in English is similarly suggestive that there may be a natural connection between these two concepts. Then, stative-on-a-thing = possession, and stative-on-an-action = resulting state. But, we can go deeper than this.

First, let's consider things that have a necessary relation to something else- e.g., a father is always the father of someone, a child is always someone's child, a husband always has a wife, etc. If we look at a root like <kwutanbets> "husband", it is intransitive and therefore takes one external argument- the person who is a husband. However, there is another, hidden, internal argument- the wife of whom he is the husband. What <ves-> does, then, is to pull out the internal argument and make it external. Thus, we can have sets of sentences like "kwutanbets txe Dxan-la" ~ "John is (someone's) husband" / "veskwutanbets txe nBale-la" ~ "Mary has a husband" / "Dxan txe veskwutanbetsa txe nBale-la" ~ "John is Mary's husband".

(And, of course, we can do the same thing with the inverse relation- "sendand txe nBale-la" ~ "Mary is (someone's) wife" / "nBale txe vesendandsa txe Dxan-la" ~ "Mary is John's wife")

This can be generalized so that we assume all "things" have an internal possessor argument, even if it's not an obvious, inherent one, like husband/wife or father/child.

Now, if we consider processes, the (or at least one) external argument is still an entity, a thing; as explained in a previous post, there is after all no difference in Valaklwuuxa between "I act" and "I am an actor". Processes, however, have a different internal argument. One could have a process-root which has the subject's possessor as an internal argument, and then <ves-> would obviously have the same function in every case. If, however, we assume that process-roots have an internal argument for the end-state of the process, then <ves-> still has the same semantic effect- promote an implicit internal argument to an explicit external argument- but produces resultatives for some roots and possessives for others.

Pronominal Possessives

Now, in Salish languages, this is not the only mechanism of indicating possession. In particular, there are pronominal possessive clitics which can be added to a root. In Valaklwuuxa, however, this is not strictly necessary; normal verb inflections already serve that purpose quite adequately. For example, if you wish to say "my rock" or "my house", you can simply conjugate the possessed form (in inverse voice, of course, lest you say "I have a rock instead!") for first person: "veswonglqasaka" or "vesk'elansaka", respectively. Note than in English, possessive pronouns are tied up with determiners and definiteness; i.e., you can "the rock", "a rock", or "my rock", but not *"a my rock"; to express that meaning, you have to resort to a circumlocution like "one of my rocks" or "a rock of mine". In Valaklwuuxa, however, you can mix and match however you like: "my rock" ~ "txe veswonglqasaka", "a rock of mine" ~ "ta veswonglqasaka".

Now, without specifying the thing, how would you say "It is mine!"? Basically, it comes out as "It's my thing!":

"xe-vestuka!" (I have the thing!) / "le-vestuksaka!" (It is my thing!)

where <tuk> is the root for "a thing".

(cf. "vestukend" ~ "I have a thing" / "I have something", using the non-transitive conjugation.)

The existing machinery is also sufficient for asking questions about possession, although there is some ambiguity for pronominal possessors. As described in my last post, one can simply replace an explicit possessor phrase with an interrogative to ask who owns something, although the lack of independent possessive pronouns means the structure of the answer is not exactly parallel to that of the question in this case:

"veswonglqa ta k'aku-la?" ~ "Whose rock is it?"
"le-veswonglqasaka" ~ "It is my rock." (cf. "veswonglqaka" ~ "I have a rock.")

If you want to ask something like "Is that John's rock?", you merely have to add the polar question particle after "John":

"Dxan k'a se veswonglqasa?"

If, however, you want to ask "Is that your rock?", we get some abiguity:

"dwu-veswonglqask k'a se?" ~ "Is that your rock (or someone else's)?" / "Is that your rock (or another thing of yours)?"

This is, however, no worse than the ambiguity that exists in English polar questions, and it would be very rare for that to cause an actual practical problem in a real discourse context.

The Verb <benlqwo>

In addition to forming both predicative ("I have") and attributive ("my") possessives with <ves->, Valaklwuuxa also has a root <benlqwo>, meaning "to have" or "to carry". In situations where <ves-> is unsuitable (e.g., because the derived form would invalidate a serial construction), <benlqwo> can be used for predicative possession. In cases where a form in <ves-> would be feasible, however, <benlqwo> carries a specific connotation of "on one's person". Thus, one might say:

"xe-veshatqakend" ~ "I have/own a rock." (Why yes, there are two different roots that both mean "rock"- "wonglqa" and "hatqak".)


"xe-veshatqaka se" ~ "I have this rock." / "This is my rock."


"xe-benlqwond ta hatqak-la" ~ "I have a rock on me (in my hand or in a pocket)".

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Questions & Deixis in Valaklwuuxa

I have been translating the Universal Speed Curriculum into Valaklwuuxa. This is a very simple conversational script; it's not intended to teach you a lot vocabulary, or particularly deep grammar principles- just to get you comfortable with speaking fluently in a target language and capable of asking simple questions and understanding simple answers, so that you can learn more of the target language in the target language.

As such, it starts out with sentences like "What is that?" / "That is a rock." / "Is that a rock?" Basically, you need to be able to ask content questions and polar questions, and name things by pointing (deixis), which we do in English with demonstrative pronouns. These should be easy things to handle in any language, and in fact Valaklwuuxa handles just fine... but given how subjectively weird Valaklwuuxa is, just how it manages may be non-obvious to the typical Anglophone.

If you know a little bit about Valaklwuuxa already (because you've read my previous blog posts or something), you might reasonably think "well, there aren't any normal nouns, and you don't need pronouns except the subject clitics because the verb conjugation takes care of everything else, so maybe there are extra deictic and interrogative conjugations?" And indeed, one could imagine a language that worked that way- the conjugation table would be large an unwieldy, but that never stopped a natlang! But there's a problem: if "what" and "that" are just translated by verb inflections... what gets inflected? There is, after all, no word for "is"!


To resolve this, the interrogative pronouns "what" and "who" are actually translated in Valaklwuuxa by interrogative verbs, meaning roughly "to be what?" and "to be whom?" These are <k'asa> and <k'aku>, respectively. A third interrogative word, <k'axe>, is what we might be tempted to call a "pro-verb"; it most closely translates into English as "to do what?" In general, there is no morphosyntactic distinction in Valaklwuuxa between sentences like "I act" and "I am an actor- these would both translate the same way. But, Valaklwuuxa distinguishes unergative verb (with an agent-like subject) and unaccusative verbs (with a patient-like subject) in other areas of the grammar, and that is the internal distinction between <k'asa" and "k'axe>. Animate things, however, are always "things one can be" but never "things one can do", so there is only the one (unaccusative) root for "to be whom?"

Using any of these verbs as the predicate of a sentence allows asking questions like "What is it?" If you need to ask a question about an argument of some other verb (like, say "What did you eat?"), you just treat the interrogatives like any other Valaklwuuxa root, and stick them into a relativized argument phrase.

All of these interrogative roots also have corresponding answer words: <dasa> ("to be that"), <daxe> ("to do that"), and <daku> ("to be them"). These, however, are not the deictic (pointing) words that you would use in a question like "What is that?" They are more like regular pronouns (or pro-verbs)- they refer to some thing or action that has already been mentioned earlier in the discourse, which you do not wish to repeat. (And if you think that the schematicism in how answers and questions are regularly related to each other is suspiciously unnatural... well, Russian actually does exactly the same thing!)


Surprisingly, the actual demonstratives turned out to work pretty much like they do in English- the exact set of them is different, and they divide up space differently, but they pretty much just look like free pronouns. Lest you think that this is not weird enough for a language with such alien-to-Anglophones morphosyntax as Valaklwuuxa... well, that's actually how natural Salish languages handle them, too.

Internally, demonstratives are considered to be pretty much the same as articles- they are things that can head argument phrases, but they can't be predicates. They just happen to be intransitive version of articles (determiners), which don't require a relative clause to follow.

The three generic, non-deictic articles, which always a require a following phrase, are as follows:

<txe> "I know which one"
<ta> "I don't know/care which one"
<kwe> "the one who/which..."

The demonstratives, which can be used with or without an explicit argument, come in pairs distinguished by animacy:

<tqe>/<se> "this (near me)"
<tqel>/<sel> "that (near you)"
<lel>/<lel> "yon (near it)"

Note that there is no number distinction (e.g., "this" vs." these"). Plural marking can done by attaching the clitic <=ndek> to a determiner, but is not obligatory- it is unlikely to be used, except for emphasis, if number is indicated in some other, such as by the verb conjugation or if a specific number is mentioned.

Demonstratives are also distinguished from articles in that they can also be prefixed with <we->, which is a "pointing" marker; it's not obligatory when you point at something, but can only be used if you are actually pointing at something, and can be approximated as "this/that one right here/there!"

There is also a single set (without any animacy distinction) of question/answer determiners: <k'adza>, for asking "which one?", and the answer <dadza>, used for (approximately) "the same one"/"the same thing".

Asking What Things Are

Now, we have enough to translate:

"What is that (near you)?" ~ "k'asa sel?"
"This (near me) is a rock." ~ "wonglqa se."
(Where <wonglqa> is the word for "to be a rock".)

Now you might think, why did we choose to have interrogative roots and deictic pronouns? Couldn't you just as easily do it the other way around? That would make content questions simpler, because you wouldn't have to construct a relative clause around every interrogative root. And the answer is "yes", some other language could indeed work just the same as Valaklwuuxa in every other repsect, except for flipping that one decision the other way around. But choosing to do things in this way has one really nice consequence: the structure of content questions exactly parallels the structure of their answers. If the rock is "yonder", so that both questioner and answerer use the same demonstrative, you get:

"k'asa lel?"
"wonglqa lel."

Replace the question word with its answer, and everything else stays the same. Treating interrogatives as verbs does bring up another issue, though: when using them in argument positions, which determiner do you use? Typically, you'll use <ta>, the "I don't know which one" article (because if you did know which one, why did you ask?), but any determiner is valid, and they can be used to make much more specific kinds of questions, like:

"dwu-valsk sel k'asa?" ~ "You cooked that what?" / "What's that thing that you cooked?"

A Brief Note on Polar Questions

So, that's pretty much everything you need to know about content questions- but what about polar questions, with a yes/no answer?
The simplest way to form them is simply by intonation; syntactic structure is identical to statements, but a rising-falling tone over a whole clause will turn it into a question. If you want to be more specific, though, there is an interrogative particle <k'a>, which placed immediately after whatever is in doubt. Thus, we can ask:

"dwu-valsk k'a ta wonglqa-la?" ~ "Did you cook a rock?" (as opposed to doing something else with it)
"dwu valsk ta wonglqa k'a-la? ~ "Did you cook a rock?" (as opposed to some other item)

There is of course a corresponding answer word, <da>, used to confirm the thing in doubt:

"xe-valka ta wonglqa da-la." ~ "Yes, I really did cook a rock."

And an (irregular) negative answer particle:

"xe-valka ta wonglqa pe-la." ~ "No, I did not cook a rock." (but I may have cooked something else)


In addition to the interrogatives discussed above, there are two more pairs of answer/question roots:

<skwol> / <sdwol> "how many / so many"
<k'akwo> / <dakwo> "which (ordinal) one / that (ordinal) one"

That last one is a thing for which English has no single simple question word, but many languages (like Hindi) do. If you want to elicit a response like "I am the fifth child in my family.", you can imagine a corresponding question like "Which-th child are you?" In English, that's terribly awkward, and there is just no standard way of forming that kind of question, but in Valaklwuuxa, <k'akwo> is the standard translation for "which-th", or "what number".

Now, there's one more bit of interestingness. All of the basic question roots are intransitive, but there is a generic transitivizing suffix <-(e)t>. This usually has a causative meaning ("to make something happen", "to make someone do something"), which means Valaklwuuxa doesn't need to use special verbs for "to make" or "to force" nearly as often as a language like English does, but the precise meaning of a transitivized verb is lexically specified. In the case of <kaxet>/<daxet>, the transitive versions actually mean "to do what to something?"/"to do that to something". So if you want to ask "What did he make you do?", the translation actually does use a separate word for "make" after all.