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.