Sunday, April 3, 2022

Some Thoughts on Khangaþyagon

Pete Bleackley's Khangaþyagon is an artlang developed as the ur-language and magical language of the fictional world of Huna. It is also meant for use in a fantasy novel, so how accessible it is to potential readers is a relevant consideration. As an inherent feature of this fantasy world, it is not subject to historical evolution, and is presented as having come into existence fully formed, with no need for any naturalistic explanations for its features. Nevertheless, it doesn't go in for exoticism in any significant way, and seems to me to be a very ergonomic language that could very well have arisen naturally.

The phonology is not terribly weird from the perspective on an English speaker, with the only "exotic" bits being a distinction between flapped and trilled "r" (familiar from Spanish), the presence of a velar fricative (familiar from Russian and some dialects of German), and the (rare) possibility of using "ng" as a syllable onset or "h" as a coda. With a mostly-familiar-to-English phonology, the romanization is also very straightforward. Most letters have exactly the values you would expect; there are digraphs for sh, zh, and kh, and a few diphthongs, but Pete opts for the archaic English letters þ and ð for the dental fricatives. This seems to be a deliberate attempt to evoke the mythic past, in combination with a runic-style native alphabet, "partly because runic scripts appear to have been used in magical practices". The romanization uses apostrophes, but sparingly and in a reasonable functional way, to divide letters which would otherwise form a digraph. It thus avoids the "fantasy apostrophe syndrome".

The phonotactics are intuitively derived, with coinage of new word being based entirely on what Pete thinks feels right rather than strictly following engineered rules, but Pete has reverse engineered the emergent phonotactics for description in the grammar. The stress system is interesting, because stress placement is fully predictable from morphology--but not from surface segmental sequences or word boundaries. Stress placement can thus occasionally be contrastive, distinguishing compound words from words with affix sequences that happen to look like potential roots. It's half-way in between fixed and lexical stress, and similar in function to--thought much simpler than--the Warlpiri stress system.

The morphology is extremely regular and LEGO-block-like. There don't appear to be any morphonological processes that alter roots or affixes, with the exception of a couple of fully predictable epenthetic vowel insertions. The only significant bit of morphological complexity is a lexically-determined variation in the suffix for the active participle of verbs. This fits in well with the conceit of Khangaþyagon as an unevolved ur-language (although I suppose there's no particular reason why a divinely-appointed ur-language shouldn't be horrendously complex, and full of fusion, suppletion, and irregularity, but I guess Pete's intuition and mine agree on this point), and seems like a good design choice for a language meant to support a novel, as it keeps things transparent and as easy as possible to work out for the potential reader. Lest this seem unnatural, Turkish is also famous for extremely regular concatenative morphology (although it does also have vowel harmony going on, which Khangaþyagon lacks), but an even better comparison in this case might be Warlpiri (mentioned above), or other related Australian language, which shares the feature that head-modifier agreement consists of copying the exact same sequence of inflectional markers on every agreeing stem. Unlike Warlpiri, though, Khangaþyagon still maintains a strict distinction between adjectives and nouns, and between adverbs and verbs, and does not take advantage of this agreement system to allow variable word order or discontinuous constituents. That makes the repetition seem a little bit excessive at times, but again this seems tailor-made to make the language as easily accessible as possible to any potential novel readers.

Khangaþyagon does not have distinct determiners, instead affixing demonstrative, interrogative, and basic quantificational morphemes directly to nouns. However, there is a split between nouns and pronouns in terms of which types of modifiers can occur attached to them (fewer for pronouns than for nouns), which can be used to argue for the relevant existence of separate D and N levels in Khangaþyagon syntax, which(as a strong proponent of the DP hypothesis myself), I find quite lovely. Khangaþyagon also has a well-developed nominalized clause construction following an ergative case-marking pattern, which is both useful and also conforms to my personal preferred theories about noun phrase structure (and CP/DP parallelism).

Khangaþyagon is most head-initial, with basic VSO order, but there are several notable exceptions. There are, for example, no prepositions, and adposition-like functions are handled by a variety of inflectional suffixes--which, if Khangaþyagon had any history, I would assume were derived from postpositions. Additionally, nominal compounds are head-final, and conditional clauses appear before their main clause, rather than after (which would seem to have a straightforward information-structure justification, as it's nice to know as soon as possible when a statement is not actually an unconditioned assertion). Additionally, Khangaþyagon has a topic-fronting construction, using a specific topic-marking affix, but this is only used for subordinate clauses of indirect reported speech, which seems to me like a very strange restriction. Topic marking is a useful thing--if you've got it in one part of the language, why not also use it elsewhere?

Overall, the grammar is nicely organized, compact, and pleasant to read. However, there are a few things I would've liked to see better explained:

Modal verbs

The grammar lists 4 modal verbs, with simple English glosses. English modals, however, are highly ambiguous, and the precise meanings of modals vary quite a bit even between closely related languages; it would thus be nice to have a more detailed description of the semantics and usage of these verbs.

The Negative

The suffix "-she" is said to form "antonyms"; but, there are a lot of different kinds of antonyms! Again, it would be nice to have more explanation.

Predicate Adjective Constructions

Predicate adjectives form compounds with verbs, but there is a lack of actual examples, leaving it unclear what the compound element ordering is supposed to be.

Numeral placement

Numbers are treated as adjectives, but syntax examples for adjectives don't clarify where numbers should be placed--close to the noun, far away, or just wherever?

Subordinate clauses

Apart from conditional clauses and reported speech clauses, the only subordinate clauses explicitly discussed as such seem to be relative clauses with resumptive pronouns. This leaves me wondering how complement clauses work (do they have to universally nominalized?), along with various type of adverbial clauses (e.g., purpose clauses, result clauses, temporal clauses).

Finally, quite a few examples, especially in the earlier sections of the grammar, are missing interlinear glosses.

Now, lest this seem overly critical, let me repeat that on the whole, I found the grammar very well organized and pleasant to read. It's one of the nicer bits of conlang documentation I have read, in fact. But, that doesn't mean it can't get better! And the language itself, apart from the form of its documentation, seems to be very well constructed to meet its stated purposes and intended usage, and has a nice aesthetic effect for me.

1 comment:

  1. "it is not subject to historical evolution, and is presented as having come into existence fully formed, with no need for any naturalistic explanations for its features. Nevertheless, it doesn't go in for exoticism in any significant way, and seems to me to be a very ergonomic language that could very well have arisen naturally."

    I like this very much. This is similar to the way I see and feel about Itlani.