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CORRECTION: A commenter below graciously corrected me on a point I (George) raised in the show.  When I talk about desiderative languages, please replace that word with dechticaetiative.  Look to the comments below for a relevant link.  I apologize for misidentifying the phenomenon I was talking about.

We talk a lot about morphosyntactic alignment, outlining the basic types, talking a little about various complications, and even bringing up a linguist who thinks it’s not all that important, anyway.  Also, we feature a natlang for the second time: Ngarla, a language of Australia, with some morphosyntactic oddness (that’s typical for Australia, but still odd).  Also, stick around after the end music to hear George’s informal review of China Miéville’s Embassytown.

Top of Show Greeting: Jameld

Links and Resources:

Featured NATLANG: Ngarla


Email from Bryn LaFollette:

Hey guys,I came across your podcast a few of weeks ago on iTunes
serendipitously and just wanted to let you know that I’ve been
heartily enjoying it! I had been meaning to write in just to voice my
appreciation, but then ep #33: Supersegmentals just happened to hit
upon what happened to be the very subject matter of my Master’s
Thesis; namely, derivation of phonemic tone inventories in natural
languages, with field work on Mandarin. And while working with my
collected data that I had specifically observed the tendency for low
tone (i.e. tone 3) in Mandarin to be realized by many speakers,
especially in continuous speech, as creaky voice! And, just as Bianca
mentioned, the hell that wrought in trying to get usable frequency
data from spectrograms of the recordings I had made with my native
consultants! Anyhow, it gave me a good laugh.My main area of research used to be Phonology (though with a heavy
dash of phonetics) and Syntax (very close to the very fuzzy border
with morphology). I had gotten as far as completing a Linguistics
Master’s degree from University of California, Santa Cruz when I took
a “short break” from linguistics, graduate school and academics in
general about ten years ago, but in the mean time sort of accidentally
ended up a professional programmer. Your podcast has gotten me digging
up my old attempts at constructed languages, as well as re-interested
me in my old linguistics work, and, incidentally, LaTeX. From what
I’ve seen since looking at the examples you’ve featured, my humble
artlangs wouldn’t really qualify as much more than sketches, honestly.
Plus, being designed for the use of non-linguists they were
necessarily simplified and restrained from what I might have otherwise
done. Although the content is unchanged from their last being worked
on in ’98 (before grad school took up pretty much all my time), I
think they’re laying about somewhere on the interwebz still in some
form or other. Well over due for a revision, me thinks.Now that I’ve said ‘hi’, I may make some comments on older episodes as
I get around to listening to them. So, here’s fair warning, I guess.

As far as feedback, there were two main thoughts I’ve been having:

1. Aside from the foray into supersegmentals, it seems like phonology
hasn’t figured very strongly in the podcast. The episode on sound
systems and romanization was really mostly just romanization, and left
me wondering if it might not be something worth covering. Especially,
the wonderfully diverse contrasting features in the worlds languages.
Likewise, concepts like sonority scale and what sorts of crazy
phonemes some languages in the world deem to function as a syllable
nucleus, not just syllabic /r/ or /l/, but like /t/, for example. The
sound of a language as spoken by a fluent speaker is a major part of
the appeal to me, and I feel like maybe more appreciation of the sound
of less familiar languages might be a nice source of inspiration to
others. For example, as I’ve heard you guys mention that Pacific
Northwest languages are popular right. Although I don’t share the
philosophy of the website, or the substance or message of the
recordings, this is still a great series of recordings of speakers
reading texts in Nootka
( There are many others
of quite a variety of American Indian languages on the same site, as

2. Historical linguistics and language change are of strong interest
to me, and I think the level of work in including elements of
historical linguistics techniques in conlanging may not necessarily
need to be as involved as it sounds like is often portrayed in the
podcast. For example, I was thinking how in ep #27 on irregularity how
one of the easiest ways to add irregularity is basically to get a
suppletion pattern in a verb or noun paradigm by simply coming up with
two separate lexical items, sussing out the full pattern for each, and
then create the irregular one for the language by simply picking and
choosing between the two. This is a nice quick way of getting, for
example, a pattern like that of English verb ‘to go’ (go~gone~went).
Another useful idea is to put some historical style structure in your
lexicon by establishing specific strata (like Norman-French vs
Anglo-Saxon vs Latin in English, or Yamato vs Sino-Japanese in
Japanese). Having a subset of vocabulary that was borrowed at some
point from another language, and so doesn’t “fit” quite the same with
the rest is an easy and quick way to add some naturalistic detail. The
thing is, Historical Linguistics, when you’re doing it formally, is
for the most part working backwards toward some common ancestor by
cross linguistic comparison, or internal reconstruction. Sure you can
work forwards through time from a pre-defined proto-language to your
daughter language. But, that’s just one method of using that toolset
with others that can be applied on a much less overarching scale.

This is getting too long, so I’ll just leave off there.


— Ceterum censeo, Carthaginem esse delendam.

6 Responses to “Conlangery #36: Morphosyntactic Alignment”

  1. Carsten B.

    In case anyone’s thinking of my conlang (Ayeri): No! It’s not strictly Austronesian Alignment that it has, but rather the simplified ‘trigger’ thing that William mentions, but I’m trying my best to keep definiteness and information flow in the mix when I translate things (and probably don’t always succeed). Since William mentions Tagalog, I’d like to point out there’s a Tagalog reference grammar by Schachter and Otanes (UC Berkeley, 1983) on Google Books and last time I checked they actually had scans of all pages.

  2. Bryn LaFollette

    I think it’s a little cheeky to say Linguists have no clue what’s going on regarding this ep’s subject, especially when you then goes on to use the work of linguists to attempt to elucidate the subject at hand. I’m sure it was meant just to be funny, but on behalf of Linguists I just wanted to say “whoa there, buddy!”

    The fact is that the diversity of linguistic phenomena doesn’t fit nicely and cleanly into sharp-edged categorial boxes. Even the most hard-core typological approach still stresses the prototype conception of typological categories, in which there’s some idealized exemplar of a set and languages are classed with the set whose model they hold closest to. I think keeping this in mind is actually more creatively freeing for the conlanger too, since this would hopefully engender an approach in which they will come up with whatever system their language uses and then after perhaps ponder where it would fit in the typological sense. It’s good to take inspiration, but not worry too much about designing to match the category. After all, the categories are analytical constructs, and not above question. The linked “Blue Bird” article makes such a good point with respect to this that I’m just going to point emphatically to it rather than trying to rehash its argument.

    Morphological Alignment is great for getting started on wrapping one’s head around the scope of what’s out there, but it shouldn’t be seen as the complete picture; just a general guide, not a strict model to emulate.


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