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We resurrect the podcast with an episode that’s all answering listener feedback. We hope to keep this thing going for a good long time.

Top of Show Greeting: French (translation and recording by Christophe Grandsire-Koevoets)

Emails below the fold:


I’m a rather bad natlanger. I’m too tempted to make Lojban-ish languages, where things are unambigous and make sense. I often make up languages that have a terminator for relative clauses. I wonder if you know any real languages that have them. There are trailing prepositions, but I don’t if there’s something like “I arrested the man who robbed bank END CLAUSE yesterday.”

Some thoughts about Toki Pona. I kinda like it, though I don’t like the philosophy. I think of it more as an artlang that takes pidgin-languages to the extreme. I’m thinking of things like “I want this. You help me.” or “I’m big. You’re small”. They aren’t the most practical way to say these things, but they sound the most pidgin-y to me. Btw, perhaps you could make a show, or a short, about pidgins and creols. I don’t remember if you’ve done so already.

Thx for a great show

Thomas Lindroth /tʊmːas lɪndrɯːt/

George, William, and Mike,

I wanted to send you guys an email to say that I love the show so far and think you are doing a great job. I have a job where I can listen to my iPod while working so over the past month I have started from the beginning and I have listened all the way to episode 58. I plan on finishing out all the episodes so that I will be current with the show. Thanks for taking so much time to put on a quality podcast that is both entertaining and informative.

So I was going to wait until I had listened to all the episodes to comment on anything episode specific for fear that it would become irrelevant. I have a BA in Spanish and quite honestly everytime George mentions Spanish I kind of throw up a little in my mouth (just kidding) and I want to comment on it just to clarify things. Well I couldn’t let this one pass from episode 58 about Middle Voice. What is about to ensue in this email is me taking you to task about Spanish reflexives and the middle voice in general, specifically the verb gustar, and a lot of really just ranting and raving about something that by now is old hat and you probably have better things to do anyway. If you don’t have time to read it now, you can just know that I love the show and can’t wait to catch up on all the episodes.


The Middle Voice and Spanish

Unfortunately, the majority of low level undergrad Spanish courses are really deficient in this area of grammar, and understandably so, because to give this topic the treatment it deserves you would have to teach some grammatical concepts that are probably too involved for purposes of Spanish 101, 102, or even 201 0r 202. So what usually happens is that se is taught as the reflexive pronoun, that every se construction is reflexive and that anything that is weird or doesn’t quite fit that explanation is just an exception to memorize.

A much more cohesive explanation involves defining se as the Spanish middle voice marker. You can read a paper about this here: if you want a more detailed explanation. For now, just realize that in Spanish the middle voice is will be used to reflect a change in state, either positionally, mentally, emotionally, etc. This jives with William’s cross-linguistic description of middle voice.

My first comment would be that you can actually do a test in Spanish to see if a particular verb is middle voice or reflexive. The test is adding the prepositional phrase “a + mí/tí/sí mismo.” The middle voice constructions will either change meaning or not make sense, while the reflexive constructions will just focus on the agent/patient. Let me give you some examples:

Es cierto, respetas a él, pero no te respetas at tí mismo.

In the previous example, “a tí mismo” serves to contrast against “a èl.” This is reflexive.

Compare these two statements:

Me enfermé

*Me enfermé a mí mismo.

The second sentence is ungrammatical. The first sentence means roughly “I got sick” while the second presumably is trying to say something like “I made myself sick.” To express that in spanish, you would have to use hacer. “Me hice enfermo/a.” A final example:

Me paré.

Me paré a mí mismo.

In this usage, pararse means “to stand up.” Now the first example is middle voice, indicating a change in bodily posture (this happens with sentarse, acostarse, etc.). But when you apply the test the meaning changes to something akin to a paraplegic physically lifting their body into a standing position, and that would probably only be understood within that specific context.

So the first comment was a clarification about Spanish in general. The second comment concerns gustar. Gustar is neither reflexive nor middle voice! “Me gusta la guitarra” just means that “the guitar pleases me.” This is a simple, basic Spanish sentence with a simple subject and direct object pronoun. That’s it! No middle voice here. No reflexive. Just normal active voice. If you have a question about it feel free to email me.

Thanks for helping clear up, the difference between agglutinating, synthetic & poly-synthetic languages for me.

The stuff about Noun-incorporation was pretty cool.

I also liked your examples differentiating verb-compounding vs verb serializing.

After some follow up reading on Wikipedia, I know understand Mandarin verbs much better.

This was another excellent Conlangery episode.

I still believe all your Natural language & general linguistics episodes are the best.

But then again, that could be because I am only interested in Natlangs & linguistics :- )

Btw, you folks should post your episodes on Reddit –

I am sure lots of folks would be interested.

Hay guys,

I finally got around to listening to Episode #87, and I find it disappointing that George and William are not opera fans. Of course, maybe that’s because I discovered my love of language learning and developed a serious drive to conlang not through language study, but rather through studying opera. True, you can’t take an aria’s performance and expect to get any linguistic knowledge out of it, but it’s easy to find the text itself. In learning arias, art songs and Lieder (German art songs, a genre on its own), I’ve forgone the traditional “Google it” approach and gotten out my dictionary to translate the text myself. Doing so has taught me much about the internal workings of each of the languages.

Regarding “il mio cuore”, the possessive adjective “il mio” is used almost universally. But when talking about a family member, you don’t use it. This can be evidenced in a beautiful operatic aria, YouTube link below. “O mio babbino caro” (Oh my dear Daddy) is a song about a stubborn teenager who’s pleading with her father, “Oh, my dear Daddy, I love him! I want to go to Porta Rossa and buy the ring! If you don’t let me marry him, I’ll…I’ll throw myself off the Ponte Vecchio into the river!” Most beautiful temper tantrum ever.

Also, one of my favorite arias is “Madamina, il catalogo è questo” (“My lady, this is a list”, or “The Catalog Aria”) from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”. Here, Leplorello cautions Donna Elvira about his master’s many, many lovers: “In Italy, six hundred and forty; In Germany, two hundred and thirty-one; A hundred in France; in Turkey, ninety-one; But in Spain already one thousand and three.”

I do concede that when looking at opera of any kind, it’s important to have the text in front of you for reference, especially if you don’t speak the language. These pieces were originally written to be understood as easily as the text of “Wouldn’t it be Loverly?” from My Fair Lady. That’s why I always have subtitles on when I watch “Die Zauberflöte” (which I highly recommend). Most people give opera a bad rap because they immediately picture a Wagnerian soprano singing unintelligibly in Italian (even though they’re thinking of a scene from “Gotterdämmerung”, which is in German). If they took some time to study it a bit, I think they’d come to like it in spite of the stigma of opera being stuffy, rich people music that’s written mostly in foreign languages (John Adams’ opera “Nixon in China” notwithstanding).

tl;dr – Because studying opera and art song was what made me discover my passion for language learning, I can say from experience that studying opera, and especially translating opera in order to sing it sincerely, is a good way to study how other languages work, at least in poetry.

Renee Fleming – O mio babbino caro (text)

Bryn Terfel – Madamina, il catalogo è questo (text)

(The Klingon opera William referenced:’u’)


After listening to the latest episode, I think an episode about naming languages would be a great idea. I wanted to point you to a blog post I wrote a while ago about creating a naming language for one of my stories, as it contains some general remarks about naming languages and may be interesting or useful for forming your own episode:

Happy conlanging!

JS Bangs

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle” -Philo of Alexandria

Wm: this quote isn’t actually by Philo —

I enjoyed your recent podcast on Ancient Greek; I learned several new

things from it, even though I’ve been studying Greek on my own for

years (I’ve never taken a school course in it).  I would like to see

some short episodes about Greek discourse particles.


A few of the particles in gjâ-zym-byn are based in some way on Greek

particles; some are borrowed directly, others have their syntax and

pragmatics inspired by some particle in Greek though their form is a

priori.  For instance, the gzb negative imperative {ẑŏ} was based on

Greek µη, and gzb {men} “on the one hand… one the other hand” is

borrowed from µεν.

Jim Henry

7 Responses to “Conlangery #90: Mailbag 1”

  1. gleki

    Thomas Lindroth, I’m not sure it’s important to always use terminators in Lojban-ish languages. E.g.

    {lo prenu noi mi pu se slabu [ke’a] cu klama lo cmana}
    ARTICLE person who I PAST-TENSE familiar-with [whom] START-PREDICATE go-to ARTICLE MOUNTAIN
    A person, whom I was familiar with is now going to a mountain.

    You might think that {cu} is a terminator although it’s better think of it as of a marker that a predicate starts. Another method is to use {ke’a}. In this case {cu} is not needed.
    {lo prenu noi mi pu se slabu ke’a klama lo cmana}

    For more explanations please join!forum/lojban-beginners and ask questions there.

  2. Christophe Grandsire-Koevoets

    Hi there!

    Funny to hear myself on the podcast. As usual, my own voice sounds very weird in my ears 🙂 .

    Since nobody reacted to it, I just wanted to mention something about that whole opera-musical controversy you had going on there. George, if your criterion to recognise musicals from operas is whether there is speaking in them or only singing, then it is a bit of a messed-up criterion. Why? Because according to that criterion, Les Misérables would be an opera, while Mozart’s own Die Zauberflöte would be a musical! I hope you’ll agree with me that that can’t be right!

    So how do you recognise one from the other? Well, that’s actually not quite as easy as having a simple criterion. The problem is that there is a continuum between the classical opera style and modern musicals. You’ve got the classical opera, with a cast of classical-trained singers, usually rather heavy in terms of music and subject (although some operas can be comical in nature). Then you’ve got the Singspiel in Germany (Die Zauberflöte was written in that style) and opéra comique in France (the most well known example is Carmen), that both grew out of the classical opera style by combining it was spoken dialogue and usually lighter (though not always) stories. From those was developed the operetta, usually much shorter and lighter in form, usually much more realistic and often with a satirical element. And finally, from the genre of the operetta came the modern musical theatre genre, which then became a thing of its own, evolving in parallel with the operetta, and the two influencing each other (the main difference being that musicals put much more focus on the story and the characters, with more dialogue than in typical operettas).

    The borders between all those genres are actually quite fuzzy. Is opéra comique a subtype of opera, or a separate genre? What about operetta? Especially in the beginning of the 20th century, the same singers would often appear in operettas and in musicals, so what’s the difference? What about “recent” operas like Porgy and Bess and Treemonisha? They both include elements that are definitely not classical in nature, so should they be considered musicals instead?

    So how do you tell whether something is an opera or a musical? A good way is to look where the focus of the work is: operas (and operettas) focus on singing and music, with acting and dialogue (when present at all) having more of a support role. The cast of such works will normally always consist of classically trained singers. And while dancing will sometimes be present, it will typically consist of ballet dancing only, and the singers won’t take part in it. Musicals, on the other hand, focus on story, acting and dialogue, with the songs supporting those rather than the other way around. Also, the main roles will typically dance as well, if any dancing is done. And the cast is typically not classically trained in singing (I have seen opera singers play in musicals. I’ve never seen musical actors play in operas though as they typically cannot handle it).

    A nice description I read to distinguish operettas from musicals (the two closest genres) is that operettas are opera with acting, while musicals are theatre with singing. Basically similar in execution, but different in origin and focus. Notice, by the way, how we typically talk about opera singers, but musical actors (here’s your focus difference right there!).

    Musicals like Les Mis where all the dialogue is actually sung do blur the lines a bit more, but not enough to call them operas. They are still theatre plays that just happen to be sung from beginning to end.

    OK, once again we find that human activities don’t lend themselves to neat classifications. But I do hope this (far too long and off-topic) comment will help you distinguish between these artforms.


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