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Constructed Languages

If constructed languages are required for worldbuilding these days, I'm done for. I've tried on occasion, but it seems to be too much work for too little reward.

Grammar is overwhelming. I mean, I remember the general shape of the declension and conjugation tables back in Latin, and depending how you count it, German has half a dozen or a full dozen of different ways to construct plural forms, and worst of all, when you can speak a language you do not think about grammar much.

But I at least try to have some consistency in the sound of names from the same area (or at least have a reason when I don't... the area Sylvie is from, for instance, is a bit of a melting pot that involved three major langauges, at least), or come up with rough frameworks or little quirks that might inform how someone talks in a second language, or thinks about certain things.

Like, Raaji doesn't have different words for "curse" and "gift"; they are both "qualities bestowed on someone by someone else". There's a contrasting word meaning "inherent trait of a person". Being afraid of cats because as a kid you were accidentally locked in a shed with a cat that got angry and agressive would be the former, as would be being good at embroidery because your grandfather taught you. Being afraid of spiders because you find them just creepy, or being able to get stuff off high shelves because you are tall the latter.

Also, whatever word they use for "yes" starts with R, so when speaking English (or a language I render as English because translation convention) using "right" instead of "yes" seems a likely habit.

Second-language quirks are something I can observe in myself sometimes. For example I don't use "must not". German has the expression "musst nicht". "Musst" alone would be "[you] must", "nicht" would be "not", but put together it means "need not". The English logic is "you must (not-do-that)", the German "you (must-not) do that".

I think scraps and fragments and rough ideas are enough for me. I can't help thinking I should get more systematic about inventing names, when I don't just lift real-world ones.

What's something interesting you noticed when you learned a foreign language? When considering secondary world fiction, what do you think of fantasy names vs names you find in the real world, too?

Useful German Words That English Is Missing

There's a List of "25 Handy Words That Simply Don’t Exist In English" going around. A lot of those words seem more esoteric than handy to me, so here are three I'm more likely to use in day-to-day conversation.

Übermorgen - the day after tomorrow

Vorgestern - the day before yesterday

Doch. - The word "doch" kann have several meanings, but the one I'm thinking of is to give a positive answer to a negative question. If someone answers "Don't you like strawberries?" with "yes", do they mean "yes, you're right", or "yes, I do like strawberries"? "Doch" is an unambiguous one-word answer meaning "you're wrong, I do."

What's a word in another language that you wish English had? Or what's a concept you'd like to have a specific word for?

ETA: There are more comments on the mirror on LJ.

Blog tags: Language

German Phrases That Don't Matter

For fellow language nerds, some idioms to express that a choice doesn't matter, or that one is indifferent.

  • Zwischen Szylla und Charybdis
  • Between Scylla and Charybdis
  • Die Wahl zwischen Pest und Cholera haben
  • Having the choice between the plague and cholera
  • Das ist mir Jacke wie Hose.
  • It's to me jacket like trousers.
  • ETA: I think this corresponds best with "six of one, half a dozen of the other".
  • Gehupft wie gesprungen
  • Skipped like jumped
  • Note that usually that should be "gehüpft", but in this expression it isn't.
  • Das ist mir egal.
  • It's all the same to me.
  • Das ist mir latte.
  • It's all the same to me.
  • "Latte" (the noun) means "lath". How and why it got turned into an adjective for this expression, I don't know. Maybe because laths are supposed to be the same size all around, and even?
  • Alles Banane.
  • Everything banana.
  • There are choices, but they are pretend choices because the result is all the same?

Another random note: "Zwischen Hammer und Amboss" (between hammer and anvil) surprisingly is not the counterpart of "between a rock and a hard place", but means something like "coming under attack from both sides".

One more English expression for a choice with only bad options is "between the devil and the deep blue sea".

Can you share some idioms to the theme from another language, or that I did not think of?

Blog tags: Language

Ruminations on Grammatical Gender

This is one for the people who are interested in languages.

So, German, like some other languages, assigns "gender" to nouns. You can tell the gender from the article, which therefore should memorize the article with the word, if you ever have to memorize German vocabulary. "Der" is male, "die" is female, "das" is neuter.
Tables and the sky are male, vases and traffic lights female, books and windows neuter. There may be some weird logic behind it when you go far enough back in time, or maybe not, but it looks pretty arbitrary, and it has for most words nothing to do with biological sex. Since the same goes for animals, which often do have a sex, so that gets a bit confusing.

the dog = der Hund
the cat = die Katze
the horse = das Pferd

In consequence, any dog (and frog, and most species of bird) of unknown sex is referred to with "er" ("he"); any cat (and spider) of unknown sex is referred to as "sie" ("she"), and any horse of unknown gender is referred to as "es" ("it").
You cannot just change the article to change the gender. "Die Pferd" isn't a female horse, it's a mistake. The word for a mare is "Stute". And, yes, that is grammatically female, too; at least that much logic is in the system. Incidentally, a gelding is "der Wallach" - castrating a stud still leaves him male. Some people get weird ideas in that department.

One rather prominent example where the biological sex doesn't match the grammatical gender is the German word for "girl", that is, "das Mädchen". That's because that word is a diminutive (of "Magd", meaning "maid"), and all diminutives are neuter.

There are some words that can be more than one gender. "Gelee" ("jelly") can be male or neuter, depending on whom you ask. Other words mean different things depending on gender. I don't know many examples, but here they are:
"Die See" is the sea, while "der See" is a lake.
"Das Tau" is a rope, "der Tau" is dew. (As far as I can tell that's a coincidence, two different etymologies arriving at the same syllable.)
If someone says she's driving to Shanghai "mit ihrer Honda" ("with her(female) Honda"), she's going by motorbike, if she says she's driving "mit ihrem Honda" ("with her(male) Honda"), it's a car.

So, "the Harley" is female. "The motorbike" is neuter. That's because the German word, "Motorrad", is a compound noun formed from "der Motor", which means what you think it means, and "das Rad", which means "wheel".
This is one of the few hard-and-fast rules: In compound nouns, the gender is always that of the last component noun.

I've been trying to find some other patterns, but
Nouns formed with -heit or -keit at the end are always female - "die Dummheit" (stupidity, stupid idea), "die Wirksamkeit" (effectiveness), "die Menschheit" (humanity)

Talking about trees: There may be certain rules of the thumb you can find. While "der Baum" (the tree) is male, pretty much any species of tree whose name does not end in "-baum" and which is native to Europe is female - die Birke (birch), die Eiche (oak), die Buche (beech), die Fichte (spruce)... "Exotic" trees on the other hand are more commonly male: der Ginko, der Eukalyptus, der Baobab.
A similar pattern can be found with river names, although a bit more muddied. There are some male rivers around here, most prominently the Rhine, but a lot of rivers in Europe are female (including the Loire, Thames, and Volga). On the other hand I can't came up with a female river outside of Europe. The word for river, "Fluss", is male, too, so that might have something to do with it.

I'll leave it at that for now, hoping conlangers or writers or just apprentice language geeks get something out of it.

Blog tags: Resources Language
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