I was doing a silly one-off where people were exploring the infrastructure tunnels under a city. Given the urban legends about alligators living in the sewers, I had The Authorities and anyone they ran into from the Department of Water and Power insist there were no alligators at all. Not one.
The punch-line was that there were crocodiles. A small civilization of them, busting open water mains to make basking pools, smashing the valves on steam pipes to get heat to cook with, and stealing parts from monitoring equipment. Someone tried a bit of pointing and speaking slowly to try to talk to them; between that and a friend having mentioned that she wished someone would do a roleplay where the players had to work out how to communicate with speakers of another language, I decided to give it a shot.
Since this is a one-off, we won't be too elaborate. Nor will we introduce irregularity. Put in some case marking, but leave out grammatical number, just for the sake of simplicity. And remove verb agreement since that's one less thing for me to have to get wrong.
This also makes it easier for the players who are trying to figure out what different endings mean.
Use a simple word list, to start.
Generating vocabulary can be the hardest part, so I grabbed a list of the 1000 most frequently used English words and made a script to generate one list of all the one syllable words in this language and one list of all two syllable words. Then randomized them and picked as convenient. The one syllable words with no coda were used for more common words like pronouns, numerals, and other basic functionals.
Really I should have more places of articulation. I imagine something with a long mouth like a crocodile would have distinguishable fore-palate, mid-palate, and rear-palate, say. No labials, though, because crocodiles always smile.
|x||Unvoiced velar affricate|
|ts||Unvoiced alveolar affricate|
|ch||Unvoiced palatal fricative|
|qh||Unvoiced uvular fricative|
|ng||Voiced uvular nasal|
|n||Voiced alveolar nasal|
|gr||Voiced uvular trill|
|dr||Voiced alveolar trill|
|r||Retroflex alveolar approximant|
For those of you following along at home, an ejective is a sound made by stopping the flow of air with the tongue at some point, building up pressure behind it, and releasing it. The places of articulation refer to the spot in your mouth you press the tongue or narrow the flow of air: uvular being the uvula (the 'punching bag' in the back of the throat), velar being the soft palate, alveolar being the ridge into which ones top teeth are set, and palatal being the hard palate (roof of the mouth).
Consonants are voiced if the vocal cords are vibrating and unvoiced if it's just air. A fricative involves narrowing the flow of air so it becomes turbulent (like 's' and 'f' in English).
A nasal involves stopping the flow of air but opening the soft palate so it can come out through the nose. An affricate is a stop immediately released into a fricative. A trill is a narrowing beyond a fricative, so that the tongue touches and breaks contact (assisted by air flow) repeatedly.
The Alveolar Retroflex Approximant turns the tongue-tip back so the underside is near the alveolar ridge. This sounds like the way most Americans pronounce the letter 'r'. (Though in reality there are several ways Americans make this sound. Probably the most popular is the 'bunch-tongue', where the middle of the tongue is pulled back and heaved up toward the palate.)
|y||ü as in über|
|u||oo as in moo|
|ue||oo as in book|
|ou||awe as in awe|
|o||o as in know|
|i||e as in see|
|a||a as in father|
|e||schwa when unstressed, a as in way when stressed|
Let C be any consonant and V any vowel. Let F be any affricate, fricative, nasal, or rhotic.
Valid words are
Put another way, all syllables must have an onset, and that onset may be any consonant. The nucleus may be any vowel. Only the ultimate syllable in a word may have a coda. That coda may be an affricate, fricative, nasal, or rhotic. (A rhotic is anything kind of like an 'r'.)
If adding a morpheme would cause two consonants in sequence, e is inserted. If adding a morpheme would cause two vowels in sequence, a nasal is inserted, assimilated to the first vowel.
If one word ends in a nasal and the next word begins with a stop, affricate, or trill the nasal assimilates.
If one morpheme ends in the vowels y or i and another morpheme beginning with a nasal is added, the nasal assimilates to become alveolar.
If one morpheme ends in the vowel a and another morpheme beginning with a nasal is added, the nasal assimilates to become uvular.
Stresses alternate. The ultimate of a word is always stressed. Primary stress is on the antepenult if there is one, on the ultimate otherwise.
In the case of a single syllable word, it is unstressed if following word's initial syllable is stressed, stressed otherwise.
Nouns are inflected for case. There is no gender. Number (dual and plural) is indicated with an adjective-like particle.
This is an ergative-absolutive language. (The absolutive case is used for the subjects of intransitive verbs and the objects of transitive verbs while the ergative case is used for the subject of transitive verbs.) It possesses the following cases:
- Dative (Also indicates motion toward)
- Genitive (Also indicates motion away)
- Locative (Place where something is/action happens)
Verbs are conjugated for mood and voice. Tense is indicated by adverbs.
Participles may be formed from the indicative mood and any voice.
- A transitive verb with the subject in the ergative is active but has an unspecified/unimportant object.
- Not marked morphologically. A transitive verb with the subject in the absolutive is, semantically, in the middle voice. I love middle voice. I adore middle voice.
- The subject of the verb is the patient of the action. If the agent is specified, it is in the genitive case.
- The realis mood for describing things that happened.
- Irrealis used for counterfactuals, or statements of belief for which the speaker implies no claim of truth. (e.g. 'Bill persuaded Dan that…' would take an indicative if the speaker believed the statement of which Dan was persuaded, subjunctive otherwise.) When used as an independent clause, expresses belief of possibility.
- Used for wishes, desires, and orders. When used on its own, indicates a statement the speaker wishes would be carried out or believes to be a claim of obligation.
- For questions.
- For commands.
By default, word order is Subject-Object-Verb, adjectives follow the noun they modify, and genitives precede the nouns they modify. Adverbs often precede the verb they modify but may wander about the clause freely.
There are no prepositions.
To hell with prepositions.
The devil take them.
Functions normally performed by prepositions are performed by a combination of case marking and adverbs. Words like 'in' modify verbs rather than nouns. e.g. 'John-Abs house-dat inly walk.'
John walking while he happens to be in the house (pacing, say) ⇒
LOC inly walk.'
Subordinating conjunctions are case-marked to indicate their position in the larger clause.
Relative clauses are handled with a relativising adjective (which may be substantive) and resumptive pronoun.
Genitive absolutes may appear anywhere in the sentence, but usually precede the subject. The genitive is used for the subject of the participle and the absolutive for the object, if there is one.
Explicitly marking events as happening in sequence uses the genitive absolute. Bill arrived after Jonathan left ⇒ 'Jonathan having left, Bill afterly arrived.'
Use of the genitive absolute turned out to be a mistake, and a quite grave one. Since I'm using the genitive for absolutes and as the genitive of agent in passive voice constructions, we can't have a genitive absolute in the passive voice with an agent. Or at least not without stuffing something between the subject and the agent. In retrospect I should have used locative absolutes instead. (I use the genitive for a lot. Absolute, agent, comparison, partitive, possession, authority…Pee-Wee Herman is probably going to pop up and go "Well if you love the genitive case so much, why don't you MARRY it?")
|Active||∅ (Implied by case structure)|
|Middle||∅ (Implied by case structure)|
Participles (adjectival forms of verbs. Like 'running' in 'the running man') are formed with the infix -ike-. Gerunds (Like 'fishing' in 'fishing is fun') are formed with the infix -exe-.
In participles and gerunds with no object, middle-voice meaning is assumed if appropriate. Explicitly specify a dummy pronoun of 'na' to get active voice.
A substantive, active participle is identical to the agentive. i.e. a 'walking one' is the same as a 'walker'.
|Adverb to adjective||-ne|
|qhoudr||river (large, flowing)|
|tsach||pond/pool (still, small)|
|tsedr||lake/ocean (waves, large)|
|tsoudr||creek (small, flowing, safe)|
|chan||home/safe spot/bed/basking place|
|chogr||bit/small unimportant thing/speck|
|noung||body/torso/tree trunk/main subject|
|qhidr||cancer, swelling disease|
|ngar||thing given up/cost|
|druets||run of river/course of process/path/order|
|nyts||sin/crime/violation of tradition/peace|
|nger||day (one sleep cycle, primarily)|
|ngyr||detail (small important thing)|
|ngang||wasting disease/premature age|
|grux||edge/boundary/point in task|
|tsing||eye/faculty of perception|
|qar||mud/shallow water beast|
|noch||garden/planned life/farm/genetic eng.|
|noqh||wave/generation/rank/(step in process)|
|chue||part/portion/member/item in a group/piece|
|koung||heart/seat of will/essential aspect|
|drux||intestines/seat of compassion/altruism|
|groqh||key (anything made to fit in some other space/system)|
|ryqh||breath/speech/language/seat of rational thought/mind|
|nguets||engine/machine (obvious moving parts)|
|ker||computer/subtle machine (electronic/unmoving parts/magic)|
|kaqh||kidneys/memory/store of knowledge|
|qhar||music/rhythm/poetry (sound arranged aesthetically)|
|qydr||right side of body|
|ngougr||left side of body|
|ner||room/building/large structure/house/container for people|
|qhouch||pure water/clear liquid|
|grugr||muddy water/emulsion/suspension/cloudy or opaque liquid|
|droung||situation/circumstances/way things are (contingent)|
|rung||world (all that is reachable/terrestrial)|
|nits||cosmos (all that exists)|
|roung||unused, available, gratis|
|xiqh||more/greater/larger (comp. to. gen)|
|chits||less/smaller (comp. to gen)|
|touch||equal in quantity/degree/same/similar|
|taqh||wooden/of plant matter|
|rogr||fine/on a small scale|
|nych||free, unrestrained, libre|
|qex||short/low (in vertical extent)|
|ruex||high/tall (in vertical extent)|
|chets||accordingly (source in genitive)|
|nets||around/concerning/on the topic of|
|ren||now (simultaneous with)|
|tsur||causally (because w/gen abs)|
|kodr||beginningly (starting an action/process)|
|dragr||beyond/far side/other side|
|xeng||this side/near side/closer|
|chuch||by/passingly/along and past|
|druer||likely (but not absolutely certain|
|nouch||satisfying obligation (ind)/ought (subj)|
|nyn||purposefully (with gen. abs. purpose of main)|
|ne||why? (By what cause?)|
|kou||why? (For what reason?)|
|nue||how? (Int. Pron. in instr. may be idiomatic)|
|dry||initiation/expectation of other act/questioningly|
|xuegr||permitted (subj)/prosocial wish (opt)|
|drun||forbidden (subj)/shameful wish (opt)|
|ryts||explicitly not the case (subj)/futile (opt)|
|qech||within a short time of now/soon/recently|
|koch||over/for a long time|
|ngung||over/for a short time|
|drour||at/along/away from the side of|
|ngeqh||whether, Yes/no questions with interrogative|
|grir||together/in accord/in unison/in coordination|
|xuedr||to excess/too much|
The copula is irregular because the copula is always irregular.
|roch||add to/improve (added thing in inst.)/grow (mid)|
|tsodr||except/minus/exclude (act)/decrease (mid)|
|nuts||think (mid, topic in loc), solve/analyze (act)|
|tsong||change (act)/become (mid) w/dat|
|togr||guides/drives (act)/behaves (mid)|
|qhong||informs/convinces (dat) of (abs)|
|qhets||knows/believes (act)/is self-aware/conscious (mid)|
|qoung||exchange (dat: trader. abs: got. inst: given)|
|qouch||care/nourish/moisten/remember (subj. ABS, obj. DAT)|
|qheng||catch/arrest/hinder (ind)/stop/abandom action (mid)|
|qegr||open/unblock/make a path/become opportune (mid)|
|greng||discuss/confer/have a parliament|
|tsoung||formally hear/decide as a group/civic function|
|tsogr||cover/conceal/brood/warm (ind)/wear (mid)|
|qher||cut, unravel, implies purpose/precision|
|ruech||forget (act), die (mid)|
|kuex||differ (erg differs from abs), be unusual (mid)|
|kydr||write/draw/carve/make meaningful marks|
|dran||drop (act)/fall (mid)|
|ngoun||lose (act)/fail/fall short (mid)|
|ngu||cause/enact/bring about (often w/participial phrase|
|ngedr||hang/suspend (act), dangle (mid)|
|qong||happen/come about/come to term|
|rix||ABS is named INST / ERG calls/identifies ABS with INST|
|tuedr||work/do tasks of social utility|
|qhats||ABS is replaced with INST|
|grun||attach/fasten (ind)/join together w/dat (mid)|
|tsor||kill (other than for food/agriculture)|
|ngue||bellow with emotion (laughter/shock/pain)|
|routs||lay (act)/lie (mid)|
|qats||lay egg/drop fruit|
|tsidr||live/other autonomous process continuing|
|grix||love/be friends with|
|xuch||have sex with (symmetric)|
|xuen||put/place (ind)/sit/situate oneself (mid)|
|grung||quite/vary/done with heightened intensity|
|gridr||lift/raise/stand (ind)/stand up/rise (mid)|
|nax||judge/evaluate/appraise (ind)/confess (mid)|
|xegr||ERG prefers ABS to GEN/|
|chox||decode/find meaning in/read/understand|
|ngoudr||ERG is ready for ABS/ABS is awake/ready to act/primed|
|gring||return/give back/strike back|
|ryx||reveal (ind)/appear (mid)|
|qhur||endanger/threaten (ind)/take risk (mid)|
|ngich||share/distribute/hold in common|
|nyr||to such a degree/so|
|tsuegr||arrange by kinds/order/sort|
|tsuer||hold/keep/have (act) maintain oneself/stay (mid)|
|xi||introduces relative clause|
|qu||if (subj/opt) / when (ind)|
|kits||we (but not you)|
|qa||hundred, uncountably many|
|notsex||in larger groups|
|qax||in large groups|
Repetitive Numbers (adverbs)
|qane||hundred/uncountably many times|
A Small Corpus
One is able to do. ⇒
xyts roudrikeng chedr tsuereko ⇒
This tells that something. ⇒
drats tsin xy kyxeko ⇒
He/she/it has come. ⇒
dru dran drongene chareko ⇒
This seems (appears, looks) dark. ⇒
dra rych rareryko ⇒
Water pipe ⇒
tsoudrery tsouqh ⇒
qhouchery chuer qhan ⇒
Electric wire ⇒
kyrery nouqh ⇒
Those strangers approach. ⇒
xodr tsi tsu chareko ⇒
We (but not you) are people. ⇒
kits groux ru
Why are they here again? ⇒
tsi drax kou keqh tsuerenen ⇒
LOCwhy? again have-
You greet them. ⇒
gry tsongek tsin roudr
gry tsiqh xax ⇒
gryts cho tsuer ⇒
I ate before you came. ⇒
kiry tsan ridrikery gry tsu chareko ⇒
I wonder whether they might be thinking beasts. ⇒
ki ngix tsi qhydr nutsike ngeqh tsun dry nutseko ⇒
I cook for the one who opened the pipe. ⇒
kits xin drots tsugrery tsouqh tsang qegreko tyxeko ⇒
One of them made the electricity again when they came. ⇒
tsiry notsery qhiry kyr keqh ren regrikery tsu tsan chareko ⇒
ABSagain simultaneous fixed-
GENto before go-
What do we do? ⇒
kits notsets te roudrenen ⇒