New paper on language death

I’ve just finished a writeup of my NWAV ‘cornerstone’ talk. It’s an attempt to try to explain why a particular set of changes took place as the Gaelic dialect spoken in East Sutherland, and studied by Nancy Dorian, died in the latter half of the last century. The explanation, unlike Dorian’s, which relied on primarily sociolinguistic factors, appeals to the weakening and loss of syntactic agreement features, and how this leads to the replacement of a variety of null pronoun structures with alternatives. Which particular alternatives are chosen depends on what I call the ‘syntactic ecology’ of the language.

The draft is on Lingbuzz at:

Structure, use, and syntactic ecology in language obsolescence

Bird Syntax?

Bird syntax? Interesting new study in Nature but I’m not convinced. They report that birds have a particular behaviour associated with one call ABC (scan for danger), and another behaviour associated with D (approach nest). They say that when the birds hear ABC-D, you get scanning followed by approach, but with D-ABC, no reaction, and conclude that there’s a compositionally interpreted rule for the former, but no rule licensing that latter. But surely the lack of reaction to the reverse call (approach then scan for danger) could simply be because this is behaviourally odd, as opposed to not being generable by rule? Signalling to approach a nest and then to scan for danger (as opposed to the other way around) might just be unhelpful behaviour. If that’s the right interpretation, then there’s no compositional syntax, just serially ordered behaviour associated with the order of calls, with one kind of behaviour outside of the birds’ usual repertoire.

My first Monster Language

Early in 2015, I was sitting in my office, reading a student’s thesis, and the phone rang. It was a TV company, with an odd request. “Could you”, the producer on the line asked, “make up a language or two for us?”

The TV series was a version of Beowulf, the Old English Epic, which ITV was turning into a major fantasy series. They needed, as is almost de rigeur these days, languages for their otherworldly creatures, and for some human tribes that the heroes and heroines were to interact with.

I jumped at the chance, of course. When I was a Master’s student, in Edinburgh, I’d made up a language for a friend, Ricardo Pinto, who was writing a series of epic fantasy novels. I rather stupidly made this language (Quya) fiendishly complicated, a decision which came back to bite me as Ricardo asked for translations of various chapter titles and bits of poetry over the next decade. These took me ages.

Forearmed by this experience, and quite a bit more knowledge about how language works than I had over twenty years ago, I developed two languages for the series, one for the monsters and another one I’ll come back to in later blogs. As Beowulf  is about to appear on UK TV (the opening episode is on the 3rd January 2015), I thought I’d blog a little about the language and why I designed it the way I did.

The trailer features some monstrous creatures, bounding across a beach. Some of the creatures in Beowulf, the Warig, have their own language, and that language, Ur-Hag Hesh (literally, Not-Food Speech), now has a fairly large vocabulary and a reasonably complex grammar. In this blog, I’ll just talk a little about the sounds of Ur-Hag Hesh.

If you watch the trailer, you’ll see that the creatures have little that you could call real lips. So I decided that the language would lack consonants that are made with the lips (labials). This means no sounds like p, or b, or m. I originally wanted to make up for losing these sounds by increasing the range of sounds made at the back of the throat (the producers wanted a ‘guttural’ sounding language). Unfortunately, these turned out to be too much to ask of the actors, so my plan to have a series of uvulars and pharyngeals was quickly scuppered.

So the system of sounds I came up with in the end looks as follows. I’ve given the transliteration I used for the producers, with the International Phonetic Alphabet symbol, where different, in parentheses.

Glottals: the glottal stop, ʔ; and the glottal fricative, h

Velars: the velar stops, k, g; the velar fricative, kh (x); and the velar nasal ng (ŋ)

Palatals: the palato-alveolar fricatives, sh (ʃ) and zh (ʒ); the palatal glide y (j)

Alveolars: the stops, t, d; the fricatives s, z;  the approximants r, l; and the nasal n.

Vowels: a, e, i, u (though given the lack of lips, the u should really be the unrounded back vowel ɯ). I suggested that the actors could grimace when they were pronouncing the language to get rid of all lip rounding, but I’m not sure if they did!

I also allowed combinations of a stop plus a following fricative to act as essentially single sounds, giving the following combinations.

kkh, ksh, gz, gzh

ts, dz, tsh, dzh, tkh

So that’s the sound system, and here’s a bit of Ur-Hag Hesh for you to listen to.