Insults in Narahji: The Noun Class Edition

(A partial repost from Tumblr with some new content.)

The Narahji spoken in Epiphany is not always internally consistent because it’s the Narahji of a changing time. Salus is navigating a complex world of formal, standardized Narahji and informal Narahji. In 1865 Standard Count, the year Epiphany takes place, language activists are working hard on a referendum that won’t make headway until the 1880s to recalibrate official Narahji based on outside-of-the-office usage.

When I say “Narahji,” I also mean the Narahji that is taught in schools — this is a canyon region over a thousand kilometers across and several hundred kilometers top to bottom on a map, so there are a lot of small dialects and regional languages.

Kati and Salus have an exchange in Entry 39 in which Salus is offended by Kati’s use of slang for the word family. In pre-reform Narahji, the word is ku bvyadö, a noun in the animate class. It will become ku pho, the slang term Salus dislikes, once reform takes hold. Ler distaste for the slang term mirrors common discomfort among speakers who feel ownership of a language when that language changes. Like many speakers, Salus is complicated — le also picks and chooses which linguistic innovations le’s comfortable using in writing.

Regardless of whether one uses ku bvyadö or ku pho, I’d like to talk about the noun class system, AKA the linguistic gender applied to nouns in Narahji. When I developed the disrespect system in Narahji, I had an exciting opportunity to apply something I found interesting in Aikhenvald’s How Gender Shapes the World. Outside of Indo-European languages, many will employ gender inversions when disparaging a noun or the thing the noun represents.

This is the pronoun system for modern Narahji. The most important bits of it are the animate/inanimate pronouns.

Refl./Emph. Subject Direct Object Indirect Object Possessive
1s -ịm man- mur momu
1pincl. -kịb kịn- kịr åskị
1pexcl. -bė byan- byur åbhi
2s -ịts tsan- tsur åtsu
2p -kė kyan- kyur åku
3s -ịr ran- rur moru
3sanim -kus san- sur mosu
3sinanim -ron nan- rur årur
3p -fė fyan- fyur mosfu
3panim -kyus syan- syur åsyu
3pinanim -lyon ñan- ñur moñu

Note that this is post-1880s Narahji — the slang possessive pronouns have been adopted into the official grammars taught in schools, whereas before there was a prefix, mos-, that glommed onto the indirect object pronoun.

Narahji, as part of the Ịgzarhjenya language family, divides the non-human world into animate and inanimate noun classes. All animals and plants take the animate class, as do things that are considered living things. Inanimate things will often be referred to using the inanimate class. Nouns that denote abstract ideas and concepts, such as families, mistakes, honor, &c., have irregular noun classes that need to be memorized by nonnative speakers. The articles used are ku (animate) and i (inanimate).

Native speakers may refer to things in the inanimate class with the animate class article when emphasizing the noun’s importance. This usually only happens once in the sentence, after which the native speaker will revert to the accepted noun class.

Thus, to say, A (goddamn) fire burned lim. It (emphatic) happened at the dock, one might say, Rankunælaịrru ku besun. I febiyxoho gådzælaịrruron. Fire, i besun, is transformed into ku besun. The speaker uses the correct pronoun suffix, -ron, for inanimate nouns in the second sentence.

The opposite might happen for nouns classed as animates. This is one way to code disrespect in Narahji.

Ogekowælaịrrabæn i pho åbhi. Our (shitty) family will not cooperate. A listener might respond, Ogekowælaịrrabænsæ̈ ku pho aku? That is a yes/no query that correctly uses ku pho.

Starting Pangrammatike

2016 and 2017 have been draining years. The social media cycles of alarm help us build coalitions, beg for basic rights, and describe injustices carried out by people in power. At the same time, they are designed to sap our energy and create fatigue so we don’t have the energy to build good things up. If we open our Twitter accounts, we all have maelstroms of things in our feeds that will keep us anxious and prevent us from connecting with one another.

I fell in love with grammar — quite literally — as a small child. Making constructed languages has always felt soothing. I’m the kind of language-learner who loves conjugating because it relaxes me. Sometimes, when people speak, I start to focus on the sounds that they don’t realize they’re making — the way that the j sound in English becomes a ch in some places, like a delicate chocolate bonbon — and on the sensation of sound in the mouth, as when the tongue clips forward from y to l in the second person innovation y’all. Language is a beautiful thing. Languages do beautiful things.

One of the most beautiful things about languages is how they change and become new things. They are like rivers, meandering in their valleys. Languages are galaxies, dialects rotating around a common center of gravity where the unseen things before the protolanguages lurk. They merge like galaxies, too — in conquest contacts and in trade partnerships spitting out their words and grammatical pieces like stars in a collision trail.

The concept for Pangrammatike started when I decided that grammar needed its Devil’s Battalion — named for the World War II battalion that tried innovative methods during the war — #grammardevils who care about Future English and ensuring that it is inclusive, that progressive grammar nuts like myself have a voice that is loud enough to matter. It takes a Greek prefix that means all- and the word grammatikê, for grammar, and gloms them together. I worship Hermes, who rules over liminality and things like language and prose, so it’s also a really convenient nod at him.

Conlangs

I want a place where I can talk about conlangs, worldbuilding, and the intersection between them in ways that are not relevant to my podcast Epiphany or the 100 million other stories I write set in the Seven Gardens. (I’ve had a Tumblr for a while, but as I start to figure out what’s important to me, I’m moving more towards using a desktop-based feed reader.) As a #grammardevil, some of this will be sociolinguistics — the Seven Gardens have a somewhat realistic set of conquest contact countries where languages and dialects compete and are under/over-resourced. The science fiction I write is deeply rooted in linguistics and library/information science, and there’s a lot of interplay between the two.

In addition, it’d be cool to actually review recently-published short stories and novellas that actively use conlangs. Because I use my own conlangs in my work, it’s good homework for me; but also, as a fellow conlanger, I think my perspective is relevant.

#grammardevils

As an example of why we need #grammardevils, the gender inflection in English’s third person singular pronouns is not working for everyone, and this is a problem. Pronouns exist to refer to an antecedent in an easy, grandparent’s-kitchen-secrets-for-the-best-gluten-free-cinnamon-buns sort of way. The fact that a piece of grammar designed to make life easier for speakers of a language is instead a stressor for a large group of English-speaking human beings is absurd and troubling. The fact that we haven’t standardized a neopronoun makes my ENTJ head spin. It is nearly 2018.

A well-known science fiction reviewer decided to include intolerant comments in ler reviews, and as a cis person who is pro-neopronoun, that bothers me because it (a) reinforces the stigma that grammatical innovation is bad and (b) tells large groups of people that they don’t matter and are not seen.

It’s also annoying because analyzing how people use neopronouns and singular they to see how they are navigating antecedents and innovating in style is profoundly more interesting, positive, and forward-thinking. Stylistic conventions are still evolving because language evolves, and any reviewer is living at a unique moment. Grammar eventually standardizes. We can watch major changes in queer linguistics and queer usage in real time. If I ever do a second master’s degree, unlikely in this political climate and with the 1.3-million word story I’m writing, it’ll probably be in sociolinguistics so I can study pronouns and queer linguistics professionally.

So. When I see things online that are grammatically awesome, I’m going to talk about them like the #grammardevil destroying English from the inside I am. When I do cool usage things, I’m going to share them because positivity pays forward. Beyond gender-neutral pronouns, I’ll also link to other cool things I love about grammar.