Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Entr'acte: The vanity of logic and typological neutrality

Continuing to think about pronominal predicates (about which more is forthcoming) and embedded clauses has led me to some difficult realizations over the past couple weeks. Here's the setup: how should clauses used as predicates really work? We've gone to considerable length to motivate this theoretically final decision that the i marking finiteness should simply be deleted, e.g.

le Iuli i loha ti mehe
NAME Julie FIN love this person
"Julie loves this person"

ka mehe [ (ko) le Iuli loha ]
DEF person [ (ABS) NAME Julie love ]
"the person Julie loves"

The core argument here is that, from the first principles underlying Koa grammar and syntax, there should be no difference between a clause used as a predicate and any other simplex predicate; and the structure of dependent clauses themselves should follow logically from those same first principles. I tried to show how in a clause like the above, the verb phrase (loha) could be said to be modifying the head (le Iuli), producing a Turkish-style nominalization meaning something like "the person of loving-Julie-ness."

Here's the thing: the structure of the Koa clause does not proceed from logic. Within predicates we have this very solid, logical, well-described system of modification, and likewise between predicates and particles...but with clauses we began with what turns out to be an essentially arbitrary formula:


It's a sensible system, a typologically neutral system, but there's nothing at all logical about it. The division between the subject NP and the VP simply had to be made somehow, so we made it. But in the argument above, we tried to create an alternative history where we could reconstruct logical, derived-from-first-principles meaning across a whole dependent clause, when in fact that kind of logic was never present in the simplest of main clauses to start with!

I've realized that we've been holding two competing foundational philosophies simultaneously all this time: typological intuitiveness represented by creoles in one hand, and logic inspired by something like Loglan in the other. We've let each of them grow and flourish and tried to avoid situations where the streams might cross, but with embedded clauses this strategy has just run out of road.

The truth is that at some level of complexity -- such as where we now find ourselves -- this becomes a zero-sum contest. The more genuinely cross-linguistically intuitive these structures are, the less formally logical they will be; the more logical they are, the less intuitive. It's been vanity to imagine that I could indefinitely maximize both simultaneously; self-deception to deny the centrality of the muse of my own aesthetics.

Let's level: Koa isn't really going to become an international auxiliary language, regardless of whether I deem I've met my goal of besting Esperanto or not. This seems to be the moment where I have to decide what kind of language I want this to be, and that choice will underlie the structures that enable Koa to rise up from the banality of example sentences and become a vibrant, truly usable human language.

So what do I do about relative clauses? Do I make them unreduced and internally-headed like Navajo, by far the most elegant, internally consistent choice, despite the fact that that would feel alien to 99% of the Earth's population? Or follow the example of Yoruba (and most other languages, honestly), accept a relative pronoun, and decide that there's something that makes these kinds of clauses different from others? Or go back to the drawing board on what really makes a clause in Koa in the first place, trying to build something up from first principles that will survive this particular wave of complexity...knowing that the result also will likely be elegant and logical at the cost of typological neutrality?

I'm not sure, but what's becoming clear is that the choice is mine to make, and that no amount of rigorous exploration of semantics will decide it for me. In a way it's freeing: maybe after more than 20 years of devotion to principles, I've earned the right to let my personal aesthetics unabashedly lead me for a while. It would be a relief to choose a structure or a system that I like, and feel justified in doing so because there is no alternative to choice so I might as well make it one that pleases me.

More to come, clearly.

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