Saturday, January 7, 2017

Conlang feature - Waku

This month I chose to feature Waku, a project by Xing of the Conlang Bulletin Board.

Waku is presented on a corner of Xing's neat little website, with sections along the side and links to a dictionary and flashcards. It looks like Xing's hand-written all the html, which is quite cool! I get the sense that a lot of conlangers are coders and vice versa. I think a prior version of the language must have been called Gaku - a few pages give that as the name. I read through Waku mostly by just going in order down the side, and if you're following along on the site, that's roughly the order I'm reviewing items in, too.

The phonology of Waku is quirky, but in my opinion realistic. Consonants are divided into "light" (palatalized)  and "dark" (velarized) a la Irish or Russian, which seems unsurprising until you realize that there's just one set of "lingual" nasal and oral stops - dark linguals are velar and light linguals are laminal coronal, drifting anywhere between dental and palatal. Wacky! I'm willing to believe it though, in view of how some Polynesian languages conflate coronals and velars. Also like Russian, front vowels are centralized after dark consonants. The phonotactics are easy enough - aside from root-medial geminate consonants, syllables are limited to (C)V(V).

Typologically, Waku is ergative-absolutive, pretty clearly head initial with VSO word order (I'm increasingly suspicious that someone's been reading about Irish), and mostly isolating. There are a few derivational prefixes, preposition-pronoun fuses (Irish again. Just saying.), and a "plural" form of some verb stems, though very sadly it's never clarified whether it's agreeing in number with the ergative or the absolutive argument. There are only example sentences involving verb stems that don't inflect for number, but they seem to imply that the verb is agreeing in a nominative pattern, which is a little odd. Words can be compounded too, to form head-modifier nouns or compound, resultative verbs (verb chaining! nifty!). I would have loved to see a bit more elaboration about the pragmatics of aspect and mood, which are marked with particles.

It's always nice to see conlangers giving thought to matters like topic and focus, and Xing did so in spades. Arguments of any theta role can be focused or topicalized, which is marked by a syntactic position before the verb. The only difference between the two is that topics come before the mood/aspect particle and focuses after, which is neat! A small part of me is flabbergasted that, in clauses with no particle, there's no overt difference between a topic and a focus position, but to be honest that displays a comfort with non-fatal syntactic ambiguity that I think some conlangers could take an example from. It would take a pretty dumb listener to get confused between a topic and a focus, anyway - I have a hard time imagining them getting confused in real discourse. I'll admit I was a bit put off by the stipulation that focuses have to be definite or generic, though. That doesn't seem quite in line with what a focus is for, but maybe I'm missing something.

Prepositions have very realistic, well-defined ranges of meaning, I highly recommend taking a glance at them. To use them as predicates, a verb of posture has to be used, which is a nice touch. Speaking of nice touches, "to have" is expressed with an existential and a genitive. Both of those are very very common in natlangs, but seem a little underrepped in conlangs. I usually include them, good to see someone else fighting the good fight...

I took a look at the dictionary last and was a little sad - most definitions are limited to one line. Alas, dictionaries take lots and lots of time and Xing has multiple projects going on. Ah well. At least there are some amusing loans from English, like amebweke "hamburger" and banngu "bank". Based on the vocabulary section of the description, there's been at least some advanced thinking done about semantics though, so the fledgling dictionary isn't to be taken as a statement on the author's semantics chops. The vocab section is actually really great - there are pieces on kinship, colors, and different types of large felines.

Overall, I really enjoyed Waku. It's a matter of personal taste maybe, but the aesthetics clicked well with me. I'm almost tempted to learn some - that could make an interesting miniseries this summer if I have time. My one large-scale contention with the grammar is that Xing kept using the word "subject" when talking about syntax, even though this is an ergative language. It would be perfectly realistic for all the syntax to be nominative, but a little clarification might have set me at ease. I'd also like to see the dictionary developed more, but I suppose that's true of any conlang under the sun. Nobody's made of free time. Aside from those small points I highly recommend having a look, especially for anyone who thinks isolating languages with very simple phonology can't do interesting things!

If you have any thoughts, corrections or suggestions please comment below or email me at, and as always please investigate further! 

Description of Waku

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