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Fantasy TV in the service of science: An open letter to HBO about “Dothraki”


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Joshua HartshorneEditor’s note: Joshua Hartshorne is a graduate student at Harvard University’s Psychology Department interested in human behavior and language. He wrote the open letter below because HBO is currently creating a new fantasy language, called "Dothraki," for an upcoming television adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. At least some fans are guaranteed to try to learn Dothraki, just as thousands have studied Klingon, Sindarin and Na’vi. The letter to Martin, the show’s executive producer David Benioff and Dothraki creator David Peterson suggests a few different elements or structures for the language that could do science a favor by inventing a language that includes exactly those features that researchers would like to test to see if subjects—in this case, the show’s highly motivated fans—can learn.

Dear David Benioff, David Peterson and George R. R. Martin,

As a long-time fan of George R. R. Martin‘s A Song of Ice and Fire, I have eagerly followed news of HBO’s upcoming adaptation of A Game of Thrones, the first book in the series. I followed this news as a fan only—until I learned that the creative team at HBO had commissioned David Peterson to create Dothraki, a language spoken by several important characters in the story. As Mr. Martin explains in his blog, this will add detail to the rich tapestry of the story. It also presents a unique opportunity for science, and I urge you to consider the possibilities. I lay out the reasoning below:

Language universals and the human mind

Fundamental to understanding humanity is understanding language. Something about the human brain allows nearly every human child—but no chimp, mouse or kangaroo—to learn a language; children will even invent a new language if there are none available to learn. Linguistic universals provide clues as to what this something is.

Although the variation in human language is incredible, some aspects remain the same. Russian has the vowel "yery," which is lacking in English, and English has the consonant "h", lacking in Russian—but both Russian, English and all other spoken languages have vowels and consonants (sign languages, not surprisingly, work differently). In English, verbs come before direct objects ("Mary kicked the ball") whereas in Japanese, verbs come after direct objects (roughly: "Mary-wa ball-o kicked"), but all these languages have subjects, verbs and objects.

These universals may reveal the structure of our minds: all languages share these properties because we can’t learn languages that work differently. However, the fact that all languages do share a property isn’t proof that they must share that property. Universals could also arise by historical accident. The fact that Barack Obama’s name sounds similar in every language isn’t evidence of a universal, innate property of how the human mind conceives of the 44th president—rather, every language has imported his name from the same source.

Artificial languages

The only way to prove humans are incapable of learning a language with feature Y is to create such a language and prove that people can’t learn it. In fact, researchers regularly teach people "artificial languages" in order to study language learning by humans (and animals) under experimentally controlled circumstances (here’s a fun experiment you can do online), and some of these probe the psychological reality of language universals.

For instance, Spanish divides its nouns into masculine and feminine (other languages use other groupings). For some nouns, the distinction seems arbitrary (the word for "book" is masculine but the word for "novel" is feminine), but generally the distinction is not completely arbitrary (words describing male people and animals are masculine, whereas words describing female people and animals are feminine). This raises the question of whether you could have a language in which nouns were randomly divided into arbitrary categories. Artificial language experiments suggest that learning such arbitrary categories is difficult or impossible, but people easily learn categories built around some aspect of meaning (e.g., gender) or phonology (the way words sound).

There is an obvious limitation to this work: children take years to learn their first language, whereas most artificial language experiments last only an hour, simply because it’s very difficult to convince a volunteer to spend more than a few hours studying a useless, artificial language—unless that language is spoken by popular, fictional species. Hundreds or thousands of people have spent untold hours mastering the finer syntactic points of Klingon (Star Trek), Sindarin (Lord of the Rings) or Na’vi (Avatar). Fans are already lining up to learn your Dothraki. This presents a unique opportunity to create a language that violates known language universals and see just how well people can learn it.

Some universal suggestions

There are many lists of proposed linguistic universals on the Web (my favorite is this well-curated, if dry, list of 2029 proposed universals). Below are my own personal favorite universals you might try violating:

Action verbs. For action verbs in English and possibly all languages, the subject is the doer and the object the do-ee ("Mary broke/kicked/threw the vase"). Though again there are a few more complicated languages, prominent theorists posit this pattern is an innate part of our linguistic minds. However, others argue the dominance of this pattern is an historical accident and verbs where the doer is the object and the do-ee is the subject should be perfectly learnable. Numerous studies have shown that both adults and preschoolers find it very difficult to learn subject-do-ee verbs ("The vase shbroke Mary" = "Mary broke the vase"), but again these studies are short, so perhaps the participants simply didn’t spend enough time learning and using the new verbs. Use this pattern for Dothraki—or, even better, have some verbs follow one pattern ("break") and other verbs the other (shbroke)—and we’ll see how well students can do given more time.

Word order. Klingon made a nice start here by using the extremely rare object-verb-subject word order. This word order can appear in many languages in unusual constructions or in poetry ("The drink drank I"), but is not the default in any, except perhaps a few rare, poorly studied languages such as Hixkaryána (600 speakers in the Amazon) and Huarijío (2,800 speakers in Mexico). Other rare word orders you might try are object-subject-verb and verb-object-subject. Although such word orders are not completely nonexistent in human language, their scarcity could suggest that they must be learned differently from more typical patterns.

Xor. Most languages have a word that means "neither," a word that means "both" and a word that means "one or both" ("or"). Interestingly, although logicians have invented words to mean "one but not both" (xor) and "zero or one but not both" (nand), natural languages do not have such words. Similarly, languages have words for "none" and "all" and "more than none" ("some"), but no language has a word that ambiguously means "more than none but less than all" ("only some") or a word that means "less than all" such that it includes the possibility of none.

The question is why? The fact that logicians use words like xor and nand suggests that such words aren’t impossible to learn (though whether even logicians can use the word as fluently as they use "or" is an open question). Some have argued that the missing words are missing simply because they aren’t needed. Interestingly, any language with only nand doesn’t need "or," "and" or "both," since they can be constructed by just using nand several times in a row. So you might provide the Dothraki with only nand to see how well they get by; alternatively, give them xor and we can see if people use it.

Situational words. Some words mean what they mean regardless of context. "George Washington" refers to George Washington whenever and however you say it. Some words change meaning depending on who is speaking ("I," "we"), who is being spoken to ("you") or the day the word is spoken ("today"). However, this contextual dependence is relatively straightforward: as a first pass, "I" refers to the person speaking and "today" refers to the day the word is spoken (this is not quite right, but it’s close). I don’t know of any languages with pronouns that change meaning depending on the day of the week or time-related words (like "today") that adjust depending on who you are talking to. Is that because they are unlearnable or simply because nobody has invented one yet?

For fun, you could try even more complex words: a word that means "blue" on Monday, "green" on Tuesday and "black" any other day of the week, or perhaps a word that means "dog" when used as the subject of a sentence but "elephant" when used as the object. Or a language that uses subject-verb-object word order in the morning and object-verb-subject word order after noon. If these seem like absurd features for a language, they are, but many features of language are absurd (the Russian word for "manliness" is considered feminine). The important question is: Just how flexible is our language-learning capacity?

And then the science

Are human languages the way they are by accident, or does their structure reveal deep truths about the human mind? By constructing Dothraki such that it violates common principles of existing languages, you could set the stage for a powerful natural experiment. I imagine you are going to the expense and trouble to construct a full language for Dothraki at least partly out of an interest in and love of language. I only ask that you take it one step further.

Of course, there are limitations to such an experiment, since the learning of Dothraki will differ in many ways from typical language learning. Even die-hard fans won’t use Dothraki as their primary means of communication. There won’t be native speakers to learn from. The learners of Dothraki will probably be adults (though not necessarily), who generally do not learn language as well as toddlers. However, these limitations are no worse than what we scientists normally deal with (just to be clear—I don’t recommend teaching toddlers Dothraki), and I believe this experiment would provide valuable new data.

I realize the miniseries is already in production and much work on Dothraki has already been completed. I suspect there is still time to sneak in a few of the experiments suggested above, but if not, I look forward to Braavosi in Season Four or High Valyrian.

Best Regards,

Joshua Hartshorne

P.S. Any who wish to contribute to the scientific study of language without creating or learning an entire fictional language should feel free to participate in my short experiments at GamesWithWords.org.

 

Image credit: Joshua Hartshorne

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

 

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Comments 35 Comments

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  1. 1. SylviaDC 6:28 pm 04/26/2010

    We use isn’t and wasn’t and aren’t…but not amn’t which makes more sense to me. My son used it as a child but I haven’t seen it in print.

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  2. 2. rhodinsthinker 6:35 pm 04/26/2010

    Latin has an exclusive _or_ construction ("aut" … "vel" …) in which the objects mentioned are partly surrounded. Also, the order of words in a Latin sentence is not supposed to matter, since the articulation of their endings signals what they mean. "Arma virumque cano" (from Virgil, opening the "Aeniid") translates as "I sing of arms and the man."

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  3. 3. Dedalvs 9:00 pm 04/26/2010

    Still reading, but regarding the first one (action verbs), what about the loa’a class of verbs in Hawaiian? Consider:

    Ua ‘ai ke kane i he poi.
    /PRF eat DEF men OBJ INDF poi/
    "The men ate the poi."

    Ua loa’a he poi i ke kane.
    /PRF get INDF poi OBJ DEF men/
    "The men got the poi."

    That’s pretty much an object acting like a subject, and vice versa.

    Anyway, if something like this counts, you may find similar classes in Dothraki. ;)

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  4. 4. Qiran 9:31 pm 04/26/2010

    re (rhodinsthinker)

    It’s true that highly inflecting languages, such as Latin (or the Japanese given in the article) often have fairly free word order. But they still tend to have a preferred word order. In the case of Latin, sentences tend to "default" to subject-object-verb.

    In more analytic languages with stricter syntax (such as Modern English and Chinese), the default word order can’t be modified as easily.

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  5. 5. focomoso 12:13 am 04/27/2010

    And then there are the languages of Borges’ fiction Tln. One with no nouns, only "impersonal verbs, modified by mono-syllabic suffixes (or prefixes) function as adverbs… Upward, behind the onstreaming it mooned." The other with nouns "formed by stringing together adjectives. One does not say ‘moon’; one says ‘aerial-bring above dark-round’ or ‘soft-amberish-celestial’ or any other string."

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  6. 6. SpaceSamurai 9:49 am 04/27/2010

    Clearly their financial success and fanbase will be greater if Dothraki is possible to learn. ‘Perhaps even enhanced considerably if it is easy to learn.

    The main entertainment business reason to make it hard/impossible to learn would be to add to the sense of "otherworldlyness" needed to distance their Sci-Fi adventure from our mundane world.

    It may be a hard sell to get them to hamstring their fake language for science….

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  7. 7. Johnay 11:55 am 04/27/2010

    A good useful situational word might be a single word meaning "soup du jour". :)

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  8. 8. John_Galt 2:26 pm 04/27/2010

    Polish noun for ‘man’ (mezczyzna) is also feminine. This stems from the fact that gender is assigned based on the suffix of a given noun. If a noun ends in ‘-a’, it will more likely than not be considered a feminine gender.

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  9. 9. jkhartshorne 3:23 pm 04/27/2010

    re: John_Galt

    The question is whether mezczyzna is feminine because it ends in -a or it ends in -a because it’s feminine. On your hypothesis, when people coin new words, they randomly pick the word ending and only later "discover" its gender. That’s certainly a possibility — and is probably even true for some words — but I doubt it’s the general rule. I don’t have any evidence one way or another, though.

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  10. 10. kuronin 11:08 pm 04/27/2010

    All natural languages are structured to mark the roles of experiencer, agent and patient. English does this by means of subjects, verbs and objects, but not all languages share this mode of analysis and morphosyntactic alignment. Tagalog, for example, employs a trigger system, fulfilling this function in a very different way using focus and voices. Is Dothraki a nominative-accusative language like English?

    As for artlangs that push the limits of our language capacity, you may be interested in the project which made John Quijada famous in the conlang community: http://www.ithkuil.net/ That’s one language no human being will be speaking fluently anytime soon, although we can work it out like calculus. Many other projects have toyed with linguistic universals:
    http://www.zompist.com/elkaril.htm (humans can learn this, albeit with some difficulty. visit the zbb: http://www.spinnoff.com/zbb/)
    http://www.frontiernet.net/~scaves/teonaht.html (this contains some features no human language has exhibited so far, but it’s as easy to learn and speak as any natural language)
    http://www.terjemar.net/kelen.php (a very well designed, yet verbless language. easy as pie for lojban speakers :P )

    Teonaht, Ithkuil and Kelen are all winners of the prestigious smiley award: http://dedalvs.conlang.org/smileys/ ~:D I see no reason to turn Dothraki into a sandbox for games like this. It’s supposed to be a naturalistic language for SoIaF fans.

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  11. 11. kuronin 11:25 pm 04/27/2010

    IMHO: Kelen, especially, has beautiful aesthetics. Elkaril is nice, but every aspect of it’s grammar goes out of it’s way to be as difficult and alien as possible. Ithkuil/Ilaksh is an incredible achievement, but impractical for mere mortals unless you’re willing to memorize the functions of 96 cases and all their supporting features, among many, many other things! -.- Nevertheless, it’s an interesting museum for us language fans. Teonaht is a work of art. Spoken in a country that’s sometimes of this world and sometimes not like the glass city of Arabia, it’s designed to be exhibit a smooth merger of both terrestrial and alien features, and yet present a pervasive feeling of unresolved duality. For more, see the smiley award page.

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  12. 12. kuronin 12:30 am 04/28/2010

    * The difference is that unlike Ithkuil, Elkaril also aims for naturalism, practicality and an inhuman sense of beauty. Sorry for that random offtopic addendum.

    PS. Congrats dedalvs! :D I can’t wait to learn more about Dothraki.

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  13. 13. jetgraphics 3:48 am 04/28/2010

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ithkuil
    This link introduced me to Ithkuil, a constructed language. It may inspire Dothraki docents or lead one into mind stretching explorations.

    http://dedalvs.conlang.org/smileys/2008.html
    Another interesting ramble about Ithkuil, and why they gave it an award.

    Ithkuil is a constructed human language marked by outstanding grammatical complexity, expressed with a rich phonemic inventory or through an original, graphically structured, system of writing.

    The language’s author, John Quijada, presents Ithkuil as a cross between an a priori philosophical language and a logical language designed to express deeper levels of human cognition overtly and clearly, yet briefly. The many examples from Quijada’s original grammar show that, in the general case, a message would take significantly longer to explicate in a natural language than in Ithkuil.

    Some have made comparisons with Heinlein’s fictional Speedtalk.

    The lexicon of Ithkuil potentially consists of 3,600 word roots; so far only about a thousand are assigned with definite meanings. Each root consists of 2 consonantal “radicals”, and can derive thousands of lexemes through Ithkuil’s complex rules of morphophonology, which involve both consonantal and vocal mutation, shifts in syllabic stress and tone, and affixation.

    All formatives are inflected for 3 stems, 3 patterns, 2 designations, 9 configurations, 4 affiliations, 4 perspectives, 6 extensions, 2 foci, 4 contexts, 2 essences, and 81 cases, and can be affixed with 153 affixes, each put into one of 9 degrees. Verbal formatives are inflected for 7 illocutions and 7 conflations. Two types of adjuncts are inflected to indicate 14 valences, 6 versions, 8 formats, 37 derivations, 30 modalities, 4 levels, 9 validations, 9 phases, 9 sanctions, 32 aspects, 8 moods, and 24 biasses.

    A single word may encompass a whole sentence of meaningful content, when translated into a natural language.

    The idea of a root consonant pair has parallels in English, as in s_ng.
    Sing, sang, sung, song are all related, but the vowel determines the meaning and whether it’s a noun or verb.
    Another root consonant is r_ng.
    Ring, rang, rung (no rong).

    That’s basically what Ithkuil is made up of – two consonant roots that are then transformed by vowels, prefixes, suffixes, inflections, tones, etc, etc.

    Link to this
  14. 14. kuronin 4:23 am 04/28/2010

    The trouble is, Ithkuil’s incredible complexity and perfect regularity also make it highly improbable and impractical. Elkaril is the best naturalistic alien language I’ve seen till date including Klingon, Na’vi and the rest. See post #10.

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  15. 15. kuronin 6:13 am 04/28/2010

    Dedalvs is the guy who gives out smiley awards, but he won’t be plagiarizing Quijada’s work.

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  16. 16. kuronin 6:32 am 04/28/2010

    Aesthetics definitely plays a role in Ithkuil, but it’s primarily an engineered logical language. A beautiful & brilliant one, no doubt, but rather improbable in practice.

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  17. 17. kuronin 6:33 am 04/28/2010

    … by which I mean that while not impossible, it’s unlikely to have evolved naturally for any species.

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  18. 18. kuronin 7:03 am 04/28/2010

    Ithkuil was never designed to be a natural language. It’s supposed to be an experiment in the human genius for rigorous systematization and accurate thinking. JQ says, "For me, the greater goal is to attempt the creation of what human beings, left to their own devices, would never create naturally, but rather only by conscious intellectual effort — an idealized language whose aim is the highest possible degree of logic, efficiency, detail, and accuracy in cognitive expression via spoken human language, while minimizing the ambiguity, vagueness, illogic, redundancy, polysemy (multiple meanings) and overall arbitrariness that is seemingly ubiquitous in natural human language." Dothraki’s goal, on the other hand, is to be a highly naturalistic language spoken by pre-industrial nomads.

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  19. 19. kuronin 6:18 am 04/29/2010

    Although a lot of near-unlearnable conlangs have been showcased online, (see Old Skourene: http://www.zompist.com/lenani.htm ; it even violates a minor universal on purpose) it’s true that commercial enterprises consider these impractical for business. I believe the LCS introduced a "fudge factor" to filter out unnecessarily difficult entries. Being a human language, this doesn’t make Dothraki unrealistic, just relatively easier than it could’ve been. Some nomad languages have been easy, some harder. Dothraki isn’t perfectly regular (Turkish is pretty regular, actually) or oversimplified like Toki Pona. (http://en.tokipona.org/) In fact, dedalvs says it’s got unique & unusual grammatical features, so I don’t see the problem. It’s much easier to create insanely complicated conlangs by throwing in every feature known to linguistics than familiar languages with subtle twists that confer a sense of uniqueness and make them a pleasure to learn.

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  20. 20. kuronin 12:17 pm 04/29/2010

    ^Well, relatively familiar anyway… :P Old Skourene is rather twisted and unusual, but it’s also totally awesome and quite natural too. While we can admire this or that grammatical feature, it all comes down to the language as a whole emergent phenomenon in the end. Check out OS while we wait for Dothraki.

    How come there are no other comments?

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  21. 21. kuronin 5:19 am 04/30/2010

    In practice, including too many bizarre features in a desperate attempt to force one’s way into the realm of the unusual while sparing no thought for harmony and end results is a hallmark of the classic nooblang. Such languages are often underdeveloped in those qualities which determine the overall aesthetic feel of a language the most, like in the department of metaphor, phonaesthetics, etc. There’s nothing wrong with strange conlangs as long as everything holds together and you can make it work with the setting. This is much harder than it sounds.

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  22. 22. nielsblomberg 12:19 pm 04/30/2010

    It is not true that natural languages do not have an "exclusive or" (XOR, "one but not both"). On the contrary, they lack an "inclusive or" (IOR, "one or both").
    The formalized OR comes from the propositional logic, where it has become synonym with IOR. The reason is simple: IOR is more useful than XOR for mathematicians, the primary users of propositional logic.
    Here is a mathematical example: X times Y equals 0. This is true if X equals 0 OR Y equals 0. This is IOR, because it is also possible that X and Y are both 0.

    In natural languages the situation is different. If you ask your child what he wants as a birthday present, a bicycle or skateboard, then you will be very annoyed if the answer is: "Both". The excuse can of course be: "I thought you meant the inclusive or".

    So if you want to add something special to Dothraki it should be an inclusive or.

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  23. 23. bucketofsquid 10:55 am 05/3/2010

    All of this discussion and no one mentioned Loglan.

    My memory is a bit vague but I believe I was taught that Latin is indeed a constructed language designed to allow more precise speach rather than a naturally occuring language. I may be misremembering however.

    A language with heavy Boolean syntax may be interesting but I imagine the response by the general populous would be much the same as Boolean Algebra itself gets: WTF???

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  24. 24. nielsblomberg 4:55 pm 05/3/2010

    @bucketofsquid, don’t you think that "WTF" would the reply of almost everyone to almost everything about "Dothraki"?
    My reply to that fact: "WTF"

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  25. 25. pedros 6:01 pm 05/3/2010

    The Polish word mezczyzna is not feminine, but masculine – look at a dictionary!

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  26. 26. pedros 6:02 pm 05/3/2010

    The Polish word mezczyzna is not feminine, but masculine – look at a dictionary!

    Link to this
  27. 27. pedros 6:04 pm 05/3/2010

    Re: John_Galt

    Polish nouns ending on -a are usualy feminine, but the Polish noun mezczyzna is not feminine, but masculine – look at a Polish dictionary!

    Link to this
  28. 28. kuronin 9:21 am 05/5/2010

    Loglan is the predecessor of Lojban, which was mentioned.

    Here’s another philosophical and logical language that’s famous in the conlang community: http://www.kunstsprachen.de/s7/

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  29. 29. kuronin 9:36 am 05/5/2010

    Here’s what Qþyn|gài sounds like: http://www.kunstsprachen.de/s7/paternoster.mp3

    People looking for difficult naturalistic conlangs can also try:
    http://conlang.wikia.com/wiki/Minhast
    http://mpearson.narod.ru/tok.toc.html (a nicely balanced language with medium-hard difficulty IMO)

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  30. 30. jkhartshorne 8:50 am 05/11/2010

    Nielsbloomberg:

    This post started getting more comments again while I wasn’t paying attention. English does *not* have an exclusive "or". ‘Or’ just seems exclusive. This is actually a very well-studied area of language, and it can be tricky to see why. I’ll sketch a few of the arguments below (some of the best arguments rely on formal semantics, which is way beyond the scope of the comments section):

    (1) John had milk and juice.
    (2) John had milk or juice.

    If (1) is true, (2) must also be true. It might be odd to say (2), but it’s still true. Whereas if (2) is true, (1) need not be. Here’s another example:

    (3) If eat your carrots or corn, you can have dessert.

    Following this, the child who eats carrots *and* corn will expect dessert.

    What’s going on here is called a scalar implicature. There is a tendency to treat ‘or’ as if it were exclusive, at least under some circumstances. There are other words that behave this way as well. Exactly what is going on is still a matter under investigation.

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  31. 31. Ichiban 5:48 pm 05/16/2010

    Here’s a thought: What if Fractals/Chaos Theory is the universe’s way of keeping parallel universes apart from one another? Or, perhaps I may be watching FRINGE with a bit more intent than is needed.

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  32. 32. Brian Barker 1:22 pm 06/8/2010

    With great respect and as far as conlangs are concerned, I think that I’ll stick with Esperanto.

    Apart from having become a living language, it’s in growing international use.

    Your readers may also be interested in http://ikso.net/broshuro/pdf/malkovru_esperanton_en.pdf just in case they doubt my claim !

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  33. 33. jwl 3:23 am 08/13/2010

    my guess about amn’t is that it tries to get you to switch between two adjacent nasal consonants without a vowel or a new syllable, which goes against english phonology and thus is damn hard to use fluently in speeh

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  34. 34. jwl 3:33 am 08/13/2010

    kuronin has a great point…dothraki is meant to be a natural human language… the realm of pushing languages natural limits in fiction has always been more geared toward alien languages…. but anyway i have a question about how ergative languages relate to his idea of doer as the object… isn’t treating the subject of an intransative verb as an object ( this is how my unspecialized vocabulary explains the phenomenon) be similar to what he proposed, how do people working in the field explain why certain languages interpret this relationship between argument and verb differently differently

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  35. 35. kuronin 7:12 pm 12/27/2010

    Actually, any of the 4 conlangs I listed on the first page would have a harder time passing off as a human language than either Klingon or Na’vi, neither of which are particularly exotic from a linguistic standpoint. What’s ingenious about Dothraki is that it’s like and unlike English in different ways, balancing both familiar and alien features in a unique brand of exoticism that neatly parallels the setting.

    Damn, I sound like I’m in the ad business. O.o

    Link to this

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