Monday, January 19, 2009

Minimalist Languages

Minimalist languages do not occur naturally. They represent one type of constructed language and have the design goal of reducing the number of available words in the lexicon.

A minimalist language can be either a priori or a posteriori. A priori languages are created independently of any existing language and often attempt to implement a philosophy. Many a priori languages organize their lexicon around some sort of taxonomy.

A posteriori languages have a lexicon based upon an existing language. These languages often attempt to simplify the perceived complexities of the base language's grammar or to create an easily understandable auxiliary language. A famous example of an a posteriori, auxiliary language is Esperanto, although it is not a minimalist language.

As stated, a minimalist language can be either a priori or a posteriori. Here, we will focus on a few examples of a posteriori, minimalist languages. Some examples are Newspeak and Toki Pona.


The minimalist, a posteriori language called Newspeak was created by George Orwell in his novel 1984. It is a posteriori because its lexicon is based upon an existing language, English, and it is a minimalist language because it attempts to reduce the number of words available in the vocabulary. This reduced vocabulary probably qualifies Newspeak as a philosophical language, too. The intent of the language's fictional creators was to control the concepts available for people to use for thinking.
The fictional language Newspeak was based upon an actual language called Basic English. Orwell opposed this experiment (after originally supporting it's goals of reducing the abuses of the English language perpetrated by politicians).

Toki Pona

Another a posteriori, minimalist language is Toki Pona. This language was created in 2001 by Sonja Elen Kisa. It is an a posteriori language because its vocabulary is based upon words from several existing languages. Toki Pona is also minimalist due to it's remarkably small vocabulary size, weighing in at only one hundred twenty root words.

Toki Pona is also a philosophical language. The creator wanted to make a "happy" language and infused it with Taoist concepts. Many speakers of Toki Pona feel that the simplicity of the language forces them to break down their thoughts into smaller components. For instance, the vague term "heaven" has no root word equivalent in Toki Pona. Instead, one might say "big sky place".

It is in many ways an experiment with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. In a nutshell, the hypothesis states that characteristics of the language one is speaking affects one's thoughts. Speakers of Toki Pona are forced to build up concepts from the one hundred twenty root words. According to Sapir-Whorf, this would have an effect on their thoughts, probably causing them to focus less on specific labels (because these are absent from the lexicon) and more on the concept they are attempting to convey.


Minimalist languages can come in many types and sizes, but they all try to create a system that is capable of communication through the use of a restricted lexicon (and often a restricted grammar). At first glance, this might seem to be an obvious direction in which to move our cluttered and complicated languages. However, it should be noted that, while admirable and well-constructed, none of these minimalist languages has ever gained real popularity.

Perhaps after the initial glee at having such a small list of words to learn, the machinations required to express all but the most routine concepts causes people to return to more complex, but more precise languages. Perhaps it's something else entirely.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Lay Versus Lie

This morning as I was lying in bed and the clouds were laying snow on the ground, I was thinking about the next topic on which to post.  The northeast lies buried in snow and it's so cold that chickens will lay ice cubes instead of eggs today.

I thought, why not write a quick review of "lay" versus "lie"?

Okay, it's definition time.

transitive verb - a verb which transfers its action to an object (see the post on subjects and objects if you need a refresher).  In short, a verb that is transitive requires an object.

intransitive verb - a verb which does not take an object.  Think of an intransitive verb as a "stand alone" verb.

Let's look at some examples:

I have (transitive verb) a hammer (object).
You cried (intransitive verb).

If you think about more examples, you will quickly find that there are many verbs which take two objects (a direct object and an indirect object) and some verbs can be either transitive or intransitive.  We'll cover these situations another time.  Right now I want to focus on two specific verbs: lay and lie.

Here's the most important thing to remember about "lay".  Lay is a transitive verb.  Let's say it again just to make sure it sticks in our memory.  Lay is a transitive verb.  And a transitive verb takes an object.  So, lay always takes an object.

"Lie" is an intransitive verb.  Lie does not take an object.  Most of the time when you are saying "lay", you probably mean to say "lie".

Some examples:

The chicken lays an egg.
I was lying down.  (Note that "down" is NOT an object!!)

The second most important thing to remember is that "down" is not an object.  It is a preposition.  If the verb is followed by a preposition (on, in, down, ...), you probably want to use "lie".

Why do so many people get confused about this?  There are probably a few culprits. 

The first is that old prayer that children are taught, "now I lay me down to sleep."  Here, lay is used correctly as transitive verb with "me" as its object.  Normally we don't talk like that (using lay as a reflexive verb), but somehow "lay" became associated in our minds as the correct verb to use.

The second reason for confusion might be that the past tense of "lie" is "lay".  So, right now I lie on the bed. (Notice the preposition following the verb?)  But, earlier today I lay on the bed.  This definitely contributes to confusion between "lay" and "lie".

Try to remember the main points stressed above and you won't lay an egg next time you lie down.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Coordinate Versus Non-Coordinate Adjectives

Adjectives modify nouns. Some sentences contain nouns so worthy of description that they require multiple adjectives. Now, everyone knows the rule that multiple adjectives are separated by commas when modifying the same noun. (Remember not to place a comma between the final adjective and the noun).

For example:
He ate the hard, chewy cheese.

Both "hard" and "chewy" are adjectives that modify the noun. Easy, right?

Not so fast. A comma is only needed between coordinate adjectives. This aspect of the rule is quite easy to break. Coordinate adjectives can be placed in reverse order or separated by the word "and". If you can do those two things without affecting the sense of what you are saying, then you have coordinate adjectives.

In the example above, we could have easily said:

     He ate the hard and chewy cheese.
     He ate the chewy, hard cheese.

Neither one robs the sentence of any meaning, so we have coordinate adjectives and they should be separated by a comma.

Non-coordinate adjectives, on the other hand, should not be separated by a comma. Non-coordinate adjectives are not equal. One takes precedence over the other.

An example using non-coordinate adjectives:

     He drives a blue metal car.

Notice the absence of a comma? We would not say "a metal blue car" and we would not say "a blue and metal car", so we do not have coordinate adjectives.

As a rule of thumb, adjectives of size generally come first, followed by adjectives of age, color, then material.

When you're writing, it's easy to just start wedging commas between any two adjectives without thinking about whether they are really needed. We've all done it. Hopefully this little refresher will help us remember about coordinate versus non-coordinate adjectives.