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Stālāg (Terbian)

the language of the Terb


Sentence-level syntax

Terbian seems to be a in state of flux between two dominant word orders, Subject-Verb-Object and Subject-Object-Verb, with a tendency towards the latter. SVO sentences are found especially when the object is a complex noun phrase, while SOV sentences are by far the most common when the object is relatively simple (a one- or two-word noun phrase).

Dar ye hazr kos nukkasot.
she A vase P break-3s-3s-PRF
“She broke the vase.”

Dar ye nukkasot tsauk bĕk iskwirō dinō hazr kos.
she A break-3s-3s-PRF ancient white porcelain made_of vase P
“She broke the ancient white porcelain vase.”

As explained in the case and semantic roles section, the core roles (Agent and Patient) are marked with postposed particles, which sometimes become clitics. In many occasions these particles are dropped. Of course, even without the role marks, the subject and object affixes on the verb (which agree with the verb arguments in number and class) allow for variations in word order without introducing too much ambiguity.

Topic and focus

A sentence usually has two parts, a theme and a rheme; the theme or topic is the thing being talked about (whether expressed or implicit in the context of the conversation), while the rheme or predicate is the thing being said about the theme (new information).

In Terbian, an old topic is often left implicit (deleted). A new topic is introduced, as in many languages, by mentioning it at the beginning of the sentence (‘fronting’ it), even when that is not the usual word order.

In general, a new topic is marked with its corresponding role mark (in those contexts and registers where non-topics are left unmarked) if it is a subject or an object. An oblique argument is already marked by the postposition that closes it.

Zbŏh kos ti rok isalsot.
toys P his son drop-3s-3p-PRF
“The toys, his son dropped them.”

Tsauk bĕk iskwirō dinō hazr kos dar nukkasot.
ancient white porcelain made_of vase P she A break-3s-3s-PRF
“The ancient white porcelain vase, she broke it.”

A focus is a part of the rheme or predicate that actually conveys the new information. Some sentences convey general information and the focus coincides with the predicate. In others, however, emphasis is put on one element of the predicate; these sentences are the ones I call ‘focused’, though ‘emphatic’ would be better.

The focus position in Terbian is the one right before the verb. In addition to moving the argument there, the agreement mark that refers to it in the verbal word is usually changed by adding the focus affix -ta(t)- after it. Most people also use explicit role marking for a focused argument.

The English glosses use cleft constructions (‘it was X who did Y’), but one could equally do with emphatic stress. Note that Terbian employs emphatic stress for foci too, but unlike English it also moves the focused argument.

Dar er ye iseibotat.
she he A kill-3s.FOC-3s-PRF
“It was he who killed her.” ~ “HE killed her.”

Er dar kos istateibot.
he she P kill-3s-3s.FOC-PRF
“It was she whom he killed.” ~ “He killed HER.”

If the non-focused argument is an old topic (as it often happens), it is deleted (so in the examples above, the unmarked pronouns would be deleted more often than not). If the topic cannot be deleted and is longer than one word, some people prefer to move it after the verb, so as get to the focused argument quickly.

Dar kos istateibot gwótadd bardr.
she P kill-3s-3s.FOC-PRF furious man
“It was she whom he killed, the furious man.”

Dar kos istateibot.
she P kill-3s-3s.FOC-PRF
“It was she whom [the other person talked about] killed.”

This last example could also be translated as a passive sentence, since (leaving aside the verbal morphology) focusing on the patient and deleting the agent is precisely what passive voice does. However, Terbian has a mediopassive voice with a similar, though not equal, meaning:

Dar kos eibikyotat.
she P kill-MPV-3s.FOC-PRF
“It was she who got [herself] killed.”

Oblique topics

A number of verbs (specifically all nonvolitional perception verbs) show a different unmarked word order pattern. These verbs take an oblique argument that is the topic (fronted) and a P-argument that goes to the focus position. For perception verbs, the oblique argument refers to the perceiver, while the P-argument is the perceived object. These ‘inversion verbs’ are explained in their own section (see Verbs: Inversion verbs).

For inversion verbs, the unmarked order is Oblique-Patient-Verb. Focusing on the P-argument is done in the usually way (explicit role marking and emphatic stress). Focusing on the oblique argument is a bit more difficult; emphatic stress is commonly used, but sometimes the verb is changed (by inflection or suppletion) into a different verb that takes exactly the opposite marking for its arguments. For example:

Ū tta han pezes.
1sO to this be_known-3s
“This is known to me.” (unfocused)

Ū tta han kos tapezes.
1sO to this P be_known-3s.FOC
“It is THIS that is known to me.” (focused on the perceived)

Hān dis å ye kkinata.
this-O about 1s A know-As.FOC
“It is I who know of this.” (focused on the perceiver)

Interrogative sentences

Like most SOV languages, Terbian prefers to leave interrogative pronouns in place rather than fronting them, when the sentence is unfocused (non-emphatic). Fronting does occur when the question is emphatic, though, and in this case it is usually accompanied by role marking. Fronting and marking interact with focus marking on the verbal word in several ways (discussed elsewhere).

Itar ppadr alot?
who rock drop-3s-3s-PRF
“Who dropped the rock?”

Itar ye ppadr alot?
who A rock drop-3s-3s-PRF
“WHO dropped the rock?”

Mån dik isa dduratsot?
my daughter what buy-3s-3s-PRF
“What did my daughter buy?”

Isa kos mån dik dduratsot?
what P my daughter buy-3s-3s-PRF
“My daughter bought WHAT?”

Lalō tta isa ukjo?
you-O to what appear-3s
“What do you see?”

Itā tta i bardr ukjot?
who-O to that man appear-3s-PRF
“Who saw that man?”

Unfocused questions, especially those with non-complex arguments, can use direct marking of interrogative arguments on the verb (see Verbs: Interrogative marks for details).

Han gukut?
this do-Q-3s-PRF
“Who did this?”

“What did you buy?”

Yes-no questions

Yes-no questions do not need a special syntax or a special morphology; a question is morphosyntactically identical to a statement, only with a rising tone at the end (though many speakers employ certain attitudinal particles after the verb in such questions, according to the answer they expect).

Conditional sentences

Conditional sentences are like normal sentences, followed by the particle īni (translated appropriately as 'if'). The particle follows the verb and cliticizes to it. The verb itself is usually in the Irrealis mood.

The conditional particle īni expresses simple hypothetical conditions. There are other non-grammatical ways to show degrees and manners of conditionality, such as those expressed in English by 'if and only if', 'if only', 'if at all', 'whether or not', etc. These often involve idiomatic expressions to which the verb is subordinated (in the combining form).

Noun phrases

A noun phrase is made up of at least one noun in the core case (head). This head can be modified by adjectives, demonstratives (such as deictic pronouns), and other nouns. A noun that modifies another noun must go in the oblique case. All modifiers come before the head, first demonstratives, then adjectives; modifying oblique nouns are somewhat freer. In some cases a modifying noun can come after the head, but this is not commonly done in everyday speech.

Since there are no articles (and no compulsory marking definiteness) a noun phrase needs to be considered in its context to decide whether it is definite or indefinite. When there is doubt, the speaker can disambiguate using deictics and other specifiers.

A full noun phrase can be modified by subclauses including a verb, and by postpositional phrases. A verb in a modifying subclause must keep its final position within it and appear in the combining form (CMB). A postpositional phrase modifies a noun phrase by marking the postposition with the oblique case (a core-cased postpositional phrase is adverbial, i. e. it modifies verbs and whole subclauses, not noun phrases).

Postpositional phrases

A postpositional phrase is composed of an oblique noun phrase and a postposition, in that order. The noun phrase must have its head and all of its modifiers in the oblique case.

A core-case (normal) postpositional phrase is similar to an adverb. It modifies verbs and whole subclauses, not nouns or adjectives. However, if the postposition is marked with the oblique case, it becomes a suitable noun modifier and can precede a head noun phrase.

Ū tta wān kuzlō uts ukjsot.
1sO to horse door-O from seen-3s-PRF
“From [my place at] the door I saw a horse.”

Ū tta kuzlō utso wān ukjsot.
1sO to door-O from-O horse seen-3s-PRF
“I saw a horse [that was coming] from the door.”