Linguistic Curiosities

April 20, 2014 at 11:16pm
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Linear Mandarin: An Experiment

Random Chapter I

It is not clear to me why this chapter is here, but do enjoy!

Word Order

In Mandarin the word order is generally very “linear” and “logical”, there’s almost no “movements” in that sense.

For example:

Žəśje ŝu ŝŕ ŝeei’də?
(Lit.) These book(s) are who’se?

[Det.] [Subject] [Verb] […]

This is quite generally the case in forming questions, it’s always “That is what?” instead of “What is that?” — unless the interrogative pronoun is the agent: “Who did that?”

* You might also noticed that I changed the diacritic for Ž or ž because the circumflexed version doesn’t display well on some (i.e. Peter’s) mobiles.


In Mandarin it’s easy to form compounds in a very “synthetic” way.

For example:

English: Microwave Oven

Components: (Micro) + (Wave) + (Oven)

Finnish: mikro-aalto-uuni = mikroaaltouuni

Mandarin: uei-bo-luu = ueiboluu


There is no stand-alone word for ‘please’ in Mandarin, but there is a prefix particle that can be attached to some verbs. Also, there are idiomatic expressions for begging (“Please~~~”).

tśiiŋźin = Please come in.

tśiiŋzuo = Please have a seat.

tśiiŋun = May I ask…

Tśiiŋun žəśje ŝu ŝŕ ŝeei’də?
= May I ask, whose books are these?

Negative Imperative

This type of sentences can be constructed using a “negative imperative verb” similar to the Finnish “älä”:

Biee uaŋ’lə dai’ŝaŋ jauŝ!
= Don’t forget to bring (with you) the key(s)!

Here ‘dai' is the verb stem, and 'ŝaŋ' is the effect complement modifying the verb, which we will cover in future chapters.

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Analogous Semantics

New scents are difficult to describe, one can only suggest an approximation based on similarities to what the audience would already be capable of recalling.

Are new words like this?

April 13, 2014 at 8:52pm
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Linear Mandarin: An Experiment

Chapter 8: Auxiliary Verbs

In English we have so-called “helping verbs”, such as ‘do' and 'have’. For this course, I would say there are no such equivalents in Mandarin.

The roles are taken by more specific “strong verbs”:

zuo = “work on, perform, carry out”
zuo zuoje = do homework;

Ta ŝŕ zuo ŝəənmə’də?
= (Lit.) He/she is do what’kind (for a job)?

jəəu = “own, possess, exist”.
jəəu uəntii = having problem(s) = problematic

Nii jəəu ŝəəuźi ma?
= (Lit.) You own a mobile phone, yeah?

Auxiliary Verbs

The most useful auxiliary verb is:

zai = be, (be) at

    It has the most basic grammatical functions

Zai ma?  = Are you there/online?

Zai naₔaŕ? = (Lit.) It’s where?
Zai naŕ. = It’s there.

Nii zai źja ma? = (Lit.) You are at home, yeah?

Nii zai zuo ŝnmə? = (Lit.) You are doing what?

Uaimjän zai śjajüü. = Outside (it) is (now) raining.

For allative expressions:

jəəu = similar to the “-lle” in Finnish
= “for the benefit of someone there be”

Uuomn miiŋtjän jəəu huooduŋ.
= (Lit.) We tomorrow have event/activities.

For future expressions:

hui = will be

Miiŋtjän hui śjajüü ma?
= (Lit.) Tomorrow will (it) rain, huh?

Thematic Constructions

There are also two thematic auxiliaries: ‘baa' and 'bei' for building more complex sentences, for now I'll just outline them as follows:

[Agent] baa [Patient] Verb (Aspect, Compliment)

Uuo baa biŋźiliŋ ĉŕ uaan’lə.
=(Lit.) I (take) ice-cream eat all (done).

[Patient] bei [Agent] Verb (Aspect, Compliment)

Biŋźiliŋ bei uuo ĉŕ uaan’lə.
=(Lit.) Ice-cream (was) (by me) eaten all (done).

Ta bei ĉaau śiŋ’lə.
=(Lit.) He (was) made (through noise) awake (done).
  {Here the Agent is unspecified.}

April 9, 2014 at 7:47pm
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Linear Mandarin: An Experiment

Chapter 7: Pronouns

Now moving on to more grammar!

Personal Pronouns: Base Form

1ST = uuo = I

2ND = nii = you

3RD = ta = he, she, it

* In theory, there’s also a formal ‘You’: ‘niin’.

Personal Pronouns: Plural

As it is often the case in Mandarin, you make a plural by adding the “plural particle” ‘mn̩’, which is a ‘m’ followed by a syllabic ‘n’. The resonance of the nasal(s) replaces the schwa, cf. ‘segm(e)nt’.

uuomn = we

niimn = you (plural)

tamn = they

* Niihau! = Hello!; Niimnhau! = Hello (to all of you)!

Demonstrative Pronouns

In fact, I haven’t thought much about this category…

The words are generally derived from ‘this’ and ‘that’:

ẑeig, ẑəg = this (one)

neig, nag = that (one)

əśje = these (ones)

naśje = those (ones)

= here

n = there


Interrogative Pronouns

ŝəənmə, ŝnmə = what

naag, naₔag = which (one)

naₔaśje = which (ones)

naₔaŕŕ, naₔalii = where

ŝeₔei = who

ueiŝnmə = why, what for

zəₔənmə = how, how to, how come

* ‘ŝnməŝŕŕhəu' (literally 'what time') = when

* For questions with ‘how much’, ‘how old’, ‘how high' and so on, we'll have a later chapter titled “Questions” after the introduction of modal particles.


"Uuomn tśjü naₔaŕŕ?" = (Lit.) We go where?
"Tamn zai naₔaŕŕ?" = (Lit.) They (are) at where?
"Zai naŕŕ!" = (Lit.) At (over) there!

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Linear Mandarin: An Experiment

Chapter 6: Diphthongs

Group 1:

ai     cf. eye
ei     cf. hay
ui     cf. we or way

au     cf. how or Haus
əu     cf. go

ua     cf. what
(uä)     only in certain contexts; cf. whack
uo     cf. war

* For ie, , ia, and iu, see Group 3.

Group 2:

üe     allophone of ue
üa     allophone of ua

* ‘üa' only occur in palatal contexts.
* ‘üe' occurs in palatal contexts and in rare words following 'n' or 'l'.

Group 3:

jeiejie    cf. yes

jiä    cf. yeah

jaiajia    cf. Ja

juiujiu    cf. you

* For now, to keep things simple, you can view the different columns as free variations with varying degrees of accent.

April 6, 2014 at 11:01pm
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Reblogged from antarcticpip

A baboon plays bassoon from balloons, as requested by dave-the-linguist.
(Watercolour and pen)


A baboon plays bassoon from balloons, as requested by dave-the-linguist.

(Watercolour and pen)

1 note

Along the way some “edge-of-madness” questions popped up:
• Are phonemes “real”, descriptive entities? Or is the whole thing more about a dynamic system of reliably (with error bars) creating *perceived* contrast in context?
• Why make the distinct at all between lexical and grammatical morphemes?
• Is any generable language documentable? Is any documented language generable?

April 1, 2014 at 11:52pm
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Linear Mandarin: An Experiment

Chapter 5: Qualified Vowels

Note: This term, ‘qualifying’ is made up, by me. The reason is that through this course I want to introduce a useful variant of Mandarin that does not involve the concept of tones.

And since what is called ‘tones’ is only one of many ways of achieving lexical contrast, I want to replace it with something else that is more accessible to speakers of non-tonal languages.

Phonetic prominence can be achieved by contrasting amplitude, quantity, articulation, pitch, or a concoction of these. For English you can think of acute intonation that is draped onto words.

For example:

'Whut…’ vs.

'WAT~~’ vs.

'What?’ vs.


That means in English you are already capable of making a vowel sound somehow different to add emotion or meaning. For a more detailed explanation, see: Tones in Mandarin

Now, ‘qualifying’ in orthography is achieved by writing these vowels as ‘doubles’, e.g. ‘aa’, ‘oo’, or ‘uu’, which serves as a reminder that they should sound somehow different.

It is completely up to you whether you want to lengthen it, stress it, or accentuate it in some way — anything you do will create a contrast that makes your speech rather understandable.

Once you start conversing in person with natives, it will also help you quickly pick up how the natives actually ‘qualify’ these vowels, and ‘snap’ onto the phonology intuitively. And I believe this is way more effective than rehearsing those abstract, conceptualised, idealised landmarks (nominal tones) that only exist in prescriptive theory.

Qualified Vowels:

This part is very straightforward. All vowels can be ‘qualified’.

aa       naaŕ = where; naŕ = there

ee       źjeeźe = older sister

ii         nii = you (second person singular)

oo       meeiguoo = America (U.S.)

uu       uu = five

ää       diään = (o’clock)

üü       nüüaaŕ = daughter

əə        zəənmə = how

ŕŕ        ŝŕ = yes, be; ŝŕŕ = ten

ɨɨ        Tśüsɨɨ! = Go to hell!

* These are also used for long vowels in loan words, e.g. ‘piisa’ = pizza.

* They can ‘fuse’ with other vowels including diphthongs, e.g. ‘uuo’ = I, me (first person singular).

* They often represent the 2nd or the 3rd tone.

* They can also be used in single open syllable strong verbs.

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Linear Mandarin: An Experiment

Chapter 4: Vowels, Special Vowels

Group 1:

a     open vowel realised as [a], [ä] or [ɑ], cf. blah

e     mid-high front vowel [e], cf. yes

i      high front vowel [i], cf. bee

o     back vowel [ɔ], cf. oar

u     high back vowel [u], cf. goose

Group 2:

ä     [ɛ] or [æ], a cousin of ‘a' in high context

ü     [y], like the German ‘ü’

ə     neutral vowel, but not a schwa, since it can be stressed

Group 3:

ŕ     sounds like a fortified [ɻ] used as a ‘retroflex’ vowel

* Think of this Slovak phrase: “Strč prst skrz krk.”

* This letter is also used to represent the rhotic coda.

ɨ     similar to the Russian ‘еры' or the Japanese 'sɯmō’.

* This vowel adds a nucleus to fortify ‘z’, ‘ts' or 's' initials.

* One way to grasp this sound is to first sustain a buzzing ‘zzzzzzz’, then gradually release the ‘sibilant gate’ to remove the alveolar consonant, but leaving a similar resonance chamber for the voicing to continue.

March 25, 2014 at 10:16pm
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Linear Mandarin: An Experiment

Chapter 3: Special Consonants

Group 1: Fricatives

z     as in zip’

ts     as in 'wits

s     as in sea’

These are quite straightforward for English speakers.

Group 2: Affricates

     [t͡ʂ]    (zh)

ĉ    [t͡ʂʰ]    (ch)

ŝ     [ʂ]    (sh)

For English speakers, I recommend you approximate these as:

dg     [d͡ʒ]    (dsch)

ch     [t͡ʃ]      (tsch)

sh     [ʃ]       (sch)

Group 3: Palatals

Now, on to the naughtier ones that require some practice:

ź     [tɕ]    similar to a squeezed ‘dsch’

    [tɕʰ]   similar to a squeezed ‘tsch’

ś     [ɕ]      similar to the ‘ich-Laut’

My recommendation is to start with the ich-Laut, and squeeze it harder to make it more “alveolo-palatalised”, imagine a Russian accent…

Then, try and add a palatalised ‘d’ or ‘t’ sound in front of it to produced the other two. Try them with high tense vowels.


Here, have another anatomically inaccurate diagram. To the right, we have the easier fricatives, in the middle, affricates, and to the left, the unusual ones.

z      ẑ      ź

ts     ĉ     tś

s      ŝ      ś    

I have made these choices regarding orthography to make it easier for a lay English speaker to read it and still produce something ‘passable’…