This time, I have a much better reason for taking some time off: the holidays. Remember, I write most of my posts beforehand, and the run-up to Christmas has taken its toll on my writing schedule. So I’ll use the lame-duck week between Christmas and New Year’s to take some time for myself, to enjoy all my wonderful gifts (yeah, right; I’m 32 now, I honestly like giving more than receiving these days), and to build up for next year. “Let’s make a language” continues apace, however. The timing for it worked out perfectly, and I had the latest parts done well in advance. (Part 9, for example, was actually written in late October!)

So, have a great week, and I hope you have had a wonderful holiday season, whichever holiday it is that you celebrate. I’ll see you again next week, and next year.

Let’s make a language – Part 10b: Relative clauses (Conlangs)

(Editor’s note: I wrote this two weeks ago. It’s only the calendar that put it out on Christmas Day.)

As I said before, I think relative clauses are hard to wrap your head around. Fortunately, once we know the basics, it’s much easier to put them into a conlang. Let’s do that now, with Isian and Ardari.

Isian relatives

Isian relative clauses always appear at the end of a noun phrase. That one’s pretty much the only non-negotiable part of the nominal grammar. But how do we make them? As it turns out, in one of two different ways, depending on what we’re relativizing.

For subjects, Isian uses a simple gap strategy. The only way you’ll know it’s a relative clause is by a special marker ke that goes before the verb. For example, “the man who saw me” translates as e sam ke cheres men. In a sense, ke functions almost like English that, as a complementizing particle, but it’s more tightly bound to the verb than the noun.

A couple more examples, using only old vocabulary:

  • es esher ke dalega e sush talar “the girls that live in the blue house”
  • ta almerat shes ke barda e ficha shimin “a wise woman who prays at the river”

Everything else that needs to be relativized works differently. (This, by the way, is an example of the accessibility hierarchy in action.) For these, Isian uses a resumptive pronoun. This is just a personal pronoun in the appropriate case and number, and it takes the place of the relativized argument. Changing our first example around, we would have e sam ke chereta im, meaning “the man I saw”. (Literally, this would be “the man I saw him”, which is ungrammatical in English.) Note that ke is still used, but im appears as the object, in a resumptive context.

More examples include:

  • e talar ke dalegan em i ed “the house where I live” (or “the house in which I live”)
  • lichacal ke rococan em ed “everything I have written”
  • es des ke an din fanama des mit “the things we can’t have”

Also, in this type of relative clause, Isian’s normal SVO word order isn’t quite as rigid. Resumptive pronouns can be fronted for emphasis, although they can’t come before ke and the verb. Actually, in these cases, the normal word order almost becomes VSO, with VOS a distinct alternative.

So, that’s the basic outline for Isian relative clauses. Compare that to the length of the last post, and you can see what I mean when I say that they’re hard to understand, but easier to implement. Now, let’s take a look at Ardari.

Ardari relatives

Grammatically speaking, this is one instance where Ardari is actually far simpler than Isian. It uses a full complementizing gap strategy throughout. The relative argument, whether subject, object, oblique, or genitive, is fronted and replaced by qa. The relative clause then slides into the noun phrase just before the head noun.

  • Subject: qa tyèketö wi reje sèdardös, “the children playing in the house”
  • Object: tura qa grätod ènglatö, “the long sword I made”
  • Oblique: qa chès tatyerod astitö, “the friend I danced with”
  • Genitive: sli qa me kyure yfilyod nälitö “the beautiful woman whose hand I held”

Postpositions are fronted, but not replaced, so they’re effectively “dangling”, although it’s impossible to end the sentence with one. (This should cause such a conflict in grammar pedants’ minds that it will shut them down for good.) The last two examples above illustrate this, with the postpositions chès “with” and me “of”; the latter is the way to make an Ardari genitive in a relative clause, since qa doesn’t have case forms. Putting these two in a “standard” form would give us astitö chès tatyerod “I danced with the friend” and slini nälinitö kyure yfilyod “I held the beautiful woman’s hand”, respectively.


There’s not much else to say, really. Again, the hard part is understanding relative clauses enough to know how to put them in your conlang. Putting them in turns out to be almost trivial in comparison. Who would have guessed?

Next time, we’ll look at the “other” kind of relative clause, more properly called the “adverbial” clause. Before that, though, next week will be special. See you next year!

First glance: Unreal.js

With Christmas coming up, I don’t exactly have the time to write those 2,000-word monologues that I’ve been doing. But I want to post something, if only because laziness would intervene otherwise. Inertia would take over, and I’d stop posting anything at all. I know it would happen. I’ve done it once before. So, these last few Wednesdays of 2015 will be short and sweet.

This time around, I want to talk about something I recently found on a wonderful site called Game From Scratch. It’s called Unreal.js, and it’s open-source (Apache license). What does it do? Well, that’s the interesting thing, and that’s what I’m going to ramble on about.

You’ve probably heard of UnrealEngine. It’s the latest iteration of the game engine used to power a wide array of games, from Unreal Tournament to AAA titles like the newest Street Fighter and Tekken to hundreds of up-and-coming indie games. The most recent version, UnrealEngine 4, is getting a lot of press mainly because of its remarkably open development and friendly pricing scheme. (Compared to other professional game engines, anyway.) Lately, Unreal has become a serious competitor to Unity for the middle tier of game development, and competition is an indisputably good thing.

But Unreal has a problem compared to Unity. You see, Unity runs on Microsoft’s .NET framework. (Strictly speaking, it runs on Mono, which is a Microsoft-approved knockoff of .NET that used to be fully open, to the point where most Linux distributions preinstalled it a few years ago. Now…not so much.) Anyway, Unity uses .NET, and one of the nifty things about .NET is that, like the JVM, it’s not restricted to a single language. Sure, you’re most likely to use C#, but you don’t have to. Unity explicitly supports JavaScript, and it used to have full support for a Python clone called Boo. (Supposedly, there are ways to get other languages like F# to work with it, but I don’t know why anyone would want to.)

Unreal, on the other hand, uses C++. From a performance perspective, that’s a great thing. C++ is fast, it can use far less memory than even C#, and it’s closer to the hardware, making it easier to take advantage of platform-specific optimizations. However, C++ is (in my experienced opinion) one of the hardest programming languages to learn well. It’s also fairly ugly. The recent C++11 standard helps a lot with both of these problems, but full support just isn’t there yet, even 4 years later. C++17 looks like it will go a few steps further in the “ease of use” direction, but you’ll be lucky to use it before 2020.

The makers of UnrealEngine know all of this, so they included a “visual” programming language, Blueprints. Great idea, in theory, but there are a lot of languages out there that you don’t need to invent. Why not use one of them? Well, that’s where Unreal.js comes in. Its developers (some guys called NCSoft; you may have heard of them) have made a plugin that connects the V8 JavaScript engine from Chrome/Safari/Node.js/everywhere into Unreal. The whole thing is still in a very early stage, but it’s shaping up to be something interesting.

If Unreal.js takes off, then it can put Unreal well ahead of Unity, even among hobbyists and lower-end indies. JavaScript is a lot easier on the brain than C++ (take it from someone who knows both). And it has a huge following, not just for webapps and server stuff. The Unreal.js project page claims support for “(Full) access to existing javascript libraries via npm, bower, …”

That’s huge. Sure, not all npm packages are of the highest quality, but there are plenty that are, and this would let you use all of them to help make a game. Game engines, historically, have been some of the worst about code reuse, 3rd-party libraries, and other niceties that “normal” applications get to use. Well, that can change.

And then there’s one other factor: other languages. Since Unreal.js is pretty much just the V8 engine from Node, and it can load most Node packages, that opens the possibility of using some of the many “transpiled” languages that are transformed to Node-friendly JavaScript. Think CoffeeScript, TypeScript (which recently released its new 1.7 version), or even my April Fools’ Day joke language Elan.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Unreal.js will fizzle. Perhaps it’s destined to join the legions of other failed attempts at integrating game development with the rest of the programming world. I hope not. The past few years have seen a real move in the direction of democratizing the art of game-making again. I’d like to see that trend continue in 2016 and beyond.

Holidays: reality and fantasy

Today, for me, marks the winter solstice. (Officially, it happens just before 5AM tomorrow morning, going by UTC time. I’m in the US Eastern Time Zone, which is 5 hours behind that, so it’s a few minutes before midnight locally.) As the days grow shorter and the year runs out, thoughts naturally turn towards the holidays, of which there are so many right now. Christmas, of course, is only a few days away. Hanukkah isn’t too far behind us. New Year’s Day is on the horizon, bringing 2015 to a close. And that’s not counting the not-so-holy holidays this time of year, like Pearl Harbor Day (and the birthday of one of my uncles) back on the 7th or Boxing Day (and the birthday of a different uncle) on the 26th.

Indeed, in our modern, Western calendar, every month is chock full of holidays. (Except August, much to my brother’s delight; it’s totally bare, so his birthday is all by itself.) But that’s one culture, in one time, and nothing says that everybody has the same holidays. It’s common knowledge that Jews and Muslims don’t celebrate Christmas, for example, while Thanksgiving is an American tradition with no counterpart across the Atlantic. Many countries celebrate Independence Day, but only the USA has it on the Fourth of July.

And what about fictional cultures? What holidays do they have? Tolkien’s hobbits were good English folk, and they essentially used our calendar and our holidays, just with the Christianity filed off. That’s good enough for a lot of stories, but we might want to go deeper. To do that, we need to understand the origins of holidays.

For every season

For a “traditional” pre-industrial society, whether agrarian or hunter-gatherer, life is sustained directly by the earth itself. Food comes from nature, and it is the single most important facet of life. And food follows the seasons, whether the growing seasons of plants or the mating or hibernating or migrating seasons of animals. Life, living, is governed by the calendar. That’s where most of our traditional holidays come from. As it turns out, they might have different names, but almost every culture has a similar set.

Imagine an analog clock face. Now, imagine that this represents the year. Summer, the season with the highest temperatures, can go at the top, with the solstice at the 12 o’clock position. Winter, conversely, will be the low point: 6 o’clock. The spring and autumn equinoxes then fit in at 9 and 3, respectively. And time passes like this in its eternal cycles. Simple, right? Each of those four points I identified are important markers in the year that are recognized by most cultures. (Tropical cultures are a bit of an exception, since they don’t have the most obvious distinction of the seasons, the changing length of the night. But they can still tell the seasons by patterns in rainfall, winds, and the natural behavior of plants and animals.)

For a lot of places in the temperate zones, the spring (vernal) equinox marks the point in the year when temperatures are warm enough to make planting viable. In the same way, the autumnal equinox is a good sign that cold weather is moving in soon, and it’s time to start thinking about harvests and preparing for winter. Since temperate locales tend to show a big difference between hot and cold seasons, this is a very important part of the calendar. Freezing weather kills many plants, including most of those a pre-industrial society depends on for food. Planting too early and harvesting too late are both very real dangers that can, at the worst, lead to widespread famine. (Look up the Year Without a Summer for a fairly recent example of this.)

In a similar vein, the solstices are milestones in the calendar. Among older cultures, the winter solstice has been historically more important, whether as a time to look forward to the spring ahead or to celebrate the passing year. Summer, in temperate regions, is a relative time of plenty already, so it gets less attention. Besides, no one who lives a pastoral life looks forward to the lean times of winter.

So, for many cultures that haven’t reached the Industrial Age (where advances in technology allow food yields to increase faster than the population), these four times are some of the most likely suspects for holidays. And we can add to them four more: the midpoints between each pair. On our imaginary clock, those are at 1:30, 4:30, 7:30, and 10:30; on the calendar, they’re around the beginning of February, May, August, and November. Indeed, some calendars—the Celtic calendar is one example—use those to determine the seasons, while our familiar equinoxes and solstices become their midpoints.

Altogether, then, we have eight days that make obvious sense for agrarian holidays. On our calendar, roughly, they are: February 1, March 20, May 1, June 21, August 1, September 23, November 1, and December 21. And true enough, the Western world has seasons for just about all of them:

  • Early February: Groundhog Day is a modern spectacle that hearkens back to actual folk wisdom regarding the coming of spring. The Christian feast day of Candlemas probably replaced many of those “pagan” traditions. And America’s bloodsport of choice has its biggest day around this time, too: the Super Bowl.

  • Late March: Essentially everybody celebrates the first of spring. (If you’re a Celt, then that was in the last section, as Imbolc. Otherwise, it’s probably right here.) Most of the European rituals were subsumed into Easter, but the pagan origins are still evident. Look elsewhere in the world, though, and you’ll find planting holidays and end-of-winter feasts aplenty.

  • Early May: By the middle of spring, lots of flowers are blooming, and that’s the basic idea around these holidays. Nowadays, May Day celebrates workers in industrialized countries, but the floral connection still exists. The US has never really been a big May Day place, so Mother’s Day pops up here. It’s not a traditional festival-type holiday, though, so we’ll get to it later. The Celts, by the way, started counting summer here, calling it Beltane.

  • Late June: Again, we don’t really have a lot going on this time of year, but that wasn’t always the case. Midsummer was celebrated by plenty of cultures, and it’s a very big thing in northern Europe to this day. Christianity appropriated it as St. John’s Day, but find somebody in America who knows that. Of course, we have the nearby Fourth of July, so it’s understandable. Anyway, midsummer holidays tend to celebrate the long days, maybe even with bonfires that try to further drive back the night.

  • Early August: By August, summer is starting to run out, and fall is approaching. The earliest harvests start around this time, and the traditional Anglo-Saxon calendar marks August 1 as a “first harvest” festival for wheat crops, called Lammas (Lughnasa by the Celts). The timing doesn’t work everywhere, nor does it work for every crop, so not everybody has a harvest holiday around here, although they’ll have one somewhere.

  • Late September: Traditional harvest festivals tend to fall around the first of autumn. In other words, right here. The Harvest Moon is the full moon closest to the equinox, and its light can be seen as a blessing to those working the fields, giving them a little extra to see by. Harvest, of course, is a time of hard work, but also of feasting. Before modern food storage techniques, people had to eat what they could, lest it go to waste.

  • Early November: Celts have Samhain, Christians have All Saints’ Day, and children have Halloween. These are all connected, as the Church took over the pagan festival, then the people took over the holy feast. Some other cultures have something here, but this one isn’t that big a time to celebrate, as it means that winter is coming. Maybe if you’re a Stark…

  • Late December: In modern times, we’d see it as ending the year with a bang. For a lot of people (not just Christians, for that matter), Christmas is the holiday. But it has its pagan origins, too: traditional Yule and Roman Saturnalia. All of them have the same general idea, though. A feast to get through the long winter nights, a time to look forward to spring, a day to reflect on the year that was and the year that soon will be, all of that fits this time of year. So does gift-giving, that most popular of Christmas traditions. What better time to give to those in need, if not the shortest day of the year?

Getting religion

So that’s it for the agrarian calendar. Add religion to the mix, and things get hairy. For Christianity, it’s mostly simple, as the Church subsumed the pagan holidays into its own, sometimes only by changing their names. They did add some of their own, like Ash Wednesday or the feast of the Assumption, that don’t match up to the seasons. Judaism and Islam, which keep their own calendars, have their own holidays, like Hanukkah and Ramadan, and the same would be true even for fictional religions.

Here, it’s hard to give guidelines. Religious observances that aren’t anniversaries of known events can fall anywhere in the year. They can even be movable, and not in obvious ways: calculations of the date of Easter drove centuries of Christian astronomy. And those that are annual commemorations don’t necessarily need any connection to the actual date the event happened. After all, there isn’t even Biblical evidence that Jesus was born in December. (That he was crucified in spring is pretty solidly confirmed, however.)

My best advice is to think about the religion. What days are most important? Those will likely be the ones most celebrated. Then look at the rest of the calendar. People like feasts, but they don’t want too many too soon. That gets expensive. So the next most celebrated holidays will likely be those far from other holidays. It’s not an exact science—it doesn’t explain the American August drought—but it’s a good start.

Also, if your story involves a polytheistic religion, think about the different gods and their functions. Gods of agriculture and nature are going to be more tied to the seasons. Death and winter are often linked, for obvious reasons, so a death god might have a holiday in or near winter. Spring is seen as a time of love, fire goes with summer, and I’m sure you can find other relations.


As states become more centralized, especially once industrialization comes about, the nature of holidays begins to change. Sure, the usual suspects are still there: harvest feasts, planting festivals, summer bonfires and winter gifts. But these are increasingly accompanied by a new set of holidays, and we should spend some time on them.

Many of our “secondary” holidays originally had a religious significance, largely stemming from the Catholic saints’ days. Valentine’s Day is one of these, though it also falls on the day of a Roman feast (Lupercalia) that had many of the same romantic connotations. Saint Patrick’s Day is another, but it’s also a “nationalist” holiday, with its strong Irish connection. For these, as for Christmas and Halloween, it’s a case of the secular overtaking the religious. Likewise, Thanksgiving originally had some religious overtones, but these are all but forgotten.

Other holidays are directly nationalist, and these obviously depend on the country. But they all have in common the idea of commemorating a person or group. In the US, for example, we have holidays to honor Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther King Jr., veterans (originally of World War I, but later expanded to all of them), mothers, fathers, workers, and presidents. The specifics will differ, but a fictitious country would likely have its own set of honored people. This would depend on history, societal norms, technological advancement, and the circumstances around the formation of that country, all of which are good topics for future posts.


On other planets, the seasons still work the same way. A terrestrial planet with a year like Earth’s will have a natural calendar like Earth’s. The names and dates will be changed, but the broad outline will remain the same.

We don’t even know what kind of life can arise on less-familiar worlds, but it stands to reason that they’d have similar ideas about the calendar. Of course, around a red M star, a habitable world’s year only lasts a few weeks, so things will likely break down at this extreme. At the other end of the spectrum, habitable planets around F stars might have years 3 or more times that of ours, meaning longer, more extreme seasons. More holidays would appear in a longer calendar like this, if only to break up the monotony.

Now, a society spanning multiple worlds has a conundrum. Most of the holidays, at first, would be those of the homeworld. But colonies would soon become like nations on Earth, each developing their own set of observances (for the same reasons, no less). Almost all of these would be purely local, but some would rise in prominence, as St. Patrick’s Day has done here.


However you do it, holidays add flavor to a world. They’re an important part of life. They have been for thousands of years, and they will be as long as we continue to observe them.

Most of a culture’s holidays are going to come from its roots, and each will have a story. Some are religious, others entirely dependent on the whims of the seasons. A few started out as movements for political or social change, or to honor the leaders of such. And today, every day of the year has been claimed in the name of some organization. (My own birthday of October 16, for instance, is Boss’s Day, which would be great if I had employees. It’s also World Food Day and World Anesthesia Day, because of historical anniversaries.)

As I said before, most stories won’t need this level of detail. But it can find a place in worldbuilding, and it’s always good to have the answers to the kinds of questions you never thought to ask. So, consider this a gift. And whichever holiday you happen to be celebrating over the next week or so, I hope you enjoy it.

Let’s make a language – Part 10a: Relative clauses (Intro)

This time around, we’re going to look at what I think is one of the more confusing bits of a language: the relative clause. That is, it’s confusing in theory, as in understanding how it works. Implementing it in a conlang turns out to be a bit easier, but it marks a kind of turning point, in that we’re moving out of the simple grammatical concepts (like plurals or the past tense) and into the more complex world of phrase-level grammar. I guess you could even say this starts “Part 2” of the series.

It’s all relative

Relative clauses. What they are is right there in the name. First of all, they’re clauses, meaning that they are essentially self-contained phrases that have all the necessary parts to state a fact about something. (This is different from the prepositional phrases from last time, which can only really add information to an existing clause.) And second, relative clauses are relative. In other words, the new facts they provide somehow relate to something else.

That’s a grammatical definition, anyway. In English, what relative clauses are is fairly obvious: they are the phrases that we use to put more meaning in a sentence. (Conveniently enough, that last sentence ended with one.) Unlike an adjective phrase, a relative clause works more like a whole new sentence embedded in an existing one, except that one part of it refers directly to something in that existing sentence.

For example, let’s take a simple sentence with a relative clause: The nice man who lives next door has three big dogs. Okay, I’m not the best on example sentences, but it’ll work, and it doesn’t use any other grammar we haven’t already seen in the series. So what have we got? Well, let’s break it down. Starting at the end, we have a predicate phrase, has three big dogs, which contains a verb (has) and a noun phrase (three big dogs).

Those are nothing new, so we’ll ignore them completely and focus on the first half of the sentence, the subject phrase: the nice man who lives next door. Clearly, man is the head of this phrase, and the and nice are an article and adjective, respectively. And that leaves who lives next door, which is our relative clause. It’s formed almost like it could be a sentence, with its own verb (lives) and everything, but the subject is all wrong for that.

In a sense, we’ve combined two sentences. We have the main statement, the nice man has three big dogs, but we also want to clarify some things about this nice man, so we have another sentence, he lives next door. In both cases, we’re talking about the same man, and that’s the “hook” that lets us put the relative clause into the original statement.

Subjects and objects

In our example, the subject of the “outer” clause was the same as that of the relative clause. That doesn’t always have to be the case. In English, as in many languages, it’s possible to switch things around. You can also have, for instance, objects with attached relative clauses: I talked to the man who lives next door. Inside the relative clause, the man is still the subject, but on the outside, he’s the direct object. Similarly, the “relativized” part can be the object of its own clause (the man that I saw yesterday), or part of a possessive or other construction (the man whose dogs are always barking).

English, admittedly, makes all this a little unclear. In cased languages, it’s a lot easier to keep track of everything, and that’s one of the grammatical pedant’s arguments in still using whom for relativized objects. (Their opinion on sentences ending in a preposition comes into play here, too, because that comes from the different ways relative clauses are made in English and Latin. In Latin, you can’t “split” the preposition from the relative pronoun, like you can in English.)

Not every language allows all types of nouns to be relativized, though. There are a few different roles available, and it seems to be a linguistic universal that they fall into a naturally order, called the accessibility hierarchy:

  1. Subject
  2. Direct object
  3. Indirect object
  4. Oblique argument (English prepositional phrases)
  5. Genitive (where English would use whose)
  6. Comparative object (such as the people I am older than)

As the theory goes, if any one of these can’t be relativized, then nothing lower on the list can, either. In other words, any language that allows relative clauses at all is going to allow them for subjects, while one that doesn’t let you use them for objects won’t let you for genitives, either. English offers the full range, as do most of the “big” world languages, but that’s not always the case.

Those languages that don’t let you use the full hierarchy often have some way of accomplishing the same thing. There might be a special verbal voice (like the applicative or the antipassive), for example.

Other ways

Now, just because our language creates relative clauses a certain way by default (using a relative pronoun like “who”, “whose”, or “which”), doesn’t mean that’s the only way to do it. And that’s where things can get interesting. Indeed, English itself gives you a few options:

First off, you don’t actually need a relative pronoun; you can get by without one: the girls I saw outside has a relative clause with no pronoun. This one pops up in a lot of languages, and linguists refer to it as a gap strategy. The “gap” refers to where the relativized part of the sentence would go.

Second, you can use the gap strategy with a kind of linking particle, sometimes called a complementizer. This one is also an option in English, using that: the girls that I saw outside. This is common throughout the world, and it has become a kind of catch-all in English, much to the despair of some.

Both of the above alternatives carry less overt information than the relative pronoun typical of European languages. But we can go in the other direction, as well. We can add a resumptive pronoun, which is a regular personal pronoun that appears where the relativized argument would, as if we could say the girls that I saw them outside. (This one can appear in spoken English, when a speaker gets too bogged down in relative clauses. It’s happened to me plenty of times.) The resumptive pronoun can also be moved to the front of the relative clause in some languages, but that doesn’t change the core “method”.

A relative clause can also show up as some other kind of clause. Turkish has a nominalizing construction that would render our example as something like the girls of my seeing outside. Some languages of East Asia, conversely, use a genitive construction that would come out closer to the girls of I saw outside. Constructs like these tend to work best when independent words denote such meanings, rather than case affixes. If a language has a passive voice, that’s another possibility for relative clauses. Our running example in this section makes this one more cumbersome, but you might get something like the girls seen outside.

Finally, a few languages dispense with relativized clauses altogether. These have internally-headed clauses, where the clause that would be relative is simply inserted into the main sentence as-is. Using our original example sentence, this might come out in a literal translation as the nice man lives next door has three big dogs. (This kind shows up a little bit more often among the native languages of the Americas, but also in a few scattered locations elsewhere in the world.) A similar option is found in Hindi, which uses a reduced correlative word or phrase in the main clause, almost the opposite of the “relative pronoun” process of English. Our example sentence might be literally translated in this case as which nice man lives next door, that man has three big dogs.

Seeing all your relatives

That just about covers the largest category of relative clause, but it’s not the only one. We can also have something called a free relative clause, which isn’t really relative to much of anything. Wikipedia’s English example is I like what I see, which nicely illustrates this. Languages don’t have to allow this one at all, but many of them do; a different wording might be I like that which I see, which sounds very stilted in English, but more explicitly shows the grammar involved.

Another clause that “sounds” relative is the adverbial clause, something like when I came home. I mean, it looks like it’s a relative clause, right? It’s got when, and that’s in the same class as who and where, isn’t it? But it isn’t, not really. It is, however, the topic for the next part of the series, so we’ll leave that discussion for later.

Wireless woes

I’m really not trying to get out of posting Wednesday stuff. It’s just that fate seems to be conspiring against me. Last week, I was so sick I couldn’t get out of bed. This time around, the illness has moved to my wireless router.

It started a couple of weeks ago, when my trusty old RT-N16 started acting up. Wireless speeds became unbearably slow, and latency was horrible. (We’re talking a 200 ms ping to the next room.) So, after eliminating all other potential sources of trouble, I bought a new router: an RT-AC66, also by Asus.

That, apparently, was a mistake. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the AC66 is a great router. But there’s a big problem, and it turns out that it’s the same problem that the N16 had.

After some research, I think I’ve pinpointed the problem: the wireless chipset. Both routers use essentially the same one for the 2.4 GHz band. And both of them use essentially the same firmware, thus the same driver for that chipset. That driver, however, doesn’t exactly work.

On various forums, Asus support people have said that a fix is in the works. They’ve said this in posts dating back to 2013, in fact. Yet no fix has solved all the problems.

So I’ve got a few options. I could try alternate firmware (DD-WRT, for example). That’s a road fraught with peril, as you may know, and there’s no guarantee it would really help. So, I’m going with option 2: get a third router. This one is a TP-LINK Archer C7. It’s a different manufacturer and a different chipset. That, of course, will mean a different set of problems, but (hopefully) some that are fixable.

The changing of the seasons

Winter is coming. It’s not just a catchy motto from Game of Thrones, you know. No, winter really is on its way, as the seasons move on their eternal cycle. And this change from fall to winter can make you wonder. We know why the seasons change: our planet’s tilt, combined with its movement around the sun. But what does that truly mean? And, from a worldbuilding perspective, does it have to be that way? Well, let’s take a look.

Reason for the season

The Earth is tilted on its axis. Anybody past about the third grade knows that, and it’s patently obvious just by looking at the sky at different points in the year. Right now, our world has somewhere in the vicinity of 23° of axial tilt, and that’s a fairly stable number. It hasn’t changed much at all in written history, and only within about a degree either way throughout all of human existence. In the distant past (millions of years ago), there were periods where it was much higher or lower, but things are much more settled in this modern era.

Now, the axis doesn’t move, at least on scales of a single year. (We’ll ignore precession and other effects for the moment, as they tend to work on much larger periods of time.) What does that mean for us? Only that different parts of the world will get more sunlight at different times of the year. And that’s what causes the seasons to change.

Summer, of course, is when your part of the world gets the most direct sunlight, and that happens when your half of the world points more towards the sun. Winter is the exact opposite, and it’s on the other side of the year. Spring and fall (autumn, if you prefer) are in the middle, when the planet’s tilt is roughly perpendicular to the sun’s rays. But the Earth has two hemispheres: northern and southern. They can’t both be pointed at the sun, thus the complementary seasons that make Christmas a summertime holiday in Australia.

Tropical highs and lows

There’s a lot more to it than that, though. Because of the Earth’s tilt of about 23°, we can divide the world into a few sections. First, we have the tropics, the area around the equator, from the Tropic of Cancer in the north, to the Tropic of Capricorn in the south. Coincidentally enough, these lines are at exactly the latitude equal to the axial tilt. (It’s not a coincidence at all; it’s the whole reason why they exist.) Every point in the tropics will have the sun directly overhead at some time in the year.

The polar regions are also defined by the tilt. The Arctic and Antarctic Circles are at a latitude of about 67°, or as far from the pole (90°) as the axial tilt, or in math terms: $90° – a$. Everywhere in a polar region will have a time when the sun is at the nadir, and a day where it doesn’t rise at all. But it will also have days where the sun doesn’t set, giving us the “midnight sun” of Alaska and Scandinavia.

In between the polar and tropical regions lie the temperate zones. In these, the sun will never be directly overhead or directly below, and it will rise and set every day. And it’s here that seasonal variation has the most visible effects.

Day and night

If the Earth wasn’t tilted, there wouldn’t be any seasons. Every night would be 12 hours long, no matter where you were. But we don’t live in that world, we live in one that is tilted. Thus, our nights change in length. At the equinoxes, the lengths of day and night are equal, hence the name. At the solstices, they’re as far apart as can be. In between, there’s a gradual shifting that gives us the feeling that days are growing longer or shorter.

As you get farther from the equator, the variation grows. Thus, at my latitude of around 35° north, I might only get about 9 hours or so of daylight on the winter solstice, but summer nights will also be that short. Up in New York, it might be split 16/8, while London might be 17/7 or 18/6. Helsinki, up near 60°, is going to have some long winter nights, but there will always be a sunrise. Barrow, Alaska and McMurdo Station in Antarctica are both inside the polar region, so they’ll have days without nights, or vice versa.

An added complication

The whole thing would be perfectly symmetrical but for one little detail. Earth’s orbit around the sun isn’t a perfect circle. It’s an ellipse. That ellipse doesn’t move any more than the axis does. (Again, we’re ignoring precession.) As of right now, the perihelion, the point closest to the sun, comes around in January, during the northern winter. Orbital mechanics dictates that the aphelion, then, is six months later.

As anyone who has played Kerbal Space Program knows, things move more slowly at apoapsis. (“Aphelion” is just the apoapsis of something orbiting the sun.) Therefore, since our apoapsis occurs in July, northern summer is a little bit longer than winter, while the southern hemisphere is the other way around. It’s not much of a difference, only about one or two days, so it doesn’t affect the climate that much. But it’s something you may have to keep in mind.

Another world

So all that works for Earth. How about a different planet? How would the seasons work? The answer: about the same. Earth is simply the most convenient example, since we’re already living here. Mars has seasons, too; the Phoenix lander was killed by the rigors of a Martian polar winter. For the rest of the solar system, things get dicey. Jupiter doesn’t have much tilt, for example, while Uranus is practically lying on its side. Mercury has its resonance-lock thing going on, which screws everything up. And moons don’t really work the same way.

But for your ordinary, habitable, terrestrial world, seasons are going to be like Earth’s. Summer and winter, spring and fall, they’re all going to be there. They may be different lengths, based on the planet’s orbital period and eccentricity. The tropical and polar zones may be larger or smaller, if the tilt isn’t our 23°. The division of day and night might scale differently, due to these same factors. But from a scientific point of view, that’s all you have to worry about. The years-long summers and winters of Westeros are scientifically implausible; you need magic to account for them.

Summer is always going to be the hottest part of the year, with the most sunlight and shortest nights. Winter will be the coldest; the sun will hang low in the sky, and its rays will strike more glancing blows on the world. Spring and autumn will both be marked by equinoxes, days when the periods of daylight and darkness are the same length. Spring tends to get warmer as you go through it, while autumn cools down.

In the tropics of your fictional world, there won’t be as much seasonal variation, especially close to the equator. The poles, by contrast, will be marked by long summer days, cold winter nights, and periods of total darkness or everlasting sunshine. In between will be the temperate zones, where civilization tends to flourish. And the southern hemisphere will always be backwards when it comes to the calendar.

But this is all speaking from the view of orbital mechanics. On the ground, there is a lot of room for change. Latitude only determines the kinds of seasons you have, whether tropical, temperate, or polar. A location’s climate is certainly affected by this, but many more factors come into play, so many that I’ll dedicate a future post to them.

Let’s make a language – Part 9b: Prepositional phrases (Conlangs)

Prepositional phrases, despite how important they are to expressing oneself in a language, don’t have all that much grammar. So we can combine both Isian and Ardari into one post, and we’ll even have time to add in a bit about adverbs while we’re at it.


Isian uses postpositions instead of prepositions, which is a change that might be hard to get used to. When they’re used to modify a noun, they usually follow it. If they’re supposed to modify a verb, then they’ll usually come at the end of a sentence, but not always. Sometimes, they’ll go right after the verb, and this signifies a greater emphasis on the phrase. It’s all in how you want to say it.

Simple nouns or noun phrases are easy to use with a postposition. Just put it after the phrase: e talar iin the house”; sir mi fofrom my heart”. (I’ll show a whole bunch more at the end of the post.)

If we want to add in a bit of action to our phrase, then we have a special verbal marker, cu, that indicates something like an infinitive (“to go”) or a gerund (“going”): cu oca anos “without asking”. It’s not only used with postpositions, and we’ll see it pop up a few times later on.

Adjectives, as we saw a few posts ago, usually can’t occur without a noun in Isian. Well, here’s one of the cases where they can. Using an adjective with the special postposition hi (and only this one; it doesn’t work with others) creates a kind of adverb: ichi “beautiful”, ichi hi “beautifully”.

The postposition hi works with nouns, too: sam hi “manly, like a man”. The English translation shows an article, but Isian doesn’t need (and can’t use) one in this situation.


As a head-final language, you’d expect Ardari to have postpositions, too, and you’d be right: tyèketö wiin the house”.

The grammar here isn’t that much different from Isian. Noun phrases in postpositionals work in largely the same way, with one major difference. Remember that Ardari has case for its nouns. What case do we use for a postpositional phrase?

Usually, the accusative is the right answer. But a few postpositions require their nouns to appear in the dative. Some even change meaning based on the case of the noun. For example, wi used with the accusative means “in”, as we in tyèketö wi above. But use it in the dative (tyèkètö wi, note the vowel change), and the meaning becomes “into the house”. It’s a subtle difference, both in form and meaning, but it is indeed a difference.

Using a verb in a postpositional phrase isn’t that hard. The particle ky goes after the (uninflected) verb, and then the postposition goes after that: brin ky vi “while walking”; chin ky nètya “after going”.

Making an adverb out of a noun or phrase uses this same little word, but with the copula verb èll-: kone èll ky “like a man”. (You could say that èll ky is the Ardari adverb marker, but it’s not that simple.) Simple adjectives, on the other hand, can be used directly, so ojet can mean “sweet” or “sweetly”, depending on whether it modifies a noun or a verb: ojeta obla “sweet water”; ojet ajang ky “singing sweetly”.

The list

As promised, here’s a brief list of some of the most common English prepositions and their closest equivalents in Isian and Ardari.

English Isian Ardari
above apay aj
across sos ori
after eb nètya
against ansir eka
around oto òs
at ni äl
before pane jo
behind biso ab
below didal ku
by hoy sy
for ir da
from fo tov
in i wi
in front of ihamo kulyi
into si wi +DAT
of o me
on od oj
onto ores oj +DAT
out of way zho +DAT
through aju tutwi
to/toward es lim
until nobes nyon
with was chès
without anos achèsu

Where “+DAT” appears after a word in the Ardari column, it means that postposition requires a dative noun. Other than that, there’s not much else to say about the table.

Next up

To close out the year, we’ll be looking at relative clauses. Once that’s done, we should have enough of the blanks filled in that 2016 can begin with a bang. Since I write these beforehand, I won’t be taking off for Christmas or New Year’s, because those posts will already be done and waiting.

Sick Day

Since I’ve had a pretty bad cold these last few days (I’m writing this on Monday, but I have no real reason to think I’ll be over it in the next 48 hours), and since I don’t already have posts queued for Wednesday, I’ve decided to take the day off. Sorry ’bout that, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.

I’ve had this Friday’s post written for over a month, so no worries there, and I did have two worldbuilding posts already, so I’m alright for next Monday. It’s just today that got lost in the shuffle. Oh, well. ‘Tis the season, and all that.

Colonization and the New World

It’s common knowledge that the Old World of Europe, Asia, and Africa truly met the New World of the Americas in 1492, when Columbus landed in the Caribbean. Of course, we now know that there was contact before that, such as the Vikings in Newfoundland, about a thousand years ago. But Columbus and those who followed him—Cortés, Pizarro, de Soto, Cabot, and all those other explorers and conquerors Americans learn about in history class—those were ones who truly made lasting contact between the two shores of the Atlantic.

Entire volumes have been written over the last five centuries about the exploration, the conquest, the invasion of the Americas. There’s no need to repeat any of it here. But the subject of the New World is one doesn’t seem to get a lot of exposure in the world of fiction, with the notable exception of science fiction. And I think that’s a shame, because it’s an awfully interesting topic for a story. It’s full of adventure, of gaining knowledge, of conflict and warfare. Especially for American writers (not limited to the United States, but all of North and South America), it’s writing about the legacy we inherited, and it’s odd that we would rather tell stories about the history of the other side of the ocean.

Written by the victors

Of course, one of the main reasons why we don’t write many stories about exploration and colonization is political. We know a lot about the Spaniards and Englishmen and Frenchmen that discovered (using that term loosely) the lands of America. We have written histories of those first conquistadors, of those that came after, and of the later generations that settled in the new lands. We don’t, however, have much of anything from the other side.

A lot of that is due to the way first contact played out. We all know the story. Columbus discovered his Indians (to use his own term), Cortés played them against each other to conquer them, and smallpox decimated them. Those that survived were in no position to tell their tale. Most of them didn’t have a familiar system of writing; most of those written works that did exist were destroyed. And then came centuries of subjugation. Put that all together, and it’s no wonder why we only have one side of the tale of the New World.

But this already suggests story possibilities. We could write from one point of view or the other (or both, for that matter), setting our tale in the time of first contact or shortly after, in the upheaval that followed. This is quite popular in science fiction, where the “New World” is really a whole new world, a planet that was inhabited when we arrived. That’s the premise of Avatar, for example.

Life of a colony

Colonization has existed for millennia, but it’s only since 1492 that it becomes such a central part of world history. The Europeans that moved into the Americas found it filled with wonders and dangers. For the Spanish, the chief problem—aside from the natives—was the climate, as Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean mostly fall into the tropical belt, far removed from mid-latitude Spain.

The English had it a little better; the east coast of the United States isn’t all that different from England, except that the winters can be harsher. (This was even more the case a few hundred years ago, in the depths of the Little Ice Age.) It’s certainly easier to go from York to New York than Madrid to Managua.

No matter the climate, though, colonists had to adapt. Especially in those times, when a resupply voyage was a long and perilous journey, they had to learn to live off the land. And they did. They learned about the new plants (corn, potatoes, tomatoes, and many more) and animals (bison and llamas, to name the biggest examples), they mapped out river systems and mountain chains. And we have reaped the benefits ever since.

Building a colony can be fun in an interactive setting; Colonization wouldn’t exist otherwise. For a novel or visual work, it’s a little harder to make work, because the idea is that a colony starts out exciting and new, but it needs to become routine. Obviously, if it doesn’t, then that’s a place where we can find a story. Paul Kearney’s Monarchies of God is a great series that has a “settling new lands” sequence. In the science fiction realm of colonizing outer space, you also have such works as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (and its colorful sequels).

Terra nullius

Whenever people moved into new land, there was always the possibility that they were the first ones there. It happened about 20,000 years ago in Alaska, about 50,000 in Australia, and less than 1,000 in Hawaii. Even in the Old World, there were firsts, sometimes even in recorded history. Iceland, for example, was uninhabited all the way through Roman times. And in space, everywhere is a first, at least until we find evidence of alien life.

Settling “no man’s land” is different from settling in land that’s already inhabited, and that would show in a story with that setting. There are no outsiders to worry about. All conflict is either internal to the colonists’ population or environmental. That makes for a harder story to write, I think, but one more suited to character drama and the extended nature of books and TV series. It doesn’t have to be entirely without action, though, but something like a natural disaster would be more likely than war.

This is one place where we can—must—draw the distinction between space-based sci-fi and earthly fiction or fantasy. On earth (or a similar fictitious world), we’re not alone. There are animals, plants, pests everywhere we go. We have sources of food and water, but also of disease. In deep space, such as a story about colonizing the asteroid belt, there’s nothing out there. Nothing living, at least. Settlers would have to bring their own food, their own water, their own shelter. They would need to create a closed, controlled ecosystem. But that doesn’t leave much room for the “outside” work of exploration, except as a secondary plot.

Go forth

I’m not ashamed to admit that I could read an entire book about nothing but the early days of a fictional colony, whether in the Americas or on an alien planet. I’ll also admit that I’m not your average reader. Most people want some sort of action, some drama, some reason for being there in the first place. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But let’s look at that question. Why does the colony exist at all? The Europeans were looking for wealth at first, with things like religious freedom and manifest destiny coming later on. The exploration of space appears to be headed down the same path, with commercial concerns taking center stage, though pure science is another competitor. Even simple living space can be a reason to venture forth. That seems to be the case for the Vikings, and plenty of futuristic stories posit a horribly overcrowded Earth and the need to claim the stars.

Once you have a reason for having a colonial settlement, then you can turn to its nature. The English made villages and towns, the French trading posts. Antarctica isn’t actually settled—by international agreement, it can’t be—but the scientific outposts there point to another possibility. If there are preexisting settlements, like native cities, then there’s the chance that the colonists might move in to one of them instead of setting up their own place. That’s basically what happened to Tenochtitlan, now known as Mexico City.

Colonies are interesting, both in real history and in fiction. They can work as settings in many different genres, including space opera, fantasy, steampunk (especially the settling of the Wild West), and even mystery (we still don’t know what really happened at Roanoke Island). Even just a colonial backdrop can add flavor to a story, giving it an outside pressure, whether by restless natives or the cold emptiness of space. A colony is an island, in a sense, an island in a sea of hostility, fertile ground for one’s imagination.