Let’s make a language – Part 12b: Questions (Conlangs)

How do we form questions in Isian and Ardari? The answer, you will see, is quite simple.


Isian, fittingly, doesn’t have a lot of question “morphology”. Yes-no questions are made in the simplest possible manner, by nothing more than rising intonation. This means, however, that the meaning of, say, so il til can be one of two things. With falling or level pitch, it’s a statement “you are there”. Go up in pitch as you near the end, and it becomes so il til?, the interrogative “are you there?”

The answer to such questions will usually be a simple sha “yes” or num “no”. If you need more, Isian allows you to add it by repeating the verb: sha, en “yes, I am”. (Note that I’m using English punctuation as a convenience, but also because there would be a slight pause between answer word and verb.)

If you prefer the vernacular, you’ve got shasha, which is more like “yeah”; noy is the negative counterpart, and its best translation might be “nope”. A wishy-washy reply would be momay “maybe”, while genuine ignorance can also be expressed by ekh “I don’t know”.

Negation in Isian is accomplished with the adverb an, as you’ll recall, and this extends neatly into the realm of the question. We can just as easily ask so an il til? “aren’t you there?” We don’t have to worry about double negatives, though; proper responses would be sha, en or num, an en.

Isian even gives you a couple of tags. These are highly discouraged in formal speech or writing, but common among friends and family. The one that concerns us most is ey, which works like English “isn’t it” and friends: so il til, ey? thus means something more like “you’re there, aren’t you?”

For the more general wh-questions, we have a family of fronted interrogatives:

  • con “who” (only used for people)
  • cal “what” (never used for people)
  • cazal “where”
  • carec “when”
  • canyo “why”
  • cadro “how”

These go at the front of a sentence, which is otherwise unchanged, except for a bit of rising intonation at the end. An example of each might be:

  • con so il? “who are you?”
  • cal to e? “what was that?”
  • cazal so wasal? “where are you going?”
  • carec is cosa? “when did they come?”
  • canyo so kil to “why do you say that?”
  • cadro so il “how are you?”

The more formal a situation, the more answer is required. Common speech can get away with single-word answers, but writing might need whole sentences. The rules are broadly similar to those in English, but Isian is overall more relaxed.


Ardari’s interrogatives are built around the particle , which begins all questions. For yes-no questions, it’s all you need, other than the requisite intonation: qö sy pren èllè? “are you there?”

Valid responses will start with è “yes” or kyu “no”, usually repeating the verb in more formal speech and writing. Thus, there is a distinction between è “yes” and è èllo “yes, I am” in Ardari.

The same particles, when placed at the end of a sentence, can also function as tags expressing an expected reply. In these cases, the question particle isn’t needed, only the intonation: sy pren èllè, kyu? “you’re there, aren’t you?”

For wh-questions, the basic premise remains the same. The particle goes at the beginning of the sentence, but the question word stays where it is. As for the question words themselves, Ardari has eight of them, shown here with examples:

  • qom “what”: qö qom pralman èlla? “what was that?”
  • qomban “who”: qö sy qombane èllè? “who are you?” (lit. “you are whom?”)
  • qomren “where”: qö sy qomren chinès? “where are you going?”
  • qomlajch “when”: qö ajo qomlajch toned? “when did they come?”
  • qoman “which”: qö sy qomane lyebè? “which do you like?”
  • qabre “how”: qö ysar zalman qabre troded? “how did they know that?”
  • qömjas “how many”: qö a qömjasòn byzrell perada? “how many books does he have?”
  • quld “why”: qö ti quld ajnadyt? “why was she crying?”

Of these eight, qom, qomban, and qomren inflect like neuter nouns, while qoman and qönjas act like neuter adjectives. The rest function as adverbs. In all cases, if they would be the first word in a sentence, Ardari allows you to omit the initial , as it’s subsumed into the question word itself. (They’re all derived from it, in case you hadn’t noticed.)

Answering these questions requires only the bare minimum. Ardari is very lenient on how you reply, and even in formal situations you can get away with a response of only a word or two. For instance, qö sy qomren chinès? above can be answered with just mynin tyèk “my house”. Even inflections can be largely ignored in this form, though you’ll need them for an extended answer: my mynin tyèke lim chinos.

One added wrinkle involves single-word answers of pronouns. In this case, Ardari uses the vocative, which otherwise doesn’t appear often. Thus, qö sy qombane èllè? can be answered with myne “Me!” Simple my, on the other hand, would be ungrammatical.

Next up

I know the question you might be asking right now. “What’s in the next part?” The truth is, I don’t know yet. I’m thinking about taking a bit of a diversion into more general conlanging issues. We’ll get back to the step-by-step guide to making languages a little bit down the road. Whatever I decide, I’ll see you next week.

Thoughts on types

Last week, I talked about an up-and-coming HTML5 game engine. One of the defining features of that engine was that it uses TypeScript, not regular JavaScript, for its coding. TypeScript has its problems (it’s made by Microsoft, for one), but it cuts to the heart of an argument that has raged for decades in programming circles: strong versus weak typing.

First off, here’s a quick refresher. In most programming languages, values have types. These can be simple (an integer, a string of text) or complex (a class with a deep inheritance hierarchy and 50 or so methods), but they’re part of the value’s identity. Variables can have type, too, but different languages handle that in different terms. Some require you to set a variable’s type when it is first defined, and they strictly enforce that type. Others are more lenient: if x holds the value 123, it’s an integer; if you set it to "foo", then it becomes a string. And some languages allow you to mix types in an expression, while others will throw errors the minute you even dare add a string to a number.

A position of strength

I’m of two minds on types. On the one hand, I do think that a “strong” type system, where everything knows what it is and conversions must be explicit, is good for the specific kind of programming where data corruption is an unforgivable sin. The Ada language, one of the most notorious for strict typing, was made that way for a reason: it was intended for use in situations where errors are literally life-threatening.

I also like the idea of a strongly-typed language because it can “write itself” in a sense. That’s one of the things Haskell supporters are always saying, and it’s very reminiscent of the way I solved a lot of test questions in physics class. For example, if you know your answer needs to be a force in newtons (kg m/s²), and you’re given a mass (kg), a velocity (m/s), and a time (s), then it’s pretty obvious what you need to do. The same principle can apply when you’ve got code that returns a type constructed from a number of seemingly unrelated ones: figure out the chain that takes you from A to B. You can’t really do that in, say, JavaScript, because everything can return anything.

And strong types are an extra form of documentation, something sorely lacking in just about every bit of code out there. The types give you an idea of what you’re dealing with. If they’re used right, they can even guide you into using an API properly. Of course, that puts more work on the library developer, which means it’s less likely to actually get done, but it’s a nice thought.

The weak shall inherit

In a “weak” type system, objects can still have types, but variables don’t. That’s the case in JavaScript, where var x (or let x, if you’re lucky enough to get to use ES6) is all you have to go on. Is it a number? A string? A function? The answer: none of the above. It’s a variable. Isn’t that enough?

I can certainly see where it would be. For pure, unadulterated hacking, give me weak typing. Coding goes so much faster when you don’t have to constantly ask yourself what something should be. Scripting languages tend to be weakly-typed, and that’s probably why. When you know what you’re working with, and you don’t have to worry as much about error recovery, maintenance, or things like that, types only get in the way.

Of course, once I do need to think about changing things, a weakly-typed language starts to become more of a hindrance. Look at any large project in JavaScript or Ruby. They’re all a tangled mess of code held together by layers of validation and test suites sometimes bigger than the project itself. It’s…ugly. Worse, it creates a kind of Stockholm Syndrome where the people developing that mess think it’s just fine.

I’m not saying that testing (or even TDD) is a bad thing, mind you. It’s not. But so much of that testing is unnecessary. Guys, we’ve got a tool that can automate a lot of those tests for you. It’s called a compiler.

So, yeah, I like the idea of TypeScript…in theory. As programmers look to use JavaScript in “bigger” settings, they can’t miss the fact that it’s woefully inadequate for them. It was never meant to be anything more than a simple scripting language, and it shows. Modernizing efforts like ES5 and ES6 help, but they don’t—can’t—get rid of JavaScript’s nature as a weakly-typed free-for-all. (How bad is it? Implicit conversions have become accepted idioms. Want to turn n into a number? The “right” way is +n! Making a string is as easy as n+"", and booleans are just !!n.)

That’s not to say strong typing is the way to go, either. Take that too far, and you risk the opposite problem: losing yourself in conversions. A good language, in my opinion, needs a way to enforce types, but it also needs a way to not enforce them. Sometimes, you really do want an “anything”. Java’s Object doesn’t quite work for that, nor does the C answer of void *. C++ is getting any soon, or so they say; that’ll be a step up. (Note: auto in C++ is type inference. That’s a different question, but I personally think it’s an absolute must for a strongly-typed language.) But those should be used only when there’s no other option.

There’s no right answer. This is one of those debates that will last forever, and all I can do is throw in my two cents. But I like to think I have an informed opinion, and that was it. When I’m hacking up something for myself, something that probably won’t be used again once I’m done, I don’t want to be bothered with types; they take too much time. Once I start coding “for real”, I need to start thinking about how that code is going to be used. Then, strong typing saves time, because it means the compiler takes care of what would otherwise be a mound of boilerplate test cases, leaving me more time to work on the core problem.

Maybe it doesn’t work for you, but I hope I’ve at least given you a reason to think about it.

On writing and dialects

I’ve been seriously attempting to write fiction for over five years now, and I’m still learning new things about the craft all the time. One of those things concerns my own style of writing, and it’s the main reason I object to one of the fundamental maxims of creative writing.

Writing itself isn’t the hard part,” the saying goes. To some extent, that’s true. Coming up with a believable, interesting, story with believable, interesting characters is hard. Planning, plotting, characterizing, worldbuilding, all of that is supremely difficult, to the point where the mechanics of writing get lost in the noise. Especially nowadays, when everything is done on a computer, and most “writing” is actually typing on a keyboard, the physical act of writing is a small fraction of the effort that goes into creating a story.

Move one level up, to the words you’re putting on-screen, and things don’t really change all that much. You’re still in the rote mechanics of writing, but now at the level of grammar and syntax. As long as you can touch-type (and you’ll eventually learn how, if you keep at it long enough), writing—typing, if you prefer—the words is almost reflexive. As long as you speak English, putting the right words together comes naturally. Except that it doesn’t, and therein lies my problem.

Southern Man

The reason is simple: when I write a story in “standard” English (for me, that would be General American), I’m not speaking my native language. I’m American, and I’m effectively monolingual, despite a couple of years of Spanish classes in high school and fifteen more of amateur linguistic study. It’s not that I can’t speak or write English, it’s that I’m not used to speaking the standard.

As we say around here, I’m Southern-born and Southern-bred. I’m a child of the South. That’s where I was born, it’s where I live, and it’s probably where I’ll die. And even if you don’t know the first thing about American regional politics, you likely know about the Southern dialect.

It’s not different enough from the rest of the country to really be considered its own language. I can still understand just about any other American speaker, as well as most other English dialects (although those from northern England and parts of Australia sometimes baffle me), and they can likewise understand the vast majority of what I’m saying. But it is different, and it can be startling if you don’t know what to expect. Just like I sometimes struggle to figure out some of the words Jeremy Clarkson is saying, I know that plenty of people would need subtitles for Hatfields & McCoys. (Technically, that’s Appalachian, not Southern, but I’ll get to that in a minute.)

In writing, it doesn’t seem quite so bad, since the pronunciation differences, like the characteristic Southern drawl, don’t show up. But phonology isn’t the only part of a dialect. Words matter, despite what the writing self-help guys say. Y’all, for example, is the quintessential Southern word, yet I don’t think I’ve used it once in any of the stories I’ve written since the start of the decade. Why? Because that would immediately mark the whole work as “dialectal” or, worse, “substandard”. And I don’t think I want that.

Talking the talk

But sticking to the standard—whatever that is for English—means that I have to write at a level I’m not exactly comfortable with. It gets even worse because “Southern” refers to not one single dialect, but a group of them. Where I grew up, which isn’t all that far from where I’m living now, the local speech is closer to Appalachian, the talk of hillbillies living in the mountains, than the “General Southern” of the Deep South area that stretches from Charleston to Jackson. Appalachian has its own speech patterns, its own curious vocabulary, and a few peculiar grammatical constructions that make it a dialect of its own. (And that has slight regional differences, but those need not concern us here.)

So I’m not “going up a level” when I’m writing in standard American English. I’m going up two. I have to raise my standards just to get to what is widely considered the least standard of all the American dialects. Then I need to go from there up to the true literary language. It’s a kind of diglossia, if you think about it. I speak the homespun mix of Southern and Appalachian at home, among friends and family; its how I was raised to talk. For talking to others in the region, I use a more generic Southern, dropping the Appalachianisms while keeping the drawl and the y’all. Again, I learned that by osmosis: listening to people, watching the local news, etc.

Neither my home “idiolect” nor the Southern dialect are written, except in the written emulation of speech. They don’t need to be. That’s not what they’re for. But standard English is different. I don’t hear it spoken around me casually, only formally or in the media. I learned it in school, and I had to learn how it differs from the English I’m used to.

The crux of the problem, then, is this: where is the line between dialect and language? I’ve found that, when you’re writing, it’s a lot closer than you might think. I’m constantly slowed by the internal translation from Southern to General American, and it is not a perfect match. It’s the little things that trip me up, like the past perfect (in my spoken dialect, had went is an acceptable substitution for had gone), -ward versus -wards (Southerners that I’ve heard prefer towards, but most Americans use toward), and serial verbs in the future tense (try to or try and? go get or go and get?). At times, it really is like I’m writing in a different language.

(That’s not even including the Americanisms I find illogical. Like British writers, I consistently keep punctuation out of quotation marks, unless it’s part of the quote. I’m told that this is actually common practice among programmers. That makes sense, because programming languages won’t let you do it the “wrong” way. HTML, unfortunately, explicitly supports “Americanized” closing tags.)

Plain speech

Of course, the creative part of creative writing is always going to be the most important. There’s no denying that. I tend to write in a seat-of-the-pants style, where I don’t plan much in advance, instead letting things happen naturally. (I’ll talk about that in a future post.) But that very style means that I’m often stuck, as I have to stop typing to think of a name or a part of a character’s back-story. The dialectal difference is just one more thing to worry about.

If I were a better writer, I might be able to turn this liability into an advantage. Maybe there’s a market out there for books written in a Southern style, full of colloquialisms and colorful figures of speech. I don’t know, but I doubt I could be the one to pull it off. For now, I’ll stick with the standard, as hard as it is. It’s not art if you don’t suffer, right?

Let’s make a language – Part 12a: Questions (Intro)

How are you? What’s up? What am I talking about?

Up to this point, our look at language has focused primarily on the declarative, statements and utterances of fact or conjecture. That’s great, because those make up the largest part of a language, but now it’s time to move on. Why? Because we need to ask questions.

Asking the question

How do we ask a question? In English, you already know the answer, and it’s pretty complicated. Worse, it’s complicated in different ways depending on what kind of question you’re asking. So let’s take a step back.

Questions (interrogatives, if you prefer the more technical term) are, at their core, requests for information. We don’t know, so we have to ask. We’ve already met a couple of cases where we didn’t know something, like the subjunctive mood, and “interrogative” can indeed count as its own mood. But questions are a little different, because they are directed at the listener with the intention of receiving an answer.

If you think about it, you’ll find that questions fall into a few different categories. One is the yes-no or polar question; as its name suggests, this kind expects one of two answers: an affirmative (“yes”) or a negative (“no”). Examples of polar questions in English might be “Are you going with us?” or “Did you see that?” For English, yes-no questions are marked by “inversion”, where the verb (or an appropriate auxiliary, like do) is moved to the front of the sentence, and that’s fairly common in its relatives and neighbors, such as German and French. It was even more common in the past, as anyone reading Shakespeare or the King James Version of the Bible would know.

Another kind of question is usually known as the wh-question, after its most distinctive feature in English. These are the ones that request a specific bit of information like identity, location, or reason, asking things like “Who are you?” or “Where are we going?” In our language, they employ one of a handful of question words (“who”, “what”, “where”, “when”, “why”, and “how”), that most often appear the beginning of a sentence. This type of question also has inversion, but only after the question word has moved into place.

Alternative or choice questions make up a third type. “Do you want grape or orange?” is an example showing how this one works. Options are presented, with the expectation that the answer will be among them. This one allows, even begs for, an answer in the form of a simple stating of the preferred choice. This sort of elliptical response (a sentence consisting solely of “Grape,” for example) is very common, especially in speech, no matter what the formal grammar of a language might say.

Tag and negative questions, the last two of the major types, are similar to each other in that they both presuppose an answer, but they go about it in different ways. Negative questions use a negated form of a verb, as in “Aren’t you coming?” Tag questions, on the other hand, are formed as indicative statements “tagged” by an additional interrogative bit at the end: “You’re coming, aren’t you?” Strictly speaking, these are both polar questions, in that they invite a yes/no response, but the prototypical yes-no question (“Are you coming?” in this example) has a more neutral tone. Negatives are asked from a position of expecting a negative reply, while tag questions work more for confirmation or even confrontation.

Keep asking

English, again, is pretty complicated when it comes to questions. Polar and wh-questions use inversion, while wh-questions add an interrogative word into the mix. Tag questions basically have their own set of interrogative words (“you know”, “isn’t it”, and so on) that go at the end of a sentence, turning a statement into a question. All in all, there’s a lot to worry about, and other languages have their own systems.

There is one universal, however, and that is intonation. Nearly all known human languages, mo matter how they form polar questions, have a specific way of marking them. The intonation, or pitch level, of yes-no question sentences always rises from beginning to end. In English, it’s even possible to have this as the sole indication of a spoken interrogative, as in the statement “you’re coming” versus the question “you’re coming?” Some other languages, such as Spanish, only allow this method, as opposed to the inversion usual in English. (Question marks serve essentially the same purpose in these cases, but for the written form of the language.)

Looking around the world, you’ve got a few other options, though. You can add an interrogative mood marker to the verb, as in Turkish and others; this is probably going to be more common in languages where verbs already have a lot of marking. Another option is an interrogative particle, which can go just about anywhere. Polish has czy at the beginning of a question, which Esperanto lifted directly as ĉu. Japanese has the sentence-ending ka (phrases ending in “…desu ka?” are known to every lover of anime), fitting its hardcore head-finality. Latin puts in a kind of “second” position, after the questioned part; it also has the similar num for negative questions and nonne for positives.

Chinese, among others, takes a different approach, sometimes referred to as A-not-A. Here, the polarity is redefined in the form of an alternative question: a rough translation might go something like, “Is he there or not?” (“He is/is not there?” comes closer to the original, at the expense of being horrible clunky.) Another option, more likely to be found in colloquial speech rather than formal grammar, is through liberal use of tag questions or something like them.

Tag questions themselves are likely to be marked only by the tag and its intonation, as above. Wh-questions, on the other hand, have potential for more variation in their formation. Many languages use question words like those in English, and they are commonly moved to the front of a sentence, functioning as their own question particles. That’s not the case everywhere, however; although it has a specific connotation in English, we can still ask, “You want what?” (Unlike polar questions, intonation isn’t a guide here. English continues to use rising pitch for wh-questions, but Russian, for instance, doesn’t.)

The answer

Asking a question is one thing. Answering it is quite another. And answers to questions have their own grammar and syntax beyond what a normal statement would require.

Very many languages, maybe even all of them, allow a speaker to omit quite a bit when responding to a question. “Yes” and “no” can be sentences all by themselves in English, as can “si” in Spanish or “non” in French. Not every language, though, has equivalents; some instead repeat part of the question in a positive or negative form. Still others have two versions of “yes” and “no”, with one pair used for answering positive sentences, the other for negatives. (Even those that don’t can vary in the meaning of “no” when it answers a negative question. Does that create a double negative? It does in Japanese, but not English.)

Beyond polar questions, how much of a reply you need often depends on what you’re being asked. In general, a lot of languages allow you to express only the most specific part of a phrase under question: “Where are you going?” can be answered by “Home.” A fuller answer would be “I’m going home,” but the short form is perfectly acceptable in speech, and not only in English.

Further questions

So that’s it for questions in general. Next, we’ll look at the very specific question of, er, questions in our conlangs.

First glance: Superpowers

It seems like each new day brings us a new tool for game development, whether it’s an engine, a framework, a library, or any of a number of other things. Best of all, many of these up-and-coming dev tools are open source and free, so even the poorest game makers (like me!) can use them. And the quality is only going up, too. No longer must indies be content with alpha-level, code-only engines, uncompiled libraries, and NES-era assets. No, even the zero-cost level of game development is becoming packed with tools that even professionals of a few years ago wished they could have had.

The one I’m looking at today is called Superpowers, by Sparklin Labs. It’s yet another HTML5 game maker that has recently been released as open source software, under the ISC license. (ISC is functionally equivalent to MIT or “new” BSD; basically, it’s not much more than “do what you want, but give us credit”.) It’s not entirely a volunteer effort, and there are a couple of options for supporting it. Their download host, indie game publisher itch.io, gives you a donation option, but the primary way to send money is through Patreon. (There’s a link on the Superpowers main page.)

Let’s take a look

What does Superpowers bring to the table? Well, first of all, it’s an HTML5 engine. The maker itself runs as a nativized web app, and games can be compiled into standalone apps or exported in a browser-friendly format. There’s also a mobile option using the Intel XDK, but I haven’t really looked into that.

Second, and even more important, is the fact that this engine comes with a visual editor. That’s something sorely lacking in the free HTML5 arena. Granted, it’s not exactly up to the level of the editors for Unity or Unreal, but it’s much better than what we had, i.e., not much. It’s got all the usual bells and whistles: tree-based scene management, component editors (these seem a little buggy on my machine, but that’s probably just a local thing), drag-and-drop actors, and so on. For what’s technically still a beta, it’s pretty nice.

Coding works about the same way. You can attach scripts to the various parts of a scene, and they’ll know what to do. The whole thing is mostly behavior-driven, following the component style that is so popular these days. The scripts themselves are written in TypeScript, and I’m a little ambivalent about that. On the one hand, it’s an easier way of writing JavaScript (Superpowers is HTML5-based, so it’s going to end up as JavaScript eventually). On the other, TypeScript is a Microsoft project, so you never know what might happen.

One of the big features that looks interesting is the collaboration support. The Superpowers “app” has a client-server architecture, and it takes advantage of it. When you start it, it creates a server. Now, that’s pretty common in Node applications, but Superpowers actually uses it. After a little initial setup, you can have other people connect to your editor instance and work with you in real-time. I can’t tell you how well that works, since I’m just a lonely guy, but if it comes anywhere close to what’s advertised, then…wow.

There’s a lot more than this, and what I’m seeing looks very good. There’s support for prefabs (like those in Unity) in the editor, for instance, and the engine has all the usual suspects: 2D physics, multiple cameras, etc. Debugging works like in Chrome, since the whole thing runs on NW.js. (IMO, Chrome is a horrible browser, but an okay wrapper for web apps. The developer tools aren’t half bad, though.)

That’s not to say the Superpowers is perfect. Far from it. It’s early in development, and there’s bound to be a few unsquashed bugs here and there. There’s also the TypeScript dependency I mentioned above, but they’re working on that; the developers have an alpha (I think) version of the editor using Lua and the LÖVE engine. And, being on GitHub, I noticed a “Code of Conduct” file, which could be worrisome to free-speech advocates like myself. Also, there’s no online API documentation. You’re supposed to use the editor’s built-in docs. The developers’ reasoning (it boils down to “But there might be plugins!”) sounds weak to my ears. Every other HTML5 engine can do it, so why not this one?

In the end, I think the good outweighs the bad. Give it some time, and Superpowers might become one of the go-to tools for making indie games. Or it could bomb, and we’ll never hear from it again. I doubt that, though. Give me some proper online API docs, support for multiple languages (including pure JavaScript, preferably of the ES6 variety), and quite a bit more polish, and I’ll gladly put it up there with Phaser at the top of the list. For now, I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on this one.

Magic and tech: travel

Let’s start our look into the intersection of magic and technology by focusing on travel. It’s an important part of life, communication, government, and far more; indeed, it encompasses much of what makes a civilization possible. So how would it change in the presence of magic?


In our mundane world, in the timeframe we’re discussing, you had a few possible modes of travel. Foot travel (walking or running) is, of course, the oldest and most reliable. It’s also one of the slowest. On foot, you’re lucky to cover a few miles an hour (2-3 is common for walking; running can get as high as 15 or more, but only for relatively short distances), which translates to a rough maximum of 15-20 miles per day. And your feet are going to be awfully sore.

Riding, usually on horseback, is another possibility. (It wasn’t an option in the New World, but we’re making a decidedly Eurocentric culture here, so that’s okay.) This is a bit faster, with less physical exertion on the part of the traveler, but it comes at a cost: animals are expensive, they need their own care, and there are places they can’t go. None of these problems is solved by the other forms of animal-powered travel, ranging from carts to sleds. All in all, animals might get you double the travel, maybe averaging 30-40 miles per day.

Boats are another good option, if the terrain allows them. You need rivers, and they need to be able to support craft. That means no rapids or waterfalls, no dams, no seasonal drying, and so forth. But where it works, it’s worth it. Going downriver is easy, and you can cover vast distances quickly. Sixty miles in a day? Not that hard, especially since the current will keep you moving while you take a break from the oars. The downside, though, is obvious: you can only go where the rivers go.

All this is a far cry from what we’re used to today. In modern times, it’s easier to measure distance covered per hour, not per day. We have cars (about 30-60 mph, depending on speed limits), bicycles (anywhere from 10 mph up), and airplanes (200 mph is on the low end). All of these contribute to a cultural cohesion that didn’t—couldn’t—exist 600 years ago. People tended to stay close to home back then, and one of the reasons was because it was just so hard to go anywhere else. We think nothing of a fifteen-hour flight to another continent or three days of driving on a road trip, but earlier societies were much more limited in their mobility. The next town over might be a couple hours’ ride; going from your farmstead to the big city might be a weekend’s journey. And you’d only go far if it was worth it.

Just add magic

In our magical society, however, things are much more familiar, because magic helps alleviate some of the worst restrictions. Our wizards don’t have haste spells—not for lack of trying—but they have plenty of ways of increasing physical stamina, removing exhaustion, and healing general aches and pains. All of these can be used by foot and animal traffic, and they have a huge effect. Sure, you still need to eat, and so do the horses, but you don’t have to stop to do it. That already adds maybe 50% or more to your total coverage for a day, taking that 15 miles of walking and turning it to as much as 25.

But we (rather, our wizards) can do better. A recent invention in our fantasy kingdom involves something like the magical equivalent of a perpetual motion machine: a stored “pool” of magical energy is slowly released to turn a wheel or gear at a relatively constant speed, much like a flywheel. Once started, inertia keeps the wheel spinning, with small losses for friction countered by the stored magical power. (Flywheels, in principle, may date back almost a thousand years, so it’s reasonable to suggest that our magical culture might be playing with them in its later Middle Ages.)

Where this gets interesting is when one industrious mage connected this fairly well-known device to a cart by a system of gears, shafts, and the like. The resulting contraption moved forward, accelerating to a walking pace. After a decade or so of refinement, thanks to generous grants from interested nobility, the wizards of our budding nation have a self-propelled vehicle that can run for about 24 hours, with a top speed of 10 mph on flat, level ground. Rougher terrain drops this by up to half, and “refueling” the storage pool is expensive (it’s easiest to retain the services of a mage to ride with you), but the upsides are obvious.

Put simply, it’s a car. It doesn’t have much range, its speed isn’t great, it’s exorbitantly priced, but it compares well with some of the earliest attempts at automobiles. Going up against traditional modes of transit, it’s a no-brainer. Even with only the nobility being able to use them, these magic-mobiles radically alter the nature of society. The king’s decrees, courts, justice, benevolence, all of it can be delivered much faster than any other way. Soldiers can’t be transported, and only small amounts of goods can, but information transport is much more efficient in our magical world.

Such vehicles would also create the need for infrastructure to accommodate them. High-quality roads are a priority, to maximize the magic-mobiles’ power output; the ultimate goal is to connect every city with them. This causes a demand for great amounts of low-skilled laborers, with the knock-on effect of low unemployment in the traditionally slow summer and winter seasons. Rest stops have begun to spring up on the roads, mostly in the form of inns and taverns founded by enterprising merchants. And novice mages have both an extra income source and a way to practice one of the more complex spells: the storing of magical energy in an artificial vessel.

In addition to our magical cars, the wizards have a few other tricks up their sleeves. Human flight, they have found, is essentially impossible even for the greatest mages. But something like it can be approximated. A simple jumping spell can be augmented by more experienced magic users so that it flings them up to 500 feet into the air. An equally easy slow-fall spell keeps the mage from descending too fast (and getting hurt). Given a running start, each bound can cover about the same distance horizontally as vertically, and the whole process from one jump to the next takes about a minute. It’s not much faster than walking (6 mph, give or take), but it also brings the advantage of aerial scouting. Problem is, it’s individual; only a mage can work the spells, and he can only cast them on himself and maybe a person he’s carrying.

Movement in the water benefits from the magical motor above, and in exactly the same way, but some parts of the kingdom have another option. Weather control is beyond the best archmage, but most adepts can summon a concentrated jet of air or water. The former makes sails usable even in the calmest conditions, and at smaller sizes than otherwise needed. Water jets, on the other hand, help all watercraft, from the smallest raft to the biggest galleon. By Newton’s Third Law—the wizards don’t know it as such, but they’ve figured out the important part—the vessel is moved as a reaction to the propulsive force of the jet. It’s not that much of a force, but it adds up over time, which makes it worth it for longer journeys. (The same reasoning applies to the ion engines of modern spacecraft.)

Where do you want to go?

With their magical cars, Superman-like leaping wizards, and jet-powered boats, the high people of our kingdom have easy ways to move around. Even the poorer folk can benefit from the endurance spells. Together, the magical additions at the ends of the class spectrum combine to create a more cohesive society than any in Europe’s 14th century. Knowledge of current events diffuses throughout the realm at a much faster pace. Authority is much closer to hand.

Cargo transport, unfortunately, doesn’t yet have a magical panacea. River travel is still the best option, at least where it is an option. The increased speeds, however, mean that fresh foods are more commonly found in cities, among other luxuries. (On a more martial note, naval warfare is completely different, though we’ll look at that later on.) Travel upriver is far easier, too, if you have a mage on your craft.

Our magical kingdom won’t be completely modern, but it will have reached a kind of transitional stage of travel. It’s reminiscent, in a way, of the early railroad days, when people were first exposed to the idea of higher-speed transit. Indeed, given time, something like a railroad may develop. All it would take is more incremental progress in the magic motor, allowing it to provide more force. That would enable higher speeds, larger carrying capacities, or both. Once it gets to the point where even poorer peasants can afford a ride to the next town, they’ll soon stop being peasants at all. But that’s a tale for a different day.

Let’s make a language – Part 11b: Adverbs (Conlangs)

Now that we have the theory out of the way, adverbs—whether words, phrases, or clauses—aren’t going to be too bad, for either Isian or Ardari. We already got a glimpse of them in both languages, back in the Babel Text, but now it’s time to see them for real.


As always, we start with Isian. As you may recall, Isian adjectives normally can’t appear without a head noun. Well, now they can, and that’s how we make most adverbs.

In Isian, we use postpositions, and the postposition hi is our go-to for adverbs. It’s the equivalent of English -ly, Spanish -mente, and so on, making adverbs out of adjectives. Examples might include ichi hi “beautifully” (from ichi) or bil hi “well” (from bil “good”, with no stem change like in English). Couldn’t be simpler.

We can fit these into sentences by placing them just about anywhere. Just before or just after the verb phrase are the most common, though. An example might be sha seri ichi hi “she sings beautifully”, which could also be written sha ichi hi seri.

Little hi can also work for phrases, with almost the same meaning. Take the sentence mi doyan hi cheren im “I see him as my brother”. Granted, it’s a little on the metaphorical side, but it illustrates the point. (You can write this one as cheren im mi doyan hi if you like, but that way emphasizes the object “him” rather than the adverbial phrase.)

For full clauses, we need a little bit more grammar. First, we have the general conjunction ha, which introduces adverbial clauses. In certain informal situations, we don’t have to put it in, but it’s mandatory otherwise. Second, since Isian uses postpositions, it also has “clause-final” conjunctions. Thus, the words that would translate as “before”, “after”, and so on appear at the end of the phrase, not the beginning, as in English.

These two rules cover most of what we need to know, and we can already make quite a few clauses. Here’s a couple of examples:

  • is hamas ha is inamas pane, “they ate before they went to sleep”
  • mit las an wasanda ha is likhas mida todo, “we couldn’t go because they wouldn’t let us”
  • em cosata ha cheren es abradi terta, “I came to see the mountains”

For all subordinate clauses like this, Isian’s default is independent. Dependent clauses are only allowed in a few cases, namely those of purpose or cause. (Desire or wanting, using the verb doche, allows dependents, too, but that’s not really an adverbial.)

To construct a dependent clause, all you need to do is use the infinitive form of the verb, which is the bare verbal stem (or 3rd-person singular present, which has the same form) preceded by cu. Thus, we might have cu chere “to see” or cu lenira “to read”. From there, the clause mostly follows English rules, except that the conjunction goes at the end, if it’s there at all.

Of our examples above, only the third can be rewritten as a dependent: em cosata cu chere es abradi. The first indicates time, which isn’t allowed to be “deranked” in this fashion, while the second has different subjects in the main and subordinate clauses. (Like English, we only get to use the infinitive version when the subjects would be the same.)


Ardari, curiously enough, starts out easier than Isian: adjectives can be used as adverbs directly. They don’t inflect like this; they’re just…there. An example is ti ojet ajanga “she sings sweetly”.

Strictly speaking, Ardari doesn’t have simple adverb phrases, so we’ll skip ahead to the clauses. For this conlang, there’s a distinction in those. “Purpose” clauses (along with “wants” and perception, though these aren’t adverbial in nature) are always dependent, but everything else is normally independent.

These two groups are distinct in their position, as well. Dependents always precede the head verb, while independents are allowed to follow it, one of the few flaws in Ardari’s head-final nature. But independent clauses can be moved around freely, even fronted, like in English.

If that weren’t bad enough, adverbial clauses of time can appear in either form. In speech, it’s considered better to use the dependent form unless you absolutely need them at the beginning of the sentence. Writing prefers independents, mostly at the end of the sentence.

Okay, but how do we do it? For the independent clauses, there’s almost nothing to do. Put the adverbial clause after the main one, then put the appropriate conjunction at the end: my syne zejman anyerodyill salmotya byu, “I’ll give you these because I love you”. Since Ardari is otherwise head-final, the simple fact that something follows the verb is a sign that we have an adverbial clause.

Dependents are a little harder, but not much. As with Isian, we need an infinitive verb. For Ardari, it’s the verb stem followed by ky: dyem ky “to buy”, ivit ky “to see”. This goes at the end of the clause, followed by the normal conjunction: my fèse dyem ky chinod, “I went to buy food”.

Of course, there’s a slight problem of ambiguity that could crop up here. Because these clauses appear before the verb, with nothing to mark them off as special, we don’t really know when they start. In practice, though, it’s not that bad. Context helps. (Plus, it’s natural. No language is fully regular and unambiguous.)

Now, knowing all of this, we can get back to adverbial phrases. Ardari handles them like they were a special kind of dependent clause, using the infinitive form of the copula, èll ky: zall èll ky “like this”. (Perhaps in the future, this might evolve into an adverb-making suffix -èlky. Who knows?)

That’s it

Once again, it’s harder to describe something than to put it into action. That was the case with relative clauses a few weeks ago, and it’s the case today. But now we have adverbs, which fills in just about the last box in our list of parts of speech. Almost any kind of statement is possible now.

Next time, we’ll look at questions. Not the kind you certainly have, but the kind speakers of a language will be asking. We’ll see how they’re made and how we can make them.

Randomness and V8 (JS)

So I’ve seen this post linked in a few places recently, and I thought to myself, “This sounds interesting…and familiar.”

For those of you who don’t quite have the technical know-how to understand what it means, here’s a quick summary. Basically, the whole thing is a flaw in the V8 JavaScript engine’s random number generator. V8, if you don’t know, is what makes JavaScript possible for Chrome, Node, and plenty of others. (Firefox uses a different engine, and Microsoft’s browsers already have far bigger problems.) In JavaScript, the RNG is accessed through the function Math.random(). That function is far from perfect as it is. There’s no need to make it worse.

But V8, until one of the newest versions (4.9.40), actually did make it worse. An outline of their code is in the post above, but the main problems with it are easy to explain. First, Math.random() returns JavaScript numbers—i.e., 64-bit floating-point numbers—between 0 and 1. The way those numbers work leaves the algorithm 52 bits to play with, but V8’s code worked by converting a 32-bit integer into a floating-point number. That’s a pretty common operation, and there’s nothing really wrong on the face of it. Well, except for the part where you’re throwing away 20 out of your 52 random bits.

Because of the way V8’s RNG algorithm (MWC1616), this gets even better. MWC stands for “multiply with carry”, an apt description of what we’re dealing with. Internally, the code has two state variables, each a 32-bit unsigned integer, or uint32_t. These start off as seeded values (JavaScript programmers have no way of influencing this part, unfortunately), and each one undergoes a simple transformation: the low 16 bits are multiplied by one of two “magic” constants, then added to the high 16 bits. The function then creates its result in two parts, with the upper half of the result coming from one state variable’s lower half, while the lower 16 bits are taken from the other state’s upper half.

The whole thing, despite its shell-game shifting of bits, is not much more than a pair of linear congruential generators welded together. LCGs have a long history as random generators, because they’re easy to code, they’re fast, and they can give okay randomness for simple applications. But now that JavaScript is being used everywhere, the cracks are starting to appear.

Since V8’s Math.random() implementation uses 32-bit numbers and none of the “extra” state found in more involved RNGs, you’re never getting more than 2^32^ random numbers before they start repeating. And I do mean repeating, as linear congruential generators are periodic functions. Given the same state, they’ll produce the same result; generate enough random numbers, and you’ll repeat a state, which restarts the cycle. But that 2^32^ is a maximum, and you need some planning to get it. The magic numbers that make an LCG work have to be chosen carefully, or you can sabotage the whole thing. All the bit-shifting tricks are little more than a distraction.

So what can you do? Obviously, you, as a user of Chrome/Node/V8/whatever, can upgrade. The new algorithm they’re using is xorshift128+, which is highly regarded as a solid RNG for non-cryptographic work. (If you’re interested in how it works, but you don’t think you can read C++, check out the second link above, where I roll my own version in JavaScript.) Naturally, this doesn’t fix all the other problems with Math.random(), only the one that caused V8’s version of it to fail a bunch of the statistical tests used to quantify how “good” a specific RNG is. (The linked blog post has a great visualization to illustrate these.) Seeded, repeatable randomness, for example, you’ll still have to handle yourself. But what we’ve got is good enough for a lot of purposes, and it’s now a better foundation to build upon.

Magic and tech: introduction

Now that the New Year’s pleasantries are out of the way, it’s time to get back to the work of worldbuilding. It’s work that never truly stops, you know. Worldbuilding isn’t just a rabbit hole, it’s a bottomless pit for your spare time. But it’s undeniably fun, in that creative sort of way. In that sense, these are my favorite posts to write.

Anyway, this post is going to serve as an introduction to a new series of worldbuilding articles. These will be about the “regular” length for my posts (about 2,000 words), and they’ll cover a very specific subject: the interaction of magic and technology. Look around the fantasy section of your favorite bookstore, whether physical or virtual, and you can find plenty of examples of worlds where these two forces coexist. It’s a staple of certain subgenres, after all.

But many of these worlds are just our own, only viewed from a different angle. So much fantasy (I’m not only talking about books here, but games and movies and TV, too) takes the classic D&D approach of “medieval, but with wizards“, and that’s really a shame. Why? It’s simple, if you think about it. Magic changes the game. With magic, the rules of history don’t apply.

Now, I’m not saying all fantasy is this way. There are plenty of stories out there that take a…nontraditional approach to magic and technology. The “magitech” and “technomancer” styles are good examples of this, but not the only ones. Any segment of fantasy has its highs and lows; to me, great worldbuilding is definitely one of the highs. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a good sword-and-sorcery romp as much as the next guy, but I do find more fulfillment out of a detailed setting that feels real. It’s hard to describe, but depth and logic play strong parts.

And I especially love good magic systems. More importantly, I want to see a world that understands its magic, a world that reacts to it. I can suspend my disbelief for things that are physically impossible, but not those that are logically impossible. Throwing fireballs, summoning demons, reviving the dead—and, for sci-fi, add in FTL travel, teleportation, and so on—those are all fine, as long as there’s a reason for them. It can even be a literal miracle, if that fits the setting. Just don’t make it a deus ex machina, that’s all.

The intersection

So let’s get back to this whole “series” idea. Remember that? Here’s what I’ve got in mind.

First, this is an irregular series. It won’t be every week, and it doesn’t have a definite end. I could write about something like this for an eternity, but I won’t. Instead, “Magic and tech” posts will be interspersed with the more regular worldbuilding and literary articles on Mondays. I’ll try to do one a month, but don’t hold me to that.

Second, I know I’ve spent the last few months talking in generalities. This will be different. I’m going to take a specific example and work it to the ragged edge. The setting I’m making will have a few built-in assumptions, and I’ll go over the basics in a moment. Almost everything else I intend to flow logically from those assumptions. My logic doesn’t always work the same way as everybody else’s, so feel free to call me out when (not if) I screw up.

Third, the setting will be mine, but don’t let that stop you from swiping bits and pieces of it for your own. Maybe the assumptions are altered slightly, or history took a different path. Who cares? Change the names and a few of the details, and it’s yours.

The assumptions

There are, to a first approximation, an infinite number of possibilities for combining magic systems, technology development, cultural development, and historical circumstance. That won’t do. We need to narrow things down, so I’ll be starting from a known origin point. The core assumptions I’ll be making are:

  1. Magic exists. That’s a no-brainer, if you read the title of this series, but it bears repeating. Specifically, magical aptitude is a function of a few different factors, not all of them scientific. All we really need to know, though, is that about one out of every 80 people has the talent, and about two out of three of those never realize they have it or give up trying to harness it. Actual mages make up about 1/250 of the adult population.

  2. Magic is known. People understand that some among them have a power unexplainable by natural laws. To them, it’s taken as a given, the same way some people can write songs or make statues from marble. It’s a gift, yes, but no more than any other creative gift.

  3. Magic is fairly predictable. Sure, there are a lot of possibilities for thinking outside the box, but most mages in this setting are conservative and low-key. They’ve made something like a cross between art and science, and most of them don’t mind keeping it that way.

  4. Technology is at a level roughly comparable to the High Middle Ages. No steam engines or (technology-based) electricity, but a few peripheral countries are lacking in mages, and they have developed the earliest gunpowder weapons as a defense.

  5. Technology stagnated earlier in history, due to the conservative nature of most mages. Within living memory, however, things have started to progress again. We’re not talking a millennia-long Dark Ages—A Song of Ice and Fire, I’m looking at you—but about 400 years of the status quo.

  6. Religion is…complicated. The supernatural is generally agreed to exist, but there is no single faith that unites a vast section of the world. Most religions do favor magic over technology, but some are the opposite, considering magic anathema. A couple eschew both, feeling that magic is too powerful for mortals, but technology is too soulless.

  7. The inhabitants of the world are otherwise modern humans. This is almost an afterthought, but it helps to be clear on this point. We’re working with people like us, not aliens or elves.

More to come

So that’s the rough sketch. Now it’s time to fill in the blanks. As I write this series, I’ll fill in a table of contents down here. (The hardest part will be remembering to do it!) As always, comments and constructive criticism are most welcome, and I’d love to hear about your own creations. Other than that, there’s nothing left to say but this: strap yourself in and enjoy the ride.


  1. Travel
  2. Information technology
  3. Information
  4. Power
  5. Weapons
  6. Defenses
  7. Medicine
  8. Heating and cooling
  9. Construction
  10. Art

Let’s make a language – Part 11a: Adverbs (Intro)

As we move into Act II of our language-making show, let’s pick up one of the loose threads from last week’s Babel Text: adverbs. When I say “adverb”, though, I’m not just talking about words like English “hardly” and “badly”, but any word or phrase that changes and refines the meaning of a verb. That includes certain phrases that we can call adverbial or subordinate clauses. We’ll see what those are in just a minute, but we should first back up and think about the very idea of an adverb.

The forgotten one

Adverbs, broadly speaking, are to verbs what adjectives are to nouns. They modify the meaning, allowing us to express finer distinctions. Verbs, remember, represent actions, so adverbs are what we use to tell how an action happens. Examples like “she sings happily” or “the clouds are hanging menacingly” show the most familiar of these adverbs.

Of course, there’s always more to the story. Not all adverbs really modify verbs. Some in English, for instance, modify whole sentences. Grammar pedants don’t like it, but that’s what has happened with words such as “hopefully”. And English also has words like “manly” that look like adverbs but fill the role of an adjective.

And then there are languages that don’t actually have a separate collection of adverbs at all. Many of these have no problem allowing an adjective to modify either a noun or a verb; in the latter case, it functions like an adverb, even though there’s no indication that it is one.

(If that weren’t enough, there is another way of defining adverbs: as grammatical words that don’t fit into any other category. That’s a negative definition that isn’t exactly helpful to those making their own languages, but it’s useful to know. Some languages do see adverbs this way, as a closed class of words separate from the other parts of speech, with the more common “adverbs” being derived regularly from adjectives.)

Really making

The largest group of adverbs (or what would be called adverbs) in most languages includes those derived from adjectives and meaning something like “in an X way” or simply “like X”. In English, we can make most of these with the -ly suffix: “real” becomes “really”, etc. Plenty of other languages have their own counterparts that are very similar in use, including Spanish -mente and Japanese -ku, to name only two.

Another common option is, well, nothing at all. Adjectives in many languages can be used directly as adverbs. In these cases, they might not be inflected as usual for case or number (since they won’t be modifying a noun), and they likely won’t appear in their customary position. But those would be the only ways you could tell the difference.

Every other word derivation is possible, too. You can have suffixes, prefixes, extra words before or after, and just about anything else you can think of. For widely-used adverbs, irregularities might arise, especially if the adjective itself already has them. English good is one example, forming the adverb well, to the consternation of schoolchildren everywhere. (The regular goodly also exists, but it has a much different connotation.)

Finally, adverbs aren’t necessarily always derived from adjectives. Words like “soon”, for example, are only adverbial. (It’s not a coincidence that most of the ones you can think of have something to do with time.) It’s perfectly possible to make an adverb from a noun or even a verb, as well. But these probably aren’t going to be made into a simple word; we need a phrase.

As an adverb

When one word just won’t do, adverbial phrases come to the rescue. What are they? Well, it’s right there in the name. An adverbial phrase is nothing more than a phrase that acts like an adverb. (Coincidentally enough, that last sentence perfectly illustrates my point: “like an adverb” is, in fact, an adverbial phrase!)

In English, many adverbial phrases are essentially prepositional phrases used as adverbs. They’re more likely to use “temporal” prepositions like before or when, since those don’t make as much sense for nouns, but anything is possible.

Grammatically speaking, the same is true. If a language allows them, adverbial phrases tend to take the same form as prepositional (or postpositional or whatever) phrases. It’s easy to see why, as the adverbial function only generalizes the idea of prepositions.

Because the clause

The adverbial clause, on the other hand, is a totally different animal. Here, we’re not talking about a little noun phrase, but a whole clause. It could be an entire sentence (an independent clause) or only a fragment unable to stand alone (a subordinate clause). Either way, it also works as an adverb, so it’s a good idea to look at it here.

The key difference between adverbial phrases and clauses is that a clause has a predicate. It’s usually a verb, but some languages only require something with a verbal meaning. (A language with a zero-copula construction, for example, could conceivably have a subordinate clause with only a subject and an object.)

Some of these verbs will be inflected like any other verb in the language. Take, for instance, this English sentence: “It started raining while I was walking home.” The marked part is the adverbial clause, and you can see that, except for the conjunction while, the clause could stand on its own as a sentence.

Now, on the other hand, let’s instead say, “I saw the rain while walking home.” This time, we still have a predicate (walking home), but it can’t stand alone. The special form of the verb, walking instead of walk, is our cue for this.

In English grammar, we call the first example an independent clause, while the second is a dependent one. Some linguists instead refer to them as balanced and deranked clauses, respectively. Either way, the difference between them is clear: one can be “broken out” into its own sentence, while the other can’t.

Counting the ways

Adverbial clauses come in a few different categories. Each has a different meaning and a different set of conjunctions that connect it to the rest of the sentence.

Here are the primary types of clauses, each with a brief definition and an example sentence. We’ll use them later. In the examples, the conjunction that introduces the adverbial clause is emphasized, and the clause itself is everything that follows.

  • Purpose: the purpose of an action; “I went home so that I could take a shower”

  • Time: when something happens, relative to some other time or event; “the boys played in the sand when they went to the beach”

  • Reason: the reason why something happens; “I can’t come because I am sick”

  • Place: the position or location of an action or event; “they like it where they live”

  • Manner: the way something is done; “this book wasn’t written how I would have liked it”

  • Condition: a possibility or consequence, an “if-then” situation; “bad things will happen if you go out in the storm”

There are a couple of others, but they work about the same. Clauses indicating results are similar to those of reason, and concessions are pretty close to conditions. Comparisons are worthy of their own topic, which will come a bit later.

Any of these clauses, though, can be used as adverbs. In English, as you can see above, they often follow the verb, like an object; this isn’t absolutely necessary, and any one of them can be rearranged to put the adverbial clause at the front.

Note, too, that they’re all independent. Taking that away isn’t quite as easy, and it doesn’t always work. It does in some cases, though, as long as the subject of both clauses is the same. We could say, for example, “I went home to take a shower“, creating a dependent clause. Mostly, English prefers “balanced” clauses, to use WALS terminology, permitting “deranked” as an occasional option. (In terms of style, dependent clauses sound slightly more formal or less “personal”, at least to me.)

Constructing the clause

While the general definition of an adverbial clause isn’t that dependent on a specific language, how they’re formed is. For English, as you can see, you first need a conjunction. Then, you have the clause itself. For dependent (or deranked, if you prefer) clauses, the verb appears as either an infinitive or a gerund, depending on what you’re trying to say; either way, it’s not the usual inflected form that you’d use in a “proper” sentence. Independent (balanced, hence the name) clauses have fully inflected verbs, although that isn’t saying much in English.

But how do you do it in a conlang? Well, that truly depends. They’re probably going to look a lot like prepositional phrases, however you do those. Verb-final languages will likely end an adverbial clause with the conjunction, and the clauses themselves will tend to be farther forward in the sentence. SVO or VSO languages would go the other way, more like English.

But this kind of phrase isn’t a core part of a sentence, so there’s nothing to stop it from “floating”. Adverbial clauses can show up anywhere. English allows them at the front, in the back, and even in the middle. Of course, you can be strict, too, if you like. You aren’t going to see many adverbs at the end of a Japanese sentence, after all.

Next up

Next week, we’ll look at how Isian and Ardari tame these monstrous clauses. Then, it’s time to answer something you’ve probably asked once or twice: how do we ask a question?