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On succinctness
http://www.incatena.org/viewtopic.php?f=15&t=39291
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Author:  JeremyHussell [ Sat Oct 29, 2011 11:21 am ]
Post subject:  On succinctness

Recently it struck me that natural languages tend to be more succinct than conglangs, so I started thinking about how they manage it.

First, what exactly do I mean by 'succinctness'? Not just that the language produces shorter sentences, on average (that would be 'brevity'), but that the same meaning is conveyed in a shorter sentence, on average. Shorter how?
- Fewer words for the same meaning? No.
- Fewer characters for the same meaning? No.
- Fewer syllables for the same meaning? Maybe.
- Fewer phonemes for the same meaning? Close.
- Least time to speak/read the same content? Yes!

Since using a stopwatch to test how long it takes to read a sentence is annoying, counting the number of phonemes is a useful first approximation.

What strategies can make a conlang succinct?

#1: Increase the number of symbols
- Make a large number of phonetic distinctions (the Speedtalk/Ithkuil strategy).
- Allow a large number of consonant clusters and polyphthongs (and thus syllable types).
- Give every short, legal sound sequence a meaning.

Increasing the number of phonemes beyond a certain point actually slows down the language, as speakers are forced to lengthen or repeat each phoneme to make certain the listener heard it correctly. Similarly, if every legal one-syllable word has a meaning, speakers have to be able to distinguish between every legal syllable in every context. In short, you can only take this strategy so far.

#2: Morpheme length inversely proportional to frequency
This seems to be the biggest advantage of natural languages. It's a lot of work to design a conlang this way, because you generally have to use the language before you can figure out which morphemes tend to show up most frequently, and changing the length of a morpheme sometimes affects how often you use it, leading to a lengthy cycle of frequent changes to the vocabulary.

#3: Fusion replaces long multi-morpheme constructs with a single (hopefully shorter) morpheme, at the cost of increasing the number of morphemes occupying the symbol-space.
- Give common compound words a single-root synonym.
- Give common affix combinations a single-affix synonym.
- Give common root+affix combos a single-root synonym.
- Give common phrases a single compound-word synonym.
Note that when you replace a combo with a single morpheme, the frequencies of the components of the combo go down, meaning that the components may have to have their lengths increased to match their new, lower frequency.

#4a: Don't repeat yourself
- Use pronouns or other proforms, or definite members of general categories, whenever you need to repeat something.
- Avoid repeating something at all by merging shared components.
(Basic example: "John reads and Bill reads" vs "John reads and Bill does too" vs "John and Bill read".)
- Use as little agreement as possible, as this is essentially repeating the same information in two places. (E.g., marking adjectives with the number and case of their head nouns, like Esperanto.)
- Avoid obligatory markings, since this forces you to repeat information that could have been stated only once.

#4b: Omit anything you can infer from context
- Make as few things mandatory as possible, since that forces you to state unnecessary information
- No dummy arguments. Just "Raining." instead of "It's raining."
- No dummy verbs. Just "The cup red." instead of "The cup is red." (Yes, a bit glib here. I hope you understand what I mean.)
- No obligatory markings. E.g., allow tense, aspect, and number to be inferred from context.
- Allow gaps in relative clauses instead of relative pronouns.

#5: Homonyms (context changes the meaning)
- Roots with different meanings when used with verbal vs nominal affixes.
- Affixes with different meanings when used on verbal vs nominal roots.
- Verbs provide context for nouns. E.g., bat (animate) vs bat (inanimate).
- Nouns provide context for verbs. E.g., run (a race) vs run (a company).
I suspect this is one of the least exploited strategies in conlangs, especially engineered conlangs with their emphasis on one-word-equals-one-meaning. There are lots more ways to do this. E.g., Lojban has an interesting variant where the same syllable has a different meaning when used as a morpheme in a compound word or as a stand-alone word.

I've considered embedding several domain-specific mini-languages into my main language, each one reusing the same vocabulary. The idea is to create a system of homonyms by finding a collection of morphemes that usually appear together and rarely apart, and then finding several such collections that rarely overlap with each other. In the main language, there would be a way of switching contexts, e.g., a way to say "I'm about to talk about economics, so interpret everything that follows as belonging to the economics mini-language.", and a set of words whose meanings depend entirely on which context is in force. Possible mini-language topics include numeric expressions (e.g., numbers, mathematical operators, and a system of units of measurement), particular semantic domains, like kinship terms, tense/aspect and temporal/spatial relationships, or vocabulary to allow one to answer with more precision the question "How do you feel?", and jargon for each profession (e.g., a "battle-language" for soldiers, with specialized jargon such as 'flanking', 'enfilade fire', etc., and short expressions for important situations like "I'm low on ammunition!" or "Someone just took a shot at me!").

Anyway, does anyone know any other ways to make your language succinct? Even if they're only narrowly applicable tricks or tips (like using gaps instead of relative pronouns). Also, feel free to post specific examples of succinctness, either in your conlang or some natlang, or give examples of verbosity, where you wish there were a way to state things more compactly in your conlang.

Author:  The Count [ Sat Oct 29, 2011 12:17 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On succinctness

The best strategy to achieve a higher level of succintness is to speak and write your conlang as much as possible. Not only does it weed out unnecessary "features" and constructions but also helps you to develop a spoken language (as opposite to formal language). A language made up on a piece of paper and never used might be littered with questionable features and constructions that are not that useable after all.

Keep in mind that natural languages have had ages to develop and that has helped to make them more succint. Also they have a world in which they're designed/developed to work in. A conculture might clear up a lot of rubble.

Author:  Xephyr [ Sat Oct 29, 2011 12:18 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On succinctness

Maybe it might be better if you give some conlanging examples. Might be easier to point at something then and go "That's what's holding the thing back."

Author:  Soap [ Sat Oct 29, 2011 12:40 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On succinctness

Eh, I dunno. I think your sample of natlangs might be a bit biased because it just so happens that some of the most succinct natlangs are also some of the most widely spoken (English is the champion of Europe, Spanish isnt that far behind, and in Asia we have Chinese.) But yes, there are a lot of conlangers who seem to resist using homonyms and allowing ambiguity in their languages. I'm not like that, though ... if anything I go too far to the other extreme and have almost Mandarin-level homophony problems.

Author:  JeremyHussell [ Sat Oct 29, 2011 1:04 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On succinctness

Actually, I think those languages might be the most succinct precisely because they're the most widely spoken. Or possibly the reverse. In either case, it isn't just a chance bias.

Author:  Astraios [ Sat Oct 29, 2011 1:59 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On succinctness

:| English and Chinese are succinct because they're both pretty isolating and don't mark very much morphologically at all, not because they're widely spoken...

Author:  Ollock [ Sat Oct 29, 2011 2:06 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On succinctness

Also, it has been shown that information density and speaking rate have an inverse relationship. That is, languages with lower information density are spoken at a higher rate (measured in syllables per minute), thus compensating for being less "succinct".

Author:  ---- [ Sat Oct 29, 2011 2:20 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On succinctness

I don't think succinctness is really an important feature, just something that happens to be a characteristic of certain languages. Inuktitut tends to have very long words for common expressions and it does just fine.

Author:  JeremyHussell [ Sat Oct 29, 2011 2:33 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On succinctness


Author:  Ollock [ Sat Oct 29, 2011 2:35 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On succinctness


Author:  Astraios [ Sat Oct 29, 2011 2:40 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On succinctness


Author:  Qwynegold [ Sat Oct 29, 2011 2:59 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On succinctness

You're arguing against features that are naturally found in many languages. :/

Author:  ---- [ Sat Oct 29, 2011 3:00 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On succinctness


Author:  Nortaneous [ Sat Oct 29, 2011 4:33 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On succinctness


Author:  JeremyHussell [ Sat Oct 29, 2011 4:48 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On succinctness


Author:  JeremyHussell [ Sat Oct 29, 2011 4:49 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On succinctness


Author:  Astraios [ Sat Oct 29, 2011 4:57 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On succinctness


Author:  Thry [ Sat Oct 29, 2011 8:30 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On succinctness


Author:  MisterBernie [ Sat Oct 29, 2011 8:33 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On succinctness


Author:  Okuno [ Sat Oct 29, 2011 9:30 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On succinctness

Yeah, I mean, cool but meh. Like others have said: if natlangs are succint...

And honestly, those suggestions often feel like trying to swat a fly with a hammer. "No dummy pronouns" really? Venetian has double-reletivizers and dummy pronouns, and it was once a lingua franca. "No agreement" <.< So, there goes all romance languages, and Swahili is doubly-dead. If instead, you just abide by #2, dummy pronouns, agreement, etc are not a problem.

Now, of course homonyms is a generally under-utilized feature, and "merging shared components" (which I'm sure has a technical term, but I can't remember it just now) is generally omitted in any grammar, though that's because it's usually obvious enough.

Of course, if you're going for the tersest possible language, you forgot some stuff. Like "add tonemes" and "Use word-order rather than case marking to express syntactic roles."

Personally, though, I think most well-made languages come out fine automatically. One big problem with determining metrics though, is the speakers: only after listening to an L1 in any given language could I speak it relatively quickly, and there are no L1s in conlangs (well, there are a few, but not in yours!) Even with rudimentary practice on certain phrases, a conlang speaker could easily double their rate of speech and still sound natural.

Hmmm, and I should point out that "Allow a large number of consonant clusters and polyphthongs" doesn't always work. Japanese isn't the fastest language out there, but it can be quite quick nonetheless, because its syllables are so lightweight so as to be more quickly pronounceable than your average English syllable.

Besides,
Sídzelen caena ci Tayéin.
I've learned a little Tayéin.
pretty much comparable, and I didn't even put work into it.

Author:  Nortaneous [ Sun Oct 30, 2011 1:29 am ]
Post subject:  Re: On succinctness


Author:  Astraios [ Sun Oct 30, 2011 5:19 am ]
Post subject:  Re: On succinctness


Author:  JeremyHussell [ Sun Oct 30, 2011 9:39 am ]
Post subject:  Re: On succinctness


Author:  JeremyHussell [ Sun Oct 30, 2011 9:47 am ]
Post subject:  Re: On succinctness

Lojban is remarkably succinct in some narrow areas of logic, but not as good at common real-world situations:

e'o mi'o klama
request.to.listener 1st+2nd come/go
"Let's go."

na nei
NEG this.sentence
"This sentence is false."

Author:  Astraios [ Sun Oct 30, 2011 11:17 am ]
Post subject:  Re: On succinctness


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