04 January 2008

Polar Opposites and the Middle Point

Apparently natural languages have brief common words to describe the extreme polarities, or the outside edges of a range of possibilities, but no ready-to-use single words for the middle of the range.

For example, in English we have old and young, compared to the long-winded term "middle-aged." We have short and tall, as opposed to "of average height." Large and small, and then "medium-size(d)."

I have always wondered if this reflects some tendency toward extremism that is built into the human brain's firmware. I wonder if it is worthwhile to design a conlang so that the midpoint terms are just as brief as the terms that describe the extremes.

For example, let's say that in some conlang ba means something like "slightly," zi means "moderately" and vu means "very." Add the word gre which means "size" and we get greba = small, grezi = medium-sized, grevu = large.

I tinkered with a 5-point scale at one stage in the evolution of Vorlin. (In addition to slightly, moderately, and very, I also had "not at all" and "infinitely/maximally.")

This approach, compared to the Esperanto approach (e.g. juna = young, maljuna = old) seems just slightly easier on the memory and also seems to represent a more realistic world-view. However, it is slightly more verbose. If you have something like granda = large, malgranda = small, you save a syllable when you happen to need the word for the favored polarity.

Marking the middle of the range seems important to me for two reasons. First of all, there is such a thing as "the Bell Curve." More people are near the average height than are really deserving of being called short or tall, for example. Secondly is the thought that such a design might encourage or support moderation, an attitude of non-extremism.

This is one of the design issues I am contemplating in the creation of Tanji, which is meant to be a hybrid of oligosynthetic and briefscript tendencies.

For further reading: In the Conlang List's archives I found a message from Henrik Theiling saying, "My conlang Qthyn|gai does not have a continuous scale, but a generic way of either subdividing into three or into nine steps." Other messages in that thread are interesting too, and the thread contains a pointer to an earlier thread on the same topic.

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