My conlang uses verb conjugations only in the present tense. To indicate other tenses (preterite/past imperfect/subjunctive/future/etc) I use the combined phrase "sona," meaning "in (the) time (of)" and then adding a various suffix to indicate the specific tense("sonasato"="in time past"). This means I only have the present tense of conjugations per verb, not changing the actions of the subject per tense. (In English, you have "I eat" (present) and "I ate" (past), as one example. In my conlang, you use "In the time of past, I eat." (Past, but using a present conjugation.) What I'm wondering about are the places where I should put this simple tense indicator in a sentence. The conlang's sentence structure is like this (using an example from English as translation): English:

The dog drank from a bowl of water.

The dog(determiner+noun)-> drinks (conjugated verb, "it drinks") from (preposition) a bowl (determiner+noun) of (preposition) water (noun).

In my conlang, you would say

Sepyew ("(it) drinks", conjugated form of "to drink" in present tense) eu bítõe (the dog) de è roum (from a bowl, this would be contracted into "dè roum" or "dèroum.") de aqua (of water.)

This, however, was the present tense. The past tense (The dog drank from a bowl of water) involves the "sonasato"(in the past tense) in some form, but I don't know where the most logical place to place it would be. Ordinarily, that wouldn't present a problem.

Unfortunately, my conlang has no punctuation, that is to say, sentences are one long string of words. I've not considered how to handle this with dialogue, but otherwise it hasn't presented a problem until now. Pauses for breath within conversation are natural, but I'm addressing this question from the written aspect of language. Because the sentences are fluid, I don't know how to handle the abrupt changes between tenses other than using the "sona" variants excessively. And the rules of the language mean that the tense is always expressed, per statement (not sentence, because of the punctuation) by either ignoring the sona rule (indicating the present tense) or by using it (to indicate some other tense.)


Keeping that in mind, what would be the most logical place to place the tense indicator so that I can change it relatively easily between tenses in a language with no periods or commas (pauses), and where?

  • Note to all: I realize this runs the risk of being too POB. I'd appreciate constructive comments detailing how to help refine this question, if you feel it needs improvement. – FoxElemental Jul 26 at 15:55
up vote 3 down vote accepted

Since it’s your conlang, you can put it wherever you think is best—but my inclination would be immediately adjacent to the verb it applies to. Your sentence structure seems to be VSO, so my initial inclination is to place it immediately after the verb.

For your sample sentence, Sepyew sonsato eu bítõe de è roum de aqua.

For the translation of a sentence like "The truck carried the food Joe ate", you would need two tense indicators, one for each verb: "it-carry past-tense the truck [he-eat past-tense Joe the food] sentence-as-object-indicator". If only one verb is in a non-present tense (The truck carries the food Joe ate), you apply the tense indicator to the verb that is in the non-present tense:"it-carry the truck [he-eat past-tense Joe the food] sentence-as-object-indicator".

  • For what it's worth, 'sentence-as-object' is one of the most vexing topics on the Klingon Language Discussion List - and tlhIngan Hol was invented by a linguist! – Jeff Zeitlin Jul 26 at 17:06

The most prominent positions in a sentence are the beginning and end, and so those positions are frequently used to indicate the information structure of a sentence. A word carrying grammatical markers is not very prominent, but there is actually a common position for unprominent words: second position, or Wackernagel's position, named after the linguist who identified the pattern.

In many languages, both with free word order and those with tighter syntaxes, the second position of a sentence is where grammatically important but non-emphasised words are found. Second position usually refers to it coming after a complete constituent (so it could be a word or a phrase), but in some languages it may mean it comes literally after the first word, even if that would split up a phrase.

The past tense marker you constructed, sonasato, is a rather long element. Applying the rule "short before long" this would indicate that you put it even after the objects, like

Sepyew eu bítõe dèroum de aqua sonasato

In this example it becomes the last element in the sentence.

  • 2
    I haven't heard of the "short before long" rules - is that a conlanging thing, or is it meant to apply to natlangs too? – curiousdannii Jul 27 at 13:00
  • 1
    It is definitely a natlang rule and searching "short before long" linguistics brings up papers mentioning its validity for English, and questioning it for head-final languages: – jknappen Jul 27 at 13:22
  • @curiousdannii it's not so much a rule as it is a general tendency -- I believe Heavy NP Shift and heaviness in general is the phenomenon jknappen is referring to? – Sparksbet Jul 29 at 1:57
  • @Sparksbet: There are a lot of similar (and at the same time different and maybe even experimentally distinguishable) concepts floating around on how speakers order the information in a sentence, to mention a few more Minimal dependency length, given—new, information gain. In our group we are mostly interested in the management of information density (assuming a limited channel capacity) – jknappen Jul 30 at 15:13

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