How to learn conjugation: the Kaqchikel edition II

…and after all of that, now we can conjugate both consonant-initial AND vowel-initial intransitive verbs IN THE FIRST PERSON SINGULAR PRESENT TENSE ONLY. Persistence, persistence!

Want to learn how to conjugate verbs in French? No problem–you can look them up lots of places on line, you can buy a book on the topic at pretty much any train station in France, and the French Verb Forms app will give you many happy hours of practice. (Seriously, I use it often.)

Want to learn to conjugate verbs in a less-commonly-studied language? Good fucking luck. You have two basic options:

  1. Get a “FLAS.” Foreign Language Area Studies fellowships fund students to do intensive courses in languages that the US has a national interest in having Americans know how to speak. (Seriously, it’s not a coincidence that they used to be called National Defense Foreign Language fellowships.) You either have the wonderful luck to be at a university that offers courses in your (relatively) obscure language of choice, or you snag a $2,500 summer grant to go take an intensive course somewhere. (Indiana University Bloomington is currently offering FLAS language courses in Akan, Bosnian, Czech, Dari, Estonian, Finnish, Georgian, Hungarian… You get the picture.)
  2. Figure it all out for yourself.

Option #2, “figure it all out for yourself,” is the one that you pick if you are a bald old fat fuck such as myself who is not going to be getting a FLAS summer fellowship any time soon. Option #2 begins with figuring out what the characteristics of verbs are in your language of choice, such that those characteristics might affect how you go about learning to conjugate them. We worked our way through this in a previous post. I’ll sum up the outcome like this:

The main things that differentiate amongst verbs in Kaqchikel are

  1. Whether they are transitive, or intransitive
  2. Whether they began with a consonant, or with a vowel

Last time we worked on consonant-initial intransitive verbs. This time, we’ll move on to vowel-initial intransitive verbs. First thing we need: a list of such verbs. To put one together, we’ll go through the glossary at the end of the only English-based Kaqchikel textbook that I know of: ¿La Ütz Awäch?, by R. McKenna Brown, Judith M. Maxwell, Walter E. Little, and Angelika Bauer.

I am simplifying the Kaqchikel transitivity situation quite a bit. This will not shock Americanists (linguists who work on the indigenous languages of the Americas).

-achik’to dream
-ach’ixïnto sneeze
-ajanto brush, to sculpt
-ajilanto count
-ajinto be Ving (a progressive)
-ak’walanto procreate
-aläx peto be born, to sprout
-animäjto run from, to flee
-animajinto escape, to flee
-aninto run
-aponto arrive there
-aq’ab’anto rise before dawn

All of these verbs begin with -a because I started at the beginning of the glossary, and it happens to be in alphabetical order. But, the observant reader will also have noted that many of these verbs end with n. Is this significant? Probably, but I don’t yet know why.

Want to know how to pronounce these verbs? See this post on my adventures in learning the pronunciation of Kaqchikel consonants.


OK, we’ve got some vowel-initial verbs, and we did consonant-initial ones last time, so let’s compare them. We’ll start with the first person singular of the present tense. Last time we learned the prefix yi- for consonant-initial vowels; for vowel-initial ones, we instead use yin-. Let’s look at examples of them side by side, and then we’ll practice the vowel-initial variant using the same technique that we learned last time. Remember that you will look at the example, then cover the second column of the table and work your way down it row by row, doing whatever the example showed you to do.

-sik’in (to read)yisik’in-aq’ab’an (rise before dawn)yinaq’ab’an
-tzijon (to talk)yitzijon-achik’ (to dream)yinachik’
-tz’ib’an (to write)yitz’ib’an-ach’ixïn (to sneeze)yinach’ixïn
-samäj (to work)yisamäj-ajilan (to count)yinajilan
-wa’ (to eat)yiwa’-anin (to run)yinanin
-b’iyin (to walk)yib’iyin-apon (to arrive there)yinapon
Example: -oq’ (to cry)yinoq’
-achik’ (to dream)yinachik’
-ach’ixïn (to sneeze)yinach’ixïn
-ajilan (to count)yinajilan
-anin (to run)yinanin
-apon (to arrive there)yinapon
-aq’ab’an (to rise before dawn)yinaq’ab’an

Following the same strategy that we learned last time, we will now alternate between the two of them…

Example: -wäryiwär
b’ixan (to sing)yib’ixan
-ach’ixïn (to sneeze)yinach’ixïn
-kemon (to weave)yikemon
-atin (to bathe)yinatin
-wa’ (to eat)yiwa’
yinaq’ab’an

…and then mix them randomly:

Example: -oq’ (to cry)yinoq’
-samäj (to work)yisamäj
-tz’ib’an (to write)yitz’ib’an
-atin (to bathe)yinatin
-kemon (to weave)yikemon
-aq’ab’an (to rise before dawn)yinaq’ab’an
-ach’ixïn (to sneeze)yinach’ixïn

…and after all of that, now we can conjugate both consonant-initial AND vowel-initial intransitive verbs IN THE FIRST PERSON SINGULAR PRESENT TENSE ONLY. Persistence, persistence!

The picture at the top of this page is of a Kaqchikel singer I like a lot named Sara Curruchich. You can buy her stuff on Apple Music, and I’m sure elsewhere, as well. Picture source: https://assembly.malala.org/stories/kaqchikel-artist-guatemala. No English or French notes today, but here is one of her songs–I’ll post the words in Kaqchikel and in Spanish below.

IXOQI/MUJERES

xub’ij ri wati’t’ chuwe’: (Mi abuela me dijo:)

Noya, at achiel, at achi’el ri ruwächulew (Sos como la madre tierra)

at achi’el ri ruwächulew (Sí, como la tierra)

CORO.

Ri niya’on riquchuq’a (Quien nos da fuerza, valentía)

Ri niya’on rutz’intz’ojil ri qak’aslem (quien alumbra nuestra vida)

Ri qanaoj, chuqa k’a ri qab’ey (siembra pensamientos, sabidurías y los caminos plurales)

Ri niya’on ri ya’, ri kaq’ïq’, ri q’aq’ (Como agua, viento y fuego)

At keri’ rat wal (así sos)

At keri’ rat wal (“Así, así sos) nïm riaq’ij wal (Es inmenso e importante tu existir”)

Xcha’ ri watit pa jun wachik’ (Dijo mi abuela en mis sueños)

Man junb’ey xtnumestaj ta (Nunca olvidaré su palabra)

Jantape’ k’o pa nuk’u’x re (Se han aferrado a mi corazón)

CORO.

Ri niya’on riquchuq’a (Quien nos da fuerza, valentía)

Ri niya’on rutz’intz’ojil ri qak’aslem (quien alumbra nuestra vida)

Ri qanaoj, chuqa k’a ri qab’ey (siembra pensamientos, sabidurías y los caminos plurales)

Ri niya’on ri ya’, ri kaq’ïq’, ri q’aq’ (Como agua, viento y fuego)

At keri’ rat wal (así sos)

Cada paso que doy

Me acerca a mis hermanas

A la igualdad soñada

Merecida y trabajada

Cada paso que doy

Deja una huella sutil

Un camino que puede seguir

Un destino

CORO.

Ri niya’on riquchuq’a (Quien nos da fuerza, valentía)

Ri niya’on rutz’intz’ojil ri qak’aslem (quien alumbra nuestra vida)

Ri qanaoj, chuqa k’a ri qab’ey (siembra pensamientos, sabidurías y los caminos plurales)

Ri niya’on ri ya’, ri kaq’ïq’, ri q’aq’ (Como agua, viento y fuego)

At keri’ rat wal (así sos)

K’aslem (Vida)

A Cada paso que das

How to learn conjugation: the Kaqchikel edition

With commonly-studied languages, you can find books with page after page of verb conjugations. But, if you are trying to learn a less-commonly-studied language, you will need to put those together yourself.

Learning verb conjugations in any language requires memorization, practice, and more memorization. With commonly-studied languages, you can find books with page after page of verb conjugations; but, if you are trying to learn a less-commonly-studied language, you will need to put those together yourself. The process of practicing those conjugations is the same, though. I will show you a system here that I picked up from the textbook Português Contemporaneo, by Maria Abreu and Cléo Rameh.

Kaqchikel is spoken in Guatemala, in the purple-colored region at the lower left of the map. Map source: online Kaqchikel Dictionary Project.

Being a big believer in writing about what you don’t know, I will illustrate the process with Kaqchikel, a Mayan language spoken by 400,00–500,000 people in the western highlands of Guatemala. There is an excellent textbook on Kaqchikel, called ¿La ütz awäch?, by R. McKenna Brown, Judith Maxwell, Walter Little, and Angelika Bauer. Other didactic materials are hard to come by outside of Guatemala, though–and in particular, there is no 501 Kaqchikel Verbs. (Fat old fucks such as myself grew up using books of verb conjugations with the standard title X01 [language name] verbs, where X is typically a 2 or a 5–for example, 501 French Verbs. They were published by a company called Barron’s. Still are, although I wouldn’t swear that they sell very many copies these days.) Hence: this post. Ready? Let’s do this!

Step One: Figure out what categories of verbs exist.

In Kaqchikel, that will be the following (at least to a first approximation):

  • Transitive verbs versus intransitive verbs
  • Verbs that start with consonants versus verbs that start with vowels

This is a very language-specific thing. Autrement dit: you have to do this for every language. In Spanish, the classes would be different:

  • Verbs that end with -ar in the infinitive, versus ones that end with -er and ones that end with -ir
  • Verbs that are regular in the tense that you’re learning, versus verbs that are irregular in that tense

In French, there would be so many categories that if a student working on an undescribed language told me that “their” language worked that way, I would tell them to go away and come back when they could prove it, ’cause languages like French just are not all that plausible. (The only similar one that I can think of is Dinka–1.3 million speakers in Sudan and South Sudan.)

Back to Kaqchikel… We’ll start with the intransitive verbs. (Left to my own devices, I prefer to start with transitive verbs, but the textbook that I’m using starts with the intransitives, and I’m gonna bet that the people who wrote the textbook known a hell of a lot more about how to learn Kaqchikel than I do.) The other thing that matters to us today is whether the verb starts with a consonant or with a vowel, and here I genuinely have no preferences, so we’ll start with the verbs that begin with consonants, just like the textbook does.)

Step Two: Pick a “person.”

I’m gonna start with the first person singular, i.e. “I,” because I know that that’s what my teacher will ask me about first. I am actually a fan of the third-person singular, i.e. “he/she/it,” when (trying to) learn a language where that’s a regular one. (The third person singular is not necessarily regular in any commonly understood sense of that word. It’s not difficult to find languages with over a dozen forms for the third person singular. Swahili (50-100 million speakers in East Africa–Swahili is so widely used as a lingua franca that it is difficult to know who to count as a speaker) is a common one, and has about 15, plus some more for plurals.)


So, the first-person singular of consonant-initial intransitive verbs: the marker is the prefix yi-. To practice it, I will put together a table like the following. The first row gives an example of what I need to do. You read it like this: when prompted with the verb wär, which means ‘sleep,’ add rïn yi- to it to make rïn yiwär, ‘I sleep.’ Then I have six repetitions. For each one, I cover up the answer, then do the thing, then uncover the answer to check whether I got it write. (Ummmm: right. Damn homophones…) Ready? Let’s do this shit!

Example: wär (sleep)rïn yiwär
xajon (dance)rïn yixajon
b’e (go)rïn yib’e
tz’iban (write)rïn yitz’iban
tzijon (to talk)rïn yitzijon
käm (to die)rïn yikäm
k’ask’o’ (to recover from an illness)rïn yik’ask’o’

You see the system? Now I’ll try the second-person singular, i.e. “you.” This time, we’re going to add rat ya-.

Example: wärrat yawär
xajonrat yaxajon
b’erat yab’e
tz’ibanrat yatz’iban
tzijonrat yatzijon
kämrat yakäm
k’ask’o’rat yak’ask’o’
Second person singular present tense, vowel-initial intransitive verbs

Now it’s time to mix the two together:

rïn/wärrïn yiwär
rïn/b’e (go)rïn yi’b’e
rat/b’e (go)rat ya’b’e
rïn/tzijon (talk)rïn yitzijon
rat/tz’ib’an (write)rat yatz’ib’an
rïn/käm (die)rïn yikäm
rat/k’ask’o’ (recover from an illness)rat yak’ask’o’

…and, then we add in the third-person singular, and we’re done for the day–plurals can wait until tomorrow. If you don’t want to slog through those with me, I’ll just point you towards these videos on the conjugation of intransitive verbs in Kaqchikel–if you do want to do some slogging, page down past the video links!

Videos about intransitive verb conjugation in Kaqchikel:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1Yzi6IFcec

Videos about intransitive verb conjugation in Kaqchikel:

The picture at the top of this post shows eight Kaqchikel women from the village of San Marcos La Laguna, in the Lake Atitlán region. They were recipients of a micro-loan that enabled them to go into business selling the fabric that they make at home. Their clothes are the everyday wear of Kaqchikel women in that area. Picture source: here.

How computational linguists think about birds

Ask A Computational Linguist: Do “talking” birds have a catalogue of phonemes that they can and can’t (or do and don’t) say?

Zipf,


While listening to our budgie, Tucker, declaim last night, I realized that although he parrots English, he doesn’t say any words with “th.”
Do similarly verbal species, like African grays, have a catalogue of phonemes that they can and can’t (or do and don’t) say?

BTW, I watched a cute video on YouTube of a budgie from Japan. It’s immediately clear that he’s parroting Japanese, not English, just from the sounds. You could probably tell me why.

Jeff

In lieu of my normal English notes, I have added links to the definitions of the various and sundry low-frequency words in this post.

Jeff,

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any reason that a “verbal” bird would be unable to produce any sound.  My recollection from grad school is that their mechanism of “talking” works very much like that of a speaker, so within the limits of engineering, I can’t think of any limits.  Two questions come to mind for me:


1. Perception on the part of the parrot: to reproduce something, they presumably need to be able to hear it, which moves the area of discussion from the presence or absence of productive capabilities to the question of the presence or absence of perceptual abilities. Especially relevant in that th-sounds are of pretty low amplitude, so they fall into the category of sounds that you might be unlikely to be able to perceive, if you indeed had limits on perception, be they related to the anatomy of your ears or to what your brain does to process sounds.
2. Perception on the part of the human: it is within the realm of possibility that the bird is making the sound in question, but that the humans in the room aren’t hearing it.  
Finally: here is a delightful paper on mynahs.  More specifically: on one mynah, which points you toward my skepticism about the general state of research on verbal birds. 

–Zipf

Some relevant videos from Jeff:

A budgie speaking Japanese

One speaking Russian

A collection of similar videos for miscellaneous languages

Incidentally, in A budgie speaking Japanese… One speaking Russian, the “one” is an instance of what is called “one anaphora.”

I’ll shut up now.

The picture at the top of this post shows the location of the syrinx, the organ that “talking” birds use to produce their vocalizations. It is from this blog post on the Those with Pycnofibres blog.