The 2007 Smiley Award Winner: Teonaht

The 2007 Smiley Award is presented to Teonaht, a personal language created by Sally Caves. Congratulations to Sally and the elusive Teonim!

Smiley Award 2007

The Origin of Teonaht

If you're a conlanger, you probably know the story of Teonaht. For the uninitiated, gather 'round, and I shall tell you a tale!

Teonaht came to Sally Caves in the form of a kitten, of whom we have no pictures, but which probably (read: probably not) looked like this.


Sally received her first kitten at five, and began to dream of a race of winged felines called feleonim. To accompany these fantastic beings, Sally dreamt of a language, what we know of today as Teonaht. Aside from the fact that this grew out of the brain of a five year old (at five the most linguistically creative thing I did was name my stuffed beaver "Sollay"—an unexpectedly not-very-English-sounding variation on the name "Solley" I'd heard on television), this wouldn't be notable. Like most first-time languages, it was crude and unsophisticated, and probably had more than its share of English. But unlike most language creators, Sally didn't abandon her project. No indeed. Being introduced to Spanish at age nine, she continued to work with and expand Teonaht, putting the details down on paper for the first time.

And since then? Well, it's been more than forty years, and not only is Teonaht still around, it's gorgeous. If you haven't taken a look at it yet, now's as good a time as any to take a gander.

The Teonaht Language

As a language, Teonaht features several linguistic traits language enthusiasts and conlangers will find familiar. To wit:

  • Word Order: OSV (with SOV as a stylistic variant).
  • Alignment: Accusative (though with a split nominative system).
  • Headedness: Mixed (OV, PrepN, NA, GN~NG).
  • Case Type: Mixture of articles and affixes.
  • Cases: Agentive, Participatory, Accusative/Oblique, Genitive.
  • Gender: Present on pronouns, some animal nouns, and some borrowings.
  • Number: Singular/Plural (nouns); Singular/Dual/Plural (pronouns).
  • Tense: Past/Present/Future.
  • Orthography: Elegant.
  • Romanization: ?!

And here are a couple sample sentences:

  • Li betõ tabllysan.
    /the-PRT. boy weep/
    "The boy weeps."
  • Il mabbamba le betõ htesa.
    /the-ACC. ball the-AGT. boy chase/
    "The boy chases the ball."

(Note: Here, tense is "marked" by a reduction of morphological complexity. The non-finite forms of "weep" and "chase" are tablysaned and htesarem, respectively.)

The sentences above showcase the tripartite system Teonaht employs. And though that's a bit unusual, most of us in the language game have seen features like these before. Even if one had never seen this combination of features in a single language, the information presented thus far seems fairly plausible.

Enter the Law of Detachability!

Teonaht Qua Teonaht: Aesthetics

Any linguist who looks at the Law of Detachability is likely to laugh. What is it, you ask? Simply one of the most distinctive features of Teonaht. This is how it works.

Let's say we have the Teonaht verb teprorem, "to touch". Now let's say were talking about some dude, and something he touched a couple days ago. Minus the thing, you'd have o teproel, "he touched". Fine so far. Via the Law of Detachability, provided the pronoun is non-dual (something any typologist would approve of), the suffix on the verb -el can detach, and float not just to the front of the verb, but to the front of the pronoun, giving us elo tepro, "he touched".

Do suffixes detach? Sure. Case suffixes and their nouns in the Finno-Ugric family frequently split up and get back together (and, yes, the children are scarred for life). Do they randomly stand up and become prefixes? Prefixes for other words, no less? "Foul!" cry the linguists in unison!

This is why I think linguists make the worst linguists.

One of the problems with linguistic typology and linguistic universals is the idea of naturalness. If you see phenomenon X in a natural language, and you know it wasn't engineered or borrowed, then one is forced to say that X is a natural change/occurrence in human language. Well and good. Unfortunately, this leads many to believe that if you have not seen pheomenon Y in a natural language, it means that Y is not a natural change/occurrence in human language. When evaluating a conlang, this leads to a particular type of criticism—specifically, "I haven't heard of Y occurring in a natural language, so Y is unnatural; you should abandon it." In other words, the absence of evidence is the evidence of absence.

Making matters worse is the "preponderance of evidence" myth. Let me start with an extreme example to show you what I mean. In English, the subject comes before the verb. In Spanish, the subject comes before the verb. In German, the subject comes before the verb. In fact, in Italian, Rumanian, French and Portuguese, the subject comes before the verb. This means that in a human language, the subject will always come before the verb.

What's wrong with this? A number of things:

  1. In typology 101, the very first thing you learn is how to build a good sample. The languages I sampled above are all Indo-European. It's ridiculous to say that based on looking at English, French, Spanish and German, I can predict how Japanese, Northern Sámi, and Dyirbal will work.
  1. You have to know your phenomenon. One of the reasons linguists are primarily interested in the order of the object and the verb (and not the subject and the verb) is that: (a) more languages have objects than subjects (i.e., the subject in English is not the same thing as the subject in Basque); and (b) even with a language, subject placement is far more variable than object placement.
  1. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that we looked at every language on Earth, and that in every language on Earth, the subject came before the verb. Can we thus conclude that in all natural languages the subject must precede the verb? How about in all learnable languages? In all naturalistic languages?

The typology dances around a simple fact that linguists (and conlangers) have to live with: Thus far, there is no reliable metric for naturalness. Is sound change X natural? Give me a context, and I'll give you a guess. What's that? I said I'd stake my career on that sound change being impossible, and you just pulled up a natural language that exhibited exactly that sound change? Guess I was wrong. Oh well. Add that example to the memory bank, and I'll try to guess better next time. And that's about the extent of it.

Back to conlanging, how can you tell if a feature is natural? Linguists don't have to worry about this; they can continue their march towards better guesswork. We conlangers, though, have to worry about our languages, because they mean something. What is it to a linguist if Pirahã exists? "That sounds totally fake," says the skeptic. Says the linguist, "Yeah, doesn't it?" But in a world where Pirahã doesn't exist, imagine the conlanger who created it. "I just made up a language with no temporal vocabulary or tense whatsoever, no number system, and a culture of people who have no oral history, no art, and no appreciation for storytelling. Oh, yeah, and the language can just as easily be whistled, hummed or drummed as spoken. Oh, and the men and women have different phonologies. Oh yeah, and it's spoken in an area with a dominant language, but nobody speaks it, because they think their language is the best. Oh yeah, and it's supposed to be a naturalistic language." Suddenly when someone counters and says, "That sounds totally fake," the conlanger is put on the defensive, because they do have to account for it—in other words, "Yeah, doesn't it?" isn't going to fly.

So what to do? The answer is simple, really. What do we do with our own language? We can tell right off the bat whether something sounds right or wrong, natural or unnatural, sensible or nonsensical. Is it because of a Universal Grammar lurking in our brains that tell us what is right and wrong, what we can and can't do with language? Hardly. Just ask a native English and native Spanish speaker (or, even better, a full bilingual) about the following sentences:

  1. Who are you talking with?
  2. ¿Quién hablas con?

Find the most prescriptivist monolingual native English speaker and they will not find the first sentence as nonsensical as the most permissive monolingual native Spanish speaker will find the second sentence—even though they're essentially identical, the second being a word-for-word translation of the first.

In the end, what is one to do? It would seem to me that an argument for naturalness must come from within. A speaker of a given language hears sentences from the day they are born, and even before that. They (the sentences) saunter in, and the speaker stores them, and flags them. Is the sentence correct? Incorrect? Humorous? Nonsensical? Nonstandard? Whatever it is, it fits in. The more sentences we accumulate, the more adept we become at labeling new data. Sentence Y comes in, it appears to be analogous to sentence X in our database, and so we accept it as being a part of the category we've assigned to X. If data comes along later that forces us to revise our analysis, we do so. If not, the category becomes stronger.

Ironically, this is exactly what typologists do with phenomena. The problem lies in the fact that they try to draw analogies between systems that are not shared by a single community. Sure, I, a native English speaker, am a part of the "human family" that encompasses speakers of Dyirbal, but I've neither met nor spoken to a speaker of Dyirbal, and I doubt if I ever will in my entire life. Should I be a part of the linguistic community of Dyirbal speakers? Is the fact that we both bleed blood and draw breath enough to assume that we conceptualize language in basically the same way? And is that, then, enough to assume that all possible language is also the same?

So let's talk about Teonaht. Sure, the Law of Detachability looks bizarre. It could never exist in English. Or Spanish. Or even Turkish. (Actually, especially not Turkish.) And perhaps it could not exist in any of the natural languages spoken currently on Earth, or at any point in time in the past. Is that enough to say that it could not exist in Teonaht? Hardly.

With a conlang, one must argue for naturalness. You can do so with a natural language, too, but most don't, since they don't have to (it exists, so it's natural; end of story [unenlightening as that may be]). So let's take a look at Teonaht. Here are some data that jump out to me:

  • With non-dual pronouns, there are two forms for each verb: one where the pronoun is an independent word, and one where it's prefixed to the verb, e.g., ly tepro, lyttepro "she touches". As adverbs can come in between the pronoun and the verb, one is forced to say that the pronoun is separate. But is it? Is there an answer?
  • The genitive has a couple of forms. First, either the possessee can come before the possessor, or the possessor can come before the possessee, e.g. dibbetõ kyam or kyam betõid "a boy's book". In addition, when the possessor precedes the possessee, the genitive prefix can appear forwards or backwards, e.g. dibbetõ kyam or idbbetõ kyam "a boy's book".
  • Sally writes a note about a typographical oddity of Teonaht. Most of the time, when a noun takes a plural prefix, it attaches to the noun, but occasionally, it appears as the suffix on a preceding article, e.g., li nihhtindro and lini htindro "the songs".
  • Teonaht exhibits both head-initial and head-final features—sometimes within the same section of the grammar.
  • Regarding Teonaht itself, it seems to be constantly fighting between strongly head-final Old Teonaht, and increasingly innovative modern (or current) Teonaht. And Teonaht itself seems to work with/against an entirely different language: Nenddeylyt. Teonaht has no gender system, but Nenddeylyt does. Since so many Nenddeylyt nouns are a part of Teonaht, that means that, really, Teonaht does have a gender system. Or does it?
  • Stepping outside of language, consider this excerpt from Sally's description of Teon (emphasis added): "[Teon is] a region that surfaces and submerges most often within the Black Sea, sometimes the Caspian. It is surmised that the Teonim are perhaps from the Caucasus, or...from somewhere else entirely" (Caves, 1998).

In other words, what we have here is a language that at its very core has a strong and overriding theme of unresolved duality: a language built on simultaneously existing opposites. It would be all too easy to say, "X is the old way; Y is the new way", or "X is used in context Z; Y is used elsewhere". Intentionally or not, that doesn't seem to be what's going on here. As a result, a major pattern of the Teonaht language that, it would seem to me, would be accessible to any native speaker, is static instability. The duality is so persistent that I'd bet it could be used as a basis for analogy. With so many tokens, who's to say that any suffix that comes into the language won't detach and show up somewhere else? As long as the move isn't permanent, it would seem that a speaker of Teonaht could handle it.

So is the Law of Detachability natural? I would argue yes. Find me every natural language on Earth, and show me that none of them do it—or even show me a language where such things do happen—and I will maintain that this phenomenon is natural, because the logic of the language itself argues for it. And, may I say, it's this level of naturalness—this level of internal consistency and interpredictability—that any created language should aim to achieve, natural or otherwise.

The Artistry of Teonaht

One cannot glance through Sally's pages without coming across her artwork. The art is intimately intertwined with the presentation of the language, and, one surmises, intricately involved with the language itself. If language creation can be a mode of artistic expression, Sally shows it with Teonaht.

To give you an example of what I mean, head on over to this page on Sally's site, for a drawing she's done of a city of Teon (see just the picture here). (I'm forced to say "drawing" because it wasn't painted, but why does a "drawing" sound like less of an achievement than a "painting"? If one works exclusively in pastels, is one less of an artist? But that's another matter...) Chicken or egg arguments aside, the art and the language work together to present the reader/viewer with an idea, and I think it comes across rather well. In all honesty, it's rather refreshing, given all the text-based conlang sites that exist (not that there's anything wrong with that, of course). And I certainly can't get enough of this fancy cat.

Fancy cat!

I would, of course, be remiss if I didn't mention Le Renuon Teonaht, the script in which Teonaht is written. You can see some of it in the picture I linked to above, along with an image of the entire alphabet here. I've always been surprised at how adept Sally is at writing in the script, based on the samples I've seen. To me, it looks like a rather difficult script to write in (of course, I never did master English cursive...). What always fascinates me is that every sample I've ever seen of Teonaht has been written by hand by Sally. Contrast that with my scripts, and I'd wager that few people, if any, have seen me write in any of my scripts (save this one), so dependent am I upon my fonts (indeed, I have never once ever written anything in this script by hand. I designed it on the computer, and have only ever used the font). That in itself vivifies the script in ways only time and use can.

All in all, the artistic effect of Teonaht is unique, and unmistakable. It certainly does what it intends to, and that is admirable.

How Teonaht Has Made Me Smile

Did I mention how much I like this fancy cat?

Fancy cat!

If I may be serious for a moment, though (not that I'm joking about the cat, 'cause I'm not), let me tell you the one thing about Teonaht that has impressed me more than anything else. If you scroll up (or click here, if you don't want to strain your mousing finger), note again at what age Sally got her first kitten. Five. That's when Teonaht was born. Teonaht is older than me—much older (though it's not getting any mucher, if you parse that the way I do). Perhaps that wouldn't be impressive if Teonaht were like Megdevi, my first conlang. One day it (Megdevi) will be fifty years old, but given that I only worked on it for about a year, those other forty-nine will have added nothing to it but virtual dust. Teonaht, on the other hand, has been living and growing since Sally's kitten days—and it shows no signs of waning. In the meantime, Sally has lived a life: languages, Ph.D., a career, other hobbies, taxes, traffic jams—all that stuff. And yet, Teonaht has grown, and continues to grow.

When I decided I wanted to be a professional skateboarder, my parents laughed, and said it was just a phase. And it was. When I decided I wanted to devote my life to Taekwondo, I'm sure there were those who chuckled. And even though I got a black belt, everyone knew it was just a phase. And it was. The way we live our lives now, I know that you, whoever you are, know what this is like. We're allowed our dreams, as long as they're phases. We're allowed to be as passionate and obsessive as we want, for a time. It doesn't take long to pick up on the pattern. And when you do, you're left wondering if passion is worth anything at all—if dreams are worth anything at all. If it's true that our lives are nothing but a photo album divided into phases, then what's the point? Sure, you may be fascinated by the guitar today, but one day you won't be, so why even start? Why waste the time and the money and the emotional involvement? Why not just figure out the way you're going to end up collecting paychecks for the rest of your life, and then give up and get a head start, so you can hit retirement early and collect on some social security before it too becomes just another bygone phase?

Before you launch yourself off the top of a skyscraper, consider Sally. Early Teonaht could easily have been written off as a phase, and no one would have thought twice about it. In fact, Sally herself could have written off Teonaht each time her knowledge of language expanded, as I did with my first language, but she didn't. Teonaht not only survived, it flourished. And consider that Sally grew up well before the days of the internet. Someone like me (and anyone from here on out) will never know what it's like to be a language creator in a bubble. With no support—no cheering section, no co-conspirators—it would have been absurdly easy and understandable if Sally had abandoned Teonaht at pretty much any point in time in her life. But she didn't. Not college, not grad. school, not a career, nothing kept Sally from living her life with Teonaht. In my eyes, it's nothing short of inspiring.

We're all human, and life is busy, but if even one person can manage to hold onto their dream, there's hope for all of us—even if we happen to indulge in creating languages for no justifiable purpose. For that reason, and many more, I take my hat off to Sally Caves, and am proud to award the 2007 Smiley Award to Teonaht. Long live the Teonim!

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