Pop culture

Topicalization in The Witcher 3 and in Scandinavian

I’ve recently started playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015),  a videogame set in a fantasy world where you’re paid to help people with whatever they’re having issues with. And their issues can vary a lot. One of the missions in the game is that of the Pellar, a soothsayer who can speak to the dead. Among other things, you can help the Pellar and his supporters raise the dead at Forefather’s Eve.

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The Pellar (image source)

Being a character who spends a lot of time either alone, praying or speaking to the dead, the Pellar has a peculiar way of speaking. Here are some quotes from the game:

  • Across the lake we must journey.
  • There, in the circle of stones, we shall meet.
  • Beyond all help, some will be.

To some extent he is using Yoda language in that he, at least in the first and third example, “fronts” the predicate. It doesn’t seem like the Pellar uses Yoda language as a standard, however. He often uses standard English SVO constructions as well, which made me start wondering why I was so perplexed by his way of speaking. What this reminds me of is topicalization in the Scandinavian languages.

Since Mainland Scandinavian languages, like English, do not have overt Case marking for common nouns, it is strictly SVO, meaning that the standard sentence structure consists of the subject, followed by the verb and then the (potential) direct object or other arguments. Old Norse, with its overt Case marking, has constructions in which declarative clauses are verb-initial, meaning that a construction like ‘eat you food’ could mean ‘you eat food’ (see Haugen, 2001). Later on the V2 rule would end up being fairly strict in all Scandinavian languages, stating that in declarative clauses, the finite verb is the second element to appear. Scandinavian has left behind verb-initial declarative clauses (as far as I know).

The fact that Mainland Scandinavian syntax tends to be so rigid is one of the reasons why it’s so interesting that it so easily allows for topicalization, arguably more so than English. Consider the following sentence:

(1)    Hunden  jagar    katten.                                                 [Norwegian]

dog.DEF chases cat.DEF

The construction in (1) is ambiguous in writing, and it could mean either that the dog is chasing the cat or that the cat is chasing the dog. In spoken language topicalized elements are stressed, clarifying that the first constituent is not the subject as would normally be expected. In English, you could make a construction like The cat, the dog chases, but this is marginal, and it isn’t ambiguous due to the lack of V2. The topicalization of adverbials is much more regular in English. Sentences like the Pellar’s Across the lake we must journey is an example of this.

Topicalization often has the effect of putting focus on a certain constituent over the focus that the subject normally would have. What’s interesting about the Pellar’s use of topicalization, then, is that he does it regardless of focus. In Beyond all help, some will be, the point isn’t that some will be ‘beyond all help, among other things’. In the way that the Pellar is saying these sentences, they seem to have the same meaning as Some will be beyond all help in standard English. The Pellar is topicalizing without changing the focus, which makes it seem incredibly unnatural and makes us as players feel off about him.

Let me know if you have any thoughts about the Pellar, or topicalization, or both! See also my other post about constituents and linearity in Heptapod.

Pop culture

Constituency and linearity in Heptapod

The constructed language created for Arrival (2016) may be just a tiny bit more human-like than you would think.

I know what you’re thinking: “But Arrival was released in cinemas two years ago!” I didn’t have a linguistics blog two years ago, so here’s my contribution to one aspect of the linguistic details featured in the movie.

And if you’re one of those people thinking, “But Heptapod isn’t even a real language!” I know, but let’s imagine for a second that it is.

For those of you who haven’t yet watched Arrival, the plot can be summarized as follows: the linguist and polyglot Louise Banks is asked to help develop an interpretive method for communicating with the so-called Heptapods, a species of aliens who mysteriously came to Earth and don’t seem to be using any human-like means of communication.

The movie is great because it’s one of the only high-budget, award-winning movie whose protagonist is a linguistics professor. What this does is make the study of linguistics more accessible to the general public and inspire more young people to embark on linguistics studies. While the movie definitely has its flaws, especially by assuming the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, is a topic for a different post.

But let’s assume for a second that Sapir and Whorf are right, and that the language you speak entirely shapes your perception of the world. Speaking Heptapod will make you see all of time simultaneously. Your entire timeline is put out in front of you, and this is because you master a language in which all separate elements occur at the same time. How does this compare to natural languages?

This is where constituents come in. If you’re new to syntax, let me give you a general, minimalist intro à la Adger (2012). You can also listen to the Lingthusiasm podcast if you want more explanation here.

Each word makes up a constituent of its own. In a tree representation, this is what that would look like:

(1)car

Constituency is marked in the syntax tree through phrases. If we add a determiner, we have a constituent at a higher level.

(2)the car

This type of representation of constituents accounts for the fact that some combinations of words may be moved around, while others can’t. This can be exemplified through wh-questions. Consider a context in which A asks B what they did yesterday, and what they did was to eat pizza. (4-a) shows an acceptable response, while (4-b) sounds off.

(3) A: What did you do yesterday?

(4) a) B: Eat pizza.

b) B: #Pizza.

The reason why (4-b) sounds weirder than (4-a) can be explained by what it is that what replaces, namely a verb phrase. The role of B is then to fill in the gap left by the wh-word. This makes it sound weird when B replaces the VP gap with an NP.

Now, back to Arrival. The idea of constituents is important to consider because it puts emphasis on the fact that languages are not linear. Even though, when we talk, one word has to come before the other, that’s not necessarily how the structure is organized in our head. The way we move constituents tells us that syntactic structures are hierarchical rather than linear. So my question is: is Heptapod hierarchical? That is, does Heptapod have constituents?

Actually testing movement in the language is impossible, since it’s not actually a language. Some clues appear in the movie, though.

Arrival8-1

The written language of Heptapod was created by software designer Stephen Wolfram and his son, Christopher Wolfram. The program used by Louise in the movie to decode and create new sentences in the language divided each circle into twelve sections. Here’s some more information about the logograms, if you’re interested. It appears that each section may contain several subsections, too, at least in the code, but the way Louise uses the software in the movie makes it look like each section represents a word or concept.

arrival

While Louise is using the software, she picks out three symbols, reading out ‘give’, ‘technology’ and ‘now’. I think it’s fair to assume that each of the twelve sections of the circle represents a constituent. Whether ‘give’ in Heptapod is just one word, or whether that is just the English translation of a constituent including the verb to give with the imperative interpretation, does not make a difference in terms of whether it is a single constituent. The main difference between Heptapod and natural languages then seems to be that instead of having a hierarchical structure, Heptapod has the entire sentence produced or interpreted at once.

As far as I can tell, there is no hierarchy within the constituents, either: only loose words or concepts attached to it. Here is one example of the constituent structure within the software programmed by the Wolframs:

Arrival7-1

If anyone has any idea what sort of hierarchy or internal structure these constituents could have, I would very much be interested in hearing your thoughts. But for now I think I’ve established that Heptapod does have constituents, though not hierarchical like in natural languages, which is what makes it so weird and (supposedly) changes speakers’ view of space and time. But what do I know.

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If you enjoyed this post, you may be interested in reading my article about interesting syntactic and sociolinguistic aspects of Klingon, Dothraki and Sindarin which was published in the Norwegian students’ journal Riss this year. You can find out how to order a copy of the journal here. (The article is in Norwegian, though.)

About the blog

The name of the site and the plan for future posts

Welcome to my page! I hope you find something of interest here in the near future.

My name is Charlotte Sant and I am currently doing an MA in Comparative Syntax and Semantics at the University of York. My main interests lie in syntactic and semantic differences between Scandinavian and English. The name of my WordPress site, Very Sant, comes from the fact that my surname means ‘true’ in Norwegian. The name also includes what’s called scaling, or intensifying, in semantics, when a word like very affects an adjective in phrases like very cool (in Norwegian, for some reason, it also may intensify nouns, but that’s a topic for another post).

I think my interest in linguistics started when I was growing up bilingual, speaking Danish at home and Norwegian in school. Very early on, I started thinking about why the pronunciation, conjugation and vocabulary varied sometimes but not at other times. This interest was enhanced when I did English, German and French in school and learned more about how languages may differ in interesting ways. Although I’ve always enjoyed thinking about pronunciation differences, my main interest always lay in the syntactic and semantic variation and why this variation may exist.

The goal of this page is to try to make syntax and semantics more approachable to people who may not be used to this way of viewing language. I will be writing about English, Norwegian and possibly other phenomena that I think are interesting, and that I hope you will find interesting too!