Citation Form

I got a question from Hrakkar which begins:

This thread brings up a good question: What is ‘lexical form’ for Dothraki?

To read the full question, go here. Basically, I think there’s two questions here:

  1. What is the citation or dictionary form of a given Dothraki word?
  2. What is the bare stem in Dothraki?

I’ll try to answer both questions.

To begin to answer both of them, first I’ll go over how the language is built. There are many different ways to build a language (and by “build” here I don’t mean construct so much as build up, or flesh out), and I’ve used different methods for different languages. Two different methods can be illustrated by glancing at the dictionaries of two of my other languages: Kamakawi and Zhyler.

Kamakawi is a language that is largely isolating with some agglutination. There’s no stem-internal alternation, and its writing system is glyphic and isolating (somewhat akin to Egyptian hieroglyphs). As such, each word kind of stands on its own. There are relationships between words, of course, but since many word forms can be used as verbs, nouns or adjectives, listing words separately makes more sense than listing them together. Here’s a sample of a page from my Kamakawi dictionary:

Part of a page from the Kamakawi dictionary.

Click to enlarge.

As you can see, in Kamakawi’s dictionary a single word is used as the head of each entry, and related words that differ in form get a new entry.

Zhyler is quite different. The script is alphabetic (and was meant to approximate the appearance of Latin), and Zhyler words (both verbs and nouns) are built off of a number of noun classes. Consequently, a single root will have somewhere between 3 and 17 forms associated with it whose phonological form is predictable, and whose meaning is often partially predictable. Here’s a sample of the dictionary that’s about the same size as the Kamakawi sample:

A sample of the Zhyler dictionary.

Click to enlarge.

Each root, then, gets its own entry, and words derived from that root (usually via noun class suffix) is listed under that entry. The idea for this type of dictionary came from Arabic, whose dictionaries are ordered alphabetically by triconsonantal root (which, if you know Arabic, makes a lot of sense).

As I think I mentioned somewhere, Dothraki is built in the same way Zhyler is (I like to think of Dothraki as being run on a Zhyler engine). Even though the languages are radically different, I flesh Dothraki out in the same way I flesh Zhyler out: by starting with a root and deriving words from it.

The reason this works well for me is that even though Dothraki doesn’t have noun classes the way Zhyler does (Zhyler has 17; Dothraki nouns, rather, fall into one of two broad classes: animate or inanimate), separate word forms tend to look different from one another, and are built in unpredictable ways. This is on account of Dothraki’s “pseudo-classes”, as I like to call them. Final vowels in Dothraki often serve no function other than to distinguish words from one another (one can easily imagine them dropping off some time in the future, as many word-final central vowels did previously).

Here’s one quick example using the root em:

  • emat (v.A) to smile
  • eme (ni.A) smile

A smile is, undoubtedly, related to the verb “smile” in some logical way. The final vowel -e though doesn’t define a process that takes one from a verb to a noun that describes an instance of a particular verb: It’s just a vowel used with this particular root for that function. Here, for example, are two other roots where this pattern doesn’t hold. First, the root yanqo:

  • yanqolat (v.A) to gather, to collect
  • yanqokh (ni.A) collection

That latter is a particular collection of something, not the act of collecting something. The next root is gach:

  • gachat (v.A) to figure out, to solve
  • gache (ni.A) place, environs

Many of these final vowels for inanimate nouns, then, form these pseudo-classes that have nothing in common with each other other than form (though there are patterns that hold if one considers a subset of the lexicon). By grouping such words under a single root, one can see how a given root has been fleshed out, and a single word will often make more sense in the context of its root than outside that context.

Another reason grouping words together by root makes more sense for Dothraki is that often words are not derived from one another, but derived directly from the root. As such, related words may have definitions that don’t look anything alike. By grouping them under the root, it’s easy to see that, ultimately, they come from the same source.

In my response to Hrakkar‘s comment I said this was going to be quick, so I’d better wrap this up. So now that we’ve seen what the dictionary looks like, more or less, I can answer the first question I posed above. In Dothraki, the various word types have the following citation forms:

  • Nouns: nominative singular.
  • Adjectives: singular uninflected.
  • Verbs: infinitive.
  • Other: maximal form.

That latter really only applies to prepositions like ma which can appear as m’ if they occur before a word that begins with a vowel. Anyway, those are the citation forms for each word, but they don’t tell the whole story. It’s important that (in my dictionary, at least) words are listed with their associated roots. Consider the following verbs (in their infinitive forms):

  • hoyalat (v.A) to sing
  • indelat (v.A) to drink

One of these roots ends in a vowel; the other ends in l. Can you tell which is which? Absent of some other mechanism (like a hyphen or a period), there’s no way. However, if you know the root of hoyalat is hoyal and the root of indelat is inde, then by simply having the infinitive, one can fill out the rest of the verbal paradigm.

Aside from that, the reason I chose the infinitive as the citation form for verbs is that it’s fairly stable. In most cases, the singular past tense of a verb will be the simplest form of the verb, but it will often look like another word form (for example, haqe is an adjective which means “tired”; it’s also the past tense singular of the verb haqat, which means “to be tired”). For that reason, it makes more sense to use the infinitive which will (almost) always be unique.

Other languages, though, do things differently. In Arabic, for example, the citation form of the verb is always the third person singular masculine past tense. That may seem downright absurd unless you know what verbs in Arabic look like. Here’s a partial paradigm of kataba, “to write”:

Present Tense Past Tense
‘aktub “I write” naktub “we write” katabtuu “I wrote” katabnaa “we wrote”
taktub “you(m.) write” taktubuun “you( write” katabta “you(m.) wrote” katabtum “you( wrote”
taktubiin “you(f.) write” taktubna “you( write” katabti “you(f.) wrote” katabtunna “you( wrote”
yaktub “he writes” yaktubuun “they(m.) write” kataba “he wrote” katabuu “they(m.) wrote”
taktub “she writes” yaktubna “they(f.) write” katabat “she wrote” katabna “they(f.) wrote”

Bearing in mind that the non-finite forms for a verb in Arabic often look radically different going from verb to verb, the third person masculine singular past tense form (which, given Arabic’s writing system, is written with just the three consonants of the root) is the obvious choice for representing the verb—plus, that form (CaCaCa, where C stands for a consonant) doesn’t occur anywhere else in the language (say, as a noun). It was made for dictionaries.

For Dothraki (to finish up the discussion of verbs), if you don’t list the root, it’s probably best to set off the infinitive suffix from the root (e.g. and Since Hrakkar brought up the Dothraki vocabulary list on the wiki, though, one can achieve the same effect by also listing the past tense singular form of the verb. The reason is that the past tense will be either the bare root, or the bare root plus -e. By comparing the infinitive and the past tense, then, one will know for sure what the root is.

For nouns, in addition to knowing whether a noun is animate or inanimate, one will also need to know a couple pieces of extra information (for some nouns, at least). For inanimate nouns ending in a vowel, there are two broad classes which I call A and B. Class A nouns lose their final vowel in the accusative; class B nouns take an -e in the accusative. Certain other nouns will have a modified accusative form (so the accusative of tolorro, “bone”, is tolor).

And (a bit of new information), there are also a very small number of irregular animate nouns. These nouns all end in i (actually a vowel followed by i). These take vowel-final animate noun case endings in all cases, but in the accusative, the i becomes a y. One noun like this is mai, “mother” (so the nominative plural is maisi, but the accusative plural is mayes).

All right, this short response has gotten unruly and taken up much more space than I intended, so I will cut it off here. If you have questions about any of the above, feel free to ask in the comments. If you’ve read this far, you’re a real davrasok. Hajas!

Posted on October 2, 2011, in Conlanging and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Should so the nominative plural is maisi, but the accusative plural is mayes be so the nominative plural is maisi, but the accusative singular is mayes and accusative plural is mayis?

  2. Thank you, David, for that answer. Now I understand a little more about how dictionaries are supposed to work.

    So, from what I can understand here, there is considerable value in displaying the stem form of a word in the dictionary, and this field should be added. I also get the impression that the A or B (and maybe an I for irregular) should be added as you show it in your examples, for inanimate nouns.

    • Well, that’s not the be all and end all of dictionaries: it depends on what you need it for. For my dictionary, arranging it by stem makes the most sense and works best for me. In a language like Latin, where primitives rather infrequently change class, it makes sense to treat the head word, rather than the root, as the head of the entry.

      For a usage dictionary (say, Dothraki-English and English-Dothraki), listing words in alphabetical order is probably of more value to the user than listing roots in alphabetical order. The reason is you’re probably going to be working from some sort of text with a set of words one needs to look up. In that case, you need to find the word itself; you don’t want to have to bother with figuring out its stem (which can be difficult, sometimes). If you use an alphabetical dictionary, though, that shifts a greater burden onto the entries themselves (i.e. separating the root from the endings, etc.).

  3. The stem form of dictionary is also used a lot for Bible study tools. One good example is the Greek Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. In that work, they examine all uses of a given stem word in the culture of the times, and then all the derivatives in Biblical usage. Heavy reading but always fascinating! That was brought to mind, as your Zhyler dictionary example looks a lot like a page out of the TDNT.

    You bring up a good point about the Dothraki dictionary on being a usage dictionary, as opposed to a study dictionary, or one used for new word creation. Not having to list stems saves a lot of work! But that said, I will keep the intended use of the dictionary in mind, and perhaps let the Dothraki wiki dictionary be the more scholarly one.

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