Glyph of the word 'mano'.


  • (n.) donkey

Ka etea ei i mano kiko!
“I petted a donkey today!”

Notes: Remember yesterday how I mentioned I’d met a couple donkeys? Well, of course I had to get a picture of it.

Me petting Donkey Xote.


What could be more exciting than greeting a charming animal? And I got to greet two of them! :D

This one’s name is Donkey Xote (or maybe just Don Quixote…? I only heard it; didn’t see it spelled), and, of course, his female companion is Dulcinea. (Sylvia asked of the caretaker, “Not Sancho Panza?” and she replied, “No. That’s the feral cat that hangs around here.”) They were quite amiable, even while being petted. It was a red letter day! :)

Couple things about this word. First, it doesn’t ever look right to me, but I chose the form on purpose. See, if one isn’t careful, one will accidentally replicate one’s phonological biases when coining new words. (That’s why you see a lot of conlangs where the word for “water” is something like ayala, or lorea, or shayula, or lelea [oh. Oops].) To overcome this, some conlangers use word generators (by the way, if you’re looking for one, Awkwords is a nice free one that’s online). I’ve tried that, but don’t really rely on it too much.

Instead, I take words that I have a really intuitive form for, and give it some form that’s completely different (bearing in mind the phonosemantic tendencies one creates for the language in question), or, in the case of mano, I take a word that’s familiar to me (Spanish mano, “hand”, is one of the first words I learned) and apply it to a completely unrelated concept. And that’s how mano became “donkey” in Kamakawi.

Secondly, the definition of mano in my dictionary reads as follows:

mano (n.) donkey, mule, ass

There’s a problem here, though: donkeys ≠ mules. They’re different animals (and, in fact, there may be no mules on the Kamakawi islands). I didn’t learn this until late in life, though, because I grew up in an urban/suburban setting, and thought that “donkey” and “mule” were synonyms.

This is one of the major problems that many conlangers face when creating a vocabulary: Often one does not have the experiential basis to create words for a given cultural environment.

I’ve heard many conlangers remark on how a number of so-called artlangs have vocabularies that presume a bronze age culture (or earlier). There are several good reasons for this. First of all, the languages we speak nowadays didn’t spring from Zeus’s head fully armed with monosyllabic words for “cell phone”, “internet” and “text message”. These languages began way, way, way back when. If you’re creating a language that’s intended to look like a natural language, that means you need to start way, way, way back when. Unless one is working with a very bizarre culture that’s operated in a way completely different from any we’ve known on Earth, one is going to need the word for “pestle” before one gets to the word for “gigabyte”.

Second, if one invents a word for something like “DVD player”, that assumes A LOT. I think it’s pretty safe to assume that any culture is going to have words for the floræ and faunæ it encounters, and words for basic actions and structures. But how can one assume that from those beginnings they will actually evolve in such a way as to duplicate our modern technology? There may be something roughly equivalent to a television, but will it work like a television? Will there be television stations? Will channels be associated with numbers? Why not letters? Or colors? And even if they’re roughly the same, how can one assume that they’ll be freestanding? What if all houses come built with a television hollow into which one puts a set? What if it has no cords, but just a set of plugs that fit directly into the grooves in that hollow, like a headlight into the space for a headlight in a car?

In other words, to coin a word for “television”, one has to evolve the entire world, and it has to miraculously go just as it did on Earth. This seems highly improbable. (At least, for a language that’s intended to look like a natural language. Obviously if you’re creating an auxlang, or some other language you want to use day-to-day, you need a word for cell phone, if you don’t want to end up using one in a natlang.)

Anyway, in a language like Kamakawi, I’m already assuming too much by assuming in some alternate universe, the animals and plants will be the same. Realistically, one should evolve new animals and new plants. That I’m not going to do. But I draw the line at modern tech. If I get to a modern era, I’m going to do my best to evolve some native technology.

That’s if I get there before I die (which, of course, will probably not happen).

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13 Responses to “Mano”

  1. Ka kavaka Ember Nickel ti:

    “See, if one isn’t careful, one will accidentally replicate one’s phonological biases when coining new words.”

    Would you mind explaining a little more about this phenomenon (and why it’s a problem?)

  2. Ka kavaka Keri ti:

    I really enjoyed this post =) I like your idea of applying a familiar word to a completely different concept. I kinda agree with Ember’s comment: would you mind explaining a little more about this? Maybe you could do another post with links and stuff, if you have the time/inclination. Sometimes words just feel “right” or “wrong” for specific meanings for me, and I’m sure that’s a result of biases from my native language/phonology/whatever, but it’s worth thinking and learning more about. Any recommended links?
    Thanks again for writing; this was a great post =)

  3. Ka kavaka Sylvia Sotomayor ti:

    As an aside, I think it was John who asked about Sancho Panza. I then had the conversation with the keeper about feral cats.

    Regarding having your phonological biases replicated in your conlang, it’s not so much wrong as it is limiting. It allows others to come in and say, “oh, that’s just like “, rather than “oh, that’s neat”. I once tried to explain Kelen grammar (a long time ago, Kelen may even still have had verbs) to someone, and I couldn’t think of the proper vocabulary for the examples, so I used something in Spanish, and the other person came away thinking that Kelen was basically alternate Spanish. Which it wasn’t. Ever.

    That’s why it is good to mix up your vocabulary, too, and have words that do not correspond to your natlang’s words, but that cover different areas, maybe conflate concepts or more finely discriminate other concepts.

    And the bit about technology, that’s spot on!

  4. Ka kavaka Ember Nickel ti:

    I don’t see how those two are examples of the same thing. If I don’t like the fact that my natlang only has one word to describe a broad concept, and more finely discriminate in my conlang’s vocabulary, it seems like I’m just giving in to a personal bias about that concept…

  5. Ka kavaka Sylvia Sotomayor ti:

    OK. I didn’t say that was bad. Actually, that’s much better than some who have basically a 1:1 correspondence between their conlang’s vocabulary and their natlang’s vocabulary.

    Of course you are going to have personal biases in your conlang. Hopefully, they are ones that you are aware of. It’s the unconscious biases that sometimes can be a problem.

  6. Ka kavaka Amanda ti:

    Wait, you mean my “liel” is predictable? :-)

  7. Ka kavaka David J. Peterson ti:

    Hey, it’s a good word! I like it. :)

  8. Ka kavaka Alex F ti:

    Yeah, this problem of having an identical set of species to Earth is interesting. The Akana folks recently bumped into it, and Radius posted a thought-provoking list of several scenarios that could achieve such a thing.

    I’m solidly a Aiainai man, myself. The setting of my naturalistic conlangs is essentially an althistory with point(s) of divergence one or two hundred thousand years before present. (So not an althistory with the connotations of that term for most of its users: I don’t care about the point of divergence, only that on account of the butterfly effect the culturo-linguistic makeup of the planet is entirely unrelated to our timeline’s.) Of course, that nets me identical geography, which I don’t suppose you want.

    And looks like it’s not the [l]s but the [w]s for me: Pjaukra /rawa/, Sabasasaj (most frequently) /hwi-/. Gripping probably :-p

  9. Ka kavaka Alex F ti:

    deh, Gripping probably 2’i2. HTML fail.

  10. Ka kavaka David J. Peterson ti:

    Searching for “aiainai” only turned up this.

    With these conlangs here, I aim for naturalism, but if there’s a culture, it exists solely for the sake of parody—and with parody, anything goes! :D

  11. Ka kavaka Sylvia Sotomayor ti:

    aiainai is explained on the page Alex F linked to:

    Terjemar is actually wiwinwi without the indigenous intelligent alien life, since the Kēleni came from elsewhere.

  12. Ka kavaka David J. Peterson ti:

    Ohh… I didn’t see that link the first time around. I don’t think the “world” I have fits any of those descriptions. If it’s close to anything, it’s Discworld, where (at least by my reckoning), it’s less important if things are accurate, authentic, or “make sense”; it’s much more important that they’re amusing.

  13. Ka kavaka Alex F ti:

    Mm, right. Come to think of it, I remember reading about your “made-up made-up cultures” on one of your pages or t’other. So, party on \o/

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