You may recall that a few instalments back, I outlined a fascinating artistic language called Elet Anta that has been all but forgotten since the death of its author. Now I’d like to present another similar curiosity, whose designer – under the pseudonym Galivad – says: “A lot of work went into creating this language, and I’d just like to share it, rather than leave it gathering dust in some old notebooks.”

This is the language Otg, pronounced roughly “Otch”, but more about that in a minute. It has a massive dictionary of over 16,000 words, so one can certainly believe that its creation involved long effort.

The dictionary is archived at the Wayback Machine, along with a presentation of the grammar. These documents date from around the turn of the millennium, and like many early websites their layout is a chaotic mess. But if you can look past that – or do as I did a few years ago and spend a rainy weekend tidying them up into something easier to peruse! – they turn out to be very interesting.

(To be fair, I should add that Galivad started working on Otg in the 1960s “during a time in my life when I had nothing better to do”, so it’s perhaps unreasonable to expect modern standards of computer literacy in the presentation.)

But on to the language itself.

It uses the Latin alphabet with no accented letters, in a regular but peculiar orthography that is slightly reminiscent of the Celtic languages. The sequence tg represents a palatalised t, a sound that’s spelled ti when it appears before a vowel, so gotia “to search through, rummage” sounds a bit like the English word gotcha. Similarly sg (si before a vowel) sounds like English sh, tzsg (tzsi) like English ch and dzsg (dzsi) like English j.

Note that Otg and otzsg “saliva” are not pronounced the same. The latter is really the one that sounds like “Otch”.

Each of the five basic vowels has both a long and a short variety, in a regular pattern: they’re short only before a voiceless consonant, so oc [pron. ok] “house” and og “big” have a short and long o respectively. The long vowel written a has shifted over time to end up as an open type of o sound, similar to aw in British English law. The letters i and u are semivowels, pronounced like y and w in English; the ee and oo vowel sounds that one often associates with the letters i and u are instead spelled y and ou: thus uyf “fish” carries a certain whiff.

There are also eight diphthongs (e.g. ai, pronounced like English oy), along with several fiendish sequences of vowel letters that actually represent single sounds, such as aiu (like German ö) and eiu (like ü).

This spelling system yields plenty of words that appear almost completely unpronounceable to the uninitiated:

eiurcylarg “tourist”
iaamuagouzsg “orange juice”
ozybdh “grammar”
uaaua “stir, begin to wake”
ziyliaab “July”

A key element of Otg grammar is that inflectional endings often use vowel harmony. This means that when a grammatical ending is added to a given word, the vowel of the ending has to conform to the vowel of the stem of that word. In some cases, it has to contrast instead.

An example will make things clear. Take the word oc “house”. Its plural is ocen. But now take the word eb “name”. Its plural is ebon. This is because the plural marker -n has a contrastive vowel, and the rules of the language say that e and o are a contrastive pair.

It’s the same with the dual ending -b, which is used when talking about obvious pairs of items or a vague “couple” of things:

oceb “a couple of houses”
ebob “two names”
yl [pron. eel] “hand”
yloub [eel-oob] “a pair of hands”
(y and ou are contrastive)

For a conforming example, we can glance at the verb system. The infinitive ends in -a (as in gotia, mentioned above). The endings for the singular are: -l (I …), -m (you …) and zero (he, she, it …). If we add these endings with a conforming vowel, we get the present tense:

gotiol “I rummage”
gotiom “you (one person) rummage”
gotio “it/she/he rummages”

But the selfsame endings with a contrastive vowel create the past tense:

gotiel “I rummaged”
gotiem “you rummaged”
gotie “it/she/he rummaged”

If you combine both in that order, you obtain the imperfect:

gotioel “I was rummaging”
gotioem “you were rummaging”
gotioe “it/she/he was rummaging”

Vowel harmony is a common feature of agglutinative languages such as Turkish and Korean, and Otg is highly agglutinative, too. It builds words by stringing together unchanging elements, much as Esperanto does. For instance, iaamuagouzsg [approx. yem-wawg-oozh] “orange juice” consists of iaamuag “orange (fruit)” and ouzsg “sap, juice” – and iaamuag, in turn, is the colour iaam “orange” plus uag “apple”.

There are also at least 50 suffixes available, including -ai for a place (rather like -ej- in Esperanto):

bata “to inhabit”, batai “habitat”
ordh “minister”, ordhai “ministry”

and ytht for a science:

ioi “legend”, ioiytht “mythology”
iec “short”, iecytht “shorthand”

While the language no longer has any productive prefixes for forming new words, it does have a couple of dozen “frozen prefixes”. The meanings of these are partially or wholly opaque, but they appear throughout the vocabulary, where they effectively serve to group words into semantic families.

The ultimate roots are usually composed of just a vowel and a consonant, such as eb “name”. But in that same family we find beb “illustrious, renowned”, ceba “to name, call”, dreb “brand, mark”, feb “notorious”, theb “noun”, treba “to mention” and many others.

Nouns have five possible cases: nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, and sometimes a vocative. Curiously, these are expressed by changing the initial consonant of the determiner (a word like “the”, “a”, “my”, “whose”, etc) that introduces the noun or the noun phrase.

There are two parallel patterns – one for indefinite words like “a”, “some”, “each” and the numerals; and another, listed below, that’s used with the remaining determiners:

nominative n-
accusative t-
genitive s-
dative ti-
vocative hi-

The definite article (“the”) consists of the appropriate one of these consonants followed by a vowel that contrasts with the main vowel of the next word, which is often the noun but can also be something like an adjective. Despite not distinguishing singular and plural (or even dual!), the word for “the” thus has twenty possible forms:

ny oun “the mother” (nominative)
nou yloub “the pair of hands” (nominative)
no eb “the name” (nominative)
ne og eb “the big name” (nominative)
ty oun “the mother” (accusative)
tou yloub “the pair of hands” (accusative)
no eb sy oun “the name of the mother” (nominative, genitive)
tiy oun “to the mother” (dative)
hy oun! “mother!” (vocative)
and so on.

Prepositions can be followed by a noun in the accusative, genitive or dative, and many of them in fact support all three cases with different meanings:

+ accusative “through”
+ genitive “located under”
+ dative “moving to under”

+ accusative “along”
+ genitive “with, using”
+ dative “with, accompanying, near”

+ accusative “except for”
+ genitive “despite”
+ dative “as well as, including”

The numerals are determiners, so they too indicate case. In the nominative they all start with vowels; consonants are prefixed to form the other cases. One to ten are aai, oum, out, on, eg, et, alh, oil, ag and yz.

Eleven and twelve are either the regular yzaai and yzoum or the quirkier eud and ard, much as we can call twelve “a dozen” in English. Thereafter, you can, if you so wish, continue counting in base 12: ardaai or yzout “13”, ardoum or yzon “14”. Otg also comes with dedicated words for 18 (ca, one-and-a-half dozen), 24 (airm), 36 (orm), 60 (gyszg) and 120 (py).

Its other numerical curiosities include yzeur, which is a vague way of indicating a number between 10 and 20 (“umpteen”); euryz, a vague number between 20 and 90 (“umpty-something”); and pnoum “a couple, a pair” and pnoil “a group of eight people or things”.

To give you a flavour of running prose – and to continue a theme from an earlier article in this series – I’ll end with a short quotation from No Aalcy y se Autzair “Alice in Wonderland”, in Galivad’s translation. Observe, by the way, how even “Alice” (Aalcy) is introduced by the word for “the”.

Go zaai zoum omp aa aloe bygad te oc,
during GEN-one GEN-two minute she stand-IMPF.3SG look-ing ACC-the house

ouithad aca deth brotzec,
think-ing do-INF ACC-what next

mar tzo ai pal y se blor iotze aulad ou tie ors –
when suddenly a footman in GEN-the uniform come-PAST.3SG run-ing from DAT-the woodland

(elzeo iar a uea ai pal,
think-IMPF.3SG that he be-SUBJV.3SG a footman

aith iadhoe te blor:
because wear-PAST.3SG ACC-the uniform

afnan uaancad ers io tou byudh za,
other-thus estimate-ing pure according_to ACC-the face GEN-he

cai cebeo da ai uyf) –
perhaps name-IMPF.3SG ACC-he a fish

thar aaidlo lenc ma tiou lyr ga sy uouthyn.
and knock-PAST loud onto DAT-the door using GEN-the knuckle-PL

“For a minute or two she stood looking at the house, and wondering what to do next, when suddenly a footman in livery came running out of the wood – (she considered him to be a footman because he was in livery: otherwise, judging by his face only, she would have called him a fish) – and rapped loudly at the door with his knuckles.”

Simon Davies is the editor of ESF Connected.
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