Designing an Artificial Language: Anaphora

Designing an Artificial Language: Anaphora

Author: Rick Morneau

MS Date: 07-12-1994

FL Date: 07-01-2019

FL Number: FL-00005E-00

Citation: Morneau, Rick. 1994. «Designing an Artificial

Language: Anaphora.» FL-00005E-00, Fiat
Lingua, . Web. 01 July

Copyright: © 1994 Rick Morneau. This work is licensed

under a Creative Commons Attribution-
NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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Designing an Artificial Language:


by Rick Morneau

October, 1993
Revised July 12, 1994

Copyright © 1991, 1994 by Richard A. Morneau,
all rights reserved.

[The following essay is a compilation of several items that
I posted to the Conlang mailing list in October 1993. The
Conlang mailing list is dedicated to the discussion of the
construction of artificial languages. To subscribe, send an
email message with the single line: 


to [email protected]. I would like to thank And
Rosta for starting the discussion. I would also like to
thank And Rosta, Jacques Guy, Colin Fine, and Prentiss
Riddle for many valuable comments.]

The design of a comprehensive yet simple anaphoric system is not especially difficult. All natural
languages have one. However, as is typical of natural languages, the anaphoric systems are
clouded in idiosyncrasy and irregularity.

One of the problems that many people have is that they tend to think of anaphora as belonging to
a special, closed class of words. In English, we think of third person pronouns («he», «she», «it»,
etc.), demonstratives («this», «those», etc.), auxiliaries («be», «have», and «do», etc.) and a handful
of oddballs («herself», «each other», «so», «such», etc.) as most of the available anaphora. Here
are some examples:

I love anchovy ice cream. Do you? (Anaphor: «do»)

William Shakespeare lived in a small town with his pet rock
and his wife Fifi Yokohama. He would not eat veggies, she
would not eat vegemite, and IT didn’t eat at all.
(Anaphora: «his», «he», «she» and «IT»)


John said he’ll definitely attend the class on Creative
Suffering. Louise will too. (Anaphor: «will»)

However, these «closed class anaphora» are not the only ones. Consider the following:

1. Ten theoretical physicists and eight sanitary engineers
attended the seminar. They were constantly heckling them.

Obviously, we can’t use the anaphora «they» and «them» in the second sentence of (1). Instead,
we need something like:

2. The engineers were constantly heckling the physicists.

The point, though, is that the words «engineers» and «physicists» in (2) are anaphora, and they
can continue to be used as such throughout the remainder of the dialog. Thus, the head word of a
phrase is used as a referent for the entire phrase. I’ll call these «open class anaphora”.

[For the GB nitpickers: Obviously, I am using the word «anaphor» in a loose functional sense,
rather than in a strict syntactic sense. Whether an anaphor is legal because node A c-commands
node B is not really relevant to this discussion.]

Sometimes, especially when writing, we define new open class anaphora explicitly, as in:

3. This contract is between Timothy TackyTie (henceforth
the first party) and Wendall WeeWilly (henceforth the
second party)…

In (3), the anaphora are explicitly defined as «the first party» and «the second party». But we can
also do it in informal writing and speech:

4. Ten computational linguists and twelve theoretical
linguists attended the seminar. The comps were constantly
heckling the theos. Finally, the theos got so angry that
they mooned the comps and left.

Another common way to create open class anaphora is to use single letters or abbreviations:

5. In discussing the «Best Artificial Language Linguists
Ever Designed» (BALLED), the designers forgot that there
were many other lingwackos out there, who were out to get
BALLED and who would ridicule it at every opportunity.


Of course, once an abbreviation becomes recognizable without introduction, it will no longer be
an anaphor – it will be a proper noun (like USA, IBM, etc.).

The major difference between the open (O) and closed (C) classes of anaphora is that the Os tend
to keep their referents throughout the discourse, while the referents of the Cs are constantly
changing. Thus, the anaphor «BALLED» in (5) will refer to the same thing throughout the dialog,
while anaphora such as «he», «do» or «each other» will continually take on new meanings.

One other thing should be mentioned. Most anaphora are «backward-referring»; that is, the
anaphor refers to something that was mentioned earlier. It is also possible to have «forward-
referring» anaphora, as in:

6. After ordering a pint of his favorite ale, Robert was
perplexed when the barmaid replied that the fishmonger was
next door. The Great English Vowel Shift had begun.

In (6), «his» precedes its referent “Robert».

So, how do you handle anaphora in an artificial language (henceforth AL)? One solution would
be to create a lot of noun and verb classes. But this will not always solve the problem. You’ll
often have situations where you want to differentiate between two or more members of the same
class (such as «physicists» and «engineers»).

A better way, in my opinion, is to design the phonotactics and morphotactics of your AL to allow
the head word of any phrase to be contracted or to be combined in some way with an important
modifier. The result would always be immediately recognizable as an anaphor by its form. The
contraction could then be used as an anaphor for the entire phrase from that point on. (You could
modify this rule to allow the contraction to take on a new meaning if its pattern matches a newly
introduced phrase.) Here’s how something like this might sound in English:

The Sheboygan Bandits and the Milwaukee Dragoons faced off
at Lovemud Stadium on Sunday. The Mil’goons beat the
She’its out of their expected title.

Unfortunately, English is not really suited for this. An AL, however, can be designed to allow
such an anaphoric system, and there are many ways to do it. Here’s one possible approach…
Let open class words have the following form:

stem + classifier + part-of-speech



stem = [CV] 
classifier = CC 
part-of-speech = V 

[] means 1 or more of the enclosed item 
C is any consonant 
V is any vowel (‘o’=noun, ‘e’=verb, etc.)

Thus, examples of open class words would be mande, kitusta, jonabefti, etc. (You would
probably want to exercise some restraint in your choice of legal consonant clusters to make
pronunciation as easy as possible.)

There should be two types of anaphor: simple anaphora and compound anaphora. A simple
anaphor will be formed from one or more initial syllables of the head word followed by a glottal
stop (represented here by an apostrophe) followed by the final part-of-speech vowel. Thus,
simple anaphora will have the structure:


where both parts of the anaphor are taken from the head word.

Compound anaphora will be formed from one or more initial syllables of a
significant modifier of the head word, followed by a glottal stop followed by the final VCCV of
the head word. Thus, compound anaphora will have the structure:


where the first part of the anaphor comes from a significant modifier of the head word, and the
second part of the anaphor comes from the head word itself. (Note that both forms are consistent
with a self-segregating morphology.)

For example, consider the following sample noun phrase:

timanodendo janasuski tupya 
engineer    sanitary  ten 
«ten sanitary engineers”

The above example could have the simple anaphora ti’o, tima’o or timano’o, or the compound
anaphora ja’endo, jana’endo or janasu’endo.

And the following verb phrase:


jujushimpe makitundo  bubuski 
heckle     fishmonger illiterate 
«to heckle illiterate fishmongers”

could be abbreviated to the simple anaphora ju’e, juju’e or jujushi’e, or to the the compound
anaphora ma’impe, maki’impe or makitu’impe.

During the discussion that took place on the conlang list, And Rosta took me to task because my
proposed anaphoric system could not deal with the following kind of problem:

A dog was attracted to a dog. But its owner kept it away
from it.

I agree that the proposed system cannot deal with this kind of situation, but I don’t understand
why anyone would want an anaphoric system to be able to deal with it. This kind of situation
will only be used when the speaker is being humorous or intentionally ambiguous. As far as I’m
concerned, if the speaker wants to have fun, then let him! Besides, you could always distinguish
between «the first dog» and «the second dog», or «the former» and «the latter». In my opinion, this
is a non-problem, and I see no reason to waste time on it.

However, we most certainly can deal with a more reasonable version of this sentence, such as:

A big dog was attracted to a little dog. But its owner kept
it away from it.

Using compound anaphora, one possible permutation would be:

A big dog was attracted to a little dog. But li’og’s owner
kept bi’og away from li’og.

One other problem that cropped up in the discussion had to do with resolving the individual
referents of a phrase that implicitly referred to more than one referent. For example, does the
phrase «two identical twins», provide a single referent or a double referent? How about the
phrase «box of nuts and bolts» or «ten million civilians”?

I strongly feel that a properly designed anaphoric system should be able to provide an
unambiguous index to any referent. The system I proposed does this very well. Furthermore, if
the referent is ambiguous, then the anaphor should also be ambiguous. In other words, the
anaphoric system should not be given the additional duty of disambiguating an ambiguous
phrase. Disambiguation should be handled explicitly by the speaker. Thus, «a dog and a dog» is


intentionally ambiguous (in addition to being unnatural). I do not feel that an anaphoric system
should be required to resolve an intentional ambiguity.

In the case of «two identical twins», only one referent was provided, and the system proposed
here can deal with it very well. The referent is «two identical twins», and one possible anaphor
would be «id’ins».

Now, some people feel that the anaphoric system must also provide an unambiguous index
to each of the twins. If so, then the anaphoric system must provide an index to a referent that has
not even been mentioned. If neither of the twins has been mentioned separately, then the referent
does not exist, and I see no reason to provide an index to a non-existent referent.

In other words, what some people seem to want is an anaphoric system that can also provide
*semantic decomposition*. I do not feel that this should be the purpose of an anaphoric system,
even though it is occasionally possible in natural languages. Considering the many, many
possible kinds of groupings (twins, clubs, choirs, companies, orchards, boxes of spare parts, etc),
such a system would be very complex, and I’m not even sure if it would be possible.

In summary, I feel that an anaphoric system should be rich enough to provide an unambiguous
index to any unambiguous referent. Such a system should not have the additional duties of
disambiguation or semantic decomposition.

Finally, keep in mind that the approach to designing anaphora discussed here will work best if
the phonotactics and morphotactics of your AL are designed for it. Unfortunately, if you are
designing a yachecle (Yet Another CHauvinistic Euro-CLonE), the above system may not be
very practical.  🙁 

End of Essay

[Postscript: I would like to emphasize that the above essay reflects my opinions on how to deal
with anaphora in the design of ALs, and that others who took part in the discussion do not
necessarily agree with me. For example, some people felt that an anaphoric system should be
designed to provide disambiguation and semantic decomposition.] 

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