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Listen to David Peterson talk to Tom Merritt and Veronica Belmont on Sword and Laser #68: Ad-libbing in Dothraki

We’re all about formality today, from the intricate politeness system of Korean to some crazy Nahuatl stuff to the subtle syntax of the English polite request.  We talk on just what kind of things languages do to produce formal, polite, or literary language.  Then we have a little discussion of Teonaht, which is quite a good conlang, though the site design drives us a little crazy.


That crazy Tibetan parallel vocabulary

Featured Conlang: Teonaht


Kraamlep (comment on #04)

Thanks for the review of Jameld. As you will have gathered, I’m an amateur with no formal linguistics training, hence the layout of the grammar – although, as you correctly surmised, it’s more written from the point of view of a casual learner rather than a linguistics expert. It also has its tongue in his cheek occasionally, hence “I shall”

I’m currently hard at work on a much-revised new edition of the dictionary, after which the next job is rewriting the grammar. I will definitely be taking your comments into account!

I’m particularly glad that you both agreed that Jameld has its own character and feel.

Desmond (comment on #05)

As the inventor of the conlang “Rangyayo”, I feel very honoured that my language has been discussed in this week conlangery podcast. I simply can’t wait to listen to it! First thing to do when I get back home this evening


13 Responses to “Conlangery #09: Formality and Register”

  1. prmysl

    Formality rules can obviously vary from speech community to speech community. In my mother’s dialect/speech community of French using [tsy] instead of [vu] with your parents is considered very disrespectful on par with swearing at them. In my grandfather’s house it earned a tanning.

  2. Spats

    Left this on the ZBB but I want to say it here too:
    Awesome podcast. Great hosts, great content.
    Much-improved sound from the first episode, too.
    Keep up the good work!

    • admin

      Thanks. I always welcome positive feedback 🙂 You can thank William for the improved sound quality — I’ve been getting better with editing but the biggest impact was him sending Bianca a new headset.

  3. Kenneth Nyman

    The changing use of “du” and “ni” in 20th century Swedish may be an interesting example of how rules of courtesy and formality may change.
    (1) In earlier Swedish, one should use a title when addressing someone of higher social rank than oneself. Intimates could address each other with “du” (the regular 2nd person singular pronoun). A person of higher social rank could address someone of lower rank (for example, an employer talking to an employee) using “ni” (the 2nd person plural pronoun)
    (2) In the early 20th century, there was attempts to change the formality system into French/German-style T/V-distinction, using “ni” as an all-purpose formal pronoun, while “du” would continue being the familiar pronoun. The attempts were only partly successful; many people (especially in more conservative small towns or rural areas) still considered “ni” as quite unfriendly, mainly used when addressing someone of a lower rank.
    (3) In the latter half of the 20th century, in accordance with general social changes in a more egalitarian and familiar direction, “du” became a generally used pronoun, used on most social context (“du-reformen”, “the du-reform”).
    (4) At the dusk of the 20th century, it became increasingly common for young people in various service occupations to address customers with “ni”, probably under influence from the French/German T/V-distinction. While it was done as an act of courtesy, the ironic result could be that old people, who had grown up with the earlier system, perceived it as rude and felt insulted.

  4. Bryan

    I’m an English teacher for speakers of other languages, and I have to agree with Bianca there; there’s guys, like 600 years old, who refuse to call me anything other than “Sir”, “My teacher”, or “Mr. Bryan”. And I’m like, “I’m only 26, guys… call me Bryan”, “Okay, My teacher”

  5. Bryan

    Need rude words to be rude in English…? George Mikes wrote in his book that if an English person wants to be rude, they say, “Oh, that’s an *unusual* story”. And I think that’s still true to-day (in England, at least). But I think English people are more sardonic, ironic, and subtle in these matters, where Americans seem to be more up-in-yo-face.

  6. Nicolas

    First of all, many thanks for the podcast, I just discovered it a few times ago, and I am enjoying it a lot. Another few months of listening and I’ll be catching up the latest episodes.

    In this episode you tried to speak of french T-V distinction but stopped out of examples. Fortunately I remembered an american journalist that produced this diagram :

    Actually it is not completely serious, but I think this is intended to show the weirdness of the possible situations. As a native french speaker I can tell this diagram is quite relevant.

    More generaly, I think this is a method a conlanger could use. Create a diagram as a way to explain formalities in his language.

    Thank you again.

  7. RandomDutchman

    Sometimes the rules are not even set in stone within a speech community. I’m Dutch and we’ve got a distinction between ‘jij’ (or ‘jullie’ in the plural) and ‘u’ (or even ‘U’), where ‘jij’ is more informal and close, whereas ‘u’ is more formal, respectful, but also more distant.
    So what then do you call your parents? On the one hand, you might want your kids to call you ‘u’ out of respect, but on the other hand you might not want to be so distant from your kids and prefer ‘jij’ for the closeness. My parents brought us up with ‘jij’, but quite a few of my friends called their parents ‘u’.

  8. Brian Bourque


    I just recently started listening to your podcasts and I am hooked. I especially found this episode entertaining because I happen to be fluent in both Persian (Iranian) and Korean.

    Allow me to touch base on Persian first:

    There are a few terms they use in order to signify formality much like you would see in most Romance languages. That is, there is the you informal /to/ (2SG) and the you formal /ʃoma/ (2PL). There is also an interesting twist. They also you the third person plural /iʃan/ to give formality to a third party in the singular.

    Persian also uses different verbs to denote formality as well. For example, the verb /kærdæn/ means “to do” for every day things; however, the verb /færmudæn/ means “to do” or “to say” in a formal scene.

    One extra note, in the days of yore, Persian used to use (and in rare circumstances still do) a diminutive form of “to say” when one is speaking to someone of a higher class, namely to the shah.

    In the family structure, there are different words for the paternal aunt and uncle vs. the maternal aunt and uncle, whereas there is only on word for brother and one for sister.

    About Korean.

    Korean is a hierarchical language which means you must always speak a certain way based on the person’s age or status. Therefore, one of the first things Koreans ask in the beginning of a conversation is “How old are you?” This determines how each person should address one another. That being said, there are four levels of hierarchy in Korean: when one is peaking to a child or close friends, when one is speaking to colleagues or acquaintances of approximately the same age and stays, when one is speaking to and elder or someone of higher status, and finally the public or to the highest status (the king when Korea was still a kingdom).

    When kids are small, all they hear is the informal form when parents or other people speak to them. Therefore, naturally, this is the first level in which children are able to speak. Once they are school age, they are then taught how to speak properly when in a specific setting.

    In addition to the hierarchy, each level also has a set of formal vs less formal versions (minus the /banmal/ or informal level). So There is a lot of suffixes and infixes students must learn as they are educated in the Korean language.

    Even within the family, Korean has a different word for “brother” and “sister” when spoken from the point of view of a woman (older vs younger for each sibling).

    I loved this one specifically because I had knowledge of two of the languages you spoke about. Thank you for the listen and I am eager to hear more.


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