Sunday, January 1, 2017

Two Million Forms of 'Say'

In English we have 4 forms of the verb ‘say’: ‘say’, ‘says’, ‘said’, and ‘saying’. That’s it! Now, we can add auxiliary verbs to create various tenses, moods and voices like ‘I will say’ or ‘I would have said’ or ‘It was said’. but we will only ever find four forms of the actual word ‘say’. Spanish is a bit more complicated as there are 61 forms of the verb ‘decir’ (‘say’). But Enga takes things to another level entirely. In Enga, there are 2,322,432 forms of the verb ‘la’ (’say’), and that doesn’t even include imperative forms and other forms like infinitives! If you thought memorizing your Spanish or Latin conjugation tables was difficult, consider the fact that it would take roughly 5,000 pages to list all the possible forms of the verb ‘say’ in Enga.

How can there be so many forms? Well, Enga is what they call an agglutinative language. That is a fancy word that means that anything related to the action of the sentence is usually put on to the verb as a prefix or suffix instead of as a separate word. For example, the English sentence ‘I had already told him for you’, can be communicated with just one word in Enga: ‘lamaitekeo’. In that word, la means ‘say’, mai means ‘him’, t means ‘already’, ek means ‘for you’, e means ‘had’, and o means ‘I’. Let’s look at another example. The English sentence ‘I sensed that they had already sent [it] up for us’ can also be communicated with just one word in Enga: ‘pyalyetakaluiyami’. In that word py means ‘send’, aly means ‘up’, et means ‘already’, ak means ‘for us’, alu means ‘I sensed’, iy means ‘had’, and ami means ‘they’.

There are actually thirteen places where a prefix or suffix can be added to a verb in Enga. And in each of those thirteen places, there are between two and eight possibilities of prefixes or suffixes that can be added. There is a place for indicating negation, direction, direct object, causation, completion, indirect object, non-visual sensation, tense, person/number, mood, simulation, emphasis, and quotation. All those various places with different options causes the possible number of verb forms to grow exponentially, which is why there are 2,322,432 forms of ‘say’ in Enga.

Now even though there are so many forms of ‘say’, the vast majority of them have probably never been spoken aloud by anyone. In fact, the vast majority of the forms would sound silly because not all the information that can be expressed by the verb ever should be expressed at once—trying to do so sounds like nonsense. And in actuality, languages like Enga can be easier to learn than it might seem, because once you have learned the 34 prefixes and suffixes that attach to verbs, it is fairly easy to figure out how to create verb forms that you have never even learned. So you don’t need to memorize 5,000 pages of information. In fact, you can fit everything that you need to memorize onto a single-paged chart. Still, if I had my druthers, I would prefer just 4 forms of the verb ‘say’ instead of 2,322,432.