Ute-lite, an idea for a constructed language

Any hear of slovio, globlish, or basic English?  They’re subset and averaging constructed languages.  They’re also kind of like semantic prime languages in that it is easy to get by on relatively few words.

Wouldn’t it be cool to create an artificial language based on Ute?  Ute is spoken in Towaoc, Colorado. In particular, it was spoken by some classmates of mine when I lived in Cortez, Colorado.


To give people who speak no Ute and don’t have a non-English-speaking live-in Ute parent, a path to learning Ute, that is more likely to succeed than the current path (which is to buy the reference grammar and more or less give up in frustration because reference grammars are for professional linguists, not people).  This probably has nothing to do with the goals of any other constructed language you might be aware of, or the goals that people have when they learn, say, French.

Design method.

A vocabulary of about 500 words and 100 bound morphemes.

Maybe 10 or so legal sentence patterns. (inspired by toki ponas *single* legal sentence pattern)

A disproportionate amount of attention paid to derivational morphology, i.e. lot of attention paid to the ways that Ute build new words out of existing words, especially derivational morphology that goes beyond Indo-European style derivational morphology (which gets bogged down in noun and verb inflections and doesn’t go much into how to combine stems to create new words).  An illustration using English as an example, we might say “red spherical fruit” instead of “apple”

A disproportionate amount of attention payed to phontactics and logatomes, i.e. how to transliterate loan words and coin new words that look and feel like Ute words.

Expected Results

A speaker of Ute-lite could speak to other Ute-lite speakers.  A speaker of Ute probably could read Ute-lite and maybe understand it spoken.  A speaker of Ute-lite obviously could not produce real Ute.  Speakers of other numic languages might be able to understand Ute-lite.

As a Pedogogical Tool

Like the maker of globish observed, speakers of English as a second language often end up using a simplified version anyhow, so why not just focus on teaching the simplified version?  The advantage is you get started faster and can be quickly producing Ute that other Ute-lite speakers can understand, and full-Ute speakers might understand.  This compares to

The down side is that you’ll get unexpected innovations, such as Ute-lite compound words and derivations that don’t exist in full-Ute.  People who learn Ute-lite and try to learn full-Ute will have fossilization problems (that’s where a it’s hard to learn an alternate rule when you’ve already learned a rule that works for you–even if it isn’t community standard)

Likely Grumbling, Some Pre-Defenses

Basic English, Globish and the like routinely get criticized a lot for being uglier than their base languages, not that much easier to learn than the base language, and insult the intelligence of language learners.   Ugly is in the eye of the beholder.  Full blown languages are hard to learn and the number of hours it takes to learn a language is an objective measure.  I estimate learning Ute (if you only know English) takes 1000-1500 hours.   In my personal experience, I can’t even start producing

Well, if people want to learn real Ute or teach real Ute to their kids, no one is stopping them.  Except maybe the public school system, which coast to coast tends ignore everything except English.

If you want to learn a dying or endangered language, the fierce complexities of the full version are real deterrents for everyone except professional linguists or children with parents that have the discipline to speak a second language.  So why not Ute-lite?

Why Ute in particular and not a numic average langauge? (the same way Slovio is an average of Slavic langauges  and Esperanto is an average of Zamenhoff’s favorite langauges)  Well, if I ever write the language definition, it would likely be a personal language and I’m partial to the Numic languages of Towoac and Ignacio.

Why not just use the Givon(1980) reference grammar?  Ah, finally an easy question.  Because it is nigh unintelligible and worse, not available on the internet. And worse worse, it is copyright, so if I or anyone posts it to the web, we risk getting letters from lawyers.  If anyone reads this and has the ear of Southern Indian Ute Tribe, maybe they should publish the PDF to the net already, or if they won’t, could they at least re-license it as community commons so I and others can jail break the language definition?  Maybe it’s already been done?

2 thoughts on “Ute-lite, an idea for a constructed language

  1. There’s a new edition of Givón’s grammar available now—published by John Benjamins. The Texts should be out this summer (and the Dictionary two years from now, I suppose). The new grammar is a vast improvement over the old one, but it’s still not very user-friendly and all but ignores the fascinating phonology of the language, as did the previous version. At least he made better orthographic choices (but still not great ones).

    While I sympathize with the desire for “Ute-lite”, as a field linguist I think it would be a shame if the only thing that survived of the language was such a stripped-down version. Better than nothing, I suppose, but still …

    I do heartily endorse the effort as an intellectual challenge, however. I’ve played around with something like “Numic-lite” for a couple of years now, and it’s helped me to understand the Numic languages better. Professionally I focus on phonology (first Shoshone/Goshute—my dissertation was on the consonant phonology of Goshute); “Numic-lite” has forced me to come to grips with grammar as well.