Holiday Fragment: On the Complement of a Language



Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice is a novel in the form of a multiple choice exam. (Highly recommended—it’s a reading experience unlike any other.)

Given this precedent, I format my thoughts below as questions from an as of yet unwritten exam-novel. I don’t know the answers, you might.


Each language has a number of phonemes (distinct sounds).

Define a phonetic complement of a language to be all the sounds not used by that language.

  1. Are there languages living in the phonetic complements of each other?
  2. If not, is it possible to construct a meaningful language in the phonetic complement of any given existing language?
  3. If so, given a sufficiently well-defined framework of phonemes achievable by the human vocal apparatus, can we construct a set of pairwise disjoint languages that completely exhaust all possible phonemes?

Rider: Each language has a number of morphemes (smallest meaningful units of language). If the morpheme complement at a given time t (we have to freeze time as languages evolve) is defined to be the collection of unused morphemes of that language, how would you go about constructing a new language using the same phonemes but contained in the morpheme complement?





This is part of a series of short holiday posts that are mostly excerpts and thoughts from my literary diary. Here is what a “usual” post on Quiver Quotes looks like: Life Without Parenthesis …

Questions? Comments? Reading recommendations? Let me know.

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