The Quick And Dirty Guideto Conlanging For Writers, Part 3

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The Quick and Dirty Guide

to Conlanging for Writers, Part 3


Alexis Carter

Copyright © 2011, Alexis Carter, All Rights Reserved


The Quick And Dirty GuideTo Conlanging For Writers, Part 1

The Quick And Dirty GuideTo Conlanging For Writers, Part 2


Previously, in Part 2 of The Quick and Dirty Guide to Conlanging for Writers, I discussed some of the sounds that can be made with a human mouth and provided some guidelines for choosing consonants and vowels for your constructed language. This segment of The Quick and Dirty Guide to Conlanging for Writers addresses how to string those letters together to form words.


What is a Syllable?


A syllable is a unit of sound that makes up part or all of a word. It typically contains a vowel sound along with one or more consonant sounds. Some languages, like English, are very lenient about the combinations of consonants and vowels that can be joined together to create a syllable. A single vowel can be an entire syllable, as is the case with the word "I." A vowel can also be preceded or followed by several different consonants. For example, the word "strength" is only one syllable long, but it contains five distinct consonant sounds, three before and two after (with th counting as a single sound).


Other languages are much stricter about the forms their syllables can take. In Mandarin Chinese, the only consonant sounds that can show up at the end of a syllable are -n, -ng, and -r. Therefore, a word like "chat" would never develop organically within the context of Mandarin Chinese.


Now I want you to take a second look at the consonants and vowels you've chosen for your conlang and decide what sorts of syllable constructions you want to allow. Remember that although there is no limit to the combinations you can create, your audience's native language should be kept in mind. Many readers are turned off by names they find difficult to pronounce, so if your conlang is for a story you intend to publish, you may want to keep the vowel and consonant combinations relatively similar to what the majority of your readers are used to seeing.


Parts of Speech


Now that you've decided on the building blocks of your conlang, it's time to start creating actual words. There are several basic categories of words, also known as parts of speech. They vary from language to language, but English is typically seen as having eight: nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions, and interjections. Some, like interjections ("Yikes!" or "Aha!", for example), are fairly simple. Others, however, can become very complicated; there is a lot of room to play with the way you design words in some categories, especially nouns and verbs. The rest of this article will cover nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.


As you start to create words for your language, you'll want to write them down. I recommend using a spreadsheet to keep track of the words and their meanings, as well as keeping a separate document where you can make notes about your conlang's grammar.




In English, a noun is typically defined as a person, place, thing, or idea. Nouns function as subjects and objects. The subject of a sentence is, in general terms, the entity that acts in a sentence, while the object is the one that is acted upon.


Grammatical gender, in which all nouns are given a gender whether or not the items they represent have one, is a feature in many languages. Some languages, like French and Hindi, have two genders (masculine and feminine). Some others, like German, have three (masculine, feminine, and neuter). It is important to remember, however, that the gender of a particular noun is not always connected to the gender of the object to which the noun refers. The French word for man (homme) is a masculine word that refers to a masculine entity, while the French word for poodle (caniche) can be used for both male and female poodles.


Sometimes, it is possible to tell a noun's gender from its spelling. In French, for example, nouns ending in -tion or -ette are typically feminine, while nouns ending in -eau and -age are usually masculine. However, in situations where the ending is inconclusive or where a noun is an exception to the general rule, the article (le or la) provides the gender information, with le being used for masculine nouns and la for feminine ones.


In Hindi, on the other hand, it is much harder to tell a noun's gender just by looking at it. Although it can usually be assumed that a noun ending in -a is masculine and a noun ending in -i is feminine, there are many exceptions. There is also no easy way to tell a noun's gender if it ends in any other sound; all other genders must be memorized. Hindi has no articles to provide gender information, either. If you wish to include gendered nouns in your conlang, then you could follow either of these approaches. You could also play with the number of genders in the language; if the society you've created recognizes five different genders, then perhaps that will be reflected in its language as well.


Some languages also have a case system, in which the same noun can be spelled differently based on its function in a sentence. Latin, which has a fairly extensive case system, uses suffixes to distinguish between different functions. The cases include one for the subject of a sentence, one for a direct object, one for an indirect object, and one to indicate possession.


Back in the first article of this series, I used some sample Latin sentences to demonstrate the potential for a more flexible word order. In these sentences from the first article, Puer regem videt ("The boy sees the king") and Rex puerum videt ("The king sees the boy"), we can see the case system at work. The subjects (puer/"boy" and rex/"king") both lack any sort of special ending, while the direct objects both end with -m.


Languages like English and French, on the other hand, have almost completely lost their case systems. At this point, the remnants are mostly seen in the pronouns (I/me/my in English and je/moi/mon in French) and in the possessive, where English adds an -'s to the end of the person or item that possesses something else. This means that speakers of languages like English and French must adhere to a stricter word order to limit potential confusion.


There are many options when creating your own case system. In addition to using suffixes the way that Latin does, you could also use prefixes, circumfixes (a prefix and suffix combined), and infixes (in which a syllable or syllables is inserted in the middle of a word; in English, this is mostly limited to exclamations like "Abso-freaking-lutely" and others of that nature). You could also experiment with using tonal variations, facial expressions, or something else entirely to indicate case.




Verbs can be even more complex than nouns. There are often more factors to consider when conjugating a verb properly than there are for nouns. The tense of the sentence, the gender of the subject, and whether the subject is plural can all have an effect.


In many languages, a verb can be divided into two parts: the stem, which contains the core meaning of the verb, and an indicator, typically an ending, that tells the listener or reader in what form the verb is being used. The most basic form of a verb is the infinitive, which is the "default" version of a verb--the form it takes when there is no subject or tense to require its conjugation. In English, a verb is in the infinitive when it has the word "to" in front of it, as in "to break" or "to cook." French has multiple endings for verb infinitives: -er, -ir, and -re.


When a verb is conjugated, it reveals information about the subject and the tense of the sentence, although how much and what information it reveals depends on the language. Verbs in English, for example, generally reveal very little about the subject; all simple present conjugations are the same except for the third person singular, which adds an -s to the end of the verb ("I work" vs. "She works"). An -ed is generally added to verbs in the simple past, no matter what the subject is ("I worked" and "She worked").


Hindi conjugations are also fairly simple, but they differ from English in that they take the gender of the subject into consideration. For example, a male would say MaiN Mumbai meiN rehta hooN ("I live in Mumbai"), while a female would say MaiN Mumbai meiN rehti hooN instead. The conjugation of the main verb (rehta/rehti in this example) also sometimes remains the same whether the sentence is in the past or the present. "I lived in Mumbai" would be MaiN Mumbai meiN rehta tha for a male and MaiN Mumbai meiN rehti thi for a female; the helping verb (hooN/tha/thi) is the only thing that changes.


French offers yet another possibility; although it does, as previously shown, have grammatical gender, the conjugations generally do not reflect this. The tense, however, is more directly encoded into the conjugation; for each tense, each subject pronoun requires a particular form of the verb, which is manifested in its ending. Therefore, it is difficult to mistake the present tense first person singular form of the verb parler ("to speak"), parle, with its imperfect (past progressive) form, parlais.


Mandarin Chinese, being an analytic language (see for more on this), is an exception; it does not have verb conjugations. Instead, many sentences begin with the speaker/writer stating the time frame of the event (yesterday evening/in three weeks/five years ago). If your language is analytic, then this is one option you may want to consider. However, you could also create specific words that are always used somewhere in the sentence to indicate whether an action is taking place in the past, present, or future or whether or not the action is completed.


Adjectives snd Adverbs


Adjectives and adverbs modify or describe nouns and verbs, respectively. Let's take a look at the sentence "The tall man walked quickly to the store." The adjective "tall" modifies the noun "man," while the adverb "quickly" describes the verb "walked." In English, most adverbs end in -ly.


Noun-adjective agreement, in which an adjective's spelling changes based on the gender and number of the noun that it is modifying, is not uncommon; in French, most adjectives agree with both the gender and number of the noun they modify. In English, however, this is much rarer; it only occurs in a few situations, such as the way that men are typically described as "handsome" while women are said to be "beautiful."


In English, adverbs are commonly built from adjectives, such as "beautifully" and "handsomely." In your conlang, it would be reasonably simple to require that adverbs agree with the noun as well.


This idea of agreement could also be extended to adverb/verb relationships. It would be interesting, for example, to see a constructed language in which the adverbs must agree with the tense of the verb conjugation.


The creation of a new language is a complex matter that involves many different components. Real languages, develop gradually over thousands of years through interactions between individuals and groups, between people and the world, and between different languages. As you continue to create your own constructed language, you should keep these different interactions in the back of your mind; they can have a greater impact on the development of a language than many people realize. The fourth and final part of this series will discuss the interplay between culture and language.