Language creation guide part 2: Grammar - Nouns
Now that we've finished our first major 2 steps, creating the sound and alphabet of our language, it's time to move onto another huge chunk of work: grammar.
Grammar can be as simple or complicated as you wish, but whichever option you choose, don't overdo it. Also try to prevent yourself from copying too much from a single language. Mix and match elements from several languages or make up your own in order to make sure your language doesn't feel like a copy of something that already exists, but with different sounds.
In this second part of the guide I'll mostly cover nouns and how they change in a sentence. Verbs, adjectives and other parts will be covered in the next parts as there's a whole lot to cover.
We're first going to get a little technical here. Morphemes are the smallest grammatical units of a language. There are 2 types of morphemes:
- Free: A free morpheme can be used on its own or combined with others to form a lexeme. For example, 'book' is a free morpheme. It can be used on its own or be combined to form 'bookstore' and other words.
- Bound: A bound morpheme can only be used as part of a word. For example, the 's' in 'books' is a bound morpheme. It can change the meaning (UNhappy), the amount (bookS) and the tense (workED) of a free morpheme.
Now the reason why this is important is because morphemes are a huge part of grammar, they're pretty much the building blocks you choose to form your grammar rules and that's why you need to pick them right at the beginning.
Right now you mostly have the decide on what type of bound morphemes you'd like to use in your language. Do you want to use prefixes? Suffixes? Both? Something different?
There's a huge variety of ways you can go with morphemes and they can make a language incredibly complex, especially since morphemes sometimes lack rules.
For example, in English there are a whole lot of suffixes to show the nationality of something. -ian (Canadian, Malaysian), -ese (Japanese, Chinese), -ish (English, Spanish) are just a few examples. Then there are the exceptions which don't seem to use any prefix or suffix (French, Dutch, Greek).
The same applies somewhat to prefixes which negate the meaning of a word. -un (unpolished), -im (impossible), -in (inappropriate). Although in this case it relies mostly on the origin of a word, but that means you'd have to know the origin.
Do note that not everything requires a morpheme. It could if you wish, but sometimes the same can be done by changing the syntax, which is the order of words in a sentence.
In the next steps of this guide all this will become clearer. I will go through the grammar in mostly smaller steps and seeing where you could use a morpheme will be more obvious.
Nouns, verbs and adjectives
Before we continue with picking morphemes for all the small grammatical nuances in language, we first have to decide one important thing: Does your language have nouns, verbs and adjectives? This may seem like an odd question as verbs, nouns and adjectives are generally the 3 most important parts of a sentence, but a language doesn't need all 3 of them to still make sense.
It can be very tricky to wrap your head around the lack of nouns, verbs or adjectives and the possible extra rules which come with it, as you'll find out below.
The easiest one to remove is the adjective. You can treat them as verbs instead or you could use nouns instead. An adjective used as a verb would go as follows: Instead of 'the house is large' you'd say 'the larging house'.
Using nouns instead would go as follows: 'the man is slow' would be 'the snail man' or any other noun which indicates something slow. You could argue 'snail' is an adjective in this example, but you're probably looking at it with English grammar rules in mind, not the (fictional) rules of another language.
Also remember that adjectives can be turned into adverbs, nouns can't. In English you would say 'the man walks slowly', in the fictional example above you'd say 'the snail man walks'. Alternatively you could create a rule which turns nouns into adverbs instead.
Removing nouns is a little trickier. You could treat them like verbs by using the verb 'to be', which adds a unique way to indicate death. The noun horse would 'to be horse', which would lead to a sentence like 'the fast is horse ', or if the horse has died: 'the fast was horse'.
But using this method tends to add unnecessary elements to a language. If there's a word for horse in 'to be horse', why use 'to be' at all? However, this method could still work well for languages which are purposely a little more poetic.
Getting rid of verbs is very difficult to do, mostly because it's very difficult to wrap your head around the idea of not using verbs. Getting rid of verbs means sentences will have many different meanings and it generally only works for very basic languages.
A real life example of this is Riau Indonesian or Riay Malay (same thing, some people call it one or the other). This language lacks far more than just verbs and there's a famous example sentence to illustrate this: 'Ayam makam'. This literally translates to 'chicken eat', but the meaning of that sentence can mean a whole range of things, like 'I ate chicken', 'the chicken that is eating', 'the chicken is making somebody eat', 'someone is eating next to the chicken' and so on.
Having said all that, you can still get rid of some verbs, some nouns and some adjectives. You could do it for a specific case, like changing nationality nouns into verbs, or you could get rid of very specific parts, like getting rid of the verb 'to be' or all color adjectives and use natural nouns instead, like turning 'the yellow house' into 'the sun house'.
Another thing you'll have to decide is the syntax, which is the order of words and the rules behind that order. Some languages have a strict order which cannot be changed without changing the meaning of that sentence completely, English is such a language. For example, the order of the sentence 'I love writing books in the park' cannot be changed. 'I love in the park writing books' is incorrect in English, but in some languages it means the exact same as 'I love writing books in the park' and in some languages that order is the only correct one.
Like most aspects of language there are exceptions to this. In English you can say 'I cannot do this' and 'This I cannot do'. The latter isn't something you'd say in every day life, but it's used a lot in (fantasy) writing.
These exceptions do offer a way to implement formal and informal speech or another unique feature for your language. Maybe some verbs have to follow one order and other verbs follow another, maybe it's gender specific or maybe you've come up with an entirely different rule all together.
The order of a sentence isn't all that important in the big picture, but picking a specific order can help with creating a specific type of language, whether human or alien. The biggest factor of this order is the order of the subject, verb and object.
svo, sov, vso, vos, osv, ovs
There are 6 possible orders for the subject, verb and object. Verb - object - subject (VOS), verb - subject - object (VSO) and so on. Roughly 75-80% of the languages in the world either use SVO or SOV. VSO is used in about 15% and the other 3 orders make up the final 5-10%.
So, to refer back to my point in part 1 about breaking the rules to make a language sound alien, VOS, OSV and OVS are good choices to make a language sound different to most people in the world.
Obviously you can pick whichever order you'd like, they clearly all work in the human world so picking one of the lesser used ones for your fictional human language isn't wrong. The order is a choice of personal taste, it's your language after all.
Right, back to phonemes and we're starting with another big one: gender. Many languages use genders for nouns in some shape or form, it's something that can make a language seem complicated, especially to outsiders, but it's also something which allows for a whole lot of creativity.
Gender doesn't have to relate to male and female either, some languages use more than 2 genders, like one for humans, animals, inanimate objects and so on.
You could also apply it to formal and informal, upper and lower class, spiritual and nonspiritual, age, natural and unnatural and pretty much anything else you can come up with.
Gender phonemes also allow for a new range of insults. You wouldn't refer to a human by using a phoneme meant for animals, at least not unless you intend to insult that person or if you're just messing around with a friend.
Obviously your language doesn't have to have genders, English doesn't. It'll be up to you to decide whether the extra work, which is relatively small, is worth the nuances and creative aspects you get in return.
Pluralization may seem like a straight forward step when it comes to adding a bound phoneme. In English we add an 's' or 'es', but there are exceptions to that rule, like sheep, aircraft and fish.
Many languages use a similar system of adding a small phoneme to indicate the plural form of a noun, but there are plenty of ways to do it differently, which many real languages do.
But let's first decide what the plural form indicates. In English (and many other languages) the plural form indicates there's more than 1 of something. 'Dogs' could mean there's 2 dogs or 15000. But it's perfectly possible to have a system which uses a more precise form of pluralization without having to use additional adjectives or nouns. For example, dogs could mean there's a handful of them, dogz could mean there's dozens of them, but less than 100 and dogsz could mean there are more than 100 of them.
Now how would you indicate a plural form without using a small phoneme, like the 's' in English? Some languages use nothing at all, whether a noun is plural or not will simply depend on the context.
Some languages use an adjective or noun to do the trick, which could be seen as more logical. 'There are many pony' is less grammatical work than 'There are many ponies'.
Some languages change part of the original noun, which we also do in some cases in English. Man becomes men and goose becomes geese. If you're going to do this for all nouns in your language you may wish to create some rules to make it easier for yourself, but rules aren't necessary, as I pointed out before with how nationality is indicated in English.
There are also plenty of languages which use reduplication, which is the repetition of a word. Indonesian is an example of this. The plural of pig is pig-pig. Japanese does it too in some cases, 'hito' (person) and 'hitobito' (people) and so does Chinese with 'rén' (person) and 'rénrén' (people).
When looking at nouns 'case' is the role of that noun within a sentence. Here are a few examples to illustrate this by changing the case of the noun 'world':
- The world is great. (nominative case or subject)
- I love the world. (accusative case or object)
- The world's nature is great. (genitive case or possessive)
In English we rarely indicate a case with a phoneme, but there are plenty of languages that do. Latin is such a language. In the 3 examples the word 'world' would be written as 'mundus', 'mundum' and 'mundi'.
Some languages have a huge amount of cases, Finnish for example has 15 noun cases. How many you want in your language is of course up to you, there's no rule or recommended limit, but having a large amount could make it more difficult to share your language with others, if that's (part of) your goal.
In English we show possession by using pronouns and adjectives, like mine and my, but some languages use different phonemes for this. You could use a simple prefix or suffix, like 'houseme' or 'mehouse', but the end result is generally roughly the same.
But remember to include the gender phonemes you've created earlier, if you decided to use those.
We use no honorifics in English, but some languages do, like Japanese. Japanese has a whole range of honorifics, like '-san' and '-chan'. Honorifics offer a whole range of possibilities, some of which can get complicated when there are formal and informal versions of verbs and/or adjectives as well.
But at the same time it's a great way to reflect the culture behind the language and you don't have to make it all that complicated. Using honorifics for only nouns makes it a whole lot easier and it offers ways to show affection, whether positive or negative.
Augmentatives and diminutives
Augmentatives are ways to express a greater form of a noun. Diminutives express a lesser form of a noun. This could be in terms of size, but it could also be in other terms, like stature or excess.
Many languages use both and some use it for more than just nouns, but we're going to stick with nouns in this section.
Examples of augmentatives are 'grand' in 'grandmaster' and 'arch' in 'archangel'. Examples of diminutives are 'ling' in 'duckling' and 'let' in 'booklet'.
Whether you want to use whole words or small phonemes to express either form is up to you, but whole words do generally fit better for augmentatives as the words themselves help express the added greatness, like 'grand' or 'super'. Small phonemes work great for diminutives as they express the smallness of the noun, 'doggie' sounds smaller and cuter than 'smalldog' or 'tinydog'.
The topic is the noun that the sentence is about. What the topic is is usually determined by word order or a small phoneme, like -wa in Japanese. In English the topic is determined by word order as it's the first part of a sentence. 'The kitten slept on my bed', the topic is 'the kitten'.
How you want to express the topic in your language will mostly be an aesthetic choice, but make sure it makes sense with the other choices you've made so far.