I am messing around with a conlang and trying to figure out how to write sentences. Man this is hard, there are so many possibilities and I don't know where to start.

But basically, I am looking at Chinese right now for inspiration. I like the fact that it doesn't have any prefixes or suffixes (for the most part?), and everything is atomic. It seems like a cool way to build up meaning from pieces, rather than writing long words with many prefixes or suffixes like Turkish. English has suffixes and prefixes too but they are way less extreme than Turkish from what I've seen.

I would like to write a language with a sort of English-level of prefixes and suffixes, maybe like Spanish a little, because I like the sound of it rather than having every word be one syllable. But to accomplish this, it seems to require that I distinguish clearly between nouns and verbs and adjectives, by giving them different endings.

big-a red-a tree-o grow-i past-a
the big red tree grew

For example, adding -a on adjectives, -o on nouns, and -i on verbs. Then using the Chinese-style past tense word rather than a special ending. But this works okay for single-syllable words like I've chosen. But not if you take into account a system where you might have words themselves which end in -a, -o, or -i, or if you have really long words like:

the prominent institution evaluated everything serendipitously

If you had that equivalent in a custom language, I can't see a system which clearly distinguishes between nouns and verbs and adjectives. You start adding prefixes and suffixes all over the place to try and distinguish things, etc.. But then I look at real languages, and they don't do that, they somehow just work. Why?

This brings me to Chinese. I don't know Chinese but I imagine there are words which can be either nouns or verbs, and in addition there seem to be no patterns to the pronunciation of nouns as opposed to verbs or adjectives. Yet somehow you can distinguish between them in a sentence. It is as if I am imagining the Chinese equivalent of this:

branch tree have flower

All of these words are both nouns and verbs, and yet we can pretty much gather the meaning that:

The branch of the tree has a flower

How do we do this? What system is in place for Chinese to allow you to distinguish the adjectives, verbs, and nouns in a sentence? I would like to use such a system as inspiration in a play conlang. It would help to know if it's possible to not require annotating adj/v/n with suffixes like I showed above, which just extends the words potentially unnecessarily. How does this work?

  • 2
    English doesn't really mark parts of speech morphologically, and even when it does, there's some ambiguity. So how can English-speakers recognize verbs vs nouns so easily in "he reads a lot" vs "clarinets have reeds"? The answer is syntax. – Draconis Dec 8 '20 at 17:42
  • Have isn’t really a noun except in edge cases (‘haves and have-nots’) – but in such edge cases, any utterance can be nominalised. And as @Draconis says, the answer is syntax. Chinese, like English, uses syntactic clues and plain common sense. Classical Chinese is the parade example for lexemic ambiguity and extreme reliance on context: most words can be either nouns, adjectives, verbs or adverbs and relate to elided content; cf. the classic 父父父 fù fù fù meaning ‘my grandfather treats my father in the way it’s appropriate for fathers to treat their sons’. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 9 '20 at 0:51
  • @Draconis can you elaborate on "the answer is syntax"? – Lance Pollard Dec 10 '20 at 9:28
  • "that which you read" puts read at the end of the sentence, I don't get what kind of syntax... – Lance Pollard Dec 10 '20 at 9:49
  • @LancePollard I don't know enough Chinese to give a proper answer in that language, but if you add a note saying answers for other languages are acceptable I can explain for English. Short version, words can't just be thrown together in any order; the rules for how they can be combined are called the "syntax" of the language, and those rules tell you that words in certain positions must be nouns, in others must be verbs, etc. – Draconis Dec 10 '20 at 17:24

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.