A noun, as we learned in school, is a person, place, or thing. Of course, there’s more to it than that. Later in our education, ideas and abstract concepts get added in, but the general notion of “noun” remains the same. All natural languages have nouns, and they almost always use them for the same thing. How they use them is where things get interesting.
The Noun Itself
Nouns are going to be words. In fact, they’re probably going to be the biggest set of words in a language, owing to the vast array of people and objects and ideas in the world. The most basic nouns (i.e., the ones we’re discussing today) are represented by a single morpheme, like “dog” or “car”. Later on, we’ll get into more complicated nouns that are built up (derived) from other words, but we’ll keep it simple this time.
So we have a morpheme, which we’ll call the root. This root is the core bit of meaning; if we change it completely, we change the whole noun. We can modify the root a little, however, and some languages require us to do this. In English, for example, a noun like dog refers to a single dog. If we want to talk about four of them, we have to write dogs. Similarly, the Latin word aqua, meaning “water”, becomes aquam if it’s used as the object of a sentence.
Most languages that mark these shades of meaning (subject vs. object, one vs. many) do so via suffixes, like the English plural -s. A few work more with prefixes; these are mostly lesser-known languages in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. English is a little weird in having yet another way of marking the distinction of number: sound change, as in words like goose and geese. (It inherits this from its Germanic roots.) Semitic languages, particularly Arabic, take this a step further, but Semitic morphology is a vastly overused element of conlangs, so I won’t discuss it much here.
Isolating languages, on the other hand, don’t really go in for this kind of thing. Their nouns mostly stay in the same form, but they can still represent the same ideas in different ways. If you’re working with a language like this, then the grammatical categories we’ll see in the rest of this post will likely be formed by additional words rather than suffixes or prefixes.
Probably the most basic (and most common) distinction made for nouns is that of number. Not every language has it—aficionados of Japanese know that the correct plural of “manga” is still “manga”—and that’s certainly a valid possibility for a conlang.
Besides an absence of number, what possibilities are there? First, there’s a division between one and many, singular and plural, with the singular taken as the default. That’s very common, and it’s familiar from English and most other European languages. But it’s not the only way. Some other number markings include:
A dual number, representing two of something. Arabic and Sanskrit have this, and there are remnants of it in English, with words like “both” and “either”.
Marking both singular and plural, each differently, as in Swahili mtoto “child” vs. watoto “children”. In this case, the singular prefix isn’t part of the root.
A distinction between “mass” and “count” (or “uncountable” and “countable”) nouns. Mass nouns like English “water”, logically enough, don’t appear in the plural.
A category of number specifically referring to “a few” or “some”. This is called the paucal, and it pops up here and there. Usually, it means anywhere from two to ten or so, probably because people have ten fingers.
Some languages mark for two of a noun, and some mark for a few. Three is an obvious next choice, and there are indeed a handful of languages with a “trial” number, but they only use it in pronouns (which are the subject of a later post), not the nouns themselves. Four is right out.
Gender in language has almost nothing to do with gender in anything else. For many languages, it’s almost completely arbitrary. Sure, the word for “man” might be in the masculine gender, and “woman” in the feminine, but just about anything else is possible. German Mädchen “girl” is neuter, as is Old English wīf “woman, wife”. Irish has cailín “girl” as a masculine noun, while Spanish gente “people” is feminine, no matter what kind of people it’s talking about. Of course, things don’t have to be this confused. A lot of the gender oddities are caused by historical sound changes. Conlangs don’t generally have this problem, although some authors like to add the semblance of such things.
For those languages that have gender, having two of them is common. Usually, that’s masculine and feminine. Some languages instead distinguish between animate and inanimate nouns, though there aren’t too many of these left around. Swedish managed to merge masculine and feminine at some point, resulting in the dichotomy of “common” and “neuter”.
Neuter is a popular third gender; it might be analyzed as an absence of gender, except that some nouns that do have a sex are classified under it, like those examples above. With a neuter gender, sexless items such as inanimate objects often end up there, but they can also fit into one of the others.
Languages can also make more than two or three distinctions of gender. You could have, for example, a language that has four, where every noun is either masculine or feminine, and either animate or inanimate. Some languages (notably the Bantu languages, including Swahili) have a wide variety of categories that might be called gender, though they’re more of a noun “class”.
Anybody who ever took Latin in school knows about case. And they probably hate it. Case is a way of marking the role a noun has in a sentence, such as subject or object. It can also be used to show finer points of meaning, such as those marked in English by prepositions like “in” or “with”.
A lot of languages don’t have case, or only use it in certain places. English doesn’t for its nouns, but does for pronouns (“he”, “him”, “his”), and that’s actually not that rare. Other languages seem to love cases; Finnish has a dozen or so, depending on who’s counting. Generally speaking, it seems that inflectional languages are especially fond of large case systems. Isolating languages make do with something like prepositions. Conlangs can be absolutely anywhere on the spectrum, from caseless languages to the monstrosity of Ithkuil, which has 96. (Granted, Ithkuil is intended to be unrealistic.)
There’s more to nouns than meets the eye, and I’ve only covered about half of it. Wikipedia’s page on grammatical category has a wealth of knowledge about everything above, plus all the stuff I didn’t cover.
What it can’t tell you, though, is which of these categories nouns in your conlang should have. The answer to that depends on a number of factors. For an auxiliary language, you’ll want to be pretty simple. Alien conlangs can (should, even) break the Western mold.
Number is a fairly easy choice, but there’s a hidden complexity in there. (Just look at all the plural exceptions in English!) Gender has its problems, some of them even political, but it also has the potential to make things truly interesting. A matriarchal culture, for instance, might take offense at the idea that “masculine” is the default gender in a language. Cases make a language harder to learn, I would say, but they do feel like they add a “precision” to meaning. It’s possible to go overboard, though. (Actually, studying Finnish grammar isn’t the worst idea for a budding conlanger. It worked for Tolkien.)
The next two posts are going to cover basic nouns in Isian and Ardari, along with a bunch of added vocabulary. Those, combined with the pointers in this post, should be enough to stimulate your own imagination. After that, we’ll move on to verbs, so that we can make our nouns do things.