Let’s make a language, part 19a: Plants (Intro)

Plants are everywhere around us. Grass, trees, flowers…you can’t get away from them. We eat them, wear them, and write on them. Growing them for our own use is one of the markers of civilization. Which plants a culture uses is as defining as its architectural style…or its language.

Every language used by humans will have an extensive list of plant terms. It’ll have names for individual plants, names for collections of them, names for parts of them. How many? Well, that depends. To answer that question, we’ll need to do a little worldbuilding.

The easy method

If you’re creating a modern (or future) language intended to be spoken by everyday humans, your task is fairly easy. All you have to do is borrow plant terms from one of the major languages of the day: English, Spanish, etc. Or you can use the combination of Latin and Greek that has served the West so well for centuries. Either way, an auxlang almost doesn’t need to make its own plant words.

Even naturalistic languages set in modern times can get away with this a bit. Maybe some plant terms have “native” words, but most of the rest are imported, just like the plants themselves. You could have native/loanword pairs, where the common folk use one word, but educated or formal contexts require a different one.

Harder but better

The further you get from modern Earth, the harder, but ultimately more rewarding, your task will be. Here’s where you need to consider the context of your language. Where is it spoken? By whom? And when? How much of the world do its speakers know?

Let’s take a few examples. The grapefruit is a popular fruit, but its history only extends back to the 1700s. A “lost” language in medieval Europe wouldn’t know of it, so they wouldn’t have a word for it. (Which is probably close to why it received the rather generic name of “grapefruit” in the first place.) Coffee, though grown in Colombia today, is native to the Old World, so ancient Amazonians would have never seen it. It wouldn’t be part of their world, so it wouldn’t get a name. Conversely, potatoes and tomatoes are American-born; you’d have to have a really good reason why your hidden-in-the-Caucasus ancient language has words for them.

For alien planets, it’s even worse. Here, you don’t even have the luxury of borrowing Earth names. But that also gives you the ultimate freedom in creating words. And that leads us to the next decision: which plants get which names.

Making your own

Remember this one general principle: common things will have common names. The more “outlandish” something is, the more likely it will be represented by a loanword. Also, the sheer number of different plants means that only a specific subset will have individual words. Most will instead be derived. In English, for example, we have the generic berry, describing (not always correctly) a particular type of fruit. We also have a number of derived terms: strawberry, blueberry, raspberry, huckleberry, and so on. Certain varieties of plants can even get compound names that are descriptive, such as black cherries; locative, like Vidalia onions; or (semi-)historical, such as Indian corn.

Plants often grow over a wide area, so it stands to reason that there will be dialectal differences. This provides an element of depth, in that you can create multiple words for the same plant, justifying them by saying that they’re used by different sets of speakers. Something of an English example is corn itself. In England, “corn” is a general term referring to a grain. For Americans, it’s specifically the staple crop of the New World, scientific name Zea mays. Back across the pond, that crop is instead called maize, but the American dialect’s “maize” tends to connote less-cultivated forms, such as the multicolored “Indian corn” associated with Thanksgiving. Confusing, I know, but it shows one way the same plant can get two names in the same language.

The early European explorers of America had the same problem a budding conlanger will have, so we can draw some conclusions from the way they did it. Some plants kept their native names, albeit in horribly mangled forms; examples include cocoa and potato. Some, such as tomatillo (Spanish for “little tomato”), are derived from indigenous terms. A few, like cotton, were named because they were identical or very close to Old World plants; the Europeans just used the old name for the new thing. Still others got the descriptive treatment, where they were close enough to a familiar plant to earn its name, but with a modifier to let people know it wasn’t the same as what they were used to.

The other side

In the next two entries, we’ll see what words Isian and Ardari use for their flora, and then it’s on to the other side of the coin, the other half of the couple. Animals. Fauna. Whatever you call them, they’re coming up soon.

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