Let’s make a language, part 24a: The mind (Intro)

Humans are not alone in having emotions, desires, and mental capacities. We are, however, alone on this planet in having the higher cognition functions commonly described as sapience. (Now, there’s nothing saying alien species can’t have the same, but that’s a different post.) And we’re also alone in possessing the full capabilities of language. In this part of the series, we’ll look at how those two uniquely human attributes combine to produce the linguistic expression of our minds, and how a language can encode those attributes.

The center of thought

Cogito ergo sum, goes the saying, and it may be one of the most profound in existence. I think, therefore I am. It’s pure humanity distilled into three words of Latin, five of English. We are thinking beings. We can think about thinking. And we can speak about thinking.

Thought, then, is going to play a part in any language’s vocabulary. We have the English verb think to start, obviously, but that’s far from the end of the story. Not only can we think, but we can know. We can understand or comprehend. We can deduce, perceive, and reason. All these are related to thought and cognition, but in different ways. Knowing something is true, for example, is different from knowing (i.e., recognizing) a person’s face; some languages split this distinction into two verbs. Understanding and comprehending are likewise slightly different, but then there are languages out there that combine the two into a single term.

Without veering too far into philosophy, it’s still easy to see the potential for a lot of vocabulary variation. How a culture’s speech divides the linguistic space of thought tells a lot about how they think. It’s not quite the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (language determines thought patterns), but you might think of it as a weaker form.

Of course, talking about the mind’s function is a lot easier for us than for, say, the ancient Greeks. But most of our technical terminology comes from classical sources, formed following the usual agglutinative patterns of English scientific vocabulary. A conlang might look to its own “classical” cousin for inspiration, or it might borrow from a more advanced neighbor, or its speakers could instead choose to coin their own terms. That’s up to you.

The seat of emotion

Although the ancients may have considered the heart the source of human emotion, we now know it comes from the brain. So emotions therefore fall under the category of mental terms, too.

Emotion is easy for us to recognize, for reasons that should be fairly obvious—society probably couldn’t function if we didn’t know how to read the unspoken signals of our fellow man. So it’s not surprising that many languages have a native stock of emotion words. We can say we’re happy or sad, for instance. We can talk about feeling love or envy towards another. But every language runs out eventually; there aren’t any native English words for ennui, acedia, or Schadenfreude, among many others.

Humans all feel roughly the same variety of emotions, too (ignoring psychopaths and the like), so there’s going to be a good cross-linguistic alignment of emotion terms. One language may have three different kinds of “happy”, but you can bet none of them are going to indicate anger. (For non-human conlangs, this is another chance to get creative. Short-circuiting basic assumptions regarding emotion will very easily give a culture an alien feel.)


There’s a lot to the mind. Philosophers wouldn’t have spent the last few thousand years talking about it otherwise. It’s the center of our humanity, the source of thought, reason, logic, and emotion. What we do with it is up to us, but how we talk about it is a matter of language. There’s not too much room for variation here, except in the margins. As long as we’re thinking, we’ll have a verb to say that’s what we’re doing. As long as we can feel happiness, there will be a word for it.

Strictly speaking, the next part of this series, Part 25, is supposed to be about business. However, I’ve got other plans for the month of April, including some Patreon and Amazon releases, so I’m putting off the next installment of “Let’s Make a Language” until May. I’ve been going at it for about two years now, and I think I deserve a break.

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