Let’s make a language – Part 6a: Word order (Intro)

We’ve looked at nouns and verbs in isolation, and even in a few simple phrases. Now it’s time to start putting things together, using these small parts as building blocks to create larger, more complex utterances. To do that, though, we need to set a few ground rules, because there’s a big difference between a jumble of words and a grammatically correct sentence. We must have order.

You have a few different options for going about this. Personally, I like to take a “top-down” approach, starting at the level of sentences and working my way down. Others prefer the “bottom-up” approach, where you work out the rules for noun phrases, verb phrases, and so on before putting them all into a sentence. Either way is fine, but the bottom-up fans will have to wait to apply the lessons of this part, since we haven’t even begun to cover adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, and all the other little bits of a language. (We’ll get to them soon, I promise.)

The sentence

Obviously, the biggest unit of speech where grammar rules actually come into play is the sentence. And sentences can be divided into a few different parts. Pretty much every one of them, for example, has a verb or verb phrase, which we’ll label V. Transitive sentences also have a subject (S) and an object (O); both of these are typically noun phrases. Intransitives, as you’ll recall, only have one argument, which we’ll also call the subject. There are also oblique phrases, which are sort of like an adverb; these will come into play a bit later, where we’ll label them X, following the convention in WALS Chapter 84. Some other kinds of phrases, like prepositions, quoted speech, and conjunctions, don’t really factor into the main word order, so we’ll look at them as they come up.

Given a basic transitive sentence, then, we have three main parts: S, V, and O. A simple count should show you that there are six possibilities of ordering them, and every one of those six is attested by some natural language in the world. The SVO order (subject-verb-object) is certainly familiar, as it’s the one used in English. SOV shows up in a number of European languages, and it’s also the main order in Japanese. The others will likely sound “off” to you; OSV and VOS, for example, are utterly alien to Western ears, which is why they were used to make Yoda sound alien.

In terms of statistics, SVO and SOV are about even around the world, SOV having a slight edge. The two of them together account for somewhere around 80% of all natural languages. VSO is a distant third, at about 10-15%, but you’ll no doubt recognized some of those: Arabic, Welsh, Irish, and Tagalog, among many others. These three, a total of over 90% or the world’s languages, all have one thing in common: the subject comes before the object.

The rest of the possibilities, where the object comes first, are much rarer, and many of those languages also allow a more common subject-first ordering. Of the three, VOS is the most common in the WALS survey, with such examples as Kiribati and Malagasy. OVS, the mirror image of English, is listed as the main form in eleven languages, including such notables as Hixkaryana and Tuvaluan. OSV, in their survey of over 1,300 languages (about a quarter of the world’s total), only shows up as dominant in Kxoe, Nadëb, Tobati, and Wik Ngathana, and I couldn’t tell you a single thing about any of them.

Conlangs have a slightly different distribution, owing to the artistic differences of their authors. According to CALS, the conlang counterpart to WALS, SVO has a narrow edge over SOV, but VSO is much more common than in the real world. The object-first trio also makes up a bigger percentage, but it’s still vastly outnumbered by the subject-first languages.

It’s certainly possible for a language to have no main word order for its sentences. This tends to be the case (pardon the pun) in languages that have case systems, but it’s also possible in caseless languages. There are even a few languages where there are two major word orders. German is an example of this; it’s normally SVO, but many sentences with more complex verb phrases often push the main verb to the end, effectively becoming SOV.

Now, in intransitive sentences, things can change a little bit. Since there’s no real object, you only have two possibilities: SV and VS. SV, as you might expect, is vastly more popular (about 6:1). But the distinct minority of VS languages also includes many of the ergative languages, which are normally SOV or SVO. Ergative languages often treat the subject of an intransitive verb like the direct object of a transitive one, so a VS order almost makes sense.

Noun phrases

Moving on, we’ll go down a level and look at those subject and object phrases. Since we haven’t quite made it to adjectives and the like, this will necessarily be a bit abstract. In general, though, noun phrases aren’t exactly like sentences. They have a head noun, the main part of the phrase, and a bunch of potential modifiers to that head. These modifiers can go either before or after the head, and their order (relative to each other) is often fixed. For example, English allows a noun phrase like the three big men, with an article, numeral, and an adjective all preceding the noun. No other permutation of these four elements is grammatically correct, though. We can’t say the big three men; the big three is okay, but then three becomes the head noun.

So we’ll have to do things a little different for this section. Instead of showing all the possible orderings of all the different parts of a noun phrase, we’ll look at each one individually.

  • Articles: Articles are a little weird. If they’re separate words, they’re often the first part of a noun phrase. If they’re suffixes or similar, then they’re last. And then you have something like Arabic, where the article is a prefix that attaches to both the nouns and adjectives in a phrase.

  • Adjectives: The topic of the next part of this series, adjectives are the main modifier words. English is actually in a minority by having its adjectives precede nouns, but it’s a sizable minority: about 25%. Noun-adjective languages make up about 60%, and there’s also a group that allows either possibility. But this tends to run in families. All the Germanic languages like adjectives first, but the Romance ones are the other way around.

  • Demonstratives: These are words like this in this man. Here, it’s too close to call. (Seriously, WALS has it as 561-542 in favor of demonstratives after nouns.) Again, though, it’s very much a familial trait. The only following-demonstrative languages in Europe are a few Celtic languages and Basque, which is always the outlier. Most of Southeast Asia, on the other hand, likes their demonstratives to be last.

  • Numerals: The “number” words are another close split, but not quite even. Call it 55-45, with following numerals having the lead. However, you could say this is due to politics. Africa, Asia, and New Guinea, with their vast numbers of languages, tip the scales. Europe, with its large, united, national languages, is universally numerals-first.

  • Genitives: This means any kind of possession, ownership, kinship, and a few other categories, not necessarily the genitive case. Genitives tend to come before nouns, again around 55%. English is among the rarities by having two different versions, one on either side of the divide: Jack’s house, the home of the brave. This one is actually somewhat related to sentence order; VO languages tend to have noun-genitive ordering, while OV languages are more likely to be genitive-first.

  • Relative clauses: We won’t be covering these for a long time, but we can already see where they’ll go. Overwhelmingly, it turns out, they go after the noun. It’s possible to have them before the noun, though, and there’s one example in Europe. (Guess which one.) It’s more common in Asia, except the Middle East. Some Native American languages even do a weird thing where they put the head noun inside the relative clause. You’ll have to look that one up yourself, or wait until the big “relative clauses” post in about three months.

Other phrases

There aren’t too many options for other phrases. Verb phrases have the option of putting adverbs before or after the head verb, the same as adjectives and nouns. Adjectives themselves can be modified, and they then become the head of their own adjective phrase, with its own order.

One case that is interesting is that of prepositions. These are the little words like in or short phrases like in front of, and we’ll see a lot more of them soon. They’re actually the heads of their own type of phrase, known in English as the prepositional phrase. And in English, they precede the rest of that phrase: at the house, in front of the car.

Well, that’s not the only option. You can also put the preposition at the end of its phrase, and this is more common in the world’s languages. Of course, then the name “preposition” doesn’t make much sense, so these are called postpositions. They’re not common in Europe, except in the non-Indo-European parts (Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian, and—naturally—Basque). Most of India likes them, though, as do Iran, Georgia, and Armenia. They’re also popular among the many languages of South America.


Basically, any time you have more than one word, you have word order. Some languages don’t make much of a fuss about it. Cases let you be free in your wording, because it doesn’t matter where an object goes if it always has an accusative suffix on it. French and Spanish allow some adjectives before the noun (e.g., grand prix), even though most of them have to follow it. And poets have made a living breaking the rules. Conlangers, really, aren’t much different.

But rules can be helpful, too. If every sentence ends with a verb, then you always know when you’ve reached the end. (There’s a joke about a German professor in here, but I don’t remember all of it.) For conlangs, word order rules become a kind of template. I know my language is VSO, for example, so I can look at real-world VSO languages for inspiration. Those tend to have prepositions, so my language will, too, because I want it to feel natural. Auxiliary languages are even more in need of hard and fast rules about word order, and they will certainly want to follow the observed connections.

In the next post, we’ll look at how Isian and Ardari put their sentences and phrases together. Then, it’s on to adjectives, the third jewel in the linguistic Triple Crown.

Character alignment

If you’ve ever played or even read about Dungeons & Dragons or similar role-playing games (including derivative RPGs like Pathfinder or even computer games like Nethack), you might have heard of the concept of alignment. It’s a component of a character that, in some cases, can play an important role in defining that character. Depending on the Game Master (GM), alignment can be one more thing to note on a character sheet before forgetting it altogether, or it can be a role-playing straitjacket, a constant presence that urges you towards a particular outcome. Good games, of course, place it somewhere between these two extremes.

The concept also has its uses outside of the particulars of RPGs. Specifically, in the realm of fiction, the notion of alignment can be made to work as an extra “label” for a character. Rather than totally defining the character, pigeonholing him into one of a hew boxes, I find that it works better as a starting point. In a couple of words, we can neatly capture a bit of a character’s essence. It doesn’t always work, and it’s far too coarse for much more than a rough draft, but it can neatly convey the core of a character, giving us a foundation.

First, though, we need to know what alignment actually is. In the “traditional” system, it’s a measure of a character’s nature on two different scales. These each have three possible values; elementary multiplication should tell you that we have nine possibilities. Clearly, this isn’t an exact science, but we don’t need it to be. It’s the first step.

One of the two axes in our alignment graph is the time-honored spectrum of good and evil. A character can be Good, Evil, or Neutral. In a game, these would be quite important, as some magic spells detect Evil or only affect Good characters. Also, some GMs refuse to allow players to play Evil characters. For writing, this distinction by itself matters only in certain kinds of fiction, where “good versus evil” morality is a major theme. Mythic fantasy, for example, is one of these.

The second axis is a little harder to define, even among gamers. The possibilities, again, are threefold: Lawful, Chaotic, or Neutral. Broadly, this is a reflection of a character’s willingness to follow laws, customs, and traditions. In RPGs, it tends to have more severe implications than morality (e.g., D&D barbarians can’t be Lawful), but less severe consequences (few spells, for example, only affect Chaotic characters). In non-gaming fiction, I find the Lawful–Chaotic continuum to be more interesting than the Good–Evil one, but that’s just me.

As I said before, there are nine different alignments. Really, all you do is pick one value from either axis: Lawful Good, Neutral Evil, etc. Each of these affects gameplay and character development, at least if the GM wants it to. And, as it happens, each one covers a nice segment of possible characters in fiction. So, let’s take a look at them.

Lawful Good

We’ll start with Lawful Good (LG). In D&D, paladins must be of this alignment, and “paladin” is a pretty good descriptor of it. Lawful Good is the paragon, the chivalrous knight, the holy saint. It’s Superman. LG characters will be Good with a capital G. They’ll fight evil, then turn the Bad Guys over to the authorities, safe in the knowledge that truth and justice will prevail.

The nicey-niceness of Lawful Good can make for some interesting character dynamics, but they’re almost all centered on situations that force the LG character to make a choice between what is legal and what is morally right. A cop or a knight isn’t supposed to kill innocents, but what happens when inaction causes him to? Is war just, even that waged against evil? Is a mass murderer worth saving? LG, at first, seems one-dimensional; in a way, it is. But there’s definitely a story in there. Something like Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” works here, as does anything with a strict code of morality and honor.

Some LG characters include Superman, obviously, and Eddard Stark of A Song of Ice and Fire (and look where that got him). Real-world examples are harder to come by; a lot of people think they’re Lawful Good (or they aspire to it), but few can actually uphold the ideal.

Neutral Good

You can be good without being Good, and that’s what this alignment is. Neutral Good (NG) is for those that try their best to do the right thing legally, but who aren’t afraid to take matters into their own hands if necessary (but only then). You’re still a Good Guy, but you don’t keep to the same high standards as Lawful Good, nor do you hold others to those standards.

Neutral Good fits any general “good guys” situation, but it can also be more specific. It’s not the perfect paragon that Lawful Good is. NG characters have flaws. They have suspicions. That makes them feel more “real” than LG white knights. The stories for an NG protagonist are easier to write than those for LG, because there are more possibilities. Any good-and-evil story works, for starters. The old “cop gets fired/taken off the case” also fits Neutral Good.

Truly NG characters are hard to find, but good guys that aren’t obviously Lawful or Chaotic fit right in. Obi-Wan Kenobi is a nice example, as Star Wars places a heavy emphasis on morality. The “everyday heroes” we see on the news are usually NG, too, and that’s a whole class that can work in short stories or a serial drama.

Chaotic Good

I’ll admit, I’m biased. I like Chaotic Good (CG) characters, so I can say the most about them, but I’ll try to restrain myself. CG characters are still good guys. They still fight evil. But they do it alone, following their own moral compass that often—but not always—points towards freedom. If laws get in the way of doing good, then a CG hero ignores them, and he worries about the consequences later.

Chaotic Good is the (supposed) alignment of the vigilante, the friendly rogue, the honorable thief, the freedom fighter working against a tyrannical, oppressive government. It’s the guys that want to do what they believe is right, not what they’re told is right. In fiction, especially modern fantasy and sci-fi, when there are characters that can be described as good, they’re usually Chaotic Good. They’re popular for quite a few reasons: everybody likes the underdog, everyone has an inner rebel, and so on. You have a good guy fighting evil, but also fighting the corruption of The System. The stories practically write themselves.

CG characters are everywhere, especially in movies and TV: Batman is one of the most prominent examples from popular culture of the last decade. But Robin Hood is CG, too. In the real world, CG fairly accurately fits most of the heroes of history, those who chose to do the right thing even knowing what it would cost. (If you’re of a religious bent, you could even make the claim that Jesus was CG. I wouldn’t argue.)

Lawful Neutral

Moving away from the good guys, we come to Lawful Neutral (LN). The best way to describe this alignment, I think, is “order above all”. Following the law (or your code of honor, promises, contracts, etc.) is the most important thing. If others come to harm because of it, that’s not your concern. It’s kind of a cold, calculating style, if you ask me, but there’s good to be had in it, and “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” is completely Lawful Neutral in its sentiment.

LN, in my opinion, is hard to write as a protagonist. Maybe that’s my own Chaotic inclination talking. Still, there are plenty of possibilities. A judge is a perfect example of Lawful Neutral, as are beat cops. (More…experienced cops, as well as most lawyers, probably fall under Lawful Evil.) Political and religious leaders both fall under Lawful Neutral, and offer lots of potential. But I think LN works best as the secondary characters. Not the direct protagonist, but not the antagonists, either.

Lawful Neutral, as I said above, best describes anybody whose purpose is upholding the law without judging it. Those people aren’t likely to be called heroes, but they won’t be villains, either, except in the eyes of anarchists.

True Neutral

The intersection of the two alignment axes is the “Neutral Neutral” point, which is most commonly called True Neutral or simply Neutral (N). Most people, by default, go here. Every child is born Neutral. Every animal incapable of comprehending morality or legality is also True Neutral. But some people are there by choice. Whether they’re amoral, or they strive for total balance, or they’re simply too wishy-washy to take a stand, they stay Neutral.

Neutrality, in and of itself, isn’t that exciting. A double dose can be downright boring. But it works great as a starting point. For an origin story, we can have the protagonist begin as True Neutral, only coming to his final alignment as the story progresses. Characters that choose to be Neutral, on the other hand, are harder to justify. They need a reason, although that itself can be cause for a tale. They can make good “third parties”, too, the alternative to the extremes of Good and Evil. In a particularly dark story, even the best characters might never be more “good” than N.

True Neutral people are everywhere, as the people that have no clear leanings in either direction on either axis. Chosen Neutrals, on the other hand, are a little rarer. It tends to be more common as a quality of a group rather than an individual: Zen Buddhism, Switzerland.

Chaotic Neutral

Seasoned gamers are often wary of Chaotic Neutral (CN), if only because it’s often used as the ultimate “get out of jail free” card of alignment. Some people take CN as saying, “I can do whatever I want.” But that’s not it at all. It’s individualism, freedom above all. Egalitarianism, even anarchy. For Chaotic Neutral, the self rules all. That doesn’t mean you have a license to ignore consequences; on the contrary, CN characters will often run right into them. But they’ll chalk that up as another case of The Man holding them back.

If you don’t consider Chaotic Neutral to be synonymous with Chaotic Stupid, then you have a world of character possibilities. Rebels of all kinds fall under CN. Survivalists fit here, too. Stories with a CN protagonist might be full of reflection, or of fights for freedom. Chaotic Neutral antagonists, by contrast, might stray more into the “do what I want” category. In fiction, the alignment tends to show up more in stories where there isn’t a strong sense of morality, where there are no definite good or bad guys. A dystopic sci-fi novel could easily star a CN protagonist, but a socialist utopia would see them as the villains.

Most of the less…savory sorts of rogues are CN, at least those that aren’t outright evil. Stoners and hippies, anarchists and doomsday preppers, all of these also fit into Chaotic Neutral. As for fictional characters, just about any “anti-hero” works here. The Punisher might be one example.

Lawful Evil

Evil, it might be said, is relative. Lawful Evil (LE) might even be described as contentious. I would personally describe it as tyranny, oppression. The police state in fiction is Lawful Evil, as are the police who uphold it and the politicians who created it. For the LE character, the law is the perfect way to exploit people.

All evil works best for the bad guys, and it takes an amazing writer to pull off an Evil protagonist. LE villains, however, are perfect, especially when the hero is Chaotic Good. Greedy corporations, rogue states, and the Machiavellian schemer are all Lawful Evil, and they all make great bad guys. Like CG, Lawful Evil baddies are downright easy to write, although they’re certainly susceptible to overuse.

LE characters abound, nearly always as antagonists. Almost any “evil empire” of fiction is Lawful Evil. The corrupted churches popular in medieval fantasy fall under this alignment, as well. In reality, too, we can find plenty of LE examples: Hitler, the Inquisition, Dick Cheney, the list goes on.

Neutral Evil

Like Neutral Good, Neutral Evil (NE) fits best into stories where morality is key. But it’s also the best alignment to describe the kind of self-serving evil that marks the sociopath. A character who is NE is probably selfish, certainly not above manipulating others for personal gain, but definitely not insane or destructive. Vindictive, maybe.

Neutral Evil characters tend to fall into a couple of major roles. One is the counterpart to NG: the Bad Guy. This is the type you’ll see in stories of pure good and evil. The second is the true villain, the kind of person who sees everyone around him as a tool to be used and—when no longer required—discarded. It’s an amoral sort of evil, more nuanced than either Lawful or Chaotic, and thus more real. It’s easy to truly hate a Neutral Evil character.

Some of the best antagonists in fiction are NE, but so are some of the most clichéd. The superhero’s nemesis tends to be Neutral Evil, unless he’s a madman or a tyrant; the same is true of the bad guys of action movies. Real-life examples also include many corporate executives (studies claim that as many as 90% of the highest-paid CEOs are sociopaths), quite a few hacking groups (those that are doing it for the money, especially), and likely many of the current Republican presidential candidates (the Democrats tend to be Lawful Evil).

Chaotic Evil

The last of our nine alignments, Chaotic Evil (CE) embraces chaos and madness. It’s the alignment of D&D demons, true, but also psychopaths and terrorists. Pathfinder’s “Strategy Guide” describes CE as “Just wants to watch the world burn”, and that’s a pretty good way of putting it.

For a writer, though, Chaotic Evil is almost a trap. It’s almost too easy. CE characters don’t need motivations, or organization, or even coherent plans. They can act out of impulse, which is certainly interesting, but maybe not the best for characterization. It’s absolutely possible to write a Chaotic Evil villain (though probably impossible to write a believably CE anti-hero), but you have to be careful not to give in to him. You can’t let him take over, because he could do anything. Chaos is inherently unpredictable.

Chaotic Evil is easy to find in fiction. Just look at the Joker, or Jason Voorhees, or every summoned demon and Mad King in fantasy literature. And, unfortunately, it’s far too easy to find CE people in our world’s history: Osama bin Laden, Charles Manson, the Unabomber, and a thousand others along the same lines.

In closing

As I stated above, alignment isn’t the whole of a character. It’s not even a part, really. It’s a guideline, a template to quickly find where a character stands. Saying that a protagonist is Chaotic Good, for instance, is a shorthand way of specifying a number of his qualities. It tells a little about him, his goals, his motivations. It even gives us a hint as to his enemies: Lawful and/or Evil characters and groups, those most distant on either alignment axis.

In some RPGs, acting “out of alignment” is a cardinal sin. It certainly is for player characters like D&D paladins, who have to adhere to a strict moral code. (How strict that code is depends on the GM.) For a fictional character in a story, it’s not so bad, but it can be jarring if it happens suddenly. Given time to develop, on the other hand, it’s a way to show the growth of a character’s morality. Good guys turn bad, lawmen go rogue, but not on a whim.

Again, alignment is not a straitjacket to constrain you, but it can be a writing aid. Sure, it doesn’t fit all sizes. As a lot of gamers will tell you, it’s not even necessary for an RPG. But it’s one more tool at our disposal. This simple three-by-three system lets us visualize, at a glance, a complex web of relationships, and that can be invaluable.

Let’s make a language – Part 5c: Verbs (Ardari)

The nouns of our conlang Ardari, you might recall, were quite complex. So you’ll be happy to know that the verbal morphology, by contrast, is actually fairly simple. That doesn’t mean it’s less capable of expressing the full range of description, nor does it mean that everything is entirely straightforward. It’s just a little easier to figure out than the nouns, that’s all.

The shape of a verb

Where Ardari nouns had three main classes, verbs effectively have two. A verbal stem can end in either a consonant or a vowel, and the vowel stems are typically verbs with an intransitive meaning. This isn’t always true, of course, but it will be a fairly effective rule of thumb. There aren’t any genders or cases to worry about, no definite markers or plurals or anything like that. Just two main classes, and they share the same basic conjugation pattern.

We’ll use the same two example words from last time, but they’ll be the Ardari stem forms brin- “walk” and tum- “eat”. See the hyphens? That means that these aren’t words in their own right. They can’t stand alone, but we’ll see how to turn them into proper words.


Like Isian and many natural languages, Ardari requires agreement markers on its verbs. They’re a bit odd, though, mainly because there are two sets of them, and they don’t exactly mean what you think. First, let’s take a look at them.

Concord Agent Sing. Agent Pl. Pat. Sing. Pat. Pl.
1st Person -o -on -ma -mi
2nd Person -tya -tyi
3rd Person -a -e -da -dyi

As you can see, the forms change for person and number, but also for “agent” and “patient”. These are more technical terms than the usual “subject” and “object”, and for good reason. They don’t quite match up. For transitive verbs, it’s simple: the subject is the agent and the object is the patient. So we can say konatö fèse tumada “the man eats food”. (Verbs usually come at the end of a sentence in Ardari, by the way.)

Intransitive verbs are a little different. For many of them, the same rule applies: the subject is the agent. This is true for our example: brino “I walk”. But some are different. This class of irregular verbs consists mainly of those with less “active” meanings, like minla- “stand”. For these, the subject takes the patient concord markers: minlama “I stand”. Most of these are verbs just like “stand”, in the sense that they’re kind of “static”. I’ll point out those few that act like this as we meet them, but it’s one more thing to watch out for. Fortunately, they’re pretty easy to spot, as they’re mostly the stems that end in vowels.

Also, there’s a special concord marker -y. This is used in two main places. First, Ardari uses this for “weather” verbs, where English would have a dummy “it” as subject, as in luvy “it’s raining”. Second, any transitive verb can take it to make a passive-like construction: fèsetö tumyd “the food was eaten”, using the preterite tense marker we’ll see in a second.

Tense and aspect

Ardari has a total of seven classes that are effectively combinations of tense and aspect. Each of them (except the present, which is considered the default) has its own suffix, and that suffix goes after the concord markers above. The choices are:

  • -s: A present “progressive” that indicates an ongoing action: fèse tumodas “I am eating food”.

  • -d: The preterite, which is effectively a past tense, but always implies a completed action: fèse tumodad “I ate food”.

  • -dyt: Usually a past tense to reference actions that were ongoing at the moment in question: fèse tumodadyt “I was eating food”.

  • -jan: Implies that an event began in the past: fèsetö tumodajan “I began to eat the food”. (The technical term is inceptive.)

  • -ll: A basic future tense: fèse tumodall “I will eat food”.

  • -lyët: Used for speaking of events that will end in the future: fèsetö tumodalyët “I’m about to finish eating the food”. (Technically known as a cessative.)

Mood markers

In Ardari, a change in mood is handled by a separate set of suffixes that follow the tense markers. These include:

  • -u (-ru when following a vowel): A simple negation marker: brinaru “he doesn’t walk” or brinasu “he isn’t walking”. This can replace the final vowel of most of the other mood markers.

  • -ka (-ga when following voiced consonants): A subjunctive, mostly used for various types of phrases we’ll see later.

  • -afi (-rafi after a vowel): A conditional mood that states that another action depends on this one: brinarafi “if I walk”.

  • -je: An imperative, for giving commands or orders, but also used to express a desire, hope, or even a call to action: tumje “let’s eat”. (When combined with the negative marker, it becomes -ju, and it’s technically called the prohibitive.)

  • -rha: This one’s a little hard to explain, but it implies that the speaker assumes or otherwise doesn’t know for sure that the action has taken place: fèsetö tumadadrha “he ate the food, as far as I know”. (This is very much a rough translation.)

Most of these can be combined. The negative marker works with pretty much all the others, and the “indirect” -rha goes with anything but the imperative. The conditional and subjunctive are mutually exclusive, though, and the imperative doesn’t make sense with anything else. In total, there are 14 sensible combinations:

  • (no suffix): indicative
  • -ka: subjunctive
  • -afi: conditional
  • -je: imperative
  • -u: indicative negative
  • -ku: subjunctive negative
  • -afu: conditional negative
  • -ju: imperative negative (prohibitive)
  • -rha: indicative indirect
  • -karha: subjunctive indirect
  • -afirha: conditional indirect
  • -rhu: indicative indirect negative
  • -karhu: subjunctive indirect negative
  • -afirhu: conditional indirect negative

These 14 moods, combined with the seven tense suffixes and the 31 possibilities for concord give Ardari just over three thousand forms for each verb, but they’re all so regular and predictable that we don’t have to worry about ever memorizing anything like that. Instead, we can just build up a verb piece by piece. That’s the power of the agglutinative style of language.


That’s pretty much it for the basics of Ardari verbs. There’s a lot more to them, but we’ll cover everything else in a later post. For now, here are some new words, including all the new verbs I’ve used so far. With the exceptions of minla- and luz-, these are all perfectly regular, even the one for “to be”.

  • to be: èll-
  • to become: onyir-
  • to seem: ègr-
  • to stand: minla-
  • to have: per-
  • to come: ton-
  • to go: shin-
  • to drink: kabus-
  • to laugh: jejs-
  • to hold: yfily-
  • to hear: ablon-
  • to wash: oznèr-
  • to cook: lòsty-
  • to speak: sim-
  • to call: qon-
  • to read: proz-
  • to write: farn-
  • to want: majtas-
  • to rain: luz-

Next time

The next post will be about word order, so that we can finally start constructing sentences in our constructed languages. After that will be the third part of the trinity of word categories, the adjective. We’re really starting to flesh out both our conlangs. Pretty soon, we’ll be able to write a whole story in them.

Let’s make a language – Part 5b: Verbs (Isian)

Verbs, as we have learned, are words of action, and we’ll start taking action on them by looking at Isian. As usual, Isian is the simpler of our two conlangs. Its verbs are fairly straightforward, and they shouldn’t be that hard to understand, even for speakers of English and other morphologically lacking languages.

The stem

Like nouns, Isian verbs start with a stem. This can be any verbal morpheme or (as we’ll see later on) a combination of them. For now, we’ll stick with the simplest form: a single morpheme stem representing a “basic” verb.

Most Isian verbal stems end in vowels, though we’ll see that there are a few very important exceptions. Some examples you’ve already met include coto “walk” and hama “eat”, and we’ll use these as our main running examples.

Tense, aspect, and mood

The three main verbal categories of tense, aspect, and mood are often lumped together, mostly because many languages make a mess of them. Isian is little different in this regard. There are four main verbal forms: present tense, past tense, perfect, and subjunctive.

Past and present should be obvious, even if you’re not a linguist. Perfect is a bit like the English pluperfect (“has walked”, “has eaten”); to a first approximation, they’re essentially identical, but we’ll see differences pop up later on. The subjunctive is a bit harder to explain. Fortunately, we won’t be using it much this time around. For now, just know that it can’t be used for the main verb of a sentence.

Now, this doesn’t mean that Isian has no way of talking about events in the future, for instance. But the language doesn’t mark these finer shades of meaning directly on the verb. Instead, it uses auxiliary verbs, much like English. As an example, nos acts as a future tense marker when placed before a verb: nos coto “he will walk”. We’ll see a whole list of the main auxiliaries in a moment, but we need a quick digression first.


One wrinkle of Isian verbs is agreement, also called concord. Each Isian verb takes a specific inflectional ending to mark the person and number of its subject. For example, coto can mean “he walks”, but to say “I walk”, we must use coton. There are four different sets of agreement markers, one for each of the three main persons (first, second, and third), while the fourth specifically marks the first-person plural, equivalent to English “we”. (We’ll say that Isian had plurals in the other two persons, but they’re gone now.)

Thus, we have a total of 16 different verbal forms. That’s way more than the maximum five of English (“eat”, “eats”, “ate”, “eaten”, “eating”), but it’s a far cry from the dozens found in Romance languages. It’s a lot, but it’s manageable. And it all fits into a neat table, too:

chere 1st Sg. 1st Pl. 2nd Pers. 3rd Pers.
Present cheren cherema cherel chere
Past chereta cherenda cherelsa cheres
Perfect cherecan cherencan cherecal cherec
Subjunctive cheredi cheredim cherelde chered

Here, I used chere “see”, but the endings are the same for all regular verbs. The first column is all the first-person singular, so its English translations would be “I see”, “I saw”, “I have seen”, and something like “that I see”. (Subjunctives are hard.) The same follows for the other columns: first-person plural is “we”, second is “you”, and third can be “he”, “she”, “it”, or “they”.

Auxiliary verbs

Most of the other tenses and aspects and moods are constructed in Isian by using auxiliaries, much like English “is”, “has”, “will”, etc. We’ve already seen the future tense nos, but there are a few more that we can introduce.

  • an: A negative marker similar to English “no”: an coto “he does not walk”.

  • cal: A mood marker like “should”: cal coto “he should walk”. (Unlike English, Isian can directly use this with the past tense: cal cotos “he should have walked”.)

  • mor: Mood marker that indicates the ability to act: mor coto “he can walk”. (In the past tense, it’s more like “could”.)

  • sum: Indicates a possibility, like “might”: sum coto “he might walk”.

  • ish: Like sum, except that implies “probably not”: ish coto “he might walk (but he likely won’t)”.

Two particular auxiliaries deserve more than a bullet point. First is ade, which actually functions as its own verb, inflecting for person just like any other, but its tenses have different meanings. In the present tense, it marks an “ongoing” aspect, like the English participle: ade coto “he is walking”. (The main verb, of course, can be in any tense: ade cotos “he was walking”, and so on.)

Put ade in the past tense, and it marks the completion of an action: ades coto “he stops walking”. Again, the main verb can change tenses independently.

Using ade in the perfect creates a “past perfect”: adec coto “he had walked”. Here, it doesn’t really matter whether the main verb is in the present, past, or perfect. The meaning is the same.

The other peculiar auxiliary verb in Isian is par, which marks the passive voice. Passives are complex in many languages, but they’re not that hard to figure out here. We can’t use coto here, because it’s intransitive, and you can’t really make intransitive verbs passive, so we’ll use our other example, hama. An active sentence might be hamata e tema “I ate the food”.

To put this in the passive voice, we do three things. First, the old object becomes the subject; the old subject can be ignored or put in as a prepositional phrase, but we haven’t discussed those yet. Second, we add par before the verb. Finally, we change the verb’s conjugation to match its new subject (the former object). Put all this together, and we get the new sentence tema par hamas “the food was eaten”.

Irregular Verbs

Isian does have a few genuinely irregular verbs. One of these, possibly the most important verb in a language, is the “copula” verb, like English’s “to be”. In Isian, it has the infinitive (or dictionary) form tet, but its conjugation looks like this:

tet 1st Sg. 1st Pl. 2nd Pers. 3rd Pers.
Present en tem il e
Past et eda tel tes
Perfect tec tec kel ec
Subjunctive meyn menim med med

Two other, similar verbs that have irregular forms are sedel “to become” and fer “to seem, look”. For these, we have:

sedel 1st Sg. 1st Pl. 2nd Pers. 3rd Pers.
Present seden sema sedil sede
Past sed seda sedel sedes
Perfect selec selec sedel sec
Subjunctive sidi sidim sid sid
fer 1st Sg. 1st Pl. 2nd Pers. 3rd Pers.
Present fen feter fel fe
Past fet feta fil fes
Perfect fen feter fel fe
Subjunctive safen safim safed safer

If you were actually learning Isian as a real language, you’d probably have to memorize these. Our imaginary Isian schoolchildren would, too.


Here are a few more verbs that you can play around with. All of these are perfectly regular, following the pattern laid out for chere.

  • to have: fana
  • to come: cosa
  • to go: wasa
  • to drink: jesa
  • to laugh: eya
  • to hold: otasi
  • to hear: mawa
  • to wash: hishi
  • to cook: piri
  • to speak: go
  • to call: tede
  • to read: lenira
  • to write: roco
  • to want: doche

Let’s make a language – Part 5a: Verbs (Intro)

Last time around, we talked about nouns, the words of people, places, and things. This post will be the counterpoint to that one, because we’re going to look at verbs.

Verbs are words of action. They tell us what is happening. We might walk to the bathroom or drive to the grocery store, and verbs are the words that get us there. But they can also help describe what we are (“to be”), what we possess (“to have”), and what we do (“to do”), along with many other possibilities. Where a noun is an object or an idea, a verb is an action or a state of being.

Just like nouns, every conlang is going to have verbs (except those specifically designed to avoid them, and they do exist). And just like nouns, they have a lot of grammatical baggage. In inflectional languages, verbs will likely have a variety of forms (think of Latin’s verb conjugations). Isolating languages, by contrast, might have verbs that are constant, but they may be able to string them together in such a way that they can create the same shades of meaning. As before, the type of conlang you want to make will influence your verbal structure, but the basic idea of “verb” will remain the same.

Parts of a verb

Where the different categories for nouns are largely concerned with identifying a specific instance of something, verbal categories are more focused on the circumstances of the action in question. The most widely recognized of these include transitivity, tense, aspect, mood, and voice. Below, we’ll look at each of these in turn.

First, though, we need to decide what kind of word the verb will be. This will depend on your conlang, and it will follow the same general pattern as the noun. Isolating languages won’t have a lot of verbal morphology, relying instead on a lot of adverbs, adjectives, and preposition-like phrases, or just more than one verb in a phrase (“serial” verbs). More polysynthetic languages, on the other hand, will tend to concentrate a lot of information in the verbal word itself; agglutinative conlangs will likely have a series of affixes, leading to long words, while inflectional types will instead have fewer affixes each with more permutations.

Second, we need to know a little bit about verbs in relation to nouns. A typical sentence in most languages will have a single verb that acts as the “head”. For our running example, we’ll use the ridiculously simple English sentence the man drives a car. Here, drives is the verb, and you can see why it’s considered the head. Change the verb, and the whole meaning of the action changes as a result. If we say pushes instead, then the man probably ran out of gas. Say steals, and now he’s a thief.

Verbs, like people, have arguments. Here, the term “argument” just means a phrase that’s directly connected to the verb in some way. Our example has two arguments: a subject (the man) and a direct object (a car). If you remember when we were talking about noun case, well, that’s what some of the cases are for. The nominative and accusative (or ergative and absolutive, if you swing that way) basically represent the two main arguments of a verb, subject and object, while the dative indicates the indirect object. (Other cases, like the ablative, aren’t for verbal arguments, so we’ll mostly ignore them here.)


The idea of transitivity isn’t one that most people think about after high school English classes, but it’s central to the construction of a verb. A transitive verb has two arguments (subject and direct object), while an intransitive verb has only one. That would be simple enough, except for the exceptions.

Few languages directly mark transitivity. Some, like English, almost ignore it. Mostly, though, there might be a special verb form to temporarily change transitive to intransitive, or vice versa. Something like this can be seen in Spanish, where a number of intransitive-looking verbs actually have a direct object, typically a reflexive pronoun like se.

If that wasn’t bad enough, there are a few verbs that don’t really fit in the transitive dichotomy. The most important of these is give, which (in many languages) takes not two but three arguments. (This is where the dative comes into play, if the language has one.)

And then there are the “impersonal” verbs, which effectively have zero arguments. Weather verbs are the most common of these. Where English uses a dummy subject (it’s raining), Romance languages can just say the verb itself (Spanish llueve).


Tense describes when an action takes place in relation to outside events. Obviously, there are three main possibilities: past, present, and future. Not all languages use these, though. English, technically speaking, only has a grammatical distinction between past and present; the future tense is just a present-tense verb preceded by the auxiliary will. And this is a fairly common arrangement. Others prefer having three explicit tenses, while a few (such as Chinese) don’t really mark tense at all on the verb.

So, when we have tense at all, past and present are usually in, and future slides in there occasionally. What else is possible? Well, a few have the opposite distinction as English, marking the past and present the same, but future differently. Another option is to add tenses, splitting either the past or future into more than one. Plenty of real-life languages do this, although probably not any you’ve ever heard:

  • Cubeo (an Amazonian language) is one that has a “historical” past tense used for events long ago.
  • The Bantu language Mwera has a tense specifically for “today”.
  • The language of the Western Torres Strait Islanders, known as Kala Lagaw Ya, is said to have six tenses, with a present, “near” and “far” versions of past and future, and a “today” past tense.
  • A few languages, mostly in Africa, have special verbal forms for “yesterday” and “tomorrow”.

In our example, we’re talking in the present tense, but we can change it to the past by saying the man drove a car. That doesn’t tell us when he drove it, only that he did at some point before now.


Where tense is concerned with an absolute fixing in time of an event, aspect tells us more about the “internal” structure. Is the action complete? Is it still ongoing? Did it just start? These are the questions aspect answers, and it turns out that there can be a lot more of them than you might think.

The first distinction, the most basic and most common, is between events that are complete or ongoing. In linguistic terms, these are the perfective and imperfective, respectively. Taking our example sentence (we’ll need to switch it to the past tense for this, but bear with me), we have the perfective the man drove a car versus the imperfective the man was driving a car. As you can see, the later fixes the “reference point” of the sentence inside the action, while the perfective version looks at the act of driving from the outside.

There are dozens of aspects, but most languages don’t directly mark more than a handful. Perfective and imperfective are common, but they’re sometimes mixed with tense, too. That’s the source of the English perfect and pluperfect, which are kind of like crossing the past tense and perfective aspect, but the result can be treated as any tense: the man has driven/had driven/will have driven a car.

Wikipedia has a long list of aspects seen in various languages, but remember that many of these are restricted to just a very few languages.


Mood (or “modality”, a more technically nuanced term) talks about how a speaker feels towards the event he’s talking about. Is it a statement of fact? A command? A wish?

Moods probably aren’t marked quite as much as tense and aspect, but a few of them cross paths with those two in some languages. The subjunctive mood (which can be used for hypotheticals, opinions, desires, etc.) shows up in English, although it’s starting to disappear in the spoken language. In Romance languages, though, it’s still going strong. Imperatives, marking commands, are found in most languages, and they often have their own morphology.

The other moods don’t show up on verbs quite as often. Some languages have an optative mood specifically for hopes and dreams, wishes and desires. Arabic has the jussive, which is a kind of catch-all mood like the subjunctive. A few languages have a special mood marker for questions, for conditions, and for events that the speaker thinks are likely to occur.

As English doesn’t really have morphology for moods, our only change to the example sentence is the subjunctive that the man drive a car, which sounds overly formal, maybe even archaic.


Voice is a way to describe the relation between the verb and its arguments. The active voice is the main one, and it means that the subject is the main “doer” or agent, while the direct object (if there is one) is the “target” or patient.

The passive voice is a common alteration. Here, the subject and object switch places. The object becomes the subject, but it’s still the patient. The former subject is demoted to a prepositional phrase (or the language’s equivalent), or it’s dropped altogether. In our English example, we would have a car was driven. (Passives in English, incidentally, have an air of formality to them. It’s popular in business specifically because it de-emphasizes the subject, which minimizes liability.)

Some languages have a middle voice, where the subject is a little bit of both agent and patient. English doesn’t have this, but it can almost emulate it: the car drove. Obviously, in that sentence, the car isn’t driving something. In a sense, we’re saying that it’s driving itself, but that’s not exactly the middle voice, either. That would be the reflexive, which appears in a few languages.

Other moods include the antipassive (where it’s the object that gets dropped, instead of the subject), the applicative, and the causative. None of these are really present in the languages we’re most familiar with, but they pop up all over the world.

Odds and ends

All this, and we still haven’t touched on things like the infinitive, the gerund, and other miscellany. Well, this post is already getting pretty long, so we’ll look at those as they come up. They’re mostly concerned with larger phrases, anyway, and we haven’t even started on those.

Next time, we’ll look at how Isian and Ardari make their verbs. Along the way, we’ll cover some of the bits left out of this post, like grammatical concord. After that, our next topic will be word order, which means we can finally make a sentence in each of our conlangs.

Writing inertia

It’s a well-known maxim that an object at rest tends to stay at rest, while an object in motion tends to stay in motion. This is such an important concept that it has its own name: inertia. But we usually think of it as a scientific idea. Objects have inertia, and they require outside forces to act on them if they are to start or stop moving.

Inertia, though, in a metaphorical sense, isn’t restricted to physical science. People have a kind of inertia, too. It takes an effort to get out of bed in the morning; for some people, this is a lot more effort than others. Athletic types have a hard time relaxing, especially after they’ve passed the apex of their athleticism, while those of us that are more…sedentary have a hard time improving ourselves, simply because it’s so much work.

Writers also have inertia. I know this from personal experience. It takes a big impetus to get me to start writing, whether a post like this, a short story, a novel, or some bit of software. But once I get going, I don’t want to stop. In a sense, it’s like writer’s block, but there’s a bit more to it.

Especially when writing a new piece of fiction (as opposed to a continuation of something I’ve already written), I’ve found it really hard to begin. Once I have the first few paragraphs, the first lines of dialogue, and the barest of setting and plot written down (or typed up), it feels like a dam bursting. The floodgates open, and I can just keep going until I get tired. It’s the same for posts like this. (“Let’s make a language” and the programming-related posts are a lot harder.)

At the start of a new story, I don’t think too much. The hardest part is the opening line, because that requires the most motivation. After that, it’s names. But the text itself, once I get over the first hurdles, seems to flow naturally. Sometimes it’s a trickle, others it’s a torrent, but it’s always there.

In a couple of months, I’ll once again take on the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) challenge. Admittedly, I don’t keep to the letter of the rules, but I do keep the original spirit: write a novel of 50,000 words in the month of November. For me, that’s the important aspect. It doesn’t matter that it might be an idea I already had but never started because, as I said, writing inertia means it’s difficult for me to get over that hump and start the story. The timed challenge of NaNoWriMo is the impetus, the force that motivates me.

And I like that outside motivation. It’s why I’ve been “successful”, by my own definition, three out of the four times I’ve tried. In 2010, my first try, I gave up after 10 days and about 8,000 words. Real life interfered in 2011; my grandfather had a stroke on the 3rd of November, and nobody in my extended family got much done that month. Since then, though, I’m essentially 3-for-3: 50,000 words in 2012 (although that was only about a fifth of the whole novel); a complete story at 49,000 words in 2013 (I didn’t feel the need to pad it out); and 50,000 last year (that one’s actually getting released soon, if I have my way). Hopefully, I can make it four in a row.

So that’s really the idea of this post. Inertia is real, writing inertia doubly so. If you’re feeling it, and November seems too far away, find another way. There are a few sites out there with writing prompts, and you can always find a challenge to help focus you on your task. Whatever you do, it’s worth it to start writing. And once you start, you’ll keep going until you have to stop.

Irregularity in language

No natural language in the world is completely and totally regular. We think of English as an extreme of irregularity, and it really is, but all languages have at least some part of their grammar where things don’t always go as planned. And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s a natural part of a language’s evolution.

Conlangs, on the other hand, are often far too regular. For an auxlang, intended for clear communication, that’s actually a good thing. There, you want regularity, predictability. You want the “clockwork morphology” of Esperanto or Lojban. The problem comes with the artistic conlangs. These, especially those made by novices, can be too predictable. It’s not exactly a big deal—every plural ending in -i isn’t going to break the immersion of a story for the vast majority of people—but it’s a little wart that you might want to do away with.

Count the ways

Irregularity comes in a few different varieties. Mostly, though, they’re all the same: a place where the normal rules of grammar don’t quite work. English is full of these, as everyone knows. Plurals are marked by -s, except when they’re not: geese, oxen, deer, people. Past tense is -ed, except that it sometimes isn’t: go and went. (“Strong” verbs like “get” that change vowels don’t really count, because they are regular, but in their own way.) And let’s not even get started on English orthography.

Some other languages aren’t much better. French has a spelling system that matches its pronunciation in theory only, and Irish looks like a keyboard malfunction. Inflectional grammars are full of oddities, ask any Latin student. Arabic’s broken plurals are just that: broken. Chinese tone patterns change in complex and unpredictable ways, despite tone supposedly being an integral part of a morpheme.

On the other hand, there are a few languages out there that seem to strive for regularity. Turkish is always cited as an example here, the joke being that there’s one irregular verb, and it’s only there so that students will know what to expect when they study other languages.

Conlangs are a sharp contrast. Esperanto’s plurals are always -j. There’s no small class of words marked by -m or anything like that. Again, for the purposes of clarity, that’s a good thing. But it’s not natural.

Phonological irregularity

Irregularity in a language’s phonology happens for a few different reasons. However, because phonology is so central to the character of a language, it can be hard to spot. Here are a few places where it can show up:

  • Borrowing: Especially as English (American English in particular) suffuses every corner of the planet, languages can pick up new words and bring new sounds with them. This did happen in English’s history, as it brought the /ʒ/ sound (“pleasure”, etc.) from French, but a more extreme example is the number of Bantu languages that borrowed click sounds from their Khoisan neighbors.

  • Onomatopoeia: The sounds of nature can be emulated by speech, but there’s not always a perfect correspondence between the two. The “meow” of a cat, for instance, contains a sequence of sounds rare in the rest of English.

  • Register: Slang and colloquialism can create phonological irregularities, although this isn’t all that common. English has “yeah” and “nah”, both with a final /æ/, which appears in no other word.

Grammatical irregularity

This is what most people think of when they consider irregularity in a language. Examples include:

  • Irregular marking: We’ve already seen examples of English plurals and past tense. Pretty much every other natural language has something else to throw in here.

  • Gender differences: I’m not just talking about the weirdness of having the word for “girl” in the neuter gender. The Romance languages also have a curious oddity where some masculine-looking words take a feminine article, as in Spanish la mano.

  • Number differences: This includes all those English words where the plural is the same as the singular, like deer and fish, as well as plural-only nouns like scissors.

  • Borrowing: Loanwords can bring their own grammar with them. What’s the plural of manga or even rendezvous?

Lexical irregularity

Sometimes words just don’t fit. Look at the English verb to be. Present, it’s is or are, past is was or were, and so on. Totally unpredictable. This can happen in any language, and one way is a drift in a word’s meaning.

  • Substitution: One word form can be swapped out for another. This is the case with to be and its varied forms.

  • Meaning changes: Most common in slang, like using “bad” to mean “good”.

  • Useless affixes: “Inflammable means flammable?” The same thing is presently ongoing as “irregardless” becomes more widespread.

  • Archaisms: Old forms can be kept around in fixed phrases. In English, this is most commonly the case with the Bible and Shakespeare, but “to and fro” is still around, too.

Orthographic irregularity

There are spelling bees for English. How many other languages can say that? How many would want to? As a language evolves, its orthography doesn’t necessarily follow, especially in languages where the standard spelling was fixed long ago. Here are a few ways that spelling can drift from pronunciation:

  • Silent letters: English is full of these, French more so. And then there are all those extra silent letters added to make words look more like Latin. Case in point, debt didn’t always have the b; it was added to remind people of debitus. (Silent letters can even be dialectal in nature. I pronounce wh and w differently, but few other Americans do.)

  • Missing letters: Nowhere in English can you have dg followed by a consonant except in the American spelling of words like judgment, where the e that would soften the g is implied. (I lost a spelling bee on this very word, in fact, but that was a long time ago.)

  • Sound changes: These can come from evolution or what seems like sheer perversity. (English gh is a case of the latter, I think.)

  • Borrowing: As phonological understanding has grown, we’ve adopted a kind of “standard” orthography for loanwords, roughly equivalent to Latin, Spanish, or Italian. Problem is, this is nothing at all like the standard orthography already present in English. And don’t even get me started on the attempts at rendering Arabic words into English letters.

In closing

All this is not to say that you should run off and add hundreds of irregular forms to your conlang. Again, if it’s an auxlang, you don’t want that. Even conlangs made for a story should use irregular words only sparingly. But artistic conlangs can gain a lot of flavor and “realism” from having a weird word here and there. It makes things harder to learn, obviously, but it’s the natural thing to do.

Let’s make a language – Part 4c: Nouns (Ardari)

For nouns in Ardari, we can afford to be a little more daring. As we’ve decided, Ardari is an agglutinative language with fusional (or inflectional) aspects, and now we’ll get to see a bit of what that entails.

Three types of nouns

Ardari has three genders of nouns: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Like languages such as Spanish or German, these don’t necessarily correspond to the notions of “male”, “female”, and “everything else”. Instead, they’re a little bit arbitrary, but we won’t make the same mistakes as natural languages when it comes to assigning nouns to genders. (Actually, we will make the same mistakes, but on purpose, not through the vagaries of linguistic evolution.)

Each noun is inflected not only for gender, but also for number and case. Number can be either singular or plural, just like with Isian. As for case, well, we have five of them:

  • Nominative, used mostly for subjects of sentences,
  • Accusative, used mainly for the direct objects,
  • Dative, occasionally seen for indirect objects, but mostly used for the Ardari equivalent of prepositional phrases,
  • Genitive, indicating possession, composition, and most places where English uses “of”,
  • Vocative, only used when addressing someone; as a result, it only makes sense with names and certain nouns.

So we have three genders, two numbers, and five cases. Multiply those together, and you get 30 possibilities for declension. (If you took Latin in school, that word might have made you shudder. Sorry.) It’s not quite that bad, since some of these will overlap, but it’s still a lot to take in. That’s the difficulty—and the beauty, for some—of fusional languages.


Masculine nouns in Ardari all have stems that end in -a. One example is kona “man”, and this table shows its declensions:

kona Singular Plural
Nominative kona kono
Accusative konan konon
Genitive kone konoj
Dative konak konon
Vocative konaj konaj

Roughly speaking, you can translate kono as “men”, kone as “of a man”, etc. We run into a bit of a problem with konon, since it could be either accusative or dative. That’s okay; things like this happen often in fusional languages. We’ll say it was caused by sound changes. We just have to remember that translating will need a bit more context.

Also, many of these declensions will change the stress of a word to the final syllable, following our phonological rules from Part 1.


Feminine noun stems end in -i, and they have these declensions (using chi “sun” as our example):

chi Singular Plural
Nominative chi chir
Accusative chis chell
Genitive chini chisèn
Dative chise chiti
Vocative chi chi

The same translation guides apply here, except we don’t have the problem of “syncretism”, where two cases share the same form.


Neuter nouns have stems that can end in any consonant. Using the example of tyèk “house”, we have:

tyèk Singular Plural
Nominative tyèk tyèkar
Accusative tyèke tyèkòn
Genitive tyèkin tyèkoj
Dative tyèkèt tyèkoda
Vocative tyèkaj tyèkaj

A couple of these (genitive plural, vocative) are recycled from the masculine table. Again, that’s fairly common in languages of this type, so I added it for naturalism.


Unlike Isian, Ardari doesn’t use separate words for its articles. Instead, it has a “definiteness” marker that can be added to the end of a noun. It changes form based on the gender and number of the noun you’re attaching it to, coming in one of a few forms:

  • -tö is the general singular marker, used on all three genders in all cases except the neuter dative.
  • -dys is used on masculine and most neuter plurals (except, again, the dative).
  • -tös is for feminine plurals.
  • Neuter nouns in the dative use for the singular and -s for the plural.

The neuter dative is weird, partly because of a phonological process called “haplology”, where consecutive sounds or syllables that are very close in sound merge into one. Take our example above of tyèk. You’d expect the datives to be tyèkètto and tyèkodadys. For the singular, the case marker already ends in -t, so it’s just a matter of dropping that sound from the “article” suffix. The plural would have two syllables da and dys next to each other. Speakers of languages are lazy, so they’d likely combine those into something a bit less time-consuming, thus we have tyèkodas “to the houses”.

New words

Even though I didn’t actually introduce any new vocabulary in this post, here’s the same word list from last week’s Isian post, now with Ardari equivalents. Two words are a little different. “Child” appears in three gendered forms (masculine, feminine, and a neuter version for “unknown” or “unimportant”). “Friend”, on the other hand, is a simple substitution of stem vowels for masculine or feminine, but you have to pick one, although a word like ast (a “neutered” formation) might be common in some dialects of spoken Ardari.

  • sword: èngla
  • cup: kykad
  • mother: emi
  • father: aba
  • woman: näli
  • child: pwa (boy) / gli (girl) / sèd (any or unknown)
  • friend: asta (male) / asti (female)
  • head: chäf
  • eye: agya
  • mouth: mim
  • hand: kyur
  • foot: allga
  • cat: avbi
  • flower: afli
  • shirt: tèwar

Let’s make a language – Part 4b: Nouns (Isian)

Keeping in our pattern of making Isian a fairly simple language, there’s not going to be a lot here about the conlang’s simple nouns. Of course, when we start constructing longer phrases (with adjectives and the like), things will get a little hairier.

Noun roots

Isian nouns can look like just about anything. They don’t have a set form, much like their English counterparts. But we can divide them into two broad classes based on the last letter of their root morphemes: vowel-stems and consonant-stems. There’s no difference in meaning between the two, and they really only differ in how plural forms are constructed, as we shall see.


For all intents and purposes, Isian nouns don’t mark case. We’ll get to pronouns in a later post, and they will have different case forms (again, similar to English), but the basic nouns themselves don’t change when they take different roles in a sentence.

The plural (with added gender)

The plural is where most of Isian’s noun morphology comes in. For consonant-stems, it’s pretty simple: the plural is always -i. From last week, we have the nouns sam “man” and talar “house”. The plurals, then, are sami “men” and talari “houses”. Not much else to it.

For vowel-stems, I’ve added a little complexity and “naturalism”. We have three different choices for a plural suffix. (This shouldn’t be too strange for English speakers, as we’ve got “-s”, “-es”, and oddities like “-en” in “oxen”.) So the possibilities are:

  • -t: This will be the most common marker. If all else fails, we’ll use it. An example might be seca “sword”; plural secat.

  • -s: For vowel-stems whose last consonant is a t or d, the plural becomes -s. (We’ll say it’s from some historical sound change.) Example: deta “cup”; plural detas.

  • -r: This one is almost totally irregular. Mostly, it’ll be on “feminine” nouns; we’ll justify this by saying it’s the remnant of a proper gender distinction in Ancient Isian. An example: mati “mother”; matir “mothers”.

As we go along, I’ll point out any nouns that deviate from the usual -i or -t.


Like English, Isian has an indefinite article, similar to “a/an”, that appears before a noun. Unlike the one in English, Isian’s is always the same: ta. It’s never stressed, so the vowel isn’t really distinct; it would sound more like “tuh”.

We can use the indefinite when we’re talking about one or more of a noun, but not any specific instances: ta sam “a man”; ta hut “some dogs”. (Note that we can also use it with plurals, which is something “a/an” can’t do.)

The counterpart is the definite article, like English the. Isian has not one but two of these, a singular and a plural. The singular form is e, and the plural is es; both are always stressed.

These are used when we’re talking about specific, identifiable nouns: e sam “the man”; es sami “the men”.

More words

That’s all there really is to it, at least as far as the basic noun structure. Sure, it’ll get a lot more complicated once we through in adjectives and relative clauses and such, but we’ve got a good start here. So, here’s a few more nouns, all of which follow the rules set out in this post:

  • madi “mother” (pl. madir)
  • pado “father” (pl. pados)
  • shes “woman”
  • tay “child” (pl. tays)
  • chaley “friend”
  • gol “head”
  • bis “eye”
  • ula “mouth”
  • fesh “hand”
  • pusca “foot”
  • her “cat”
  • atul “flower”
  • seca “sword”
  • deta “cup” (pl. detas)
  • jeda “shirt” (pl. jedas)

Faith and fantasy

Religion is one of those things that, as an author or game designer, you have to treat very carefully. The risk of offense is too great, especially in the politically-correct, offense-first world of today. It’s easy to fall into a trap of pigeonholing real-world religions. “Evil, Arabian-looking bad guys that act like Muslims” is practically a genre trope at this point; two examples that I’ve read include the Fanim of R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing trilogy and the Krasians of Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle. “Evil, hierarchical church that looks Roman Catholic” isn’t exactly uncommon, either.

But that’s not really the subject of this post. Sure, the popular religions in the world are the way they are, and they’re easy to relate to, easy to understand, because we see them every day. But different cultures, especially in different worlds than our own, are going to have different ways of looking at religion, faith, philosophy, and the supernatural. And their beliefs will shape their society, just as ours, historically, have shaped our own.

Of God and gods

In the West, there are three major religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. In addition, there are a number of others that have significantly less popular appeal. The East, conversely, gives us the trio of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shinto, along with a host of minor faiths. (And by “minor”, I mean they have fewer followers, not that they’re less important or less valuable.) And, of course, we also have the “non-religions” of atheism and agnosticism, as well as a number of systems of belief that might better be grouped under “philosophy”.

Even the largest of religions is not monolithic, however. Christianity has a whole spectrum of sects (“denominations”), and many Americans have become familiar with the major divisions of Islam (Sunni and Shia). Some can even spot the difference between some of the different sects of modern Judaism (Orthodox, Reform, etc.). We know comparatively far less about the other side of the world, though; most people in the US probably think of all Buddhists as Zen, for example.

In fantasy literature, religion—when it is mentioned at all—usually only gets a passing nod. There might be the occasional oath, prayer, or swear, but a story where the beliefs of the people are not the focus often ignores those beliefs. And that’s fine. If it’s not an important worldbuilding detail, then there’s probably not much reason to put it in.

Conversely, games, especially tabletop role-playing games, make religion an integral part of the story. D&D (and its offshoots, like Pathfinder) has lists of deities, each with their own domain, and these almost always function like the pantheons of old, except with added benefits for certain believers. (In D&D, for example, clerics and paladins usually must follow a deity, and they receive divine blessings and spells in return.) In a way, despite there being a very detailed summary of religion, it’s abstracted away into a game mechanic.

And again, there’s nothing wrong with that. Players shouldn’t be forced to study theology just to play a game. But fantasy, both literature and gaming, has a problem understanding the link between religion and society, and that link was a very real, very important part of the period of history favored by fantasy.

One to many

We all know the “origin stories” of the major Western religions, whether creation, crucifixion, or revelation. But all of these, as well as those less-familiar faiths of the world, had a major impact on the development of society. The Middle Ages, that favorite era of fantasy literature and games alike, was shaped by religion. In many ways, you could even say it was defined by religion.

When fantasy posits a pantheon (like D&D), that actually breaks the world for their other main assumption: the feudal monarchy. Feudalism, serfdom, the divine right of kings, knighthood, and all those other conceits of medieval Europe are based on a thousand years of Christianity.

“The end is coming soon, so get ready,” goes the common Christian refrain, and that’s largely been true since the 30s. No, not the 1930s, but the 30s, as in 30 AD. Christianity has always had a strain of the apocalyptic—the last book of the Bible is, after all, supposed to be a vision of the End of Days—though it has waxed and waned through the ages. In the medieval period, it was mostly waxing. Plague, famine, pestilence, and war were facts of life, especially for the lower classes, and there wasn’t much they could do about it. “The meek shall inherit the earth” was the closest thing to hope for the future that many people had.

If you replace the strict belief in God (whose eternal good was countered by the increasing influence of the Devil) with a nebulous—if effectual—pantheon, then things change dramatically. Get rid of the Church, the Pope, and all the other trappings of medieval Christianity, and all of society will develop differently.

Changing the game

In medieval Europe, the Church had supreme power, and all of it was centered on the Pope. He could make kings (or break them), crown emperors, canonize martyrs, or call crusades. His announcements of doctrine, the papal bulls, were regarded as nothing less than official interpretations of scripture. And he had one ultimate, terrifying weapon: excommunication.

All that it did was ban a person or group of people from Communion, effectively ostracizing them from the Church. But in a world where the eternal soul was seen as infinitely more important than its mortal frame, this was enough to turn even the most hardened of hearts. Rebels, heretics, willful kings, and political enemies all faced the threat of excommunication, and almost every one of them quailed in the face of such a punishment. Rebellions could end entirely once word came from Rome that their leaders had been cast out of the Church, no longer able to receive the blessings of Christ and thus condemned to Hell for all eternity. Even whole cities (such as Florence) were put under that threat simply to scare their rulers into complying with the Church’s wishes or dogma.

Besides the Church’s chief weapon (I’ll spare you the Monty Python jokes) and its total control of doctrine, it also changed Europe by bringing in its own social structure. Monasteries, hermitages, nunneries, convents, and abbeys all had their roles to play, and they were all part of the Church. And these weren’t always what you’d think from movies. Monks could be rich, nuns literate, and hermits not always loners living in caves. One of them even got elected as pope: Celestine V, who quit after a few months. (Every other pope from 1294 onwards ruled until he died or was cast out, until Benedict XVI not long ago.)

The Christian church and faith was the single largest influence on the development of the Middle Ages. Because of it, the Black Death was asserted as a sign of coming Armageddon, as was the famine that preceded it, and the Mongol horde that may have brought it. Without the church, the culture of monasticism wouldn’t have been so prevalent, nor would the orders of crusading knighthood, such as the Templars, Hospitallers, and the Teutonic Order exist.

Indeed, even the period’s systems of economy and government are indebted to Christianity. Feudalism lasted as long as it did mostly because people were taught that it was the natural order of things. Serfs were born to be serfs, and nobles to be nobles, and there were shelves full of books explaining all the ways you could see how that was true. Nobles, for instance, were taller, heavier, and healthier. Nobody bothered to note that this was because of nutrition and the often harsh working conditions of the peasantry. Rather, it was taken as part of the divine plan.

The realm of fiction

Fantasy likes to take the feudal society of Europe (especially the later, post-plague society where feudalism began to falter) and make it its own, without taking along the religious aspect that made it possible. In essence, you could say that medieval, feudal Europe came about because of Constantine, the emperor of Rome who converted himself and then his empire to Christianity.

Without a strong, central Church, you lose most of the foundations of the setting. If every city or nation can make its own doctrine, then you have very little world unity and shared culture. With more than one deity to worship, with no fixed scripture proclaiming the end of the world and the promise of a utopic afterlife, then there is no motivation for serfdom, for the glory of crusade.

Even technology is affected by the change in faith. Cathedrals, the defining monument of the Middle Ages, were built because of religion. Sure, a polytheistic culture might build great temples, and they would likely come to many of the same discoveries about building, but would they have the same styles? Likely not. They certainly wouldn’t be laid out in the shape of a cross, like the European cathedrals.

Some areas might become more advanced if you lift the strictures of Christianity. Machinery that could aid in work was often overlooked, simply because there were always more laborers to throw at a problem. The science of astronomy was held back by the belief that the stars were the realm of God, thus unknowable to man. And how would banking develop if the Christian constraints on usury didn’t exist to create a niche (and a stereotype) filled by Jews?

Magic, of course, is an obvious addition to any fantasy world, but it also existed (not really, but in people’s minds) in the Middle Ages. It’s something that was well-known, but totally forbidden. Fireball-wielding mages would have to be fit into the religious world-view, and where would they go? The sorcerers of the aforementioned Prince of Nothing series are excommunicated by default, but it’s easy to imagine a setting where the wizards are seen as messengers or even avatars of God or the gods.

Like so many other topics in worldbuilding, a few decisions change the outcome completely. Monotheism, logically speaking, probably leads to one of the same outcomes as it did in our world. Polytheism is reflected in ancient Rome and even modern India, as well as most fantasy. A lot of other ideas require more thought. If God is everywhere, in everything, then who needs temples or churches? If the world is full of spirits that inhabit every living thing, how can you eat and still live with yourself? (Yes, that means an animist world could have even stricter dietary laws than Islam. Think of Hinduism’s sacred cows.)

The length of time that a religion has existed will also play a role in a society’s development. The older something is, the more likely it is to change. Faiths fracture, sectarianism grows, especially if there is no central authority. A polytheistic culture is prone to develop “local” gods; Athena, patron of Athens, is a good example. New religions exist in a state of flux, as everyone vies for the right to be considered orthodox, often with disastrous consequences for those that lose. (How many Gnostics do you know?)

Rituals, prayers, and even the calendar can also be affected. The word “holiday” literally means “holy day”, and that’s where the oldest of them come from. Christmas and Easter are the ones everybody knows, although few know that they’re replacements for “pagan” holidays celebrating the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. But Lent and Ash Wednesday were far more important in the Middle Ages. All Saints’ Day, another pagan substitution, has become so marginalized that we celebrate the night before it instead: Halloween. Different religions, though, will have their own holy times: Ramadan, Hanukkah, and so on. As for prayers, who do you pray to when you have a hundred gods to choose from? Who is the one to memorize all the appropriate rituals?

End of this day

As always, there’s a lot to think about, and your choice is one of how deep to go. Obviously, if religion isn’t a major part of your world, then there’s not too much you have to do. But religion might be a significant part of your characters’ world, and it might show in the way they act, think, talk.

Faith and logic don’t always have a lot in common, it’s true. This is one place where the latter makes the former possible. It’s not your faith you’re worried about. Presumably, you’ve already decided that, and it shouldn’t have any bearing on your created world. Logically working out the beliefs of your world and their effects, though, can make for a deeper immersion into your story. It might even make some people think.