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.

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