Let’s make a language – Part 7a: Adjectives (Intro)

We’ve talked about nouns. We’ve talked about verbs. That’s two of the main three parts of speech present in most languages, which leaves only one, and that one is the subject of this post.

Adjectives are describing words. They tell us something about a noun, such as its color (“red”), its shape (“round”), or its mood (“angry”). In theory, that’s pretty much all there is to the adjective, but we can’t stop there.

A brief introduction

Just about every language has adjectives. (Most of those that claim they don’t are merely cleverly disguising them.) And most languages have a few different sorts of adjectives. The main kind—probably the most interesting—is the attributive adjective. That’s the one that modifies a noun or noun phrase to add detail: “the red door”, “a big deal”. We’ll be seeing a lot of these.

Predicate adjectives don’t directly modify a noun phrase. Instead, they function as a “predicate”, basically like the object to a verb, as in English “the child is happy“, “that man is tall“. We’ll talk more about them a little later, because they can be quite special.

Most of the other types besides these two aren’t quite as important, but they serve to show that adjectives are flighty. Some languages let them act like nouns (the canonical English example is the biblical quote “the meek shall inherit the earth”). Some treat them like verbs, a more extreme variant of the predicate adjective where it’s the adjective itself that is marked for tense and concord and all the other verb stuff. Adjectives can even have their own phrases, just like nouns and verbs. In this case, other adjectives (or adverbs) modify the main one, further specifying meaning.

So there’s actually a lot more to the humble adjective than meets the eye.


First, we’ll look at the attributive adjectives. Except for the head noun, these will probably be the “meatiest” portions of noun phrases, in terms of how much meaning they provide. Depending on the language, they can go either before or after a noun, as we saw when we looked at word order. English, for example, puts them before, while Spanish likes them to go after the head noun.

In languages with lots of nominal distinction (case, number, gender, etc.), there’s a decision to be made. Do adjectives follow their head nouns in taking markers for these categories? They do in Spanish (la casa grande, las casas grandes), but not in English (“the big house”, “the big houses”). Also, if gender is assigned haphazardly, as it is in so many languages, do adjectives have a “natural” gender, or are there, say, separate masculine and feminine forms? What about articles? Arabic, for example, requires an adjective to take the definite article al- if it modifies a noun with one. Basically, the question can be summed up as, “How much are attributive adjectives like nouns?”

English is near one end of the spectrum. An English adjective has no special plural form; indeed, it doesn’t change much at all. At the other end, we can imagine adjectives that are allowed to completely take the place of nouns, where they are inflected for case and number and everything else, and they function as the heads of noun phrases, perhaps with a suffix or something to remind people of their true nature. Languages like this, in fact, are the norm, and English is more like the exception.


Predicate adjectives (the technical term is actually “predicative”, but I find it a bit clumsy), by contrast, seem more like verbs. In English, as in many languages, they are typically the objects of the copula verb, the equivalent of “to be”. They’re still used to modify a noun, but in a different way.

Again, as with attributives, we can ask, “How verb-like are they?” There’s not too much difference between “the man is eating” and “the man is hungry“, at least as far as word order is concerned, but that’s where the similarities end in English. We can’t have a predicate adjective in the past tense (although we can have a copula in it), but other languages do allow this. For some, predicates are verbs, in essentially every aspect, including agreement markers and other bits of verbal morphology; others allow either option, leaning one way or the other. Strangely enough, the familiar European languages are strict in their avoidance of verbal adjectives, instead preferring copulas.

If a language does permit adjectives to take on the semblance of verbs, then what parts of it? Are they conjugated for tense? Do they have agreement markers? Is every adjective a potential verb, or are only some of them? This last is an interesting notion, as the “split” between verbal predicates and nonverbal ones can be based on any number of factors, a bit like noun gender. A common theme is to allow some adjectives to function as verbs when they represent a temporary state, but require a nonverbal construction when they describe inherent qualities.


Since adjectives describe qualities of a noun, it’s natural to want to compare them. Of course, not all of them can be compared; which ones can is different for different languages. In English, it’s largely a matter of semantics: “most optimum”, among others, is considered incorrect or redundant. But most adjectives are comparable. This isn’t the case with every language, however. Some have only a special set of comparable adjectives, and a few have none at all.

Some languages offer degrees of comparison, like English’s “big/bigger/biggest” or “complex/more complex/most complex”. In these cases, the second of the trio is called the comparative, while the third is the superlative. (I don’t know of any languages that have more than three degrees of comparison, but nothing says it’s impossible. Alien conlangers, take note.)

Looking ahead

Determiners are a special class of word that includes articles (like “a” and “the”), demonstratives (“this” and “that”), possessives (“my”, “his”), and a few other odds and ends. They work a bit like adjectives, and older grammars often considered them a subset. But that has fallen out of fashion, and now they’re their own thing. I mention them here partly as a taste of things to come, and as a good lead-in for next time. I’ll talk much more about them in the next theory post, which covers pronouns, since that’s what they seem most like to me.

At this point, we’re done with the “grind” of conlanging. So far, we’ve covered everything from the sounds of a language, to the formation of words, and the three big grammatical categories of noun, verb, and adjective. Sure, we could delve deeper into any of these, and entire textbooks have been written on all of these topics, but we don’t have to worry about that. We can deal with the details as they arise. There’s plenty more to come—we haven’t even begun to look at pronouns or prepositions or even adverbs—but the hardest part, I feel, is behind us. We’re well on our way. Next, we’ll take a look at adjectives in Isian and Ardari, and you’ll get to see the first true sentences in both conlangs, along with a large selection of vocabulary.

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