Let’s make a language – Part 10b: Relative clauses (Conlangs)

(Editor’s note: I wrote this two weeks ago. It’s only the calendar that put it out on Christmas Day.)

As I said before, I think relative clauses are hard to wrap your head around. Fortunately, once we know the basics, it’s much easier to put them into a conlang. Let’s do that now, with Isian and Ardari.

Isian relatives

Isian relative clauses always appear at the end of a noun phrase. That one’s pretty much the only non-negotiable part of the nominal grammar. But how do we make them? As it turns out, in one of two different ways, depending on what we’re relativizing.

For subjects, Isian uses a simple gap strategy. The only way you’ll know it’s a relative clause is by a special marker ke that goes before the verb. For example, “the man who saw me” translates as e sam ke cheres men. In a sense, ke functions almost like English that, as a complementizing particle, but it’s more tightly bound to the verb than the noun.

A couple more examples, using only old vocabulary:

  • es esher ke dalega e sush talar “the girls that live in the blue house”
  • ta almerat shes ke barda e ficha shimin “a wise woman who prays at the river”

Everything else that needs to be relativized works differently. (This, by the way, is an example of the accessibility hierarchy in action.) For these, Isian uses a resumptive pronoun. This is just a personal pronoun in the appropriate case and number, and it takes the place of the relativized argument. Changing our first example around, we would have e sam ke chereta im, meaning “the man I saw”. (Literally, this would be “the man I saw him”, which is ungrammatical in English.) Note that ke is still used, but im appears as the object, in a resumptive context.

More examples include:

  • e talar ke dalegan em i ed “the house where I live” (or “the house in which I live”)
  • lichacal ke rococan em ed “everything I have written”
  • es des ke an din fanama des mit “the things we can’t have”

Also, in this type of relative clause, Isian’s normal SVO word order isn’t quite as rigid. Resumptive pronouns can be fronted for emphasis, although they can’t come before ke and the verb. Actually, in these cases, the normal word order almost becomes VSO, with VOS a distinct alternative.

So, that’s the basic outline for Isian relative clauses. Compare that to the length of the last post, and you can see what I mean when I say that they’re hard to understand, but easier to implement. Now, let’s take a look at Ardari.

Ardari relatives

Grammatically speaking, this is one instance where Ardari is actually far simpler than Isian. It uses a full complementizing gap strategy throughout. The relative argument, whether subject, object, oblique, or genitive, is fronted and replaced by qa. The relative clause then slides into the noun phrase just before the head noun.

  • Subject: qa tyèketö wi reje sèdardös, “the children playing in the house”
  • Object: tura qa grätod ènglatö, “the long sword I made”
  • Oblique: qa chès tatyerod astitö, “the friend I danced with”
  • Genitive: sli qa me kyure yfilyod nälitö “the beautiful woman whose hand I held”

Postpositions are fronted, but not replaced, so they’re effectively “dangling”, although it’s impossible to end the sentence with one. (This should cause such a conflict in grammar pedants’ minds that it will shut them down for good.) The last two examples above illustrate this, with the postpositions chès “with” and me “of”; the latter is the way to make an Ardari genitive in a relative clause, since qa doesn’t have case forms. Putting these two in a “standard” form would give us astitö chès tatyerod “I danced with the friend” and slini nälinitö kyure yfilyod “I held the beautiful woman’s hand”, respectively.


There’s not much else to say, really. Again, the hard part is understanding relative clauses enough to know how to put them in your conlang. Putting them in turns out to be almost trivial in comparison. Who would have guessed?

Next time, we’ll look at the “other” kind of relative clause, more properly called the “adverbial” clause. Before that, though, next week will be special. See you next year!

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