Let’s make a language – Part 14a: Derivation (Intro)

By this point in the series, we’ve made quite a few words, but a “real” language has far more. English, for instance, is variously quoted as having anywhere from 100,000 to over a million different words. How do they do it? Up to now, we’ve been creating words in our conlangs in a pretty direct manner. Here’s a concept, so there’s a word, and then it’s on to the next. But that only takes you a very short way into a vocabulary. What we need is a faster method.

Our words so far (with a few exceptions) have been roots. These are the basic stock of a language’s lexicon, but not its entirety. Most languages can take those roots and construct from them a multitude of new, related words. This process is called derivation, and it might be seen as one of the most powerful weapons in the conlanger’s arsenal.

How to build a word

Derivation is different from inflection. Where inflection is the way we make roots into grammatically correct words, derivation is more concerned with making roots into bigger roots. These can then be inflected like any other, but that’s for after they’re derived.

The processes of derivation and inflection, however, work in similar ways. We’ve got quite a few choices for ways to build words. Here are some of the most common, with English examples where possible.

  • Prefixes: morphemes added to the beginning of a root; “un-” or “anti-“.
  • Suffixes: morphemes added to the end of a root; “-ize” and “-ly”.
  • Compounding: putting two or more roots together to make a new one; “football” or “cellphone”.
  • Reduplication: repeating part or all of a root; “no-no”, “chit-chat”.
  • Stress: changing the stress of a root; noun “permit” and verb “permit“.

Stem changes (where some part of the root itself changes) are another possibility, but these are more common as inflections in English, as in singular “mouse” versus plural “mice”. Tone can be used in derivation in languages that have it, though this seems to be a little rarer.

Also, although I only listed prefixes and suffixes above, there are a few other types of affixes that sometimes pop up in derivation. Infixes are inserted inside the root; English doesn’t do this, except in the case of expletives. Circumfixes combine prefixes and suffixes, like German’s inflectional ge-t. The only English circumfix I can think of is en-en, used to make a few verbs like “enlighten” and the humorous “embiggen”. Finally, many languages’ compounds contain a linking element. German has the ubiquitous -s-, and English has words like “speedometer”.

Derivations of any kind can be classified based on how productive they are. A productive derivation is one which can be used on many words with predictable results. Unproductive derivations might be limited to a few idiosyncratic uses. These categories aren’t fixed, though. Over time, some productive affixes can fall out of fashion, while unproductive ones become more useful due to analogy. (“Trans-” is undergoing the latter transformation—ha!—as we speak, and some are pushing for wider use of the near-forgotten “cis-“.)

Isolating languages are a special case that deserves a footnote. Since the whole point of such a language is that words are usually simple, you might wonder how they can have derivation. Sometimes, they will allow a more “traditional” derivation process, typically compounding or some sort of affix. An alternative is to create phrases with the desired meaning. These periphrastic compounds might be fixed and regular enough in form to be considered derivations, in which case they’ll follow the same rules.

What it means

So we have a lot of ways to build new words (or phrases, for the isolating fans out there) out of smaller parts. That’s great, but now we need those parts. For compounds, it’s pretty easy, so we’ll start with those.

Compounding is the art of taking two smaller words and creating a larger one from them. (And it is indeed an art; look at German if you don’t believe me.) This new word is somehow related to its parts, but how depends a lot on the language. It can be nothing more than the sum of its parts, as in “input-output”. Or the compound may express a subset of one part, like “cellphone”.

Which words can be compounded also changes from language to language. Putting two nouns together (“railroad”) is very common; which one goes first depends, and it’s not always as simple as head-first or head-final. Combinations of two verbs are rarer in Western languages, though colloquial English has phrasal compounds like “go get” and “come see”. Adjective-noun compounds are everywhere in English: “redbird”, “loudspeaker”, and so on.

Verbs and nouns can fit together, too, as they often do in English and related languages. “Breakfast” and “touchscreen” are good examples. Usually, these words combine a verb and an object into a new noun, but not always. Instrumental compounds can also be formed, where the noun is the cause or means of the action. In English, these are distinguished by being noun-verb compounds: “finger-pointing”, “screen-looking”. They start out as gerunds (hence the -ing), but its trivially easy to turn them into verbs.

Really, any words can be compounded. “Livestreaming” is an adjective-verb compound. “Aboveboard” combines a preposition and a noun. The possibilities are endless, and linguistic prescription can’t stop the creative spirit. You don’t even have to use the whole word these days. “Simulcast”, “blog”, and the hideous “staycation” are all examples of “blended” compounds.

All the rest

Compounds are all made from words or, more technically, free morphemes. Most of the other derivational processes work by attaching bound morphemes to a root. Some of these are highly productive, able to make a new word out of just about anything. Others are more restricted, like the rare examples of English reduplication.

Changing class

Most derivations of this type change some part of a word’s nature, shifting it from one category to another. English, as we know, is full of these, and its collection makes a good, exhaustive list for a conlanger. We’ve got -ness (adjective to noun), -al (noun to adjective), -fy (noun to verb), -ize (adjective to verb), -able (verb to adjective), and -ly (adjective to adverb), just to name a few. Two special ones of note are -er, which changes a verb to an agent noun, and its patient counterpart -ee.

In general, a language with a heavy focus on derivation (especially agglutinative languages) will have lots of these. One for each possible pair isn’t out of the question. Sometimes, you’ll be able to stack them, as in words like “villification” (noun to verb and back to noun) or “internationalization” (noun to adjective to verb to noun!).

Changing meaning

Those derivations that don’t alter a lexical category will instead change the meaning of the root. We’ve got a lot of options here, and English seems happy to use every single one of them. But we’ll look at just a few of them here. Most, it must be said, were borrowed from Latin or Greek, starting a couple hundred years ago; these classical languages placed a much heavier emphasis on agglutination than English at the time.

Negation is common, particularly for verbs and adjectives. In English, for example, we’ve got un-, non-, in-, dis-, de-, and a-, among others. For nouns, it’s usually more of an antonym than a negation: anti-.

Diminutives show up in a lot of languages, where they indicate “smallness” or “closeness” of some sort. Spanish, for instance, has the diminutive suffix -ito (feminine form -ita). English, on the other hand, doesn’t have a good “general” diminutive. We’ve got -ish for adjectives (“largish”) and -y for some nouns (“daddy”), but nothing totally regular. By a kind of linguistic analogy, diminutives often have high, front vowels in them.

Augmentatives are the opposite: they connote greatness in size or stature. Prefixes like over-, mega-, and super- might be considered augmentatives, and they’re starting to become more productive in modern English. By the same logic as above, augmentatives tend to use back, low vowels.

Most of the others are concerned with verbal aspect, noun location, and the like. In a sense, they replace adverbs or prepositions. Re-, for example, stands in for “again”, as pre- does for “before”. And then there are the outliers, mostly borrowed from classical languages. -ology and -onomy are good examples of this.


We’ve heavily focused on English so far, and that’s for good reason: I know English, you know English, and it has a rich tradition of derivation. Other languages work their own ways. The Germanic family likes its compounding. Greek and Latin had tons of affixes you could attach to a word. Many languages of Asia, Africa, and the Pacific have very productive reduplication. Although I used English examples above, that’s no reason to slavishly follow that particular language when constructing your own.

In the next two posts, we’ll see how Isian and Ardari make new words. Each will have its own “style” of derivation, but the results will be the same: near-infinite possibilities.

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