I Before E, Except After C

So a few weeks back I talked about the basics of creating a language. In it, I shared a list of sounds and the Latin letter used for transliteration. Today I’m going to expand upon that by taking a look at some grammatical rules.

For your own conlang purposes, you may want to research how some languages are formed. Learning a new (real) language can also be incredibly helpful, as it makes you think about how sentences are put together. Not every language can throw the words around willy-nilly. In English, the sentence “Tom chased the tiger” is very different from “the tiger chased Tom”. But in some languages (*cough*Ancient Greek*cough*), word order is almost irrelevant because nouns and verbs end differently based on their purpose in the sentence.

Is that an appealing feature to include in your conlang? Or is meaning entirely dependent on word order? Perhaps some middle ground?

In addition to word order, you need to think about cases and tenses. The case of a noun (e.g., Dative, Accusative, Vocative) tells you its purpose (Indirect Object, Direct Object, Direct Address respectively… for English anyway). In some languages these cases have specific endings or ways of structuring a word to indicate its purpose in the sentence. These also can change based on the gender and whether the word is singular or plural. Verbs are similar, in that the have tenses (e.g., past, present, past perfect). Again, some languages (most?) have the verbs end differently to indicate which tense they are. Generally adverbs and adjectives have to agree in tense/case with the word they modify.

So how does your conlang show the difference between the subject of the sentence (Nominative case), something that belongs to the subject (Genitive case), something that they did in the past (past tense), and something they are going to do in the future (future tense)? Does word order matter? Is it entirely based on how the word starts, ends, is accented, or some other feature?

These are the sorts of things you need to be thinking about as you create some basic grammatical rules for your conlang. The rules I came up with for mine are as follows:

  • Nouns have a minimum of 3 letters and a maximum of 6
  • Nouns always start with W or E and never end with W, E, C, or V
  • Verbs have a minimum of 3 letters and a maximum of 6
  • Verbs always start with C or V and never end with W, E, C, or V
  • Adjectives are always 3 letters and precede the noun they modify
  • Adjectives always start with O or U and never end with W, E, C, or V
  • Adverbs are always 3 letters and precede the verb they modify
  • Adverbs always start with S or M and never end with W, E, C, or V
  • Prepositions and connecting words are only 2 letters long and only use Y, H, A, F, N, and T
  • There are no spaces between words
  • Double letters are not allowed, except in prepositions/connecting words
  • If a word starts with the same letter as the word preceding ends with, then the first letter of the second word is dropped (replaced with an apostrophe in transliterations) (e.g., “blue eagle” would become “blue ‘agle”
    • Only the first letter is ever dropped
  • The end of a sentence or line is marked by a breathing pause (/ in transliterations), while the end of a paragraph, topic, or idea is marked by a long break (// in transliterations)

Now, due to these rules, there are 556,920 nouns, 556,920 verbs, 234 adjectives, 234 adverbs, and 36 prepositions possible (for a total of 1,114,344 potential words). While that seems like a lot, the English language has approximately 1 million words.

But, I also know that I need some way of showing subject, possessive, direct object, indirect object, direct address, present tense, past tense, future tense, and proper names.

So if I say that a noun that is the subject will always end in A, possessives end in F (so Gary’s book -because the book belongs to Gary), direct objects in Y, indirect in H, and direct address in N. For verbs, present tense always ends in A, past in F, and future in Y.

This drops our total possible words down to 571,704. Almost half of what we had before! This is a good thing in that the number of potential words I need to define is significantly lower, but bad because that’s a lot of potential English words that now no longer have a meaning in my unnamed conlang. Then again, only having 36 connecting words and prepositions is probably going to be more limiting than a dictionary of 570k words.

Carrying on… for plurals and proper names, I added two extra letters/symbols. Anything that is plural will have a “ts” sound (X) added to the end of the word, while proper names will have a “hd” sound (D) added to the start of the word. Thus these two don’t change any of the above rules, or the number of words. But it’ll make it easier to differentiate between a flower, many flowers, and somebody named Flower.

Will these be my only rules? Probably not, but I feel that they’re enough to get started building the language. Something else to keep in mind is that as you grow your language you’re going to want to keep an open mind to adding or changing rules. Maybe Nouns and Verbs should be 4-7 (rather than 3-6) letters long, Adjectives and Adverbs 4 (rather than 3), so that Prepositions/Connecting Words can be 2-3 (rather than 2). That would give me an additional 180 potential words. Of course, right now I’m going forward with my limited 36. But like I said… be open to needing to tweak the rules.

And always bear in mind that there is an exception to every rule.

My planned exception is that I wasn’t planning on having individual names/nouns for things -so no word for “spider”, “horse”, or “pants”. These names are derived from a combination of general nouns and descriptions. So spider = “net-making crawling insect”, horse = “domesticated large land mammal” (as opposed to “edible large land mammal” for a cow), and pants = “clothes of lower body”. So many of these terms have been adopted from English based on what the English word sounds like. So spider = syef (ss-ye-eh-ff), horse = hofsy (hu-ou-ff-ss-ye), and pants = cants (sh-ah-mh-th-ss). (Because there are no “p”, “d”, “r”, “n”, or “t” sounds in the language -and I’m not sure if these words are going to be “adopted” or not)

Now, while it’s my hope that this helps handle the fact that there’s a limited vocabulary, because there are no spaces between words I need to think of a way for the start of these adopted words to be identified. This may result in some rule changes.

But for now, it’s time to start working on some words and simple sentences.

Check back on July 6th for the next installment on building a conlang.

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One thought on “I Before E, Except After C

  1. Pingback: Can You Understand Me Now? | Scribbles in the Margins

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