Language creation guide part 4: Bits and pieces
We're almost done with creating the grammar of our language, but there are still some smaller parts we have to cover, parts like pronouns and questions.
Fortunately all these parts are small and both easy to digest and create. You can of course go nuts and make it as complicated as you wish, but most elements we're about to cover are generally quite simple in the majority of languages.
When we're done with these bits and pieces we finally get to the final part: creating the vocabulary of our language, which may be surprisingly complicated if you delve into the little details, but more on that later.
First the easy ones: non-personal pronouns. There's a simple table below which shows all the possible non-personal pronouns in most of our languages, I've filled it in with the English pronouns.
All you have to do now is fill in your own words for most of the possible options. However, languages rarely, if ever, have a word for every option, so don't fill in all the options. Some options are simply expressed using multiple words, like the last 3 options for reason are 'some reason', 'every reason' and 'no reason' in English.
You can also add to the possibilities. An easy example is further distinguishing between thing and person, by adding animal for example. Or how about more versions of 'some', one for just 1 'some' (somebody), 1 for a couple of 'some' (like "somecouple") and 1 for many 'some' (like "somepeople"). Obviously those last 2 words are made up, but it does show how you can easily add far more pronouns to express specific elements.
Now it's time for the personal pronouns. In the table below you'll see the possibilities in English.
The possibilities for personal pronouns are far greater than these 6 options and there are plenty of languages which use more than these 6 options. Here's a list of some of the possibilities you could use, but I wouldn't advise using all of them:
- Amount: In English we use only 1 set of plural pronouns, but you can add far more of them. Maybe a set for a couple (you and me) or a handful (you, me and two friends) or a group.
- Classes and groups: Pronouns could be related to what class you belong to. Slave owners might not wish to use the same pronouns as their slaves and prisoners might receive a derogatory pronoun.
- Formality: Many languages have multiple versions of each pronoun, one casual form, one formal form and possibly many more in between.
- Gender: Male and female versions of 'I', 'you', 'they' and 'we'. For 'they', 'we' and the plural 'you' you'd have to create a rule when they're considered male and when female. Does 1 female in a group of males turn the male 'they' into a female 'they'? Or does the majority of the group have to be female for that?
- Genderless: Plenty of languages don't distinguish based on gender, they use a single word to represent both 'he' and 'she'.
- Inclusiveness: Some languages distinguish 'we' based on whether or not it includes the person you're talking to. When you say "We're going to a party" it's unclear if it includes that person without additional context.
- People, animals and objects: We have 'it' for genderless objects, but we use 'he' and 'she' for both people and animals, you could add an extra set for animals.
- Present: Pronouns could change based on whether the people are present or not, which means you'd have two forms of he, she, it, they, we and the plural you.
Other possibilities for more fantasy related languages are:
- Dead or alive: Spirits could have their own pronouns.
- Hive minds: Talking about linked minds or collective minds could require separate pronouns.
- More genders: Some species might have more than 2 distinct genders, all of which might need their own pronoun. The same could be applied to humans as well, depending on culture.
- Divinity: Gods might use different pronouns than us mortals. We sort of do the same in some cultures around the world, Christians generally capitalize 'him' when referring to their god.
Numbers may seem straight forward, but there are many different ways to express numbers. For example, the number 101 could be expressed as:
- One zero one
- Ten one
- Ten ten one
- Hundred one
- One and hundred
- Two fifty one
There are far more possibilities, but the point is clear.
In English we have the words 'hundred', 'thousand' and 'million', but we have no single words for 'ten thousand' and 'hundred thousand'. Japanese has words for 'hundred', 'thousand', 'ten thousand' and 'hundred million', but 'hundred thousand' is written as 'ten ten thousand' and 'million' is written as 'hundred ten thousand'.
The reasons behind this aren't always clear in every language, but many languages do have one thing in common and that is that we count in either fives, tens or twenties.
The reason for this is because we have 5 fingers on each hand and five toes on each foot. This may not be the real reason behind numbers in every language, but it does offer a way to create numbers for species with a different amount of digits.
Some cultures use a duodecimal system, which is based around the number 12 and some even used a sexagesimal system (base of 60). We still use those today in fact. The 12 base system is used for time (12 months, 2 x 12 hours), there's 12 inches in a foot and we use the word 'dozen'. The metric system, which is based around tens, pretty much replaced the 12 inches in a foot point for most cultures though.
The sexagesimal system is used for time (60 seconds, 60 minutes) and angles (360 degrees) and geographical locations.
Funnily enough the 12 base system could be used with your hands as well. Your fingers, excluding the thumb, each have 3 bones, so counting to 12 on one hand is very easy. A stretched finger could mean 1, a slightly bend finger could mean 2 and completely bending your finger could mean 3, or vice versa.
You could even extend this idea to include the thumb and create a 14 base system, as your thumb only has 2 bones.
Other methods could be related to nature, like the moon's cycle. This would work best in a fictional world where the moon has a rounded number of days in its cycle. Our moon has a 29.53 day cycle, which isn't a great basis for an easy counting system. Now what if your world has 2 moons?
Machines probably prefer a hexadecimal or binary counting system instead, but what about cyborgs?
Also remember to create your own number signs if needed. We've already created our alphabet, so we could base the numbers on those, similar to how the Roman numerals are letters of the alphabet we use today.
You could also go the route we went in real life (in the West) and base your numbers on a different culture. Today we use Arabic numerals (0, 1, 2, etc) instead of the Roman numerals, even though we use the Roman (Latin) alphabet.
Articles are the little words before or after nouns, depending on the language. English has two of them: 'the' and 'a(n)'. Some languages have more, some have none at all.
Languages without articles may prefer to use other words, like 'this' and 'that' or 'some', but those aren't necessary as word order could do the same.
Some languages have gender specific articles, so if you've decided to use gender for your nouns you'll probably want to use gender specific articles as well. Some languages even use articles depending on number. Dog would have a different article than dogs.
We use articles to help put emphasis on something or to indicate something specific. For example, if I told you to 'bring me a book' I mean just any book at all, but if I say 'bring me the book' I want a specific book and if I put emphasis on the word 'the' when I say it, 'bring me thé book', it means I want a special book.
Adpositions are the little words which either indicate spacial relations (like 'under' and 'towards') or other grammatical relations (like 'of' and 'for') between 2 parts of a sentence. In other words, they change the meaning of the sentence by adding information.
For example, in the sentence 'The bread slice under the table with mold is dirty' there are two adpositions: 'under' and 'with'. Change those to 'above' and 'without' and you have an entirely different meaning.
There are 3 types of adpositions: prepositions, postpositions and circumpositions. Prepositions come before what they modify, postpositions after and circumpositions are a combination of both.
An example of a preposition is 'from' in 'from the kitchen'. An example of a postposition is 'ago' in 'two years ago'. An example of circumposition is 'from' and 'on' in 'from this moment on'.
English has only a few postpositions and circumpositions, for the vast majority of sentences we use a preposition. But many languages use postpositions instead, like Finnish and Japanese.
Which type of adposition you'd like is up to you, although making a mostly circumposition based language is a little tricky. Obviously you don't have to stick to just 1 type.
Conjunctions are words which tie different parts of a sentence together. There's a whole range of conjunctions in English, ranging from simple words like 'and', 'but' and 'or' to longer conjunctions, like 'as much as', 'provided that' and 'even though'. How many conjunctions you want in your language is entirely up to you, but a more important factor you have to decide is where in a sentence they have to be placed.
In English we put conjunctions between the parts we connect. 'Books and paper' is correct, 'Books paper and' isn't. But the latter is correct in Latin, although it would be expressed with '-que': 'Books paper-que'.
Latin has other neat tricks, like expressing inclusiveness. 'vel book vel paper' means 'book or paper or both of them', but 'aut book aut paper' means 'book or paper, but not both of them'.
Note that you do not have to have conjunctions in your language. It'll be trickier to determine the exact meanings, like when you need 'books and paper' or 'books or paper', but you can use context, word order or other tricks to do the job instead, like using prepositions, transitional phrases or adverbs and adverb phrases. 'I need books in addition to paper'.
How do you form a question in your language? In English we usually switch the subject and verb: 'You are kind.' 'Are you kind?'. However, some language simply stick a question mark (or a phoneme) at the end (or beginning) without changing the order, but most do change the intonation, which we also do in English. 'You are kind.' and 'You are kind?' are said in different ways.
Some languages form questions by offering choices: "You are (or) you're not kind?". Chinese is one of those languages.
Latin has a few neat tricks for asking questions. They can add 'num' and 'nōnne' at the beginning of a sentence to indicate what kind of answer they expect. 'Num' is used for questions where the expected answer is 'no' and 'nōnne' for 'yes'. In English you can do this by using "are" or "aren't", possibly in combination with 'right?'. For example: 'You aren't kind, right?' or 'You are kind, right?'. The first expects a no, the second a yes.
Another neat Latin trick is being able to indicate what part in the sentence is being questioned by adding '-ne' to that part. For example: 'The manne is kind?' or 'the man is kindne?'. In the first sentence you're wondering about the man, as if you were expecting another person was kind instead. In the second sentence you're wondering about kind, as if you didn't expect that man could be kind.
In English we can only achieve this by putting emphasis on those words when we speak it.
English has 'yes/no' questions, 'are you kind?' is such a question. But some languages don't answer with yes or no, some languages don't even have a real word for yes or no, but only answers like "that's true" or 'confirmed' or 'disagreed'.
But other languages simply reply by repeating part of the question: "Are you kind?" "I am (not) kind.".
In English we negate a sentence by either using "-n't" or by adding a form of "don't". For example: "I don't like this." or "I haven't done that.". Other languages use different methods, like adding a particle before, after or before and after the verb.
Japanese even has a negative conjugation form for their verbs.
Other methods include adding a particle, either at the beginning or end of a sentence 'not I like this' or 'I like this not' or using a verb which negates the sentence 'I not, you not, he nots, etc.' or a mix of two (or more) of any of the before mentioned methods.