Spec Tech: Conlanging 4 — Verbs and Basic Clauses

This is the fourth in a series of posts “live-blogging” the creation of a fictional language from scratch, with the help of our readers.  We plan to construct a functional language one piece at a time, incorporating suggestions and preferences from our audience along the way.  You can read previous installments here: one, two, three.

Before we get into our discussion of verbs, we should probably deal with our pronouns.  I’m going to propose the set below.

na “I”

ti “you”

ku “he/she/it”

nahu “we”

tihu “you” (but plural: “y’all, youse”)

kuhu “they”

There was a suggestion about the pronouns made after our last meeting: that we have both an inclusive and an exclusive option for the first-person plural form “we”.  Although we don’t have this in English, it does show up in a number of languages.  Essentially, we’d have two forms for “we” — the exclusive would indicate that the person being spoken to is not part of the “we”; the inclusive would mean that the person being spoken to IS part of the “we”.

What do people think of this?  We could perhaps do a combined form of the other pronouns, something like natihu, for the inclusive meaning, and leave nahu as the exclusive form?

On to verbs, then.  The first thing to discuss is our basic word order.  Last time, I proposed that we choose one of three possibilities: SVO, SOV, or VSO, as these are the most common patterns found in natural languages.  Those who chimed in seemed to prefer VSO word order, which I think is a good option; it’s not horribly common in the world, but neither is it uncommon, so I think it will add a nice flavor to our language, without being too terribly strange.

Now, we need to decide about case marking.  There was some disagreement about whether or not this is something we want in our language, so I’m going to ask that more people speak up if they have strong feelings.  In the meantime, though, I’m going to tentatively suggest that we do mark subjects and objects by placing a short word before them: sa for subjects, fi for objects.

sa “subject marker”

fi “object marker”

We also need to decide on tense, aspect, and mood, at least in terms of what is grammaticalized, but we should probably talk a bit about what “grammaticalized” means.  All languages are capable of expressing all of the same ideas, it’s just a matter of how they do it.  In some languages, for example, past tense is expressed by including some sort of time word in the sentence, such as “yesterday” or “earlier”, but the verb itself doesn’t change.  This is different than English, of course, where we have a specific suffix, -ed, that is stuck on the verb to mean past tense.  What we need to decide, then, is what parts of meaning have grammaticalized, and which we want to do via paraphrastic means.

As was noted by one of our group previously, because of the structure of our words, it’s probably best if we have our tense and aspect marking show up as prefixes on the verb root, so that’s the route we’ll take.

For tense, I think the most logical set of time distinctions are past, present, and future, and it’s these that should be grammaticalized.  We don’t necessarily need to have a prefix for each of these, though—one can be “unmarked”, where the lack of any prefix indicates one of the tenses; this is indicated by the symbol ∅.  Our set of tense prefixes, then, would look like this:

ta– “past”

∅- “present”

li– “future”

Before we get to examples of verbs, let’s think about aspect.  Here, it seems reasonable to make a two-way distinction between perfect and imperfect.  As with our tense suffixes, we can leave one unmarked, which I propose be the imperfect:

∅- “imperfect”

pu– “perfect”

Now, what is meant by “perfect” versus “imperfect”?  Essentially, perfect is used for actions which are completed, while imperfect is used for ongoing actions.  Note, though, that this is separate from tense — we can have actions completed in the past as well as the future (e.g., “will have eaten”).  We’ll have some examples in a second which should help to clarify the difference.

I think that we can deal with issues of mood later, as they come up; I don’t know that we need any grammaticalized prefixes to deal with it.

Now that we have our tense and aspect systems in place, we have an idea of what a basic clause will look like in our language:


Using these prefixes with some verbs, we can now take a look at some examples of how our tense and aspect markers can go together to get different meanings:

dalu sa moing pa Mike

∅- ∅- dalu sa moing pa Mike

“Mike’s cat is running”

tapudalu sa ku

ta- pu- dalu sa po

“he/she/it ran”

lipudalu sa na

li- pu- dalu sa na

“I will have run”

lidalu sa moing 

li- ∅- dalu sa moing

“(a/the) cat will run”/”(a/the) cat will be running”

wufa sa hihau fi moing

∅- ∅- wufa sa hihau fi moing pa Mike

“(a/the) dog is chasing Mike’s cat”

tawufa sa moing fi hihau

ta- ∅- wufa sa moing fi hihau

“(a/the) cat was chasing (a/the) dog”

We still have a lot to do on our language, but we’ve got a rough sketch of the basics — what words look like, what kinds of things nouns and verbs do, and a basic structure for putting it all together.  I’m going to suggest that we work on two things for next time:

First, we need to start developing more vocabulary.  I’m going to ask that people pick a certain vocabulary domain (e.g., body parts, animals, basic verbs, etc.) and start creating words for those things.  This will have to be first-come, first-served, but once people start posting their words, I’ll create a spreadsheet online so that we can keep track of our vocabulary and make sure that we don’t have any repeats.

Second, we need to spend some time playing with what we have.  Admittedly, we still haven’t developed a number of things that we’ll need eventually — negation, question words, grammatical particles, etc. — but we need to be sure that what we do have works, as far as it goes, as well as make sure that all of us are on the same page.  I’m going to suggest, then, that as the vocabulary starts to come in, you begin making up some sentences of your own, using the various words and prefixes that we’ve developed so far.  You can post these here, along with any questions that you have.

As you’re doing this, try to make a note of things that you’d like to be able to say, but can’t with what we have so far.  Much of this will be filled in as we go along, but it’s certainly possible that we’ll need to tweak what we do have to make it a viable core for our language as we go along.

Our next meeting will be something of a review — take a look at what we have so far, with a bunch of examples from the group, and decide what the next topic we want to tackle is.

Happy sentencing!


22 thoughts on “Spec Tech: Conlanging 4 — Verbs and Basic Clauses

  1. Oh! When it comes to vocabulary, I call “writing words” like novel, draft, edit, etc. If I’m going to be using this language at all, those are the words I’ll be using most. 😉

    Other categories that might be useful for common conversation, including the ones you suggested:

    Basic verbs
    Bathroom/bathing words
    Body parts
    Car/driving words
    Computer/internet words
    Cooking/eating utensils & supplies
    Family members
    Household rooms/furniture
    Medical words

    I’m sure there are more. This is my favorite part of language, so I’m happy to take on more than one category if we don’t have many volunteers!

    1. Mishell gets writing words!!

      Any of those would be great categories, I think. Folks should feel free to pick any of them, or if you think of some other group you’d like to do that isn’t on the list, I imagine that would be fine, too.

    2. I used Dean’s number words quite a bit to build this list. Also couldn’t resist a few little jokes that I don’t think adversely affect the validity of the words. Feel free to adjust words if I’ve forgotten any rules!

      * denotes a word derived from Dean’s list.

      fema = story
      kin = short/brief
      fema kin = short story
      sapa = book
      lai = imagination/fancy
      sapalai = novel (contraction of “sapa pa lai”)
      mom = word
      sulute* = accounting, count, enumeration (lit.”three-fo’ “, in honor of my daughter’s way of counting everything.)
      sulute* pa mom = word count
      hisi = page
      kosen = chapter
      kosen hemang* = Chapter One (lit. “first chapter”)

      seing = write
      taso = edit/revise
      mauli = submit
      kiking = sell (ch-ching! 😉 )

      Also, since there’s no “sh!” sound I imagine busy writers will hush their spouses and children with the same sssssss! my daughter uses to express the same sentiment. 😉

      Trying some sentences now:

      Sssssss! Seing sa na. = Shhhh! I’m writing! 😉

      tapukiking sa na fi fema kin = I sold a short story.

      tapuseing sa na fi pe* koya* mom = I wrote two thousand words.

      1. Great to see some more nouns and a few more sentences. I like the playfulness of some of the derivations, and the general “feel” of the words comes across as authentic Konahu (sorry — until we have a consensus name for our language, I’m calling it this). In my experience of creating languages, the sounds and the influence and shape of the first few words start to generate what the Germans call “Sprachgefuehle,” a feel for language that typically distinguishes native speakers from the rest of us. Congrats to Mishell for starting to “go native.” I especially like /kin/ for short: it’s one syllable, and the high front vowel makes it FEEL “short.” OK, end of self-indulgence for a moment. Sulute for “count” also sets us a language feel. Chinese has an idiom ten parts meaning complete: “that meal was ten parts delicious.” This feels similar.

        One query: is /m/ a permissible final consonant, according to our current phonology? I don’t have those rules handy — need to make sure I have everything current if I’m going to propose (or critique) any more words.

        One query: is /m/ an allowable final consonant? I don’t have the phonology rules handy.

      2. I’m with Dean—I like these, along with their derivations. I’m pretty sure I’m going to start saying kiking all the time now, for no apparent reason.

        And yes, /m/ is an allowable final consonant.

  2. I’d like to claim numbers, along with the cardinal/ordinal distinction, which I propose we indicate with a prefix, in keeping with the pattern established so far.

  3. Chris — not sure what’s going on with the reply function — my name should appear as Dean Easton.


  4. I’d like to claim numbers, along with ordinals, which I propose to handle with a prefix, consistent with the pattern we’re establishing. I’ll also make suggestions for some nouns derived from numbers.

    Here’s our phonetic inventory:

    p f m t s n l k h ng
    a e i o u
    ai ei oi au

    And here’s a lexicon of our language so far:

    dalu: run
    dosu: house
    fi: object marker
    hihau: dog
    hu: plural pronoun suffix
    kopu: computer
    ku: he/she/it
    kuhu: they
    li: future tense prefix
    moing: cat
    na: I
    nahu: we
    pa: possessive/genitive marker
    pu: perfect(ive) aspect marker prefix
    pipa: paper
    sa: subject marker
    ta: past tense prefix
    ti: you (singular)
    tihu: you (plural)
    wufa: chase

    1. Thanks for collecting the words that have already been used. It was on my list for today, but you beat me to it!

  5. A note on our phonology:

    W appears in wufa, so I suggest we expand our inventory of phonemes to include w (and also the palatal glide, which we could indicate by either y or j, so that we can have sequences like aya and peyo and yapi.

    1. Oh, good call. I had thought that I’d included those in the original list of phonemes, but apparently I hadn’t. Let’s go with /y/ for the palatal.

  6. Here’s my (long) proposal for a number system. I started with base ten (though base twelve has some computational advantages, base ten is simply more familiar).


    hepi: zero
    mang: one
    pe: two
    sulu: three
    tefa: four
    o: five
    tutan: six
    poso: seven
    nila: eight
    keng: nine
    wi: ten
    noi: hundred
    koya: thousand
    sung*: ten thousand
    moke*: hundred thousand
    hata: million

    [*NOTE on sung and moke: Many Asian languages (among them Chinese, Japanese and Korean) include a distinct word for “ten thousand.” It makes for a slightly more succinct way to name larger numbers, and it’s also not “business as usual” – a mere copy of European number systems. Thus, there’s also a separate number, moke, for “hundred thousand” as well. These two are easily deleted if consensus finds they add nothing worthwhile to the system.]


    With the other numbers we can take two routes.

    A) “European” Order

    The first is a maximally simple and transparent route, largely familiar to speakers of many European languages: a number in front of wi, noi, koya, sung, moke or hata multiplies it, while a number following them is added to it.

    wi mang: 11 [10 + 1]
    wi pe: 12 [10 + 2]
    wi sulu: 13 [10 + 3]

    pe wi: 20 [2 x 10]
    pe wi mang: 21 [2 x 10 + 1]
    pe wi pe: 23 [2 x 10 + 2]

    sulu wi: 30
    tefa wi: 40
    o wi: 50

    noi: 100
    pe noi: 200
    sulu noi: 300

    o noi poso wi keng: 579 (5 x 100 + 7 x 10 + 9)
    sulu koya nila noi pe: 3802 (3 x 100 + 8 x 100 + 2)
    tefa sung pe noi o wi sulu: 40,253 (4 x 10,000 + 2 x 100 + 5 x 10 + 3)

    B) An Alternative Order

    We could deploy an alternative order, more in keeping with our established pattern of modifier-follows-modified noun, though less intuitive for many speakers. Thus, a single number following wi, noi, koya, sung, moke and hata multiplies it. To add a number, insert kan “and” before the number. Otherwise, a third number without kan is simply added.

    wi kan mang: 11 (10 + 1)
    wi kan pe: 12 (10 + 2)
    wi kan sulu: 13 (10 + 3)

    wi pe: 20 (10 x 2)
    wi sulu: 30 (10 x 3)
    wi tefa: 40 (10 x 4)

    wi pe mang: 21 (10 x 2 + 1)
    wi pe pe: 22 (10 x 2 + 2)
    wi pe sulu: 23 (10 x 2 + 3)

    wi keng keng: 99 (10 x 9 + 9)

    noi keng tefa: 904 (100 x 9 + 4)
    noi keng wi pe: 920 (100 x 9 + 10 x 2)

    C) Ordinal Numbers

    In keeping with a pattern we’ve established, I propose the ordinalizing prefix he-:

    hemang: first
    hepe: second

    D) Derived Nouns
    If we designate a nominalizing prefix ma-, we can have ready to hand a set of related nouns derived from numbers:

    mamang: unit, group
    mape: pair, couple
    masulu: trio, triad
    mawi: decad, set of ten
    mawipe: dozen

    3. DAYS and MONTHS

    We can if we wish also create names for days of the week and months of the year by using numbers. In many Asian languages, for instance, instead of being proper nouns, the days of the week are simply “day one,” “day two,” etc. (or “first day,” “second day,” and so on). Likewise, the months of the year are month one (or first month) and so forth. I admit to enjoying the charm of names for each day and month reflecting historical incidents and cultural influences, but there are both a compactness and a logic which we may feel overrides these factors. Interestingly, we don’t do this with hours of the day. (The closest we come in the West is with the seven liturgical hours of matins, lauds, prime, tierce, sext, none, vespers, and compline, of which four do derive from Latin numbers: prime, tierce, sext, and none.)

    With li, “day,” we can name the days of the (secular) week:

    li hemang: Monday
    li hepe: Tuesday
    li hesulu: Wednesday
    li hetefa: Thursday
    li heo: Friday
    li hetutan: Saturday
    li heposo: Sunday

    Shorter forms could evolve:

    Limang: Monday
    Lipe: Tuesday
    Lisu: Wednesday
    Lifa: Thursday
    Lio: Friday
    Litu: Saturday
    Lipo: Sunday

    With toke, “month,” we can likewise fill in the calendar:

    toke hemang: January
    toke hepe: February

    And alternative shorter forms:

    Tomang: January
    Tope: February
    Tosu: March

    OK — done! Let me know what you all think.

    1. I love these! And I approve of the shorter forms of the days and months; they do seem like the sort that would naturally evolve.

      I prefer the European form just because it makes for shorter numbers.

      1. Thanks, Mishell. While I (obviously) like the shortened forms, I realize I may have opened a door we don’t want to open (yet). Should we ban such informal/slang forms until we have a larger vocabulary and clearer sense of how our language might do such things? (Several languages take parts of a sequence of words to create acronyms and short forms — our language could do this too — but do we want to?)

        And can we propose a name for our language? As a start, we could create a word for “language” and then add “pa nahu”: OUR language. Or something like “people’s speech”: “speech of people.” So here’s a suggestion: kohe for language, and our speech is thus kohe pa nahu: Kohepanahu. (And to break the rule I just half-proposed against shortened forms, the short form Konahu.)
        suggestion for

    2. This all looks great! I think I prefer the European order as well, since it makes things more succinct, and I like the he- and ma- prefixes. (Except yes, we’ll need a new word for five—maybe “so”?)

      For days of the week, I agree—I’m not sure we want to start making up different terms for things at this stage. This will happen naturally at some point once our colonists are settled, but for now, I think we should stick to a single form. What if we compromise between the short forms and the longer ones by leaving off the he- prefix? Monday would be “Limang”, Tuesday would be “Lipe”, March would be “Tosulu”, etc.

    3. Let me think a bit more about the language name. I really don’t want to get started shortening everything that comes up just because it’s unwieldy… Maybe something similar to Konahu, but that follows our pattern for word formation, so that we don’t have to have the etymology? Konang? Kolang?

    4. It occurs to me that we could have shortened forms of the numbers specifically to be used when they combine with other stuff (like the he- and the ma-, for example). We could probably come up with other places to use them as well, I’d imagine…. What do you think?

  7. A query on our phonology: how do we want to handle a sequence of two identical vowels? Unless we prohibit words (and syllables) from beginning with vowels, we could end up with (for example) a word like to’o “May”– I wrote it with an apostrophe to separate the morphemes visually, and I can hear immediately myself falling back on English-speaker habit and inserting a glottal stop to separate them and keep them distinct. But our phonology has no particular reason to mirror English here any more than it does elsewhere.

    A couple of options: minimize the frequency of occurrence of identical consecutive vowels by prohibiting syllables from beginning with a vowel (we’ll need a new word for “five”!); allow for such a co-occurrences by permitting doubly long vowels in pronunciation; insert a “euphony” phoneme such as /h/ or /w/ between the two vowels: /to/ + /o/ –> /toho/ or /towo/.

    Other suggestions?

    1. As I understand the rules from the second post, all syllables must begin with a consonant. So yes, we’ll need a different word for five!

    2. This is kind of a moot issue, since we don’t have vowel-initial words. However, it could still come up if we decide to have any suffixes at all, of the form, e.g., -an, which would work fine for consonant-final words, but potentially create an issue with vowel-final ones. Let’s set this aside for the moment, and revisit it if we decide we need suffixes for anything..

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