Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Building a Fantasy Language 4: The Weird Wonder of Nouns

What do different languages do with nouns?  Nouns make up the largest portion of the dictionary for most languages.  They denote persons, places, things, and ideas (as you probably learned in elementary school!), and as such every fantasy language needs quite a few of them.

In this post, I’ll try to provide some inspiration regarding nouns, mostly about their grammar.  I’m sure you won’t have any trouble coming up with the nouns themselves!

Noun Grammar

Almost all languages do something to their nouns to mark them for number.  Number refers to how many of the noun there are: is there only one of it (singular), or more than one (plural)?  

Many languages get along with just singular and plural forms of their nouns (like English does), but other languages have dual forms (two of something, often natural pairs such as hands, eyes, feet) or even trial forms (three of something).

Class (often, confusingly, called Gender)
If you have ever studied Spanish, you will have learned that nouns can belong to different classes (genders) which have characteristic endings in the singular and plural.  Spanish, which has two classes, calls these “masculine” and “feminine.”  The –a ending usually used for “feminine” singular nouns is applied not only to women and female animals but also to articles of furniture, types of buildings, objects, and so on.  Other than humans and animals which actually have gender, the assignment of a noun to the “feminine” or “masculine” class is arbitrary.  Yet every noun must belong to one class or another.
Some languages add a third “gender,” usually called “neuter.” 

However, in most languages, there are more classes than there are available genders.  For example, in Latin, there are five noun classes but only three “genders.”  So you see that noun class and noun gender really have to be treated as distinct, even though textbooks often confuse the two terms.

Latin Noun Classes
                        Nom. Sg. suffix         Nom. Pl. suffix        
Class 1           -a                                 -ae                              “feminine”
Class 2a        -us                              -i                                  “masculine”
Class 2b        -um                             -a                                 “neuter”
Class 3a        -                                   -es                               “masculine/feminine”
Class 3b        -                                   -a                                 “neuter”
Class 4a        -us                              -us     
Class 4b        -u                                -ua                              “neuter”                     
Class 5           -es                               -es                  

Latin has five noun classes (with variations) which you can tell apart by their suffixes.

The Hittite language (which is a sort of bachelor uncle of Latin) has about a dozen noun classes, which all take more or less the same suffixes, but which may change their roots based on the final sound of the noun.  So the nouns which end in –i behave one way, while nouns ending in –a, -u, -au/-ai, -nt, -tt, -r, -n, -l, -s, and alternating –r/-n behave different ways.

Some Native American languages also have about a dozen noun classes; but instead of being differentiated by their suffixes, there are special prefixes that go on each noun and on the verb that refers to the noun.  These prefixes tells you whether the noun is human, animate-not-human, made of stone, made of wood, a liquid, carried in a container, and so on.  Sumerian, an ancient Mesopotamian language, also uses prefix “determiners” for some nouns (land, people, wood, water, etc.).

Case (Noun Declensions)

Many languages put special prefixes or suffixes on nouns to show what role the noun plays in the sentence.  In Old English, our ancestors did this for every noun; today, we only use case for English pronouns.  Think about it: he, his, him.  Whenever you want to put a third-person pronoun in a sentence, you have to choose which of these to use—and there is only one “correct” answer for each situation!

Nouns which are the subject of the sentence appear in the nominative case, while nouns which are the direct object of the verb appear in the accusative case.  (Unless, of course, you are working in an ergative language where subjects of transitive verbs are marked one way [ergative], and subjects of non-transitive verbs AND direct objects are marked a different way [absolutive].  Ergative languages are hard!)

Some languages have only these two cases (nominative for subject and accusative for direct object), but most have more.  Latin has 5 cases in the singular and plural, with a few historical relic cases which can only be applied to certain nouns. Hittite has 7 cases in the singular and 4 in the plural, with 2 additional cases which are not marked for number.  Akkadian has 3 cases in the singular and 2 in the plural (two of the singular cases merge into one).

Below, I list some of the many cases that languages use.  No language uses all of these!  Note that some cases, like dative, may include meanings in some languages which other languages keep as separate cases.

Nominative – subject
Genitive – possessive (N’s, of N), object of a preposition that requires genitive
Dative – indirect object (to/for N), object of a preposition that requires dative, place in which (in/on/at N)
Locative – place where (in/on/at N); often absorbed by dative or accusative
Accusative – direct object, object of a preposition that requires genitive
Ablative – by/with/from N, object of a preposition that requires ablative; sometimes absorbed by the dative
Instrumental – by means of N, in the N manner; often absorbed by ablative or dative
Comitative – along with N; may be absorbed by ablative
Allative/Terminative – to/toward N; often absorbed by accusative
Equative – like N; may be absorbed by accusative
Oblique – includes everything other than nominative
Vocative – the case you use for someone’s name when you are speaking directly to them
Adverbiative – N is acting an an adverb.  Often absorbed by accusative.

If you aren’t sure what an indirect object or an object of a preposition is, I suggest that you create a fantasy language like English or most Native American languages, which never or almost never uses case!


Semitic languages like Hebrew also include something known as noun state.  Basically, these nouns change their suffixes and sometimes their own shapes based on whether they are bound to another noun or not.  Nouns that are running around on their own look normal, just like they look when you find them in the dictionary (absolute state).  Nouns that are bound to other nouns are in the construct state.

You can think of the construct state as kind of like compound nouns in English.  In English we make up words and compounds like housefly or pepper-shaker.  In Semitic languages, the first noun in the compound gets special marking so that we know to take the nouns are a compound.

Some Examples from Hebrew
            mishpaxah “family”
            mishpaxat ha-‘ish “family of the man”
            lev “heart”
            levav ha-‘ish “heart of the man”
            melakim “kings”
            malkey ha-‘arets “kings of the land”

Many languages don’t use states.  As a Semiticist, I enjoy introducing them into my fantasy languages!

Honor, Taboo, and More Fun Ideas

Some languages restrict the nouns that you can use based on who the speaker is and/or who they are talking to. 

In some cultures, men and women speak using different sets of nouns—it is either considered taboo (forbidden) for women to speak using men’s nouns (and vice versa), or it is a choice with marked social meaning (a woman might use men’s words to assert authority, for example, or a man use women’s words to show extra politeness).

In other cultures, your access to nouns may be restricted by your social class or caste.  Working-class folks don’t use certain nouns—and upper-class folks don’t know the working-class nouns.

Or, in a different situation, you may use one set of nouns when talking to people who are “inferior” (younger, poorer, less prestigious) to you and a different set of nouns when talking to people who are “superior” (older, richer, more prestigious) to you.  Which set of nouns do you use when talking to your equals, “inferior” or “superior”?  Depends on the language!  Some languages even have more than two sets of nouns—so is this person “very inferior,” “inferior,” “equal,” “superior,” or “very superior”?  (If I had to make these kinds of decisions every time I spoke to someone, I doubt that I would ever talk at all!)

Noun Meaning-Groups

As you know, the nouns in a language aren’t just distinctive because of their grammar—they’re distinctive because of what they mean.  Not all languages have specific words for banana, pet, maple sugar, arbor, skyscraper, pancakes…  You get my drift.  Either these things don’t exist in the cultures that speak those languages, or they are minor enough to be lumped in under some more general term. 

When a concept that was minor or nonexistent suddenly becomes important, that’s when a language is most likely to borrow the word to describe that concept from another language.  I like letting my fantasy cultures interact with each other and borrow words from each other, but this is very difficult to keep track of!

One of the fun things I like to do when creating a language is to think of the areas of meaning where the people in my fantasy culture are more engaged than English-speaking people are.  For example, I had one culture that lived in a giant, cold, coniferous forest—so I went through a couple of tree books and found all the types of coniferous trees that could survive in my culture’s forest, and gave them all names in my fantasy language.  The people in this culture don’t really have a broad term for coniferous trees—they always use the specific word.  They also have specific words for different types and ages of deer, different types of snow, and so on.

Think about it—how are your chracters’ lives different from yours?  What concepts do you have that they don’t need?  What words do they need that you don’t have?

Enjoy your nouns!

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