Nouns, pronouns, and stuff, with a garnish of Finnish
Yeah, that’s vague. Deal.
1) What are nouns, in your language? Because it’s not just as simple as names, after all. Are nouns different when they’re the objects of transitive verbs than when they’re the subjects of them? What about being the subjects of intransitive verbs? Can you say Il partivpala for The window broke, but you have to say Il e partiipala for He broke the window? Are there distinctions between common and proper nouns—the names of ordinary objects and the names of people and places? What relationship do nouns have to verbs? Can you get the noun “song” from the verb “sing” by any simple method, such as a consistent pattern of vowel change, or is it more complicated than that?
This is the place where I sit on the nonsense that is many, many fantasy conlangs and their utterly silly lack of any consistent way to form nouns. It doesn’t have to be simple, no, but most languages will have some method, some pattern of infixes, suffixes, and prefixes that can be used to coin neologisms. If there is none at all, then how does a native speaker of your language know when a newly-made word is a noun and when it isn’t? Fat lot of good the ability to make new words is going to do if no one has a chance in hell of telling what they mean without a detailed explanation. And no, not every noun should have irregular pluralization and the like. Some irregulars are fine, but even irregulars can fall into classes and have patterns that they share. Not every noun has to be unique.
Nouns are there waiting for you to deal with them. Deal.
2) Number. Does your conlang pluralize? Most do, and most contain only two numbers: singular, when there’s one, and plural, when there’s everything else.
However, there can also be dual, which is two of something. Or perhaps there’s a triple number, where there are three. (Keep in mind, of course, that every number you add means that you’ve got to invent another way of indicating it, a way sufficiently distinct from the others that they won’t simply collapse into each other. If you hate constructing the actual grammar of the conlang, this will be sheer torture).
There’s also indefinite number. How many are “some?” Depends on the context, don’t it. “Less” and “more” can also change depending on the quantity referred to. Or a certain object may have a special unit of measurement. “Two loaves of bread” can bring a clear picture to mind without telling the listener how many slices of bread are present. In fact, English doesn’t use the noun “breads” a whole lot. You have to talk about bread in loaves or slices or pieces, the damn thing.
Some numbers are more defined, but still not as clear as “two” or “three.” How many does “few” mean? “Several?” “Lots?” “Many?” These are all very fucking useful words, but I see far fewer conlangs that have them, or their equivalent, than conlangs that have defined numbers all the way to a hundred. How sad. Remember, conlangs can’t be all fancy foofy-schmoofy words for the seven mystical kinds of love-bond. There have got to be ordinary words in there, too, and number is among the most important considerations.
3) Case—or, putting the noun in relation to everything else. If you have word order, where do the nouns go? Some of that will depend on what your sentence order is. If you have an SOV language, nouns will be in the S and O positions (unless the subject or object of that particular sentence is a pronoun). If you have VSO, nouns will be in the last two positions. This can be altered, especially in poetry, commands, questions, and other specialized areas, but, once again—and this should be the Golden Rule of conlanging, really--it does anybody fuck all good if there is no way to tell.
This is where cases are neat. Cases are alterations of the noun to reflect such niceties as grammatical relationship to the rest of the sentence and physical relationship to other objects or people mentioned.
There is no possible way of listing all the cases (I’ve found several nearly-complete lists, but each of them was missing one that another list talked about, and anyway, it’s possible to invent new ones). Here are some of the most common:
Nominative: The “natural” case of the noun, when it’s in subject position and unmodified by any other considerations.
Possessive: Indicates that this noun belongs to something or someone else. If you have a possessive case formed by –o, then you could add it on to our example from point one and get partivo, or “window’s.”
Accusative: Indicates a direct object. In the example in point one, I changed partiv to partii (and, admittedly, attached it to a verb) when it became the object of the unknown “he’s” action.
Dative: Indirect object, often expressed in English as “to” and the recipient of another object. Say that Il e naragon fala means He gave the bone to the dog. Dog is normally falit, but it alters to fala when it means “to the dog.”
Vocative: Implies direct address. Falita could be O dog!
A small sampling of positional cases (keep in mind that, if you use enough of these, you don’t need prepositions/postpositions):
Locative: At/on/in are the ones I’ve commonly seen this case used for. A certain conlang may have separate words for each, of course, or could rely on context to make it clear.
Inessive: Inside something.
Ablative: Motion (away) from. Latin has a case called this, which in practice is also used for many other things.
Comitative case: With, in company of.
Relationship with people/things:
Instrumental/instrumentive: What was it done with? To return to our imaginary example, Il e naragon fala singalo, say, He gave the bone to the dog with an underhand throw, where singalo would tell you that it was by means of an underhand throw.
Benefactive: Who was it done for? Whose benefit was it for? This could be a special adaptation of the dative case in certain conlangs.
Translative: Something is changing from one state to another. Imagine a conlang where this is a specially-adapted case for talking about chemical reactions.
A lot of people seem to be under the impression that case is especially difficult. It’s not. It can be complicated if you’re not used to speaking/translating a language that has it, but there are many, many languages that have and use cases. Finnish has fourteen/fifteen, depending on how you classify them, and though it has a reputation as a fiendishly difficult language, that’s an outsider’s perspective; native speakers can handle them just fine.
4) Know what kinds of nouns your language will be rich in. A language can have many synonyms for a certain type of noun, or a rich variety of words to choose from in a certain area—for example, kinship groups. Some conlangs will faithfully detail each relative from the father’s side, or the mother’s, or be able to express “second cousin once removed” or “stepsister from the mother’s third marriage” with a simple term. Another will be especially rich in describing the landscape where its speakers live, or different kinds of emotions (I chose that for Aril, as its speakers are natural empaths, and think anyone who can’t distinguish between cylmansha, love like a summer’s day, and ryal, love like a waterfall, blind), or the harvest season. This can even be a source of useful cultural clues. From certain root words that the Indo-European languages have in common, for example, we can deduce that the original speakers lived inland; there is no single common word for sea, which they had to borrow from other language groups already present in the various areas where these speakers reached the ocean.
The main point is this: no one language can cover everything.
It’s silly to insist that your language has a word for every concept ever. For one thing, the culture it’s tied to will not have had every idea ever. For another, that’s one way to bind yourself up in endless language creation, and perhaps the most common after pronouns: insisting that you absolutely must know how to say “stepsister, no relation by blood, whose mother was once married to my father and then divorced him three years ago.” And for a third, certain things will be important to that language and some won’t. Perhaps your language is poor in descriptions of rivers. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad language. It means it’s a realistic one, and that it will borrow descriptions of rivers, if it needs them, from other tongues in time.
So choose which groups they’re rich in, and stop wasting your time and other people’s. There’s not some kind of bloody contest to see who can invent the weirdest and most esoteric nouns. And, by the way, if you have a word for “stepsister, no relation by blood, whose mother was once married to my father and then divorced him three years ago,” but no word for “wind” or “sun,” I am going to laugh my ass off at you. (Sadly, I have seen many conlangs in that kind of sorry state).
5) Pronouns! What are they good for? People get hung up on pronouns, too—most often on precision. “Oh, but I absolutely must have a pronoun for every gender in my invented race!” “Oh, but I absolutely must have a pronoun for he, and she, and it, and he/she, and he/she when you don’t wish to be impolite, and she when you wish to be polite, and, and, and…”
Fucking relax. Precision is not always the greatest concern with pronouns. Yeah, some languages have he, she, it, and a he/she pronoun. On the other hand, while Finnish has a separate pronoun for it, se, there’s only one pronoun for both he and she, hän, with no distinction for gender made whatsoever. This works fine. It’s comfy. You don’t need to distinguish both gender and non-gender to have a good time with your pronouns. Gender is not the queen of distinctions to be made in pronoun-creation.
Some other considerations you can fool around with:
-Distance. Some pronouns may be based on how distant the speaker is standing from the object/thing.
-Formality. English “you” is actually the formal side of the second person singular pronoun. “Thou” was the familiar, what you would use with a close friend (which is one reason I explode into giggles when I read bad pseudo-medieval fantasy where the peasant addresses the king with “formal thou.” And for fuck’s sake, don’t use this unless you can separate “thou” and “thee.” Thou is the subject form, the one you would use like he or she: “Thou hast my heart.” Thee is the object form, the one you would use like him or her: “I have caught thee at last.” Thy and thine are the possessive forms, and thine was used before words that began with vowel sounds, such as “thine eyes,” and also before words that began with h, as “thine hair.” No more of this “Thee hast a sword” shite, please.)
-Number. You can have a distinct dual number, or others. But once again, don’t get hung up on making it complicated.
-Switch reference. If you have two forms of “he,” you could distinguish whether you meant Sam’s house or Bob’s house when you said “Sam came out of his house.”
-Exclusivity. “We two” could mean “You and me” or “Me and this other person, over there, who is not you.”
-Reflexivity. How do you say “yourself?”
One thing you probably should decide is whether the pronoun class in your language is open or closed. If it’s closed, as in English, new pronouns have a hell of a time sneaking in (one reason that, despite numerous attempts, there is no standard gender-neutral third person singular pronoun other than it; the language itself is fighting attempts to change that). It can happen. “They, their, them, theirs” were originally Scandinavian, and “she” showed up somehow; no one knows exactly how. One theory holds it happened because Old English “he” and “she” had gotten too close to each other in pronunciation. This does not, by the way, explain where “she” came from.
You could decide to make pronoun creation open, with anyone free to invent a pronoun that means “the two of them whom I met yesterday.” Once again, though, there has to be a system, a way of telling that the new word is a) a pronoun instead of something else, and b) what it means. The primary task of language is communication. Words that mean nothing to anyone but the creator don’t stand a high chance of surviving; they’ll get discarded in favor of words that get the point across. This is why so many pronoun-heavy conlangs strike me as flat-out stupid. There’s no way for anyone to tell what the pronouns mean—they’re not even related to each other in the way that English “he” and “him” are—and most of the pronouns would be used so rarely that it would be easier to look them up when they were needed than to memorize three hundred different irregulars.
Last part of the rant, on specifically fantasy-based things that one can do, should be up on Wednesday.