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Writing it down

I’ve received a lot of mail over the years that amounts to “OK, but how do I do it?” This page, adapted from the first chapter of Advanced Language Construction, is an attempt to answer that question, as well as similar questions like “How do I know when I’m done?” and “Is it weird enough?” And don’t miss the section on how to gloss.

Basic outline

Beginning a novel, you have to face the horror of staring at a blank page. It’s easier with a conlang: you can start by writing an outline! Then you can stare at a blank outline instead.

Here’s the overall outline I start with:

Introduction
Phonology
Morphology
Derivational morphology
Syntax
Semantic fields and pragmatics
Writing system
Examples
Lexicon
If you’re not used to outlining, the idea is to state your topics and their order before you actually write anything. You don’t write straight ahead from the first sentence of the introduction all the way to the words starting with Ž. You can work on topics in any order; the outline makes sure they’re in the right place and you don’t forget anything.

When you think of a new topic, add it to the outline; you don’t have to fill it out immediately. Topics can have subtopics, to any level you like. For instance, you could go add subtopics to Phonology right now:

Phonology
    Consonants
    Vowels
    Stress
    Phonotactics

Any modern word processor, like Word, will have useful facilities to work with outlines. E.g. you can move entire topics around (their subtopics and text will come with), or view just the titles of the outlines without the text.

Start adding text to the topics, in any order. You could start with a list of vowels (you can make a nice table later):

Vowels
    i e ɛ ɑ ɔ o u

You may find it helpful to add a symbol so you know what hasn’t been filled in yet. I use STD or $$$. Then I can jump quickly to the first uncompleted section by searching for this text.

Some of the sections may not make sense for a given language, or will logically appear in a different place. E.g. if you have an alphabet, it’s more convenient to treat that under Phonology; while if you have an isolating language, you may have no inflectional morphology at all.

I am simple caveman, not know ‘computer’

You can work on paper if you prefer— that’s how I did Verdurian. Just expect to go through multiple drafts.

If you use a binder and loose pages, you can easily replace just a section of the grammar. Start new sections on a new page, and keep everything about a language together— avoid having your notes in five different piles or notebooks.

You can keep a dictionary in alphabetical order by maintaining two columns and just writing in one. New words get placed in the second column. When it starts to get unreadable, it’s time to make a new edition. Index cards work too, with less rewriting.


Plan of attack

I work on a grammar iteratively, going back and forth between sections. But my overall progress usually looks something like this:
  • Put the words I have so far (perhaps from a map, perhaps from the SCA) into the Lexicon.

  • From those words, create tables of consonants and vowels, under Phonology.

    Always keep your phonological inventory up to date; it guides the word creation process.

  • Start the derivational morphology section. You’ll need this even for a naming language, as it’s very useful to be able to form terms like “of NAME”, “NAME person”, “NAME speech”, “NAME place”. Plus it’s a good habit to create derived words as you add lexical entries (war → warlike, warrior, make war).

  • Create the basic morphological paradigms for verbs, nouns, and pronouns. At the very least you’ll want the present tense forms, plurals, and a complete set of pronouns.

  • Start listing your adpositions, or their equivalent. It’s useful to be able to form expressions like “at NAME”, “from NAME”, “near NAME”, and so on. Plus it’s likely to greatly multiply your stock of verbs: e.g. go gives you go to, go back, go away, go on behalf of, go with, go near, etc.

  • Start the syntax section by deciding on basic NP order. Create examples and the necessary supporting words as you go. You’ll want to think about deictics, numbers, and quantifiers, and this is a good time to start tables of those.

  • Decide on basic sentence order— SOV etc. Write some sample sentences, things like The lawyer read the manuscript and The girl gave the book to the duke.

  • Within each section, in general, place the basics first: the simplest forms before the insane compound forms; simple interrogatives before subordinate irrealis clauses. Naturally, if you have some feature which affects a huge part of the grammar (Old Skourene’s triliteral roots, Elkarîl’s oddball case analysis), discuss that as early as possible.

  • Now comes a long period of filling out details. You can take two basic approaches— or alternate between them.
    • Go through the sections of the grammar, thinking how you’re going to approach each item. Work through the Language Construction Kit for ideas.
    • Work on your examples, and as you come to things you haven’t said how to do, fill out the appropriate section of the grammar. E.g. to translate The king decided to execute the man who slept with his wife, you might have to work out the past tense, or auxiliary verbs, or relative clauses.

  • What if you need to make changes? Well, it happens. Just do it: make the changes, then examine existing words and samples to get them up to date.

  • At some point the outline is pretty much filled out. Are you done? The best way to find out is to work on your sample texts— these days I make sure I have at least three. You’ll almost always find a few constructions you need to work out. Plus you’ll have sample texts!

  • Some topics only need to be addressed if you need them. If you’re going to write a novel in this setting, it’ll be very useful to work out the calendar, common expressions, and how names and titles work. If you plan to write much text in the language, think about pragmatic particles, slang, and swearing. If this is your major language, add sections on allophony and dialects.

  • Once I have a fairly good grammar and three sample texts, the language is beginning to feel done, but I probably only have about 500 words. That would be more than enough for a naming language, but it means that translating almost any text will require word creation. So create more words, till you have a thousand or so. Work through wordlists, or just translate more texts.

How do I choose?

How do you know which features to add, which way to implement them, what the word for ‘fish’ should be?

Some people struggle with this; I hope it’ll help if I say that there is no right answer. No one can tell you when you need to break out the ergativity machine or drop in some evidentials.

Creating a language is much like drawing a cartoon character, where you just arbitrarily decide whether it’s a male or female, human or dog or turtle, how big to make the nose, whether to add a ponytail or a dashiki. The skill is in the naturalism, detail, and consistency, not in the choice of accoutrements.

Though you can certainly interpret a non-English feature in your own way, it’s always a good idea to look at natural models. If you have the print LCK or Advanced Language Construction, review the appropriate section. If not, check out the grammar of a language that has that feature, or at least look it up on Wikipedia.


Which language is this?

Here’s some good advice you probably won’t take: don’t start with your main language— that of your protagonists or major story setting.

You’ll get better at conlanging as you do more. Your first language is likely to be the least satisfying.

What I recommend is to work first on your protolanguage— the ancestor of your main language. Then use the SCA to derive the words for its descendant. This will not only give you a more naturalistic vocabulary, it’ll give you an ancestor you can borrow learned words from.

(Is there anything special about creating a protolanguage? No, it’s just a language. It doesn’t have to be like Latin.)

I should note that if you use the SCA from a large wordlist, you will of course start with a large wordlist. That’s great! The gotcha here is assuming that every word means the same as in the parent language. A large number of them should change meaning. And for more naturalism, many words should come from a derived form, as e.g. French soleil ‘sun’ comes from the diminutive of Latin sōl.


Creating paradigms

I work out the morphology pretty early, because without it I can’t create sample sentences. You can leave gaps, but it’s hard to (say) introduce a whole new dimension of verbal conjugation late in the process.

The key moment in creating a paradigm is not deciding on the affixes, but creating the structure of the table. So if you create a blank table

person sing. plural
1
2
3
you’ve already decided that your verbs are conjugated by person and number— and already eliminated interesting alternatives like obviative, dual, gender, and politeness forms!

Similarly you can easily create a present tense paradigm, then past and future, and not even realize that you never considered aspect, modals, or irrealis forms.

So, take a moment before filling out the table to think about whether it has the features you really want. (You can add more dimensions later; but if you do, don’t forget to check your sample sentences in case they need updating.)

If you look at an actual paradigm, like the present tense of French finir ‘finish’—

person sing. pl.
1 fin-is fin-issons
2 fin-is fin-issez
3 fin-it fin-issent
you may wonder where all that juicy variation comes from. How do you know how different to make the endings, or how many identical endings speakers will put up with?
  • If you have a parent language, run the entire paradigm through the SCA. Then try to simplify the output with analogy.
  • For a fusional language where you don’t have the parent worked out, simulate the above process: start with a regular, agglutinative system, then mangle it.
  • Fusional paradigms are often partially regular. So it may be fusional except in a few of the forms.
It may be helpful to think about where that beautiful French paradigm actually came from.
  • Indo-European originally marked the three persons with final -m, -s, -t. 5000 years of sound change has played havoc with this, but we still see the 3rd person -t, as well as the -s in the 2s and the -m- (changed to -n-) in the 1p. (They’re all silent in French, but maintained in the orthography.)
  • Indo-European however didn’t come up with a consistent way to mark the plural; a different method was used in each person (and to boot, in each subfamily).
  • The -i is really part of the root— it appears in every form of finir. The equivalent for other conjugations is less stable (e.g. the -e- in parler ‘speak’), so it’s convenient to treat it as part of the suffix.
  • -iss isn’t really a plural marker; it’s the -i from the root plus the Latin inchoative -sc-.
Another example of multiple pluralizing strategies is Ayacucho Quechua rimay ‘speak’:
person sing. pl.
1 rima-ni excl. rima-ni-ku
incl. rima-n-chik
2 rima-nki rima-nki-chik
3 rima-n rima-n-ku
This is agglutinative, but with two different pluralizers, -chik and -ku. The former is used when the listener is included, i.e. in the 2p and the inclusive 1p.

I like to keep the Morphology section focused on the paradigms, leaving their usage to the Syntax section. That’s for two reasons:

  • It keeps the Morphology pages compact, making them a better reference for the paradigms.
  • The usage section can then address all usage, including compound tenses, auxiliaries, and other issues that don’t really go under Morphology.
But you can discuss the uses of the paradigms as they come up, if you prefer. In that case, a chart of just the paradigms may be useful.

Placeholders vs. filling out

If you’re aiming at a grammar like mine, it’s apt to be 25+ pages of dry linguistic prose. Don’t be intimidated by the task of generating all that text. Start with placeholders, like this:
Questions: auxiliary verb pol
Assuming you’ve worked out how auxiliaries actually work, that’s all you need to actually write questions. In the final Munkhâshi grammar, I expanded this as follows:

Questions use a combination of topicalization and an auxiliary; pol ‘do’ must be used if no other is present. The subject is fronted together with the auxiliary:

Wowal gotalh threwap tujno?
do.A.past ktuvok eat.A.past iliu
Did the ktuvok eat the iliu?

Gpuki tutujno matâ?
can.E-pl pl-iliu swim.E-pl
Can iliu swim?

The question is answered with appropriate forms of the auxiliary: Wothôl ‘Yes, B is going’; Potôrul ‘No, D isn’t going.’
It’s not just a matter of writing full sentences; trying to explain the procedure, you’ll find you have to work out minor details. In this case: what if there’s another auxiliary; how is the question answered; what about negative questions (not shown).

It’s work to create sample sentences and glosses, but every sentence you write is another chance to develop the vocabulary and add new points to the language.


Wordcrafting on the go

As you work on the grammar you’ll be inventing words; never create one without adding it to the lexicon, in alphabetical order. Not only does this ensure they don’t get lost, but it keeps you from accidentally creating homophones. Plus, it’s a lot of work to generate a lexicon, so every bit you do gets you closer to the finish!

E.g. the Dhekhnami word for swim was entered into the lexicon like this:

v  swim, float [mat]
math  
I always use a table format, which looks neater. If there are morphological peculiarities (such as the out-of-control plurals in Xurnese), I indicate these in a column just after the word itself.

(Some languages have a morphology that just spits on alphabetical order— e.g. Old Skourene agaşti ‘beloved’, eguşeta ‘romance’, gşiutta ‘affair’, and iggşet ‘loving’ are all formed from one root. So the lexicon is sorted by roots, and all these words are entered under gaşt- ‘love’.)

It’s a good habit to provide a part of speech column. This provides another place for morphological data (e.g. gender of nouns, conjugation class for verbs), it disambiguates glosses (e.g. ‘a bear’ vs. ‘to bear’), and it allows searches— e.g. you can look for all your prepositions.

Another good habit is to provide multiple glosses. Fight the tendency to make every word a one-for-one equivalent of one English word. This makes your language more naturalistic, and can save time later when you find you need the other word.

Extra credit if you take the time to work out some quick derivations. E.g. swim could generate words for swim (n), swimmer, swimming hole. Extra extra credit if some of the derivations aren’t also derivations in English. E.g. swim-thing might be the word for fish; swim + diminutive might be bathe.

I hate to create a word without an etymology. Dhekhnami is created mostly from Munkhâshi using the SCA, so to invent math I actually created mat, added it to the Munkhâshi lexicon, and ran it through the SCA. Often I’ll borrow the word instead, or derive it as a compound.

Words usually don’t retain a single meaning for millennia on end— you should often take the opportunity to modify the meaning of an inherited or borrowed word.

How do you look up a word when you need it? Well, you’re doing this on the computer, right? Use the search function. If it’s a common word, you can save time by placing the cursor at the beginning of the lexicon, or just keep your lexicon in a separate file.

An alternative is to include a separate English-to-Conlang lexicon. That’s not a bad thing to have, but it’s a huge hassle to maintain, and it makes it all too easy to create ciphers of English— e.g. you create a word for can and later when you want to translate ability you create a different word just because ability doesn’t yet have an entry. So it’s best to create such a lexicon when the language is pretty much done.


Am I done yet?

You read the LCK, so you know you should have a Syntax section, and it contains the single word “VSO”. What else goes there?

Here’s a checklist, not at all exhaustive, of things that you should consider putting in the grammar somewhere.

  • The basics: sentence and NP order; questions; negatives; relative clauses.

  • Can people violate the basic order— for topicalization, for emphasis, for passives, or just as an afterthought?

  • How do verb + verb combinations work? This includes auxiliaries (You may go) as well as ordinary verbs (I advise you to go).

  • Where do time and place clauses live? You’ll probably have single words (never), NPs (last week), and clauses (when Oblivion freezes over).

  • Existentials (There’s a Chinese place near here) are often a special construction.

  • How do you handle sentential arguments? These can be subjects (That people still read Nietzsche offends me) or objects (Holmes deduced that the criminal wore a tartan).

  • Make sure your relativization scheme clearly handles the four basic combinations of transitivity:
    sentence subclause example
    subject subject The man [who caught the fish] is here
    subject object The fish [the man caught] is tasty
    object subject I hate the man [who caught the fish]
    object object I ate the fish [the man caught]
    Pay attention to cases (which case is who in?) and to word order (the subclause may omit arguments, so it’s a special case for your basic sentence order).

  • How do you translate if statements? Are deductions (If that’s Camelot, we’re almost home) handled differently from counterfactuals (If grandma had wheels, she’d be a wagon)? Conditionals are a playground for seeing how your conlang handles not-quite-real events.

  • How do you handle causatives? (I made her go, I advised her to carry a gun). These tend to play havoc with case systems as the caused person is the object of the main clause and the subject of the subclause.

  • You worked out the numbers from 1 to 10, great! How do you form larger numbers, ordinals, fractions? How about basic mathematics?

  • How do you form comparatives? (See the next section.)

  • How do NP + NP combinations work? You’ll need these for titles (King Alric), geographic names (Lake Van), and brands (Yonagu Books), and there are alternatives to English’s concatenation method.

  • Are there ways to indicate that a referent, or a relative clause, refers to something known to exist? Compare I met a queen vs. I met the queen. In English I’m looking for a man with one arm is ambiguous as to whether I have a specific man in mind, but other languages differ.

  • You can nominalize a verb (know → knowledge); how do you nominalize a VP? Note the combination of cases and prepositions in John’s knowledge of Linux.

Is it complicated enough?

You may be trying for a simplified language— or you’re just in a hurry to get done. But a hallmark of natural languages is their almost fractal complexity. There’s always another exception or complication, and linguists can write entire dissertations on a single word.

Complexities may occur to you if you just think hard about a feature. Say you’re thinking about comparatives: you work out how to say bigger than a mammoth. Revolve the concept of comparison around in your head— does your method work on these cases?

superlatives (biggest of all); note that speakers may turn absolutes into intensives (fortissimo = very strong)

degrees of comparison (e.g. mathematics uses >> for is very much greater than)

equalities (as big as a mammoth; note the difference from our morphological comparative)

negatives (no bigger than a fly)

examples with and without a comparison class (a better mousetrap; a mousetrap better than Roger’s— hey look, the word order changed!)

comparisons of adverbs (more slowly) or verbs (he cried more than he laughed)

You can’t always think of such variations just staring at the computer. Alternatives include looking at other people’s grammars, and waiting till interesting cases come up in sample texts.

Sometimes an idea that didn’t make it into the morphology may pop up elsewhere. E.g. French doesn’t have evidentials as a morphological category, but it can use the conditional as one: il aurait allé can be used for “he supposedly went”. English doesn’t have a topic particle, but clefting is a substitute: what I’m looking for is a cheap bicycle.

Another source of complication is to think about variations of dialect or register. Come up with three ways to solve the problem and assign one to the yokels from Nowheresville and another to colloquial speech. If you’ve derived your language from a parent, the newer language may have innovated a new method but kept the parent’s method in formal written language.


Six quirky constructions

Languages are full of minor constructions with their own odd syntax; here’s a sampling. You don’t have to address these in particular; the point is that once you start looking you’ll find more and more.
  • I wouldn’t live in Vyat, let alone Verduria.
    She won’t pet the dragons, let alone clean up their dung.

    This may seem straightforward, but what type of constituent is the ‘let alone’ phrase? And where did it come from? We have let (NP) alone in other contexts, but can’t move the NP: *Let alone the boy!

  • What, me worry?
    What, him get elected?

    It looks like something got left out, but what? And if it’s a deletion, why is it allowed only after What?:

    *How, me worry?

  • Fuck you.
    Damn those robots.

    Yes, you can do syntax on profanity. The main oddity here is that the object isn’t reflexive, as in Hit yourself! Maybe it’s not an imperative but a wish— maybe an abbreviation for I wish someone would fuck you. But then why can’t we make a similar abbreviation for I wish someone would kill you?

  • Itep cheated on the test, and Deru did so too.

    Do so is interesting because it’s a verbal anaphor— just as a pronoun stands for an NP, do so stands for a VP.

    Quechua has the verbal anaphor nay which stands for a verb you can’t think of the moment— cf. whatchamacallit for nouns. Wallpata narankichu? ‘Did you do that thing to the chicken?’

  • My grandmother is hard to like.
    It’s hard to like my grandmother.

    These have been derived transformationally from

    [(For someone) to like my grandmother] is hard
    though note that similar sentential subjects don’t work:
    [(For someone) to like my grandmother] is outrageous
    *My grandmother is outrageous to like.
    The surface form is identical to The elf is eager to please, but the semantics differ: my grandmother is the underlying object; the elf is the underlying subject.

  • John put books as well as records in the closet.
    Chris played Deus Ex on the PC as well as on Xbox.
    We’ve had pizza yesterday as well as today.

    As well as (and similar expressions: in addition to, rather than, instead of) look like conjunctions. But curiously, they don’t play well with VPs or entire sentences:

    ?It rained as well as snowed.
    *John looks like Justin Bieber as well as owns a bank.
    *We had pizza as well as Julie did a dance.


Is it simple enough?

Maybe you’re making an auxlang, or a pidgin, or an interlanguage for talking to AIs, or something else where simplicity is a virtue. In that case the thing to watch for is borrowing complexities from English (or other natlangs) that you don’t really need.
Check your verb conjugations... do you really need each dimension of inflection? Do you need time and aspect?

Do you need cases and adpositions? How small a set of adpositions could you make work? (Some creoles get by with two.)

Do your pronouns need different roots in the plural? Do you need the third person at all? (You can use deictics instead: this, that.)

Do your nouns need plurals?

Can you bag the adjectives, by making them nouns or verbs? Lots of languages get by without articles, too.

Instead of adding roots, take some time to remove some: find ways to make the word out of other roots (like = love a little; ice = solid water; uncle = parent-sib; six = twice three), or double up (one word could serve for road, route, street, path, way, passage).

Subclauses add complexity— why not prohibit them? Pronouns are one approach:
I met the man. He caught the fish.
“It was easy.” He said that.

If something is signalled on every word, consider not doing that. Common culprits in auxlangs: number, part of speech.

The defining characteristic of human languages, in some tellings, is the ability to talk about anything. But maybe you can give up on that. Maybe you just can’t use the language to talk about computers, or crafts, or agriculture— think of all the terms you’d save!

Less radically, you can ruthlessly combine categories, in the manner of the Australian avoidance languages. These are languages that were required for all conversation with taboo relatives, such as mothers-in-law. One word in the avoidance language often corresponded with half a dozen in ordinary language— e.g. nyirrindan in Jalnguy stood in for seven Guwal words used for different kinds of spearing or poking. You might have only one word for all sorts of small omnivores, or all older relatives, or all ways to hurt someone. It’s less precise, but it works and it sure cuts down on words.

(Hey, while I’ve got the book open, here’s a cool word from Guwal: banyin means ‘get a stone tomahawk and bring it down on a rotten log so the blade is embedded in the log, then pick up both tomahawk and log by the handle of the tomahawk and bash the log against a tree so that the log splits open and the ripe grubs inside it can be extracted and eaten.’)


Is it weird enough?

Conlanging isn’t a weirdathon. You could copy a natlang in every respect and, after all, it would be naturalistic. And contrariwise, putting in every feature you’ve ever heard of— a kitchen sink conlang— is a classic noob move.

But yeah, it’s generally less interesting to just redo English or do a neo-Romance language. How close is your languge to the following?

Standard Fantasy Phonology (i.e. English plus kh)
Pronouns: one for each person and number, plus object forms, and separate words for ‘he’ and ‘she’
Nouns have singular and plural only, and maybe case
Adjectives are a separate class, and either don’t decline, or decline like nouns
Verbs conjugate by person and number
Verbs have three tenses: past, present, future, plus maybe a conditional
Modality is expressed with a conjugated auxiliary
Definite and indefinite articles
No gender
SVO
Prepositions
Questions and negatives formed by adding a particle
Decimal number system
If it’s pretty close— again, it’s no sin, but you’re not taking advantage of the breadth and strangeness of natural languages. Review the options given in the Language Construction Kit; even more are in the print books.

I’m generally satisfied if I can point out four or five ‘interesting features’ of a language... these can be unusual features, or just things I want to play with. For instance, for Old Skourene:

  • Triconsonantal verb roots with vowel changes for conjugation
  • Most nouns, including everyday words, are derived from verbs
  • The case structure is ergative/absolutive
  • There is no subordination per se, but a wide array of conjunctions
  • There are four genders: masculine, feminine, animate, inanimate
  • The phonology is highly tolerant of clusters, and features a retroflex series

If you’re creating an auxlang, you don’t want weirdness per se, but if your idea can be described as “Esperanto done right”, be aware that Esperanto is blandly European and that its creator would have done well to learn a lot more about Amerindian or East Asian languages.


Sample texts

Writing texts in your language is like exercise: it’s work, but it’s good for you. Every sentence you write is an opportunity to develop the lexicon, confront syntactic oddities, and show off the culture.

For the last reason, I don’t advocate translating standard texts (like the Babel story). Instead, showcase something from your culture. Some ideas:

A conversation with a visitor (a chance to work out greetings and other mechanics of conversation)
A religious text: a prayer, a myth, an argument against the unbelievers
Part of the novel you’re writing
A native’s description of his capital city, or his marriage, or a dungeon, or a spaceship
A complaint about a foreign nation, or another intelligent species
A scene from a play (e.g., a daughter contests the marriage arranged by her father; a courtier wants the king to arrest an enemy; a girl passes herself off as a boy)
Common proverbs
The most notable quotations from a culture hero (think Buddha, or Oscar Wilde, or Merlin, or Chuck Norris)
Instructions for casting a magic spell
A comic story (a drunkard gets in trouble; a cheating couple is found out; a robot malfunctions)
An intercepted letter from a spy
If your conculture differs spectacularly from modern earthly models, focus on that. E.g. the Lé are female-dominant, so one of my sample texts is a pious letter from a mother instructing her son on how to fit into the matriarchal clan he’s marrying into.

Glosses

Your glosses should look like this:
В России все работают на заводе.
V Rossii vse rabotajut na zavode.
[vɾɔs ˈsi i fsʲɛ ɾə ˈbɔ ta jut na zə ˈvɔ dʲe]
in Russia-s.gen everyone-pl.nom work-3p.pres.ind on factory-s.loc
In Russia, everyone works at the factory.
Ha, I’m just winding you up. You don’t need all of that— though it’s all useful. In order, the lines are:
  1. Native writing system
  2. Transliteration
  3. Phonetic representation
  4. Gloss
  5. Free translation
You won’t be able to provide the native writing system unless you have a font for it, and if your Phonology section is good enough the phonetic representation is just a convenience. So that leaves us with the transliteration, gloss, and translation. When I was starting out I’d often skip the gloss, but now I think it’s essential. It allows the reader to follow the grammatical descriptions without learning the language. (And it’s a big help even if they are learning it.)

Glosses are chunky to read. You could try expanding them—

in | Russia singular genitive | everyone plural nominative | work third person plural present indicative | on | factory singular locative
but that’s not really more readable, is it?

The convention is that - separates morphemes, while . separates words required to explain the morpheme. So work-3p.pres.ind above means that rabotajut is divided into two morphemes:

rabota-work
jutthird person plural present indicative
That is, the dots tell us that 3p.pres.ind describes a single, indivisible morpheme. We can use the same convention for words that require more than one word in the English gloss; e.g. we could gloss French sortir as go.out.

Compare Quechua llamka-n-ku which means the same as rabotajut but whose gloss is work-3-pl. That is, -n-ku can be divided into -n = 3rd person, -ku = plural.

Some people like the neatness of a tabular format, though I think it’s overkill and makes the transliteration hard to read:

V Ross- ii vse rabota- jut na zavod- e
in Russia s.gen everyone.pl.nom. work 3p.pres.indic on factory s.loc
An alternative is the approach J. Randolph Valentine takes in his Nishnaabemwin Reference Grammar:
Gii-gshkitoon wii-nsaaknang Maanii shkwaandem.
Mary was able to get the door open.
Gii-gshkitoon vti ind 3sProx'0s ‘ANsg was able to do IN’; wii-nsaaknang vti conj 3sProx'0 ‘CONJ ANsg open IN’; Maanii na 3sProx ‘Mary’; shkwaandem ni 0s ‘door’
Although this takes a lot of space, it fits the language since (as the glosses suggest) there’s a lot of grammatical information to get across.

The translation should be unforced English, not an attempt to capture the feel of the original— that’s what the glosses are for. For instance, if you’re translating Quechua

Gringuqa hamukunsi kaballupi.
gringo-topic go-to.spkr-3-evid horse-loc
don’t try to use the nuances or syntax of the original:
As for the gringo, he came, I’m sure, by horse.
Rather, supply the sentence as we’d say it:
A gringo was coming along on a horse.
The reader can look at the glosses to see the differences from English. You can force it a bit if you are contrasting two constructions— e.g. if you had a variation with hamukunmi, which uses the hearsay evidential -mi rather than the direct knowledge evidential -si, you can write contrasting glosses:
(I know) a gringo was coming along on a horse.
(I hear) a gringo was coming along on a horse.

What’s next?

If this is your first introduction to linguistics or conlanging, I advise trying it out! Create a map and start filling it in... keeping a grammar-in-progress as you go. When you run into questions or puzzles, you can always come back to the Kit for ideas.

The print and e-book versions of the Kit— and its sequel, Advanced Language Construction— are full of even more information. To keep the online kit simple, I’ve left out a lot of detail, as well as fascinating natlang examples. If you get very far into creating languages, both volumes are well worth picking up!

And check out the web resources here.


 

 
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Extract from Advanced Language Construction, © 2012 by Mark Rosenfelder.