Vocabulary Creation?!?

Posted by Glenn Kempf on 9:56 7/4/02

In reply to: Vocabulary Creation?!? posted by Matt on 17:01 7/1/02

One recommended way of creating vocabulary is through the use of roots, which may or may not be words in and of themselves, usually combined with suffixes and prefixes that also have specific meanings. Tolkien did this with his Quenya (his son Christopher explained the technique in the Books of Lost Tales, published after Tolkien's death). Pablo Flores also talks about using roots in his conlang Draseleq, although unfortunately he doesn't go into detail. Of course, Mark does it too. :-)

An example in English: the root word "light" (itself with multiple meanings) gives us not only "to light," "lightly," "lighter," and "lightest," but also "lightless," "to enlighten," "Enlightenment," and so forth. "Night" gives us "nightly" and "benighted." Note that meanings can be both literal and figurative; the figurative uses for a particular word or root can say a lot about your culture. So can words with double meanings: in Kazakh, the word qabyrgha means both "wall" and "rib," probably because the Kazakhs were originally nomads living in felt tents, with the walls supported by wooden ribs. The same word can also be used to mean "proponent, supporter."

Not all roots are obvious and unchanged; "good" shows up in an older form in "Gospel" (the "Good News"), from the Anglo-Saxon.

Compound words or expressions work the same way: from "sea" we have "seaside," "sea-green," "sea sickness," "sea legs," and so on.

How might this work in a conlang? Let's say you want to make up a word for "thunder." Operating within the phonology of your language, create a word that feels right to you for that meaning: booming, menacing, thunderous. Let's say you picked "grom." Now you can make up a whole range of other words: "gromen" = thunderous, "gromiti" = to thunder, "Gromentau" = Mount Thunder. Note that I just made up the adjective ending "-en" and the verb ending "-iti," which will presumably be used for many other words, not to mention the new word "tau" for mountain, which can be used for a new set of words--"tauden" = mountainous, etc. You can create figurative meanings, too: "tau" as a verb ("tauditi") might mean "to loom, tower (over something)."

As for what "sounds right"--that's harder; you may have to go by ear. What's important, I think, is not only separate words, but that the language as a whole has a "sound" or "music" of its own.

"Grom," by the way, really is the Russian word for thunder; other words with the same root include "gromovoi" = thunderous; "gremit'" = to thunder, rumble; "gromkii" = loud; "gromkost'" = volume; "gromit'" = to smash, wreck; "gromadnyi" = huge, immense; and "pogrom," which is one example of a Russian word adopted directly into English. "Tau" is Kazakh for "mountain"; kudos to anyone who knows where I got Mount Thunder from. :-)

Ad onlelán,

Mark responds:

All well put. I'll just note that the Russians obviously stole the word grom from Verdurian.

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