Making your own language: the word list

We made it all the way to step 4 of the writer’s approach to making your own language! Step 3 was a big one, so let’s take some deep breaths together, and keep that PDF open if you need to review.

Now it’s time to have some fun. What should be on your initial word list? This post will go over some recommendations if you’re not sure where to start. (Hello also to non-beginners–this post might also be useful if you’re thinking of starting a new language and want to approach lexicon generation systematically.)

You can, theoretically, just start with the very first word in your translation text. But this will create some problems for your language:

  • Some words tend to come in sets, and if you take them one by one, you can’t make nice sets.
  • Your word list (or lexicon) will be more sophisticated the more you avoid one-to-one correlation. One-to-one correlation is a danger of any method you use to make words for your language, but translation can be especially bad for this. (More detailed suggestions for this problem in a future post.)
  • You might not get to fun stuff for a while.
  • In a lot of sentences, the first word isn’t a “content word” but a “grammatical word”, so you might not even need it in your language. (e.g. many languages don’t say the it in “It rains.” That it means nothing.)

Here’s some stuff you could choose to do for your initial word list:

If you’ve gone through step 3, you should know how you’re going to handle your nouns and verbs. Doesn’t have to be too complex–it’s just so you have somewhere to start. If you have agglutinative or fusional paradigms, I recommend coming up with at least four or five different “test words” and running them through your paradigms. This test drive will ensure the paradigm you make is sturdy and doesn’t break if you put a noun in it that, say, ends with a vowel. I also often find that paradigms that sound good with the first noun I come up with sound awful with the third one and I decide to change them, so don’t be afraid to make sweeping changes to suit your aesthetic preferences.

You may have finished step 3 by creating your pronoun set. This is worth doing early; non-personal pronouns tend to be a tough part of speech for English speakers when they first tackle translation. The primary pronouns we discuss in step 3 are:

  • Personal (I, you, he/she/it, we, y’all, they)
  • Interrogative (what, where, when, who)
  • Indefinite (somebody, something, everywhere, nowhere)

The next step will be to start translating. Tips and tricks will be upcoming, but if you decide you’re good to go right now, best of luck! You should have all the tools you need to try your hand. There’s no minimum number of words you need to have in your word list before you start translating.

Or, since it’ll be a while until that post, we can have a little fun. What’s a semantic domain you’re interested in? To get a taste for how your language feels and sounds, and to test your ability to research words in your inspiration languages with tools like Wiktionary, you could try making a word list of, say, 10 words (this will be harder than you might think) from a domain that interests you. These are some classic semantic domains I often start with that are interesting cross-linguistically:

  • Family members
  • Colours
  • Body parts
  • Cursing
  • Sex and romance
  • Animals and plants (what animals and plants are in your region?)
  • Any traditional vocabulary your culture employs (knots? papermaking? animal husbandry?)
  • Words used as names, especially the names of your characters!
  • Words you can use to make place names

 

 

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