I am working on a conlang. I have to some degree (i.e. a little bit) studied the grammar of Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Sanskrit, and Hebrew, and know Spanish relatively well in comparison from school, though my main language is obviously English. By "study", I don't know all of the grammatical structures of these languages, but I get some of the basics and have gathered inspiration from them. I have decided I like Chinese (Mandarin) and Vietnamese for the "atomicity" (analytical language), where every word is an atom and there are no word conjugations or the like, even for things like making it past tense ("wanted" vs. "want" in English).

But such an atomic/analytic language comes at a cost, you have an extra word for very common things like the past tense of a verb. So I am making some of these common things be turned into a suffix. But it turns out, just by making tenses, plurals, and a few other things into suffixes, it is already starting to look a lot like English or Spanish. Also, I learned from Hebrew that they have the definite article (like "the" equivalent) prefix every word if you have a complex noun. I think that is repetitive, so I like the way English does it just saying "the" once at the beginning of a phrase. Now, Chinese doesn't use "the" at all, they omit the word entirely. I don't really like losing that extra information (even though in theory you can regain it from context, but I don't know Chinese well enough to see how this really feels omitting the word "the"). So I am opting to have the concept of "the".

Sanskrit has way more verb and noun inflections, but I want to keep most of the words atomic so I don't do anywhere near as many as they do.

That gets us through the words pretty much.

After all of this, we are left with sentence structure. I like the idea of SVO rather than VSO or VOS because SVO seems like (in principle) it flows from one thing to the next, like a programming language. You start with the subject, it "pipes" into the verb as input, and then you pipe in the object from the other side. I mean technically with "piping" you might think "SOV" might make more sense, but splitting the subject and object with a verb means it's easier to distinguish between them. But this is, again, like how English (and Spanish and Chinese) does it. So it seems like I haven't even looked at other languages to mix it up and not be so "English-centric".

So then my sentences are basically like English in the end (since I have "the", "a", and SVO, with a few word suffixes):

<the> <tree> <fall> <down>

However, this gets to the main question. The last real big piece is how to deal with noun modifiers ("adjectives") and verb modifiers ("adverbs"). In English, they appear all over the place in the sentence. Sometimes they appear before the word ("the tree actually fell"), sometimes after ("the tree fell down"). Sometimes both ("the tree actually fell down"). That is for adverbs, but for adjectives too ("I see the *big tree", which I guess is an attributive adjective, vs. predicative adjectives which I can't think of an example of adjective appearing after a noun).

So I am wondering, what are all the ways these "inspiration" languages (in terms of my project) handle adjectives/adverbs ("modifiers")? Are there any languages which greatly restrict their placement in the sentence to only one position (either before or after the noun/verb)? If so, what are some examples in either Chinese, Vietnamese, Sanskrit, and/or Hebrew (or all 4 of them), of if they don't have that feature, what is a language that does (with an example)? If there is a good conlang which demonstrates it, that would be an interesting comment too.

Basically I am trying to not make this language feel like "I just slightly modified English". I thought about the word/sentence features of many other languages and feel I like this structure I have landed on the best so far, but there is still room for improvement and getting better/more influence from these other few languages (Chinese, Vietnamese, Hebrew, Sanskrit).


2 Answers 2


In the long term, learning another language reasonably well is probably the only way to get a "real feel" for how things can sound natural or not in other languages. That's a very ambitious project though, and there are easier things you can do that take you a long way!

Separate what to say from how to say it.

For instance: Being a native English speaker, you are accustomed to having a definite article in your language, as you like being able to separate "the cat" from just any other cat in every sentence. Fine. You know what you want to say. If you want your language to seem more exotic, ask yourself if the way the English language expresses this feature is the only way, or if you could come up with something else.

My native language is Swedish, and we also make the distinction between definite and indefinite. We don't have a word like your "the", however, but instead use different endings to convey the same meaning. Much like English does with the plural. Consider the following translations from English to Swedish.

"cat" -> "katt", "the cat" -> "katten", "cats" -> "katter", "the cats" -> "katterna"

When I started learning English at school I was faced with this strange structure (the English "the"), but the underlying concept was familiar. I could thus relatively seamlessly translate one construction to the other. If my native language had not had the same distinction it would likely have been much harder.

You mention that you know some Spanish, and though definite articles work the same you could observe differences from English there as well. One is that pronouns are not necessary in a Spanish sentence, since this information is expressed in the verb endings. "Voy a comer" translates readily to "I'm going to eat", but take a look at the two sentences and you'll find they are very different. The Spanish one has no pronoun. The English one has the unit "I'm", which could either be interpreted as a pronoun and a verb not present in the Spanish one, or as a unit corresponding to Spanish "soy". Then follows the word "going" which has the same basic meaning as Spanish "voy", a word that is used in the translation, but in a completely different form. You could translate "voy" to the English unit "I'll" and make the whole sentence "I'll eat", but even then that doesn't constitute an exact word-by-word translation as the word "a" would have been taken out.

So: How could you express your desired distinction between definite and indefinite? One way would be to keep the article, but place it after the noun instead. You could use suffixes, like Scandinavian languages, or why not prefixes? Word order? Keep this particular feature the same as in English, but change something else? You have lots of possibilities!

The same procedure can be used for other things you want your language to express.

A comment on SVO word order:

Are you really sure your interpreting this as the most logical word order has noting to do with English being a SVO language? Couldn't you just as well argue that verb-first structures are "more like programming" in that you first state a function and then its inputs? And if not, wouldn't your comparison to piping fit better with OVS word order? If I tell my terminal to "ls | grep .pdf" it first gets the list of files, the "object", and then feeds this to grep, which could be seen as either the subject or the verb, which filters out the lines containing ".pdf".


Perhaps you'd be interested to see how other languages do things here: https://wals.info/ .

If I do not overlook anything, then all the features you are thinking about are discussed here with examples from throughout the world.

Without being exhaustive of the topics you mention, here are some examples that this site covers your questions.

Now, Chinese doesn't use "the" at all, they omit the word entirely. I don't really like losing that extra information

Chapters 37 and 38 discuss ways of marking definiteness and indefiniteness (English 'the,' 'a').

  • If you wanted to skip having a separate word to show definiteness, you might read how some languages use 'one' or 'this' to do the jobs.

  • Distinct from doing this job with any dedicated words, one strategy you may not have considered is reordering or omitting grammar elements to indicate definiteness. Turkish distinguishes 'a' from 'one' with word order "I saw [one] red [a] car," changes the noun case to do what 'the' does in "I saw the car," and lets the absence of {a, this, that} to indicate "the" in "Car was red."

  • Using omission and word order, you can also come up with something which is not explicitly related to markers of definiteness per se. If I understand the Ngiyambaa (Pama-Nyungan; New South Wales, Australia) example of doing without a 'the,' folks usually indicate 1st and 2nd person, so could indicate 3rd person by omission; therefore, when they do mark 3rd person, it also means 'the,' even though this marker's explicit job is not being a definite article.

So I am wondering, what are all the ways these "inspiration" languages (in terms of my project) handle adjectives/adverbs ("modifiers")? Are there any languages which greatly restrict their placement in the sentence to only one position (either before or after the noun/verb)?

I do not see that this is discussed explicitly as the topic of a chapter, but there are 19 chapters on word order, 7 on syntax for noun phrases, and 31 more on either simple or complex clauses.

Here is one on Order of Adjective and Noun. On its (or any) map page, on or below the map you can search up each of the languages you want to see. I don't think that Sanskrit is included in any of the surveys, though.

I have often satisfied "What are all the ways..." questions there. It can help you be aware of how English does things so that you can pick the English way only when it does stand out to you in comparison.

Lastly, if you'd like some food for thought from somebody who has worked on similar goals of breaking out of his English mold, I can tell you how my conlang does some of these things in not-English ways.

Otherwise, altogether, I can definitely tell you there are still possibilities for you to enjoy discovering :)


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