It turns out that it appears Chinese has about 100 "base" (1-character) words for various foundational animals, and then the rest of the animals are combinations of those bases (or other adjectives):

  • hippo: river horse
  • lemur: fox monkey
  • giraffe: long neck deer
  • etc.

I am doing similarly for other areas of the lexicon (games/sports, plants, rocks, etc.). So I have stuff like this:

  • antelope: even-toed ruminant
  • wren: hole-dweller bird
  • emu: camel bird
  • ibis: wading bird
  • etc.

I am still stuck on the problem of figuring out how to distinguish common noun phrases vs. formal noun phrases. I tried asking how Chinese does it but I still don't get how Chinese distinguishes between the two. Like, how do you say "long neck deer" but not mean "giraffe"? Likewise, how can I say "the wading bird caught a fish" and mean the generic/casual noun phrase "wading bird" which is not the same as the formal noun phrase "wading bird [ibis]".

How do some natural or conlangs handle this? Oh, in Chinese, the name for "gorilla" is "large monkey" and chimpanzee is "black monkey". But gorillas can be black, and chimpanzees can be "large". So how would you say "large monkey" and not mean gorilla, or black monkey and not mean chimpanzee? How does this work?

The only way I can see this working is by doing something like a prefix particle meaning "the noun phrase next is a formal phrase", so "formal large monkey" means gorilla, but "large monkey" is just a large monkey. But that would mean to talk about things like dogs and cats you have to prefix every word with "formal", "the formal curly-haired dog [poodle]" or "the formal hairless cat". I don't think that is ideal, but not sure. So wondering how other languages (natlangs and conlangs) can handle this situation.

How do you use the terms of the formal noun phrase in a casual way?

I'm thinking of doing this:

smale kalime markat - small black monkey - bonobo (formal)
smal kalim markat   - small black monkey - (generic)

Adding the -e to the preceding words so they are like joined in the formal case.

  • 2
    What you seem to be describing are "idioms" -- phrases that mean something different from the literal meaning of the words.
    – Barmar
    Oct 16, 2022 at 20:38
  • 2
    BTW, 'hippo' is short for 'hippopotamus', which is Greek for 'river horse', so it's not just Chinese. In German it is also called 'Flusspferd' -- river horse. Oct 17, 2022 at 8:42

3 Answers 3


In English, we use stress. Think about how you say "greenhouse" versus "green house", or "redwood" versus "red wood": English doesn't allow two stressed syllables in a row within a lexical unit, but it's just fine if they're in different units.

Also, different syntactic options. A "whale that is blue" is unambiguously about its color, not its species, because "blue whale" (the species) is a fixed phrase that cannot be rearranged.


This works mainly through context. That is a bit difficult to give examples for without actual context:

Situation: a (very) large aquarium with whales of different species. If you say "the blue whale eats a lot more krill than the humpback", then it is clear that the "blue" is not an adjective, but part of the phrase "blue whale". If there was a blue whale and a green whale, then it would be different.

Situation: you're in a zoo at the gorilla enclosure. "This large monkey is the alpha male" -- should be obvious if your term for gorilla was "large monkey". If it's not obvious, you could ask "Do you mean large monkey or large monkey?"; but this would only happen infrequently. Otherwise the terms would change over time to be less ambiguous. If you're in front of the chimpanzee enclosure, it would be obvious that large was an adjective (unless agorilla was also there and had taken charge of the tribe).

Situation: your in front of a row of houses. "I like that green house" is obvious, as there's no greenhouse. Even if you say "that green house is full of plants" there is no scope for misunderstanding. If there was a greenhouse visible, that would change, and again if it wasn't obvious (eg if there was also a green house with many plants), you can ask for clarification.

A lot of language use is contextual (which is why isolated sentences are often ambiguous, since they are lacking context), so I wouldn't worry too much about making your own language too precise and unambiguous. Just look at toki pona, which is so vague that you can not really use it without actual context.

If you're using language out of context (eg an encyclopedia article), then you need to define initially what it is you're talking about, thus providing context. "The blue whale is a species of whale that eats krill. Blue whales live in the oceans." -- it is clear that in the second sentence you're not using blue as an adjective. Imagine writing a toki pona Wikipedia article about apples: kili is fruit, so you need to be more specific. kili sike? That's round fruit, which could still be anything. But if you are in an apple orchard, then talking about apples is a lot easier.


In addition to what @Draconis say, many of the compound names don't make sense grammatically unless they are read as a unit. A river horse could not be interpreted as "a horse that is river", it wouldn't make any sense. You could get an ambiguity if you referred to one as a horse of the river, but riverhorses are safe to talk about.

These sort of compounds are common in other Germanic languages as well, and are generally distinguished by stress. In Germanic languages outside English, we typically indicate this altered stress in writing to a much larger degree. In Swedish, the word 'flod', meaning river and the word 'häst', meaning horse, nicely combine to 'flodhäst', which is what we call hippos.

This is sort of similar to your suggestion of a special form of adjectives used only in formal phrases! If you don't want a special verb form, which might feel a bit contrived, you could instead use different constructions, just as we do when we combine two nouns. Maybe adjectives normally come before the noun, but are placed after it in case of formal phrases?

The special forms for adjectives are interesting though!

  • A horse cannot be river, but river horse could mean, for example, a horse trained to tow barges on rivers. Jan 29, 2023 at 7:22

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