I asked How does Chinese handle the -ing and -ed in common names, like "Black-bellied whistling duck"? in an attempt to learn better how analytic languages deal with complex noun phrases like:

  • Black-bellied whistling duck
  • Black-capped warbling finch
  • Black-striped woodcreeper
  • Black-throated blue warbler
  • Chipping sparrow

These are all "proper names" for birds in English. By having the -ed and -ing, it is constructing adjectives which are applied to the final noun. Modifiers within modifiers, essentially. I am still unclear how Chinese deals with them, but that is beside the point.

In the conlang I am working on, the "base" word form is a noun-verb-adjective all at the same time, and you suffix this "base" word with -a, -i or -u to make it those, respectively. But it's starting to get cumbersome with this approach (it seems), because to do the above would be basically (using this word list):

veg   balin leg     wisal   mek  barvaza
black belly contain whistle make duck

But really this is composed of (as english demonstrates) modifiers within modifiers (the -ing and -ed being modifiers on the modifiers). So I was thinking of:

vegu balin legu wisal meku barvaza

Here, the -u "compiles" the previous unsuffixed things into a modifier/feature/adjective (whatever you want to call it). Then the -a tells us the final noun.

Would this be unambiguous or would it lead to ambiguity? What are the pros and cons you can see with this, where does it break down?

Basically, I am still struggling figuring out what is a word-within-a-word and what is just a word, sometimes it seems to be 3 levels of nesting:

[big [black [belly -ed] [whistle -ing] duck]]]

I was thinking of somehow capturing this nesting, but then you would have to end with like 3 words at the end saying essentially "remove parenthesis remove parenthesis remove parenthesis" haha, and that would be hard to understand when communicating (and speaking).

So what do you think of my approach, will it break down or have ambiguities that you can see? If so, what is an example and how might you resolve it? This language is highly analytic (I think of it as "atomic" where everything is a word, like Chinese or Vietnamese).

To elaborate further, sometimes these phrases are composed of many "compound words". The only example I have is "skilled circumciser" (I was looking at Jewish tradition words, sorry).

skill -ed circumcise agent
[skill -ed] [around cut] agent
skill -ed  around cut   agent
kasal legu sok    kratu zeka

But "around cut" (or "circumcise"), that is a verb really, but I am making it into an adjective. So it feels incorrect to me what I'm doing, I feel like I should make it a verb, but then people would maybe hear:

skill containing around, CUT agent

Which is kind of non-sensical... But still, I am confused. Looking for some guidance.

I'm wondering if I can do without the -u and just do:

veg balin leg wisal mek barvaza

Would that make sense? Seems like Chinese might do it like that more.

Another example:

7-armed candelabra
7-armed candle holder
7   arm contain candle hold tool
xab lim leg     lazup  rug  tula

2 Answers 2


In Sumerian, the first noun of a phrase is the "head" (the thing the others are modifying), and the end of a phrase (whether it's one word or multiple words) is marked with a clitic that indicates its role. (The clitic for "noun modifying another noun" is =ak.)

For example:

simug nanše=ak=ra
smith Nanshe=GEN=DAT

Or with brackets:

(simug (nanše)=ak )=ra
(smith (Nanshe)=GEN )=DAT
to Nanshe's smith

Adding in more layers isn't a problem:

mu ensik ŋirsu=ak=ak=še
name governor Girsu=GEN=GEN=TERM

With brackets:

(mu (ensik (ŋirsu)=ak )=ak )=še
(name (governor (Girsu)=GEN )=GEN )=TERM
for the name of the governor of Girsu

In general, a new noun acts as an open bracket, and a case marker acts as a close bracket. This works just as you'd expect with multiple modifiers:

udu gu=a sipad=ene=ak=am
sheep consume=PART shepherd=PL=GEN=be


(udu (gu)=a (sipad=ene)=ak )=am
(sheep (consume)=PART (shepherd=PL)=GEN )=be
these are the used-up sheep of the shepherds


In Lingála, modifiers are tagged with the gender of the noun they modify. Since Lingála has at least fourteen genders in the literary dialect, this tends to eliminate any ambiguity.

Numbers in the glosses indicate gender marking, from 0 (personal names and words for family members) to 15 (actions).

e-lamba y-a m-pembe
7-garment 7-of 9-whiteness
a white robe

n-tina y-a li-kambo li-ye
9-cause 9-of 5-problem 5-this
the cause of this problem

e-pai y-a n-zete y-a bo-moi
7-place 7-of 9-tree 9-of 14-life
the location of the Tree of Life

ma-koki m-a ∅-yo m-a mw-ana w-a li-boso
6-right 6-of 0-you 6-of 1-child 1-of 5-front
your rights as the firstborn child

This can still sometimes cause ambiguity, when there are multiple nouns of the same gender in the sentence:

m-buma y-a n-zete e-ye
9-fruit 9-of 9-tree 9-this
the fruit of this tree or this fruit of the tree

Does "this" attach to "tree" or "fruit"? In this case, it's almost certainly the former; if you wanted to indicate the latter, you could put "this" right after "fruit". As a result, the ambiguity isn't really an issue in practice.

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