I'm curious about (and also stuck at) the natural formation and ways of construction of polysemies in naturalistic conlangs / natural languages.

More specifically: I'm constructing the vocabularies of a proto-language. When it comes to words with only subtle differences, I failed to come up with a proper method.

To my knowledge words are formed by putting word roots together. The word roots should have all the basic meaning covered. But I frequently see words with same or similar basic meanings, like learn / study, middle / center, get (one of the senses) / become, etc. in English. As for now I can only think of two reasons, but I'm not sure:

  1. These words comes from different sources. But for proto-languages this is simply impossible.

  2. Multiple possible combinations of roots has similar meanings, and eventually the two become polysemies. But I suppose this only works for not-so-basic concepts.

My problems are:

a) How polysemies is formed in natural contexts?
b) How can a proto-language have polysemies? Or it shouldn't have any? (In this case how to express the "subtle" differences between words?)

EDIT Thank you, Draconis and Sir Cornflakes! I would clarify that by proto-language which might be the wrong term to use I actually (somewhat) mean the first language ever evolved in a group of people. So it's at the root of any language tree, thus can have no or little external sources of words.

What I care more is how can I construct polysemies (or just words with similar meanings) in a naturalistic conlang: by using a new word root, or some other construction?

  • Why's it impossible for words in proto-languages to come from different sources? We can point to words in Proto-Romance that came from Germanic, for example, and words in Proto-Germanic that came from Romance. Sometimes, like with Proto-Indo-European, we have no idea what those different sources were, since we don't have reliable reconstructions of any older stages. But it still had its own ancestors, even if we don't know what they looked like.
    – Draconis
    Sep 1, 2023 at 16:31
  • What do you mean by proto-language? In usual linguistic terminology, it is just the language at the root of a certain language tree, and it is not different from any present day language in its principal features.
    – Sir Cornflakes
    Sep 1, 2023 at 20:14

1 Answer 1


So, let's start with some thoughts on the first language of humanoids.


I think that there are some genetic mutations necessary to create speaking humanoids from non-speaking, more chimp-like creatures. I won't speculate much about the nature of that mutations (whether there are some "language genes" or if just an enlargement of the human brain is sufficient), but I assume, there are such mutations.

The first humanoid who was able to speak didn't

Just because there was no other humanoid to speak with. Even nowadays, children deprived of linguistic input don't develop a fluent language later in their lives.

When there are several humanoids who are able to speak they develop a language

When there several children (at least two in a sufficiently short time interval) that have the capability to speak, they will develop their own private language. These children will have the first language among humanoids. Since there is more than one speaking child, they already have different (highly overlapping, but not identical) idoelects, I assume one source of polysemy (different lects) is present from the beginning.

Language probably emerged at roughly the same time in different groups of humanoids

The language enabling genes spread between different groups of humanoids before the onset of language. They reach the critical concentration at different groups at about the same time. In each group, a different language evolves. Multilinguality is an issue from the very beginning of mankind.


I think there was already some polysemy in the earliest languages of mankind, and this is unavoidable because natural language only exists when more than one single individual speaks it. And when something new has to be named, different speakers come up with different words for that something, and only continued language usage streamlines it to one or two stable words.

  • I'm sorry that my question is misleading. (My English is not fluent, to be honest.) So is it your opinion that in a natualistic conlang, some words with similar meanings may have completely unrelated forms, and we can create them (almost) randomly?
    – atzlt
    Sep 4, 2023 at 14:57
  • Yes, and this is a very principled yes: The connection between sound and meaning in human language is to a very large part arbitrary. There are some tendencies, e.g., the Booba-Kiki effect, but those tendencies can be overridden and are overriden quite frequently.
    – Sir Cornflakes
    Sep 4, 2023 at 15:01
  • Thank you for your explanation! That solved my concerns.
    – atzlt
    Sep 4, 2023 at 15:10

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