I am writing a grammar for my conlang. I imagine finishing it and hiring a grad student or somebody to read it for comments, but otherwise, realistically, it probably has no other audience than myself so this question admittedly doesn't matter. Still, I am interested to consider what advantages or disadvantages community members consider. Thank you for your time.

In many places, I use linguistic terms like 'nominative.' Sometimes I don't find such terms for my concept, or I find a closely related term but think it would mislead, in which case I might derive a "readable" alternative: the alwaysative and neverative verb aspects, say.

Writing a grammar, would you err toward consistency either with linguistic or with "readable" terminology? Why?

  • Why do you think the linguistic terms aren't "readable"? Even 4 year olds learn the terms "phoneme" and "grapheme" at school in Australia. Whereas no one would have any idea what "alwaysative" or "neverative" would mean without you explaining it, so you might as well just use the conventional terminology.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Mar 24 at 13:17
  • Linguistic terms are not "readable" because 'readable' is a category I made up for this question to contrast linguistic terms. Those terms which no one can have learned anywhere else (because I made them up) aim to be learned upon reading: readable. It does not deny legibility to other sets of terms. Your question about the word 'readable' underlines the challenge of making up terms. Is there a conventional linguistic term for linguistic neologisms? Is there conventional linguistic terminology for an aspect indicating an action always happens? Never happens? Glad to hear.
    – Vir
    Commented Mar 25 at 18:11

1 Answer 1


This isn't actually a problem unique to conlanging. Linguists working with natural languages run into this all the time too! Fundamentally, the goal of your terminology—whatever you end up using—should be to give the audience a clear understanding of what you're talking about.

If your cases happen to work very similarly to certain cases in Latin, then using the traditional Latin names might serve this purpose. It means people who already speak Latin (or Greek or German or…) don't need to learn a new name for "this is the case for the subject of a verb". When that happens, using a term like "nominative" can be helpful. There are a whole lot of languages in the world that have a "nominative" case, so most linguists are familiar with it.

However, most cases don't work quite like certain cases in Latin. When this happens, you have to decide if it's worth using a name that's close enough, even if it's a bit misleading, or if it's worth creating a new name that your audience needs to learn. Which way this tradeoff swings tends to depend on how close your thing is to the traditional meaning, and how common the established terminology is. (A lot more people know "dative" than "adessive".)

Personally, I would err on the side of using more accurate names for things, even if you need to create new terms for it. When two languages both have a "dative" case because it's used for the recipient of giving, even though in one language it's fundamentally a case about beneficiaries and in the other language it's fundamentally a case about circumstances, the standardized name is actively hindering readers' understanding. Calling them the benefactive and circumstantial cases could avoid that.

  • Thank you for the insight. I will wait to see whether some more come in before marking Answered, and I am glad that a mix of traditional and made-up terms is a well-tested approach already.
    – Vir
    Commented Mar 24 at 5:18

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