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For a role-playing setting, I want to construct an elven language. The society of these elves strongly values being careful, thinking things through, taking one’s time and preventing mistakes. This is not a recent development but has been that way for centuries.

I feel that the language should somehow reflect their culture of being careful and preventing mistakes — somewhat like the Japanese language mirrors the importance of showing respect to the other party with a wide range of respectful address suffixes, respectful grammatical features and a respectful vocabulary.

In what way could I implement my elves’ carefulness and mistake-preventing ideal in their language?


As requested in the comments, here is some further elaboration of what I have in mind.
In cultures, certain behaviour is considered acceptable, certain behaviour is considered well-mannered and other behaviour is considered rude. For example, in Germany coming straight to the point is considered the normal, accepted behaviour while giving white lies is frowned upon to different degrees leading to Germans outright stating what they observe even in other languages in what is elsewhere considered an unfriendly manner.

On the other hand in China, not being able to provide an answer to a question is considered rude so accepted behaviour instead is to provide an answer even if one has no idea if it is true or not. (That is the impression I got from interaction with previous Chinese colleagues.)

In the culture of my elven society, it would be perfectly acceptable and even considered well-mannered to let a deadline pass or let somebody wait in order to perfection a good or a service. On the other hand, providing someone with a flawed product or a not fully thought-through piece of advice would considered disrespectful because one should have taken the time to ensure the error within does not exist. (Such behaviour would be entirely unacceptable in Germany where it is expected for the finished product to arrive five minutes before the deadline.)

A number of common — to them — proverbs would underline this expectation. Maybe something along the lines of ‘the time you lose from a bad result outweighs the gain from finishing quickly’ or ‘even the king will gladly wait for his crown’ etc.

I hope I have made the general idea more clear.

  • Yes the first sentence is so~ stereotypical. I don’t care ;) – Jan Feb 21 '18 at 3:44
  • You may take inspiration from Tolkien's Entish language. I don't have a quotation ready, but you can find something about Entish in the Lord of the RIngs books. – jknappen Feb 21 '18 at 10:48
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    Really people? This site won't have active conlang creators if every conlang-creation question gets close-voted for "opinion-based"... I think that this question fits the site entirely. – RedClover Feb 21 '18 at 15:03
  • I think this kind of question is a bad fit for this site because answers would need come up with specific ideas of just how the elves psychology and mentality result in their being careful, before explaining how their language reflects that. It could be improved by adding specific examples of how the elves' decision making habits are different to human decision making. – curiousdannii Feb 22 '18 at 3:15
  • Good edit @Jan! – curiousdannii Feb 23 '18 at 5:20
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My idea on that would be very close to what you suggested yourself: introducing suffixes / prefixes which would indicate the uncertainty of the word. For instance, let's suppose that your word for "strong" is hariq, your word for "I sit down" is brumo and your word for "house" is niptug, and the word for "in" or "inside" would be bomp.*

Now I would invent some prefixes, such as ar- meaning "with great certainty," no prefix meaning something along the lines of "a certain degree of certitude, but not absolute certainty," (such as, it is supposed that; it is presumed that) and fun, meaning, "a large amount of uncertainty" (such as "we think" or "it appears possible that")**

Now let us suppose that I want to say that I that I sit down in the house, with an extreme certainty that it was a house that I was sitting in, but the fact that I was sitting or that I am actually inside is assumed to be true, though it could be theoretically disproved. I would say,

arniptug bomp brumo

In this fictive language,

funhariq niptug arbomp brumo

would mean, "I sit down in a place definitely inside a house which appears to be strong."

Note that these suffixes / prefixes could theoretically be added to any part of speech, or made different for nouns, verbs, adjectives, interjections, etc.

You could also possibly devise a way to make the order of the words show a carefulness about exactly how accurate what is being said is.

* Words invented totally randomly.
** Again, randomly selected; more or less prefixes could be used, with different definitions. This is just an example.

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    You've just reinvented evidentiality! :P – curiousdannii Feb 23 '18 at 1:55
  • Nice suggestion! I like it. – Jan Feb 23 '18 at 4:41
  • @curiousdannii very interesting, had never seen that before. :) Nothing new under the sun, they say. – rotaredom Feb 26 '18 at 13:14
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Culture shows up in languages by a few routes:

Specialized jargon. They might have a lot of specialized words for "carefulness". Láadan is just a bunch of specialized jargon, imho.

Metaphysical obsessions. In most languages, we have to care about these issues like when it happened and the gender of the speakers and we have to care about it in every sentence, even if it isn't otherwise topical. In English, you have to choose a gender or animacy status for a pronoun even if the distinction is irrelevant. Japanese making honorific/politeness markers obligatory is a perfect example. If I ever get around to writing a language, I plan to use this strategy, although, it only works with features that everything has. For example, if I make "edibility" a necessary grammatical marker, I may have to waste a lot of air on "inedible" and "doesn't apply".

Sapir-Whorf. This is all pseudo-science bunk anyhow, so you just assert that this or that feature, say through sympathetic magic makes your speakers this way or that way. German words fit together like a car engine and that is why they make such great cars. You have to form these sentences very carefully, so the people who speak the language must be very careful.

As for the mechanics—these show up as prefixes/affixes to nouns, adjective etc, or lexical distinctions, or a lack of lexical gaps. For example, just having a short simple word instead of needing a paragraph to discuss varieties of "carefulness"

Corpus. A language shows its culture in the corpus of text. If the language has lots of sample text that says, "gosh, we are very careful people," then that is good enough. But anything can be said in any language, so such a language wouldn't be, by corpus, any more "careful" or suited to talk about the "careful life" than any other language.

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Make expressing something uncertain less concise

Let's say that, by "default" in the languge, all verbs are completely certain. For example, let's say your word for car is chicho, your word for red is hoeng, and your word for is is sherr[1].

Now the sentence chicho sherr hoeng translates as the car is red, but it carries more certainty than it would in English—the car is surely, indisputably, provably red, and for that not to be true would feel very unnatural. Finding that one's assertion was false would cause a feeling of discomfort and mild panic comparable to realizing one had skipped a sentence or phrase while delivering a speech.

Then, add an adverb hunnyokenung which lowers the certainty of a verb to something closer to English. Now the sentence is chicho sherr hunnyokenung hoeng. The clunkiness of the phrase reflects the fact that this construction is not used often (the elf children are taught "if you don't have anything sure to say, don't say it at all!").

A side note: literature in this language would not be able to express something surprising unless any statements that were later refuted were written using the hunnyokenung form, or else the author would risk angry letters from readers complaining about the improper assertion.

1 The phonetics of these words (though not the grammar) were taken from Mandarin.

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Apart from the already mentioned evidentiality, you could look at modality. This expresses a speaker's attitude using a variety of aspects, such as obligation, possibility, probability, etc. The exact set depends on the language and the linguistic framework you are using.

You could have a default modality of 'optionality', so the sentence I am going to the shop could actually mean "I might perhaps go to the shop" -- notice how in English we use adverbials (perhaps) and mood (might) to express this. In your language you would have modals for definitely, or actually, so you make explicit that you are performing an action, rather than contemplating it.

As dithering is the default behaviour, your linguistic features should express the opposite, ie the rarer cases where dithering does not apply. So in a way the answer to your question of how to implement this in your language is "not at all". Because that's what you do anyway, you don't need to talk about it. But you do make explicit where it doesn't apply.

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