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.

  • 3
    Yes the first sentence is so~ stereotypical. I don’t care ;)
    – Jan
    Feb 21, 2018 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.
    – Sir Cornflakes
    Feb 21, 2018 at 10:48
  • 13
    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, 2018 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, 2018 at 3:15
  • 1
    Good edit @Jan!
    – curiousdannii
    Feb 23, 2018 at 5:20

6 Answers 6


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.

  • 6
    You've just reinvented evidentiality! :P
    – curiousdannii
    Feb 23, 2018 at 1:55
  • Nice suggestion! I like it.
    – Jan
    Feb 23, 2018 at 4:41
  • @curiousdannii very interesting, had never seen that before. :) Nothing new under the sun, they say.
    – anonymous2
    Feb 26, 2018 at 13:14

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.


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.


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.

  • Are you using a standard romanization for Mandarin here?
    – mic
    Apr 12, 2019 at 16:57
  • @MiCl No, I am not. Apr 12, 2019 at 18:45

What you wrote made me think of a method called nonviolent communication, which argues for expressing yourself very clearly and straightforwardly with regards to your emotions and needs in order to be understood. It recommends phrasing things in such a way as to always be objectively true. That boils down to expressing observations without judgment (e.g. "the sky is blue") and substituting judgmental expressions with expressions of inner emotions, basic needs, and requests.

It's hard to capture the breadth of the theory behind it (I recommend this video if you're interested), so I'll give a few examples of what it argues for and against:

The violent way of putting things:

  • "You're an idiot" (judgment)
  • "I feel taken advantage of" (not an emotion, but rather a judgment)
  • "You make me angry" (it's one's own mind that creates anger, not a person)
  • "I need you to go away." ("you to go away" is not a basic need; needs in general should not involve specific people)

The nonviolent way of putting things:

  • "When you said 'You're an idiot', I felt angry." (expressing an observation and a past emotion)
  • "When I think about you saying 'You're an idiot', I feel angry." (expressing an observation and a current emotion)
  • "I feel angry, because I'm needing understanding" (expressing the need behind the emotion)
  • "I'm needing peace and quiet. Would you be willing to leave the room?" (expressing a basic need without referencing a specific person)

So how can this translate to a constructed language?

A few ideas:

  • Get rid of judgmental words. Get rid of words like "good", "bad", and "ugly".
  • Get rid of the word "feel", use verbs for emotions. That's to avoid using the word feel in cases where it's not an actual emotion that one's expressing (like feeling "taken advantage of"). The verbs should be intransitive, as to get rid of the idea that something external is responsible for a person's emotions.
  • Have a rich vocabulary of emotional words. Here's a list to get you started.
  • Center the language around basic needs. Here's a list of needs for reference. Remember that basic needs never involve specific people, actions or things. (Those should be included in observations and requests.)
  • Have most expressions stick to the four components of NVC: observations, emotions, basic needs, and specific requests. Sentences might be variations on the form "When I [see/hear/smell/...] [observation], I feel [emotion], because I'm needing [basic needs]. Would you be willing to [request]?" (All components are optional, one can use any subset.) See this page for details.

Express probabilities

Instead of saying "It appears that…" or "I think that…" your elves could express how certain they are in exact numerical terms: "I believe with a 65±6% probability that…" By default, a sentence conveys a confidence level of 80%, let's say. If people want to express a greater level of confidence than that, they have to explicitly say it; we don't want it to be too easy for people to be overconfident. Of course, this is a pretty clunky statement in English; in your language it could be as simple as "65% that…".

Then, the speaker can state their evidence for their statement: "…based on the evidence of its physical appearance", "…based on the impression it gives me", etc. To be extra precise, the speaker could state their prior probability and go through their calculations for Bayes' theorem.

This is going beyond language and more about culture, but perhaps every elf could be scored on whether their stated probabilities turned out to be accurate, neither overconfident nor underconfident; e.g., 70% of their "it is 70% like that…" statements turned out to be true.

Clearly define words

Even a simple sentence like "The girl is good" is ambiguous. Does that mean she is morally good, and if so, is that according to the standard of virtue ethics (virtuous), deontology (follows all the rules), or consequentialism (has a positive impact on the word)? Does it mean that she is obedient, and if so, does that mean she obeys orders? What percent of the time does she obey orders? Does it mean that she ranks in the 80th percentile of children her age in terms of obedience?

These sorts of questions could be resolved by a standard prescriptive dictionary which everyone must read. Sentences should use words by their dictionary definition as literally as possible, and listeners should interpret it literally. If any speaker deviates from that dictionary definition, they should say so explicitly. You could have a prefix or suffix indicating that a word is being used inexactly or metaphorically.

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