It has been claimed that the conlang Kēlen, winner of the 2009 Smiley award, is supposed to challenge Greenberg's universal of always having a noun-verb distinction by eliminating verbs. In light of the fact that Kēlen has a special word-class called relationals, which are four predicating words that take noun phrase arguments, is it not more factual to analyse the relationals of Kēlen as a very limited and closed class of verbs? They do seem to fulfill the same function words called "verbs" do in other languages, and are necessary for predication — another domain typically reserved for verbs (even if we assume zero-copula).

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    It seems like those would count as verbs. It's also possible that it's not advanced enough to really be considered a human language.
    – curiousdannii
    Feb 7, 2018 at 1:22
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    ”not advanced enough” would be bothering if it would prevent the communication of some concepts; I don't really see the point with "human language".
    – mklcp
    Feb 9, 2018 at 13:19

2 Answers 2


Using the Natural Semantic Metalanguage as a good baseline of what a human language can communicate, there are several core verbs:

  • Mental predicates: THINK, KNOW, WANT, FEEL, SEE, HEAR
  • Speech: SAY
  • Actions, events, movement: DO, HAPPEN, MOVE
  • Location, existence, specification: BE (SOMEWHERE), THERE IS, BE (SOMEONE/SOMETHING)

LA is clearly polysemous for THERE IS, BE (SOMEWHERE), BE (SOMEONE/SOMETHING), and probably also marks PART in reverse.

NI probably covers DO and MOVE.

SE is even higher level, expressing the verb of give, as well as primes like FEEL and SAY.

So the claim that Kēlen does not have verbs is patently false.

There are in fact natural languages with even more restricted verb inventories than Kēlen, such as Jingulu, which has been analysed as only have verbs for go, come, and do. (I haven't seen an NSM style analysis of Jingulu, I wonder how they would see the verbs like THINK etc being expressed in Jingulu?)

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    (I had known about the first part before you posted your answer, but it was delightful to read the second; thanks!)
    – Darkgamma
    Feb 7, 2018 at 1:40
  • (Sorry for the late comment, but I just saw this question now.) Re Jingulu, the analysis with only three verbs is debatable. I personally think it would be more accurate to say that Jingulu splits verbs into two classes: a small closed set of inflecting verbs/auxiliaries, which carry inflections for cross-referencing, TAM etc.; and a large open set of uninflecting verbs/coverbs, which carry the semantics. Most verbal notions are expressed by modifing the appropriate inflecting verb by the appropriate coverb. This structure is not an uncommon one in the region.
    – bradrn
    Jun 21, 2021 at 3:39
  • @bradrn For many linguists, it is precisely the syntactic and morphological behaviour that determines what the word classes are. It's more a matter of preference what to call the coverbs.
    – curiousdannii
    Jun 21, 2021 at 3:46
  • @curiousdannii This is true, but the coverbs also behave similarly to ‘verbs’, e.g. they must be nominalised if used in an NP (Pensalfini 1997:138).
    – bradrn
    Jun 21, 2021 at 4:31

Relationals in Kēlen have no other purpose, so are verbs in all but name.

Kēlen is an engineering language, masquerading as an art lang. It doesn't have a history or proto-lang like some other art langs, so it is obvious that the relationals are a one for one replacement of verbs, but without any verb-like conjugation seen in english (e.g. run -> running).

Compare tenseless languages, which make use of other ways of conjugating the verbs (aspect or mood) or other words (verbs/adverbs/preposition). Kēlen uses both of those schemes.

Take the Kēlen relational word LA for instance

pattern english equivalent
LA NP NP exists, there is NP
LA NP LOC (NP) NP is at a location
LA NP (ñe) NP NP is (the same as) NP
LA NP pa NP NP is/has/contains NP

In the examples the role LOC is performed by sū, which is a preposition. The Kēlen word ñe modifies the relational to be possessive rather than stative. The relations between verbs and relationals go on. It even has inflections for LA.

Why is this significant? It's because the relationals serve no other purpose that they have to be considered direct relations to verbs. For a comparison that shows how a word having multiple purposes could denote verblessness, see how Salishan Languages can be considered nounless:

Words with noun-like meanings are automatically equivalent to [be + NOUN] when used predicatively, such as Lushootseed sbiaw which means '(is a) coyote'. Words with more verb-like meanings, when used as arguments, are equivalent to [one that VERBs] or [VERB+er]. For example, Lushootseed ʔux̌ʷ means '(one that) goes'.

In natural languages, where words evolve in meaning over time, you can see meanings change over time. See how the words Be, Is and Am come about:

Old English bēon, an irregular and defective verb, whose full conjugation derives from several originally distinct verbs. The forms am and is are from an Indo-European root shared by Latin sum and est . The forms was and were are from an Indo-European root meaning ‘remain’. The forms be and been are from an Indo-European root shared by Latin fui ‘I was’, fio ‘I become’, and Greek phuein ‘bring forth, cause to grow’. The origin of are is uncertain.

- Google.

It should be possible to make a language where your verb is a primarily a noun/adjective/adposition but can be considered a verb only secondarily, as it's meaning changes over the imaginary history of the language. Maybe the word LA primarily means SEAT or GROUND (specifically a noun, not another verb). But when it's used with another word, it's meaning changes from the noun to a verb-like sense.

This way you could have a verbless language, where it's verb-like words evolved out of non-verbs.

But Kēlen has no such evolution of relationals, so they can serve no other purpose than to be one for one verb replacements.

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