A guide for basic vocabulary

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A guide for basic vocabulary

Post by k1234567890y »

Maybe I did not make it well, but I hope this guide can help.

Many new conlangers have problems in determining what words should be the basic words, and many new conlangers can get stunned when seeing a bunch of words in a language, especially nouns. While the diversity of natural languages(and conlangs) might indicate that the only constraint of conlanging is the imagination of conlangers, the same phemonemon can also be discouraging for new conlangers when they eager to have a guide of some basics.

Well, first, despite being highly controversial, every living beings need to survive, in order to survive, they need to eat, to drink, to sleep, to keep themselves warm, etc.; besides, they are very likely to eventually die or have at least seen the death of other organisms, and to counter the inevitable death, they need to reproduce to ensure the continuation of the species; also, to make sure they can survive, they need to have some ways to perceive the environment. These basic physiological needs can suggest a good amount of basic vocabularies; they are very likely to need to do something to ensure their own survivals or to do everything they want; moreover, a sentient being that has languages are very likely to have social relationships and requirements to socialize members within a society, which also leads a bunch of vocabularies.

Despite being highly controversial and people might try to find counterexamples to disquality the universality of something, I think the so-called "cultural universals" and "human universals" can still be a good referent for what a language(and a culture connected to it) should have, one can read http://joelvelasco.net/teaching/2890/br ... ersals.pdf to see what phenomena are common to all human ethnic or cultural groups/ to see a list of them(note: the so called "magic", "magic to increase life", "magic to sustain life", "magic to win love" should be "belief of magic", "belief of magic that can increase life and the use of such magic", "belief of magic that can sustain life and the use of such magic", "belief of magic that can help to win love and the use of such magic", etc.)

The vocabulary of different languages vary considerably, but I guess most if not all languages have at least some vocabularies belonging to the following categories:

- words for objects of the natural world they can perceive directly(e.g. nouns for natural objects like sun, moon, mountain, water, fire, river, land, etc. words for animals and plants like trees, birds, fish, etc.)
- words for phenomenon of the natural world they can perceive directly(e.g. verbs like to flow, to shine, etc. and adjectives like hot, warm, cold, rainy, sunny, etc.)
- words for body parts(e.g. hand, foot, eye, ear, head, body, etc.)
- kinship terms and words describing social relations(this can vary considerably, some languages don't actually have a native word for "friend" as probably all their social relationships is inter-familial, but every language has words for "father", "mother", and words for siblings and offsprings of someone)
- pronouns distinguishing the speaker(I/me, we), the listener(you) and demonstrative words for objects near to the speaker(this, these, here, etc.) and objects far away from the speaker(that, those, there, etc.)(this can vary somewhat, some languages have two forms of "we" to distinguish whether "you" is also referred, and some languages have no 3rd pronouns and uses demonstrative words for "this", "that", etc. instead; besides, some language have more than two levels of demonstratives, but it seems that every language actually has some ways to distinguish "I/me", "you", "this", "that")
- interrogatives(e.g. who, what, which, etc.)
- some other functional words(e.g. and, or, but, not, same, other, part, whole, etc.)
- words or morphemes for abilities, permissions, obligations(e.g. can, should, must, let, etc.)
- words related to basic physiological needs like sleeping, eating, drinking(e.g. to eat, to drink, to sleep, to cook, bed, nouns for different kinds of food like meat, grain, etc.)
- words for habitation(e.g. house, to live)
- words for clothing(if they have clothes at all)(e.g. cloth, pants, shirts, etc.)
- words for moving around(e.g. to go, to come, to crawl, to run, to rotate, to turn, to fall, to rise, way, track, bridge, etc.)
- words for tool, working, creating and destroying things(e.g. nouns like rope, leverage, rod, needle, etc. verbs like to make, to pierce, to tie, to lift, etc.)
- words for social life, identities and conflicts(e.g. to talk, to chat, to fight, to teach, to reward, to , etc.)(conflict is a part of life)
- words for spatial and temporal relations(e.g. time, space, above, below, inside, outside, yesterday, tomorrow, today, etc.)
- words for life, aging, disease, reproduction and death, including the efforts to counter them(e.g. nouns like child, offspring, birth, death; adjectives like old, young, dead, sick; verbs like )
- words for properties and states, and the change of it(e.g. big, small, high, low, tall, happy, sad, tired, etc., adjectives for colors and shapes, verbs like to become, to change, to laugh, to cry, etc.)
- words for describing the quality of given objects and the integrity of the behavior of a social member(e.g. good, bad, evil, etc.)
- words for anything that might cause harm or related to harm and risk(e.g. harm, disaster, etc.)
- words for knowledge, beliefs, abstract concepts, etc.(e.g. luck, soul, to know, etc.)

While some words, like those for body parts, several words for natural objects like water and fire, and personal pronouns, can appear in languages spoken by any people regardless of the technological level they are in, the place they live and/or the social structure they have, others can vary considerably from people to people, for example, people living in tropical area don't have a native word for "ice" and "snow", hunter-gatherers that don't have much contact with the outside world don't have numerals above three or five, people living in small tribes that don't have fixed hierarchy are not likely to have words like "nobility", "government", "king", etc.(although they do have leaders and have a mechanism to manage the whole tribe), people living in middle ages didn't have modern technology like "electricity", "train", "computer", etc. and concepts related to them, etc.; also, many languages around the world have less distinctions of colour, they often have five or less basic colour terms, and the distinction of 11 or 12 basic colours like that of English is largely a modern phenomenon. So considering the geographic location, the technological level and the social structure of the speakers is necessary.

As for languages for 5 or less basic colour terms, a common pattern to sort colours is to put blue and green into the same category and to have the following five colour words: "white", "black", "red", "yellow", "grue(grue is a word for colour indicating both "green" and "blue")", an example of this is Classical Chinese, many other pre-modern languages also don't distinguish "blue" and "green" either. You can read https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color_term and relevant articles for the evolution of colour terms.

A way to help creating new vocabularies is to translate texts, this can help you find the lexical gaps of your conlangs, but sometimes the texts you have chosen might involve concepts that are inappropriate for the people speaking a language, choosing a text involving modern life and translating it into a language spoken by medieval people or hunter-gatherers is not a good idea.


Metaphor is a very important tool for all natural languages to extend the meanings of words. All natural languages have metaphors and often use them extensively, you can also consider to use metaphors to extend the meanings of the words in your conlangs.

For example(taken from http://www.unepd.info/IntlYearofLanguages.html ), all languages have metaphors that:

- Show “time” in terms of movement through space (along a “time line” with “distant” dates “far” in the future” or “nearby” dates “coming up soon”.(different languages can do this very differently, but it is the matter of how they do it, not the matter of whether they do it at all)
- Show importance in terms of size: all languages describe “important events” as “big” (i.e., “it’s a “big day for our team”, less important ones as “small” (e.g., “it’s just a small, unimportant detail”)
- Show positive emotions in terms of “brightness” or “higher temperature” (“Her smile “lights up” the room”, “He is a very warm person”), less positive ones in terms of “dullness” or “coldness” (“After she left, his world went gray”, “He can be as cold as a fish”)(however, it seems that "hotness" is connected to "anger" a lot)
- Show difficulty or ease in terms of “hardness” or “softness”, “bitterness” or “sweetness” (“go through a hard time”, “have a soft job”, “have a bitter experience”, and “know sweet success”)
(Above information on “metaphor” is from a presentation by Prof Carmen Betones, University of Almeria, curso de verano 2008, Fine Art, Language, and Synesthesia)

Besides, it seems that showing relative directions( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relative_direction ) in terms of body parts is also very common in many languages(e.g. "head" for "above, top"; "eye" for "front", "the back part of body" for "back, behind", etc.); as for compass directions, it is very common for natural languages to use things related to the sun or wind(Austronesian languages use winds from variousn directions for cardinal directions.) as referents, many languages connected "to rise", etc. with "east", as sun rises from the east and sets in the west(and it is also not uncommon for languages from the north hemisphere to connect "coldness" with north).

It is not uncommon to extend the meaning of an existing word to indicate related meanings, in many languages, there are several words that have many meanings and are very commonly used. For example, English "to get".

Also, it is actually pretty common for natural languages to derive indefinite pronouns(someone, something, anyone, anything, etc.) from interrogatives(who, what, etc.), and it is pretty common to have universal quantifiers(all, each, every, etc.) to bear some similarities to conjunctions(and, or, etc.), and again interrogatives are often involved in the formation of universal quantifiers. You can read http://wals.info/chapter/46 and http://wals.info/chapter/56 for more information.


If you really have no clues, you can also temporary forget the variety the diversity of language and culture and take a look at the following lists and try to create words for terms on the lists first:

- Swadesh list. a version of the word list: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Wiktiona ... h_template
- Leipzig-Jakarta list. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leipzig–Jakarta_list
- Ogden's Basic English. the word list: http://ogden.basic-english.org/words.html (an extended list can be found on Simple English Wikipedia, but note that the vocabulary in the extended list has a : https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikip ... d_wordlist )
- Nerriere's Globish. the word list: http://www.jpn-globish.com/file/1500motsGlobish.pdf
- The Gismu(the Lojban name of "content word", as far as I realize) list of Lojban: http://www.lojban.org/publications/wordlists/gismu.txt

I have combined the Swadesh list, the extension of Ogden's Basic English list listed in Simple English Wikipedia, and the word list of Nerriere's Globish, into a list, you can download and use it, but you might need to manually delete some of the words to fit the needs of your conlangs: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0ByhOk3 ... VyeEk/view

Besides, you can go to Wiktionary and other online dictionaries to see the definition of words, and how other natural languages describe words to draw inspirations.
See here for a short introduction of some of my conlangs: http://cals.conlang.org/people/472

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