It's all very well having a conlang full of cool sounding words, but if you don't know how your conlang uses those words to form sentences then you won't be able to express even a concept as simple as "The boy bounced the ball". This is what grammar is for.
As we noted earlier, there are two main types of grammar:
- Morphology, how words change their forms in different contexts and uses.
- Syntax, how the arrangement of words in sentences indicates meaning.
Both of these processes are very important for the grammar of your conlang. In this section we will learn more about how to create a good grammar.
Morphology and Syntax
In the Beginner Grammar section we learned about the terms Morphology and Syntax and talked a little about what they mean, but we didn't really go into much depth. Let's do that now.
Linguists traditionally divide a language's grammar up into two sub-disciplines called Morphology and Syntax. Morphology deals with the way in which parts of words, typically called morphemes, or stems and affixes, can be put together to make new words with new meanings. Syntax, on the other hand, deals with the way groups of words, called phrases or clauses, can be rearranged within a sentence to make a new sentence with a new meaning. The important distinction here is that morphology happens inside words (using word-parts), while syntax happens outside words (using word-groups).
Sometimes it's hard to draw the line between these two sub-disciplines. In Mandarin (a language spoken in China), for example, the word "to eat" is 吃 chi1, like in 吃面 chi1mian4 "to eat noodles". However, 吃 chi1 is not used alone, so "to eat" without any object is translated 吃饭 chi1fan4 (literally, "to eat rice"). It's hard to tell whether 吃面 chi1mian4 and 吃饭 chi1fan4 are phrases with a word 吃 chi1 or new words with a root 吃 chi1.
To be useful, a language's grammar has to be able to express all the kinds of things that a speaker of that language might want to say. Whether the grammar uses syntax or morphology to express these concepts depends on the language. Languages can be categorised by whether they use more syntax, called analytic, or more morphology, called synthetic; for example, English has more syntax so it is relatively analytic, whereas Ojibwe (a North-American indigenous language) has more morphology so it is synthetic.
Languages way over to the analytic end of the spectrum are called isolating; in a purely isolating language, words wouldn't change form at all. (A relatively well-known isolating natlang is Yoruba; a well-known isolating conlang is Toki Pona.) Languages way over to the synthetic end of the spectrum are called polysynthetic; in a polysynthetic language, a whole sentence can be a single word. We'll discuss polysynthetic languages at the Advanced level.
Two other terms you may hear for types of languages: agglutinative and fusional, describing synthetic languages on a spectrum according to how the morphology changes words. An agglutinative language builds complex words by just stringing together lots of pieces each of which means just one thing; the modern German language has some agglutination, giving it a reputation for mouth-filling compounds. (The University of Hamburg —who could in principle have called their law faculty the Recht Fakultät, "law faculty"— for whatever reason chose instead Rechtswissenschaftliche Fakultät, "law-scholarship-ish faculty".) A fusional language builds complex words by putting together pieces that can mean combinations of things. Latin is a fusional language, with suffixes for things like third person plural present active indicative. The concept of morphemes, btw, works especially well toward the agglutinative end of things, less so toward the fusional.
What's in this section?
The parts of this section are:
- Forms: The different ways in which languages can express distinctions.
- Nouns: Inflecting nouns.
- Verbs: Verbs and how you use them to build sentences.
- Adjectives & Adverbs: Creating more nuanced meanings.
- Derivation: Turning one kind of word into another.
- Clauses: Building more complex sentences.