As you probably know, nouns are words which stand for things; they refer to a specific object or concept. In this section we'll explore the different things that languages can do with their nouns.
The first thing that you need to decide about your conlang's nouns is what categories they are marked for. Some of the grammatical categories they can be marked for include:
- Case — How the thing relates to the rest of the sentence.
- Number — How many things you're referring to.
- Definiteness — Whether you're referring to a specific thing or some generic instance of thing.
- Gender — What arbitrary category the thing fits into (e.g. masculine or feminine).
Not all languages mark all of these categories, and some that mark them may mark them only on articles or adjectives instead of directly on nouns. For instance, the conlang Thauliralau marks number, gender and definiteness with articles, leaving the nouns entirely uninflected. Quenya marks its nouns for case and number directly on the noun by adding certain endings to them. Amman-Iar marks its nouns for definiteness, among other categories. Ithkuil marks its words (which don't easily divide into "nouns" and "verbs") for many other categories as well.
Case inflection is perhaps the most important inflection that a noun has, and all conlangs will have to deal with it to some extent. Cases are used to show the role a noun plays in a sentence. It is used extensively in languages like Greek, Latin, Finnish, and Hungarian.
Back in the Beginners Grammar section we learned about the terms subject, verb, and object. To refresh your memory; the subject shows who or what in the sentence is performing the action and the object shows who or what is being acted upon. In the sentence "the dog bit the man", dog is the subject and man is the object.
In English, we tell what noun is the subject and what noun is the object by looking at the order of the words in the sentence (Subject-Verb-Object). But not all languages do it that way. Many languages use cases to show that distinction. They put the subject of the sentence into what is called the Nominative case and the object of the sentence into the Accusative case. This means an affix (usually a suffix) is put onto a word, for example in Latin, canis (dog) in the nominative form, and canem is its accusative form with its –em suffix, and the same for vir, with its accusative form being virum. So the sentence "the dog bit the man" in Latin is not "canis momordit vir" but "canis momordit virum".
Most of the time, English doesn't do anything like this; the words man and dog look exactly the same in both "the dog bit the man" and "the man bit the dog". However English does use cases when it comes to its pronouns; the pronouns change their form depending on whether they are nominative or accusative. For example, the pronoun "he" is nominative, but it's accusative form is "him". Notice the differences between "He bit the dog" and "The dog bit him".
There's another case that works in a similar way. Up until now, we've been calling words like man in "the dog bit the man" the object of the sentence, but actually, it's the direct object. Some sentences also have a second object called the indirect object.
An example of the indirect object would be the word girl in "the boy gave the girl a gift". An indirect object is an object that is involved in the action of the verb but isn't directly acted upon; the boy isn't doing anything to the girl, he's doing something to the gift (i.e. giving it), but the girl is receiving the gift so she must nonetheless be involved in the action.
Like the other two cases, English mostly uses the order of the words to tell which is the direct object and which is the indirect object; the indirect usually comes before the direct. As you may have guessed, other languages might use a case to show the indirect object. When they do, this case is usually called the Dative case.
One case which English does have is the Genitive case. This case is mostly used to show possession — that somebody owns something. The English genitive case is what we're using when we add Apostrophe-S to the end of a noun; "the king's horses" "Tom's ball".
Cases can also be used to express some of the same sorts of things that English uses prepositions for. In English, when we want to talk about the location of something we use a preposition such as in, but in Finnish, they use the Inessive case ending -ssa; talo "house" becomes talossa "in [a] house".
There are a great variety of cases that work like this so I'll just list some of the more common ones and their nearest English prepositions as a starting point for your own research.
- Locative case — in, at
- Instrumental case — using, with, by
- Ablative case — (Varies greatly from language to language) from
- Lative case — to, towards, into
When you're making your conlang, at the very least you'll need to think about how you're going to show which noun is the subject and which is the object; be it case, or word-order, or something else entirely. Once you have that, you can go on to work out whether you want your language to have some or all of these cases that we've just explored. Keep in mind that it's common for a language to have multiple ways to say the same thing. For example, in English we can use the genitive case to show possession, but we can also use the preposition of; "the king's horses" or "the horses of the king".
Number need not be just singular and plural like it is in English. Some natural languages have dual (two things, or pairs of things), trial (three things), and paucal (a few things) number inflection as well.
A few conlangs have other interesting numbers; for instance, an "all" number that refers to the whole set of noun everywhere, or all of them within a given context; or a zero number inflection that would occur where other languages would use singular or plural noun preceded or followed by a word meaning "none". Quenya — in addition to a singular, plural, and dual — has a partitive plural which is used to represent fractions of the whole.
Not all the nouns in your language need to follow the same number scheme; you can have a particular group of nouns that inflect for a paucal number while the rest don't, or whatever you want.
An important concept is that of the mass noun. There are quite a few languages that have mass nouns, but how they work differs slightly for each one. Usually it has to do with a word presenting the object it's referring to as an unbounded mass of stuff, as opposed to discrete units. A regular, non-mass noun is called a count noun.
There is a tendency for nouns referring to powders, liquids, and substances to be mass nouns, but whether the word for an object in a particular language is a mass noun is not wholly dependent on the nature of the object itself. For example, in English the word "furniture" is a mass noun, but the extremely similar word "appliance" (as in "household appliance") is not. There is no reason why it couldn't be one in your conlang.
Also, what is a mass noun in one language can be a count noun in another, for example one cannot say "three informations", but you can say that in French, "trois informations" means "three pieces of information". Bear this in mind when creating your conlang.
Definiteness is a tricky subject to grasp. There are two major types of definiteness; definite and indefinite. Definite nouns are nouns that refer to specific entities such as something that you've already talked about. Indefinite nouns refer to a class of entities in general or are used to introduce a new and previously unknown entity into the conversation.
Definite nouns are shown in English with the function word the or other determiners such as one or their. Indefinite nouns are shown either by using one of a, an, or some, or by using no qualifying word at all. For example: "the cat", "the cats", and "my cats" are all definite, whereas "a cat", "cats", and "some cats" are all indefinite. Words like these that mark definiteness are common enough that they have their own term; articles.
You don't have to use articles in your conlang the same way English does. In German, the articles don't just show definiteness, they also tell you what case the noun is. In fact, you don't have to have articles at all; many languages show definiteness with various affixes or clitics or don't show it explicitly at all.
We'll explore articles more thoroughly in the section on adjectives.
If you've ever had lessons on another European language other than English then you'll probably think that gender is whether something is masculine or feminine (and possibly others such as neuter or common). To some extent, you're correct. Gender in French or Spanish or German or any other Indo-European language is about sorting nouns into sexually distinguished categories.
However, many natural languages don't use sex as the basis of their gender system and instead divide their nouns into animate from inanimate, for instance, and some have larger numbers of genders. It is for this reason that gender is often referred to as noun class in linguistic circles. You can be as creative as you want when it comes to your noun classes. To give you a taste; the Dyirbal language has a noun class that contains words for women, animals, water, fire, and violence, and another noun class that contains only words for edible plants.
If you want your conlang to be naturalistic then it's generally a good idea to have some words that are in noun classes that don't match their meaning (e.g. Greek and Latin had words for "child" in the neuter gender as well as many words for inanimate things in the masculine and feminine genders).
It is often wondered by non-linguists what gender is actually for; its uses aren't immediately obvious. Like case, it can be used to "tie" the parts of the sentence together; a language which has gender can link adjectives and nouns (and sometimes even verbs!) together without necessarily putting them in a strict order. It can also be used to discriminate between two or more "third person" arguments in a sentence or text. Consider the English text:
- Bill and Jane went to her house. She showed him her new bike. He told her that he liked it.
This sentence is understandable because Bill, Jane, and the bike all have different gendered pronouns that we can use to distinguish them. Bill has he/him/his, Jane has she/her/her, and the bike has it/it/its.
If, instead, we were to change Bill into Betty and change the bike into a female doll then we can plausibly refer to all three of the nouns using just the feminine pronouns. The sentence then becomes much harder to understand:
- Betty and Jane went to her house. She showed her her new doll. She told her that she liked her.
It isn't clear whose house or doll it is, nor who is doing the showing or liking, nor who (or what) is being shown something or liked.
Once you know what distinctions your nouns can make, you'll want to start thinking about noun phrases. A noun phrase is a bunch of words collected together that act like a basic noun. Usually noun phrases will have at least one head noun.
Let's try an example; examine the sentence "the ball broke the window". This sentence has two nouns in it; "ball" and "window". It also has two noun phrases in it; "the ball" and "the window". Notice how both noun phrases have a noun combined with other words. These other words are modifiers that narrow down the meaning of the noun they're with. In this particular case you've only got one modifier, the word "the" which is telling you that the noun is definite.
A key feature of a noun phrase is that it is interchangeable, syntactically speaking, with other noun phrases. For example we might decide to swap the phrase "the ball" with the phrase "a rock"; "the ball broke the window" becomes "a rock broke the window". These substitutions don't actually have to make sense; "a brief feeling of compassion broke the window". What's important here is that the substitution feels right; the sentence is grammatical and doesn't make you feel linguistically uncomfortable. Contrast this with a sentence like "'ate an apple quickly' broke the window", which is more definitively wrong ("ate an apple quickly" is not a noun phrase).
These are only simple noun phrases, but languages can and do make more complicated ones; "the red ball", "my left foot", "you and me", "the film I saw last night", and even "three brown rabbits from out of that field with the trees and broken fence around it".
We'll discuss how your conlang can go about making noun phrases like these later on, but for now, you just need to understand what a noun phrase is.
TODO: perhaps put some emphasis on identifying the head of the phrase.