We'll start our exploration of grammar by examining the ways that words can be altered and rearranged to create new meanings. For now, try not to focus on the actual meaning that's being conveyed, but rather on the way that that meaning is constructed.



The morphological ways of marking a word are often referred to under the collective term affixes. There are lots of different types of affixes and we'll look at some of the most common ones here.



Prefixes and suffixes are small word fragments that are added to the beginning or end of a word in order to change its meaning. Prefixes are added to the beginning of a word and suffixes are added to the end.

Prefixes and suffixes are a very important way for a language to change the meanings of words. Almost every language has them to some degree. In English, among other things, we use suffixes to show plurals on most nouns and the past tense on most verbs;

dog with the plural suffix -s becomes dogs
walk with the past tense suffix -ed becomes walked

An example of an English prefix would be the negative prefix un-;

happy becomes unhappy



It's also possible to put an affix inside a word; these kind of affixes are called infixes and they're less common than either prefixes or suffixes. For example, the language Tagalog sometimes forms the active voice by infixing the affix -um-:

bili "to exchange something for money" becomes bumili "to buy"

Another example of an infix occurs in the conlang Quenya, where the past tense forms of some verbs are formed by infixing -n- (and also suffixing -e);

tec- "to write" becomes tence "wrote"



Apophony (sometimes referred to as simulfixes) is when you change the sounds that make up a word. The best way to describe apophony is to show you an example. In English we sometimes change the vowels in a noun to show that it's plural; <foot> becomes <feet>, <goose> becomes <geese>, and <mouse> becomes <mice>.

What's happening here is that the vowels are all moving towards the front of the mouth. The change that occurs is always systematic, for example, all the vowels in a word moving to the front (as we see above). If this reminds you of sandhi, it should. Apophony is just a sandhi rule that happens to be triggered by some process happening in the grammar, whereas with sandhi the trigger is purely phonological.

When apophony occurs on vowels it is often called ablaut while on consonants it's mutation.

An example of consonant apophony, or mutation, occurs in the Welsh language. In Welsh, nouns that start with consonants will sometimes change that consonant to a different one when they are preceded by certain grammatical words. Different changes happen with different words and it isn't just grammatical words that can trigger the change. For example, the Welsh word for "stone" is <carreg>, but "the stone" is <y garreg>, "my stone" is <fy ngharreg> and "her stone" is <ei charreg>.



Reduplication is when a part of a word is repeated in order to change its meaning. The affix-y name for this is duplifix. The repeated part of the word can go anywhere around (or in) the original word.

The Indonesian language uses this, often to pluralize things. For example, "sayur" (vegetable) will become "sayur-mayur" (vegetables), or "sayur-sayuran" (vegetables, but can also translate as artificial vegetables).

In English reduplication isn't used very much at all, but one use for it is as an intensifier, to try to make the meaning of a word stronger; "super" is reduplicated to "super-duper". It's also sometimes used in baby-talk. An emerging reduplication is used to qualify a word, for example, "He's smart but he's not smart smart."

In Jewish English, schm- replaces the initial consonant in a reduplicated word in a response to be dismissive. For example, "I need a new hat." "Hat schmat. You need a whole new outfit."

In Chinese, reduplication can be used be used with nouns for plurals, and, in Cantonese, with adjectives plus -dei to mean somewhat [adjective].



Function words


Function words are basically the syntactic versions of prefixes and suffixes. The difference from them is that function words are whole words that, instead of being fixed to another word, are simply juxtaposed next to it. Function words in English include everything from the articles (a, the), to the prepositions (in, for, over), to the final element in phrasal verbs (to put off, to eat out).

Because they are a syntactic phenomenon, function words don't just act on single words; they can act on whole phrases. For example, the article "the" in the phrase "the house" only affects the one word "house", but the preposition "in" in the phrase "in the house where I grew up" affects the whole phrase "the house where I grew up".



A clitic is sort of like a cross between an affix and a function word; it's physically attached to a word and affects it phonologically like an affix, but grammatically it acts at the level of phrases like a function word.

An example of a clitic in English is the possessive 's (as in the boy's bike). So why is this a clitic and not a suffix? Here's why... suppose that you wanted to express the concept that "the castle" belongs to "the king". You'd say "the king's castle". Now suppose that you wanted to say that "the castle" belongs to both "the king" and "the queen". If the possessive 's was really a suffix then you'd have to say "the king's and queen's castle" (two 's), but you don't, you say "the king and queen's castle" (one 's). This is because the possessive s is a clitic and is capable of governing the whole phrase "the king and queen" rather than just "the king" and "the queen" separately.

Word Order


You can add words to a sentence to alter its meaning, but a much simpler thing to do is to just change their order. All words have to come in some order so many languages think that you might as well make use of that fact and assign meanings to particular orders of words.

In English, we use word order to tell who is doing what to whom; the only difference between the sentences "The girl can see the cat." and "The cat can see the girl." is the order of the words, and yet they have almost opposite meanings. This can be turned into a question by changing the word order into VSO, as in "Can the girl see the cat?", or "Can the cat see the girl?".

One of, some or all six permutations are found in all languages:






of languages



SOV "She him loves." 45% Ancient Greek, Bengali, Hindi, Japanese, Turkish, Kannada, Korean, Latin, Malayalam, Persian, Sanskrit, Urdu
SVO "She loves him." 42% Chinese, English, French, German, Hausa, Hungarian, Italian, Malay, Russian, Spanish, Thai, Vietnamese
VSO "Loves she him." 9% Biblical Hebrew, Arabic, Irish, Filipino, Tuareg-Berber, Welsh
VOS "Loves him she." 3% Malagasy, Baure, Car
OVS "Him loves she." 1% Apalaí, Hixkaryana, Klingon
OSV "Him she loves." 0% Warao

Here, SOV is the most common word order, and OSV is the rarest word order.

Word order also focuses on the topic of the sentence:

For example, in Hungarian:

  1. "Kati megevett egy szelet tortát." (same word order as English) ["Kate ate a piece of cake."]
  2. "Egy szelet tortát Kati evett meg." (emphasis on agent [Kate]) ["A piece of cake Kate ate."] (One of the pieces of cake was eaten by Kate.)
  3. "Kati evett meg egy szelet tortát." (also emphasis on agent [Kate]) ["Kate ate a piece of cake."] (Kate was the one eating one piece of cake.)
  4. "Kati egy szelet tortát evett meg." (emphasis on object [cake]) ["Kate a piece of cake ate."] (Kate ate a piece of cake – cf. not a piece of bread.)
  5. "Egy szelet tortát evett meg Kati." (emphasis on number [a piece, i.e. only one piece]) ["A piece of cake ate Kate."] (Only one piece of cake was eaten by Kate.)
  6. "Megevett egy szelet tortát Kati." (emphasis on completeness of action) ["Ate a piece of cake Kate."] (A piece of cake had been finished by Kate.)
  7. "Megevett Kati egy szelet tortát." (emphasis on completeness of action) ["Ate Kate a piece of cake."] (Kate finished with a piece of cake.)

Heads and dependents


Here's an idea that applies to both morphology and syntax.

Consider the structure of this English sentence:

The mayor of the city objected strenuously.

We understand the structure of this sentence as a hierarchy. The whole sentence is made up of a subject phrase and a verb phrase. The subject phrase has within it a prepositional phrase. The verb phrase has within it an adverb. And even the adverb is made up of a stem (strenuous) and a suffix (-ly).

The point here is that each of these different units has one element that defines the grammatical function of the whole unit. There's a word for that: the element that defines the grammatical function of the whole unit is called the head; and the other parts of the unit are the dependents. The head of the subject phrase is the noun, mayor; head of the prepositional phrase, of; head of the verb phrase, objected. And, in the sense of the term we've using, the head of the word strenuously is... the suffix, -ly. That's because it's the -ly that determines that the word is an adverb.

This terminology of head and dependents is sometimes handy for talking about the arrangement of a phrase, or of a word. If the head comes at the beginning of the unit, the unit is head-initial; if at the end, head-final. Another term you may encounter for this is branching; as if the elements were branching out from the head, so that head-initial is sometimes called right-branching, while head-final is sometimes called left-branching. (Of course, this correspondence of terms was evidently invented assuming a culture whose writing goes left-to-right, so that making the head "initial" puts the dependents to its right, "final" puts them to its left; we'll discuss writing direction in a later section.)

A particular language may use mostly right-branching, or mostly left-branching, or different kinds of structures might go different ways. Of course, you get to decide how to arrange these things in your conlang. The ordering of the major elements of a sentence —SOV, SVO, etc.— is tangled up with this. As we mentioned back in the Beginner level (without the fancy terminology), languages that like to put the verb at the end (SOV, OSV) tend to be head-final ("left-branching"); at the start (VSO, VOS), head-initial ("right-branching"). Languages that put the verb in the middle, such as English (SVO), are likely to mix head-initial and head-final structures. All that is, of course, supposing the language has fixed word-order at all.

Notice that thinking in terms of heads may bias a conlanger towards actually doing things that way. Head-initial languages would tend to have prepositional phrases, while head-final languages would have postpositional phrases; but it's also possible to use circumpositions, where both sides of the phrase are marked. The general term for a structure that doesn't have a head at all is exocentric.


To do:
Examples, preferably non-English

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