This is a crosspost from the ZBB, because I think I done wrote something good and it would be madness to leave it languishing in C&CQ. It is, in effect, a practical extension of the first sermon
My revised & extended advice is to just make shit up and integrate it into a coherent system later. As a worked example, let's say I wish to make a language spoken by a people who live in a very mountainous area. So now I can decide some interesting cultural tidbits already, without knowing anything else, that can already make a large difference in how my language feels. Since they live high in the mountains, their language could have a pervasive distinction between doing things uphill and doing things downhill, so let's say they just mark all verbs for that. So I already have a nice little detail about the language that significantly changes the way everything is expressed, because it adds an obligatory distinction.
Since I'm already thinking about this, I might just as well apply it to actually producing sentences. So let's say my conpeople have a children's story about one of the tallest mountains in their territory. Let's call it something like "Why North Father Faces North". So I already know two things: the theme of the story, and the fact that there is a tall mountain called North Father. So what should I call north? Well, maybe the land they live on has a higher average altitude in the south than in the north, so I could relate "north" to "down". So let's give the north a name, and call it afɯn
. You'll note I'm just making up words — a systematization of the phonology can come later.
I could go write the story first and then translate it, but that takes time and I want to make up a sentence now so I can get a feel for the language. But since I already have the title of the story, I can guess that the last sentence might simply be "and thus it is that North Father faces north". Okay, so I can already do a sentence, and it's interesting because it has backreference to what was said before and a subordinating structure. Okay, so what might this be in my language? Let's say it's something like "North Father TOP always face_north CMPL its_reason this they_say". Nice and basic sentence template I can fill my morphology into.
The first thing to do is decide on how to do possession and compounding, since we need to be able to express both "its reason" and "North Father". I'll say possession is head marking, and the same structure is used for what in English is compounding and more loose coupling. So then we have "north its_father". Let's say "father" is lɯm
, and the third-person possessive prefix is du-
, and I have afɯn du-lɯm
. I might as well do the other simple words now, so I'll say "its reason" is du-ʔudɯk
, "always" is hone
and "this" is ea
So now I need to look at the verbs. I need to decide how I want to indicate that one sentence is the complement of another. I could do a nonfinite verb form, but I don't want to make a language that has a lot of those right now, so I'll just make the complementizer a separate word. What do I use for that? There are lots of different grammaticalization paths attested, such as a demonstrative (English), the verb "say" (Uzbek) or "thing" (Korean, Chintang). Since I'm lazy and like to copy Asian languages, I'll just use the latter, and make a word for "thing": mul
. So what about the verb? Who cares, let's just say the form is foɲaʔefi
, and I'll try to find a nice segmentation of this. I could make it a long root and a person affix, like foɲaʔe-fi
or something, but I'm feeling like synthesis right now, so let's make that a bit bigger and throw some funky morphophonology in: fa-w-ni-a-ʔwi-fi
Okay, now I have a really long string of nonce morphemes, so let's try to have this make sense. I already said that all verbs are marked for the upward/downward axis, and since "north" is identified with "down", let's say one of these affixes means that. "North" is afɯn
, and we have an a-
in here, so I'm going to be utterly shameless and just say those are related, so that means "downward" now. Okay, what with the rest? Maybe I could fix the root. A nice way to obscure verbal paradigms is to have bipartite stems, so let's say fa-ʔwi
is the stem. If I have a complicated stem, I might as well complicate the derivation, so let's say that instead of "face north" the verb literally means "look downward". I'll liberally steal from Algonquian and Athabaskan and say that the stem on its own is "light up" and somewhere in there there's an affix that means "by eye", so "light up by eye" > "look at". In fact, fuck it, make the morpheme more general and just have it mean "with a round object". Let's say that's ni
. So now I have two morphemes left, and I suppose I should be doing person marking and TAM. For person marking, let's say third-person is zero-marked, and have that w-
be an Antipassive marker, since North Father isn't looking at anything in particular. That leaves the -fi
, which could be a straightforward imperfective or present marker, but that's boring, and since I'm already doing weird templatic morphology, I'll say that TA(M) is organized in a georgian-like screeve system and -fi
is a meaningless suffix that appears in some TAM categories for this verb class. So I have: Σ-3-ANTIP-by_eye-down-light-THM. Nice.
So the other verb we have is "they say it", or perhaps rather "it is said". This time the structure is already pretty clear, since the TAM is broadly similar to the last verb. Maybe one thing I can do is not have a thematic ending in the passive, and have something like Σ-3-by_mouth-PASS-down-say, with "down" as a default direction for "say" (since all verbs have to have a direction marker). Let's say this is asaroe
, with segmentation a-∅-sa-ra-a-we
. And actually, while I'm at it, I might as well turn "reason" into some sort of verbal derivative too: "that which makes it so". Let's just have that be a headless relative clause, so no thematic again: du-u-∅-∅-de-ɯk
= 3POSS-thus-3-3-up-make, with the glottal stop epenthetic. "Up", again, is a default direction for "make". Nice.
So in the end, I get:afɯndulɯm e hone foɲaʔefi mul duʔudɯk ea asaroeafɯnnorth du-3POSS-lɯmfather eTOP honealways fa-Σ-∅-3-w-ANTIP-ni-with_round_object-a-down-ʔwilight_up-fi-THM multhing du-3POSS-u-thus-∅-3-∅-3-de-up-ɯkmake eathis a-Σ-∅-3-sa-by_mouth-ra-PASS-a-down-wesay
"And so it is that North Father faces north."
Apart from the time I took to write this post, that took maybe 15 minutes to come up with. Making shit up and going with the flow is a p powerful method.