Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Grammar and Wordbuilding

There are a couple of additional considerations that we need to talk about before starting to construct words from our list of morphemes. Just how do those morphemes come together to form words? This is a question with a lot of complicated answers, so we're going to stick to our Indo-European inspirations and ignore a lot of possible variations and intricacies. Even within that limitation, though, there's more than one way to build names. So we need to answer a few basic questions about the grammar of our naming language in order to proceed. We don't need an entire grammar, but we need to know a few things before moving on.


In most languages there is some provision for what's called grammatical number. This generally applies to nouns and pronouns but in some languages verbs and adjectives must agree with the number of the noun they are related to.

English, like most major languages, recognizes singular (nouns of the number one) and plural (more than one). Grammatically this is signified by tacking an -s onto the end of the noun or some variation thereof. So singular coin becomes plural coins, but singular loaf becomes plural loaves. Generalizing this rule, we might say that plurality is denoted by a suffix -s, except where the word ends in /f/, in which case the sound changes to /v/ and the suffix becomes -es. (English also inherits weird pluralization rules for many words from other languages, but we're ignoring that.)

Denoting number can be much more complicated than this. In Latin the plural form depends on the declension and case of the noun, and there are many possible combinations. Some languages, including Arabic, recognize a third, dual number. In still others the distinction is not between singular (one) and plural (more than one) but collective (any number) and singulative (only one.)

For Cythric we are going with a simple rule. If the noun or pronoun ends in a vowel, plurality is indicated by the suffix -ga.If it ends in any consonant other than n, the suffix is merely -a. If the singular has final n, the suffix id -da. (This does imply that if our nouns have cases indicated by inflection, that that inflection is something other than a suffix. Which is fine, and which we may or may not ever care about, and even then there would be ways around it.)

Thus singular eddra "song" becomes plural eddraga, "songs." Singular hearhm "helm" becomes plural hearhma "helms." And singular firhn "hall" becomes plural firhnda, "halls."


Grammatical articles specify the definiteness of a noun. In English we have four articles: the definite articles /ðʌ/ and /ði/, both spelled the, and the indefinite articles /eɪ/, spelled a and /æn/, spelled an. The indefinite article indicates some example of the noun, a sword or an apple. The apple indicates some specific apple.

Articles can be differentiated by case, gender and so on; English juts happens to have a fairly simple set (but not as simple as it seems!) Welsh has a definite article but not indefinite version, while German has articles that differ by gender, number and case. Latin has no articles at all; you have to infer definiteness from context.

In Cythric I want a fairly simple system, so we'll again use Welsh as the model and just have a definite article, y for nouns beginning with consonants, and yd for nouns beginning with a vowel or with n.

Word Order

Different languages have different word order. For some languages, like English, word order is very important: "The man climbed the hill" makes perfect sense but "the hill climbed the man" is gibberish. This is because in English the subject of the verb precedes the verb while the object follows it. In other words, English uses SVO word order, and varying from that order requires awkward contortions like "the hill was climbed by the man."

Other languages use different word order: Latin, for example, uses a default SOV order but because the subject and object are indicated by the case those nouns are in word order is very flexible. Most Romance languages are SVO like English, while Welsh and Arabic are VSO. The great majority of human languages are SOV, SVO or VSO, but examples exist of VOS, OVS and OSV languages. And as always, this can get more complicated; German and Dutch use something called V2 word order which is kind of SVO most of the time but not really.

We're going to say that Cythric uses VSO word order. We don't really care too much at this point since the kind of phrases we're constructing won't often include verbs, but later on that may be something we need. Right now we do care about the internal structure of nominal phrases, in particular where the adjective falls. We're going to place it before the noun, like English... but outside the noun's relationship with its article, if any. So a phrase like "the black shield" would be dyw y chaurn, literally "black the shield." Which has a cool poetic rhythm to it.


The genitive is one of a number of noun cases. It indicates possession, composition or origination. Different languages denote cases differently. Latin, for example, has a total of seven cases, of which several partially collapsed into one another. Russian has six and like Latin indicates case by inflection. Finnish has an astonishing fifteen cases. German has four cases and (at least in the abstract) kind of an ideal case system in my opinion. The nominative is for the subject of the verb, the accusative is for the directed object, the dative is for the indirect object and the genitive represents possession or composition. Most languages have cases that overlap with these.

There are two primary ways to denote the genitive in English. One is by adding an -'s or -' to the end of the noun to which the genitive noun is related. The other is to follow the noun to which the genitive noun is being related with of, and to then place the genitive noun after that. So you have constructions like Marcus' gloves or the gloves of Marcus. In both cases Marcus is the genitive noun, related by possession to the gloves. The genitive is either Marcus' or of Marcus.

In Latin the genitive form is derived from the nominative ("naming") form by inflection. So Marcus would become Marci, and the word for gloves (caestus) could be in the nominative or in some other case. Again, this is something that can become very complicated, but we're not going to move too far afield. For Cythric we want something simple and not too alien — and Welsh provides a fine model that we can use to illustrate a different option than those described above.

We will stipulate that genitive relationships in Cythric are denoted by apposition. That is, by the placement of one word with regard to the other. In Welsh the two nouns are placed together with the possessor coming second. So our manipular example would be denoted by the equivalent the gloves Marcus. Note the inclusion of the definite article the. In Cythric it works the same way. So "the king's hall" translates to y firhn wyrhn, literally "the hall king." Note that due to the lack of an indefinite article, just firhn wyrhn would translate implicitly to "a king's hall."


In a sense our example phrase y firhn wyrhn is an ideal example, because it's very natural to assume that if it were the name of a place, the article might drop, leaving firhn wyrhn. From there it similarly follows that the word might be compounded into Firhnwyrhn... perhaps the name of a town that was once the seat of an old Cythric king.

Even using our very basic grammar rules and very limited lexicon we can come up with lots of possible names:

  • Ylanwraga, "the Stones," might be an ancient ring of standing stones once used for druidic rituals. Now they lie deep in the wilderness and are used for sacrifices held by a nefarious cult.
  • Frhalim, the high valley. A farming hamlet high in the foothills. Recently plagued by a series of hauntings, possibly orginating in nearby ancient barrows.
  • Sorhmtharn, Hawk's Ford, a small but bustling town at a major river crossing.
  • Eddrachaum, the Shield's Song. A ancient lay of the deeds and death of Gesge, a tribal hero of old.
  • Fearmhlen, the Strong Hall. Seat of Earl Thermge.
  • Gethraga, the Spear Lands. An old name for a fallen kingdom.
  • Hlyndahot, the Hound of Ill Omen. A feared beast that awakes once every thirteen years to devour the blood of the innocent. Note assimilation of /t/ to /d/ following /n/.

With this, our first basic naming language is assembled and with some additions to its lexicon we'll be able to build many more names from it. But all these names are what we might call names in the Old Forms. That is, names as the ancient Cythric people of the isles would have spoken them. Not all names in the Eastern Isles have such an ancient provenance. The next time we touch on Cythric we'll have a look at how that will be reflected.