Notes On Adding To The Láadan Vocabulary

by Suzette Haden Elgin

Now that the Láadan Working Group has begun putting substantial amounts of material for the language on the Internet, more and more proposed new words and morphemes are arriving. It seems, therefore, that it might be useful to have a brief overview available about adding new items to the vocabulary. I’ll do my best to be brief without being obscure, and to define my terms as I go along. I’ll try not to slip into LinguistSpeak (LS), but will provide the more common technical terms [in square brackets] so that they’ll be familiar for those who may want to read further on the topic.

General Information

All living human languages have methods for adding new items [LS: neologisms] to their vocabularies [LS: lexicons]. Some of these methods are systematic and can be easily described; however, there is no rule forbidding native speakers of languages to simply make up new items from scratch. That is, no rule would prevent me from adding the new word “kappid” to English to mean “upper surface of the entire left thumb.” Making that word succeed — so that people would say it and write it, and it would be added to the dictionary — is an entirely different matter. We don’t know much about why a given newly-coined item does or doesn’t “make it” in a language. A few things we do know are…..

Note: If you are e-mailing a proposed new Láadan item and don’t have convenient access to the accent mark, just substitute a capital letter for the vowel-plus-tone. In such a situation,  Láadan would be written as “LAadan.”

  1. It helps if the item gets introduced in a movie or novel that’s a smash hit and has a huge marketing budget behind it, or is introduced by an organization of scientists, or some such thing.
  2. Items that violate the grammar rules of the language — for any part of the grammar — are unlikely to succeed. Consider my earlier example, “kappid.” If I tried to make that “mkappid” instead, native speakers of English would immediately reject it, because the part of English grammar that determines how the language sounds [LS: English phonology] doesn’t allow words to start with an M sound  followed by a K sound. M and K are both meaningful English sounds [LS: phonemes] and either one of them could be first in a word, but “mk” at the beginning of a word is unacceptable.The Láadan sound system has a rule that says there can never be a sequence of two identical vowel sounds inside a morpheme. (Note: “Working” is just one word, but it contains two morphemes: “work,” which is a morpheme that can stand alone, and “-ing,” which is a morpheme that can’t stand alone.) This means that if there were native speakers of Láadan, and someone tried to introduce “maath” as a new morpheme, it would be rejected for violating that rule. Any time two identical vowels would occur together, one of them has to have tone (in Láadan, a higher pitch, indicated by an accent marker). So, either “máath” or “maáth”would be acceptable, but just plain “maath” is unacceptable in Láadan just as “mkappid” is unacceptable in English.
  3. It’s much harder for a proposed new morpheme to succeed if it’s part of a “closed class” of morphemes in a language. A proposed new English pronoun, for example, or a proposed new English tense ending, will inevitably face an uphill fight.

Because Láadan is a new language with no native speakers its grammar isn’t firmly set in the fashion that the grammar of English is, and many of the new items that have been proposed for it have been part of word-sets like the pronouns, the Speech Act morphemes, and the like. That’s still possible for Láadan in a way that it’s not possible for English or Cherokee or Japanese or Sign — the boundaries of “closed classes” haven’t been established by centuries of speech and writing and signing –but it will nevertheless be harder to do than just adding a new noun or verb, and should be done with care. Once a class of words becomes closed, the language is essentially stuck with it; if that turns out to be awkward — the way not having a gender-neutral third person pronoun for English is awkward — it’s not easy to fix.


How the Original  Láadan Dictionary was Constructed

My goal when I constructed Láadan was that it should be as easy to pronounce as possible — and its pronunciation as easy to understand as possible — no matter what the native language of the learner might be. Roughly speaking, the easiest linguistic structure for achieving that goal is sequences in which consonant sounds alternate with vowel sounds. How long or short the words and morphemes are isn’t particularly important; some languages have very short words, some have words that are as long as a sizable English sentence. But the consonant sound/vowel sound alternation really matters. I therefore used a number of different strategies to preserve that structure as I put the language together.

Note: The reason I keep saying “consonant sound” and “vowel sound” is because English sometimes uses more than one consonant to write a single consonant sound and more than one vowel to write a single vowel sound. Linguists identify a phoneme — a single meaningful sound — by writing it between slashes — like /m/ and /sh/ — so that it won’t be mixed up with the letters of the English alphabet.

Another goal I had for Láadan was that it should be as easy as possible to figure out what a particular word or morpheme means just by looking at it [LS: that the language should have transparent morphology]. I wanted the language to work like a Tinkertoy® set works, so that people could take the pieces and fit them together easily to make larger forms. For example: the Láadan word for “bee” is “zhomid”; that word is made from “zho” — the Láadan word for “sound,” and “mid” — the Láadan word for “creature.” The meaning is transparent from the word’s parts.

First, however, I had to construct the most basic elements of the language — the words/ morphemes that are called “roots” and can’t be taken apart into smaller meaningful pieces. When linguists begin working with a language for which no grammar or dictionary is available, they ordinarily start with a set of roughly 100 very basic words [LS: Swadesh list] made up of items like “eat” and “sleep” and “food.” I followed that practice, and began by constructing a core vocabulary of those basic words; when I had those done I began adding additional roots that I felt were needed. Sometimes I can explain to some extent how I chose a particular shape for one of those words; much of the time I can’t.

For example… I can explain that I chose “oódóo” for “bridge” because when pronounced its tune makes the shape of a humpback bridge. I can explain that I chose “rul” for “cat” because the purring of a cat sounds to me like “rulrulrulrul…” But the choice of “ana” for “food” and “ina” for “sleep” was arbitrary; I have no explanation for those choices other than that I tried to give them a shape that could easily be combined with other morphemes. For any constructed language that isn’t based on some existing language, the hardest part will always be putting together the inventory of roots.

The “Tinkertoy®” strategy leads naturally to sets of words that people can easily recognize, even if they can’t be certain of the exact meaning. When you see a Láadan word that includes “mid” as one of its morphemes, it should be the case that you can assume that the word is the name of an animal, even if you can’t be sure precisely which one. (The word for “cat,” because it’s from the core vocabulary and is a root word — and all other animal names in the core vocabulary — will be an exception; the assumption is that people will learn the core vocabulary first and then move on from there.)  So: “dithemid” is “cow”– “mid” plus “dith,” which means “voice”; “lanemid” is “dog” — “mid” plus “lan,” which means “friend.”

Just as Láadan doesn’t allow two identical vowel sounds in a row inside a single morpheme, it forbids any two consonant sounds or two vowel sounds in a row both inside a morpheme and when you put morphemes together. (This is consistent with the strategy of trying to maintain consonant sound/vowel sound alternation at all times.) But obviously, when you start combining morphemes you’re going to run into situations where you do have two consonant or vowel sounds in a row. Láadan has three rules that take care of this problem:

  1. When adding one morpheme to another would give you a sequence of two vowel sounds, insert an H sound [LS: /h/] to prevent that.
  2. When adding one morpheme to another would give you a sequence of two consonant sounds, insert an E sound (the vowel sound in English “bed”) to prevent that.
  3. When adding one morpheme to another would give you a sequence of two identical consonant sounds, you have two choices:
    1. Follow Rule 2 and insert the E; or
    2. Drop one of the two identical consonant sounds.[1]

    For example, “dom”/”remember” combined with “mid”/”creature” to mean “elephant” would yield “dommid,” which is not allowed. One choice, by Rule 3(a), is “domemid”; that choice was rejected. The other choice, by Rule 3(b), is to drop one of the two Ms, which yields “domid”; that is the choice that was made. Either choice would have been acceptable.

The sound system of Láadan won’t allow either “dithmid” for “cow” or “lanmid” for “dog”; instead, they become “dithemid” and “lanemid.” Similarly, when I added the morpheme “-á” (which means “one who does”) to “bedi”(which means “learn”) to make the words “student” and “learner,” I couldn’t just make that word “bediá”; it had to become “bedihá.” If I wanted to put the morpheme “du-” (which means “try to”) at the beginning of a verb that starts with a vowel sound, I had to insert an H sound; so, “try to sell” (from the verb “eb”) had to become “duheb.”

This word-building process can result in some very long words. If my goal for Láadan had been that it should be composed as much as possible of short words, that would be a problem. If Láadan were a natural language, its speakers might decide over time that they didn’t like long words, and they might start shortening them. That sort of thing happens in languages. However, there’s a reasonable probability that the speakers of the language would try to preserve the two basic goals — ease of pronunciation based on consonant sound/vowel sound alternation, and ease of understanding based on the construction of words from already known morphemes. I don’t claim that that’s probable because it’s “better” or “more logical” or “more esthetically pleasing” or anything of that kind. It’s probable because when I constructed the language I built in many rules, at many levels of the grammar, that all work together to maintain those two goals.

Those rules could all be changed by native speakers, certainly, over generations; that happens with languages too. The end result would be a perfectly fine language, but it would be a very different language.


Additional Miscellaneous Word-formation Rules and/or Constraints

  1. There are four Láadan sounds that can’t be used as the final consonant in a word or morpheme: Y, W, H, and R [LS: /y/, /w/, /h/, /r/]. This isn’t an arbitrary rule; it’s part of the set of rules that work to maintain the consonant/vowel alternation in the language mentioned above. Although it’s traditional to put those four sounds into the class of consonants for the English alphabet, none of them is — in linguistics terms — a true consonant.
  2. I’ve had many queries about the set of morphemes that contain the sequence BR, which includes “bre… ébre” (“if…then”), “bre” (“layer”), “bremeda” (“onion”), “bróo” (“because”), and the three Repetition Morphemes “brada, bradan, bradá.” Since Láadan is said to have a rule forbidding consonant clusters, this set should not exist — but there it is. The explanation is very simple: I made a mistake during the construction of the language and added these items, which most certainly do violate that rule, and I apologize.There are several possible ways of handling this. [Deleting the anomalous items isn’t one of them, because languages don’t work that way; anomalies may die out over time because native speakers fail to use them, but “legislative” attempts to stamp out particular morphemes, even for very good reasons, are always a waste of time.] The possibilities are:
    1. Say that these forms are a historical accident — which is true, that they should be treated as exceptions to the consonant cluster rule, and that no more items containing BR should be added.
    2. Rewrite the rule about consonant clusters to say that the only consonant cluster Láadan allows is BR. This would be simple, but it would open the vocabulary to many more forms containing BR.
    3. Rewrite the rule about consonant clusters to say that Láadan allows no clusters of true consonants, rather than just no clusters of consonants. R (along with H and W and Y) is not a true consonant, which would mean that BR is not a violation of the rule. However, doing this would suddenly open up the vocabulary to a large number of other sequences that would seriously complicate the sound system. It would be better not to do this.

    My personal preference is for alternative (a), because it is simplest and introduces the fewest complications.

  3. The consonant LH is a consonant like any other consonant, and it’s entirely legitimate to use it to add new words. However, it’s also a morpheme that has as its specific purpose the semantic information that the item it occurs in has a negative [LS: pejorative] meaning. To use it in any other way would create misleading and ambiguous items.For example, the word for “apple” is “doyu”; one way to refer to a rotten apple, or an apple with a worm inside it, or an apple that is in some other way repugnant, is to call it  “doyulh” instead of just “doyu.” Doing that doesn’t create a new word of Láadan meaning something like “nasty apple,” it just uses LH the way English would use an adjective. On the other hand, there is the word for “rape,” which is “ralh”; in that case, the negative meaning carried by LH is an inherent part of the word.

    For either of these uses of LH, the only rule is that LH must be added in such a way that the alternating consonant/vowel pattern is preserved and no other rule of the sound system is broken. For example, the word for food is “ana.” If you wanted to say of some particular food that it was spoiled, or tasted awful, or anything of that kind, you could say either “analh” or “lhana”; both are acceptable and both would be understood to have that meaning. If you are constructing a new word of Láadan that has an inherently negative meaning you would follow the same rule, but your choice would be more final. It would be unlikely, and uneconomical, for the dictionary of  Láadan to include both “analh” and “lhana.”


1. Rule 3(b) was discovered by Jackie Powers.