This is a follow-on from a previous question. I've done a bit of research and have determined that I'm interested in creating as expressive a language I can with a limited set of concepts, to be spoken by creatures with a proto-human level of intelligence. This is fairly broad, so I've settled on the following concepts. Anything below is an "admissible concept" within the language:

  • Naming a place
  • Naming a thing
  • Naming oneself/others/the group
  • Now, before, later
  • Disagree/no/challenge
  • sense (as in, see or hear or smell. To be followed by an action to indicate which one)
  • Attack
  • Obtain (as in collect/get/take/give depending on context)
  • Run/hide
  • Good/happy
  • Bad/sad
  • many
  • few
  • some
  • possession

So, for example:

(Group) I (obtain) berries - in context, if I am currently holding berries, then I mean to announce to the group that I have obtained berries. If I am not holding berries, then I mean that I am going to get them.

You (sense) animal - a question, "do you (sense) the animal?", to which the response is either disagree/no or I (sense) with action indicating eyes, ears, or nose.

You (obtain) berries - an order. Either means "go get berries" if there aren't any around, or "give me your berries" if you currently have berries.

So, I'm looking for some ideas about what types of concepts can be expressed in such a language, and what can't be expressed.

EDIT: I've added a few more concepts that I agree would make this language much more expressive without too much of a stretch of the imagination.

Possession: this works as a modifier to a thing: Berries-mine or Berries-group etc.

Quantifiers: they only have the idea of many, few, and some. Many is used to indicate...many...obviously. For instance, to communicate that you found a place with many berries that we should all go to. Few is similar, to indicate that there are not many of a thing and it may not be worth going to. Some is used to modify (obtain), thereby indicating sharing or barter. I can ask you for some of your berries, implying that you can keep some, or I can offer you some of my meat for some of your berries.

Good/happy - useful for social bonding, as well as to indicate general agreement

Bad/sad - used for modification of run/hide, which is now a distinct concept. So bad-(run/hide) would indicate danger (there is a bad thing from which we must run and hide), while animal-(run/hide) could indicate that the animal we are hunting has escaped. Bad/sad also allows us to express emotional disagreement without challenge, again for social reasons. If I ask you to give me some berries and you disagree, I can indicate that this made me sad, but not challenge you aggressively.

The language is clearly based on roots and modifiers. I can, for instance, disagree with you non-aggressively by just disagreeing with you, but I challenge you aggressively by saying disagree-attack.

I think otherwise I'm going to keep the language concepts as-is, and try to see how many complex concepts I can come up with. It actually might be fun to write a small story entirely from the perspective of one of these creatures, perhaps to describe a hunt or something, to get a feel for it and for how it will work in the larger narrative.

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    $\begingroup$ What about conditionals? Lets say you want to tell someone to get food and if they see predators to hide. You could say "you (obtain) berries" and "Run/hide/danger" but what about the "if" or any other conditional statement. $\endgroup$ Apr 19, 2017 at 13:55
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    $\begingroup$ I think it's unlikely that there would be no direct word for yes/assent. $\endgroup$
    – user16107
    Apr 19, 2017 at 14:13
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    $\begingroup$ Possibly. That's worth discussing. However, I could imagine communication like this: You (obtain) berries gets responded to with I (obtain). So no "yes/assent" so much as "repeat to affirm". Would that be too unbelievable? $\endgroup$ Apr 19, 2017 at 14:16
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    $\begingroup$ Do you have a list of tasks you do picture your creatures carrying out? $\endgroup$ Apr 19, 2017 at 14:50
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    $\begingroup$ You (obtain) berries gets responded to with I (obtain). So no "yes/assent" so much as "repeat to affirm". I believe Irish and Welsh work this way in real life. Words for yes and no exist, but it's more usual to do approximately what you said with the "I obtain" example. $\endgroup$ Apr 19, 2017 at 15:40

1 Answer 1


One catalogue of the basic concepts of human thought/language has been developed through the Natural Semantic Metalanguage project.

The list you have overlaps with the NSM list of semantic primes pretty well. The substantives and verbs match up fairly well. I think there are two major categories your list doesn't have:

  1. The major thing you're missing is basically any adjectives (unless you extend "danger" to "dangerous".) The core human concepts include quantifiers (one, two, few, some, many, all), evaluators (good, bad), descriptors (big, small), and intensifiers (very, more). Even the most minimal form of language is going to be able to say whether food tastes good or not.

  2. You're also missing the idea of possession. Even if you had an extremely communal society with no concept of "ownership", linguistic possession is still a core concept. All languages need ways to refer whose something is, whether that's body parts, kin terms, or just a communally owned object currently being held by someone.

To be a natural human language you would also need to include words like "kind", "part", "like", "live" and "die", and the logical connectors. But if you're deliberately creating a sub-human level of language, then those could probably be skipped. But you may find you end up needing to include them.

  • $\begingroup$ This comes back to whether you want to have 1) a simple but fully-expressive language (like Toki Pona, mentioned in one of the answers to your previous question) that might be spoken by humans today - especially pidgins and their creole descendants have a tendency to be simple, because of the need to communicate easily without a shared starting vocabulary - or 2) something more limited still, intermediate between the aforementioned simple human languages and animal communication. You might find a lot of inspiration from reading about how animals communicate. $\endgroup$ Apr 19, 2017 at 23:32
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    $\begingroup$ It is an intermediate between animal and human, full of modifiers and context. For example: "Before, I sense rabbit river. I attack spear-I. Rabbit leave. Bad. I river now now-many. I sense rabbit. I get rock-I. I attack spear-I. I attack rock-I. I get rabbit. Good." In the above, "Before" just refers to "in the past", as I'm relating a story. "River" is a place modifier that situates it all in space (at the river). now-many refers to "many nows", aka: a long time. Spear-I is "my spear", "The spear of me". "get" has multiple meanings, etc. $\endgroup$ Apr 20, 2017 at 15:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Michael Well from a linguist's perspective we don't know what a intermediate would look like because no animals have language. The only things which make your examples seem primitive is the lack of tense and articles, which only make it seem "primitive" to English speakers, as many languages don't use either. $\endgroup$ Apr 20, 2017 at 20:30
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe yes, but there are some fundamental concepts that are just not expressible. The entire concept of quantity is just many, few, and some. Time is similar. It's either before, now, or later, with an understanding that some things take longer or are further away. But "two days from now" is not a possible meaning to convey. I'm not against it being "not very primitive" of course - we don't know what intermediates were and one can imagine a stage where they were just below or own level. It's a fun thought experiment, anyway $\endgroup$ Apr 20, 2017 at 21:49
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    $\begingroup$ I see them using the name for a thing to indicate singular. So "rabbit" means one rabbit. "Rabbit-many" is plural. Is that too strange? I see it as they don't have the concept of "rabbitness", so they don't, for instance, refer to a slice if rabbit meat as rabbit like we do. $\endgroup$ Apr 21, 2017 at 0:44

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