Designing an Artificial Language: Opposites

Designing an Artificial Language: Opposites

Author: Rick Morneau

MS Date: 07-19-1994

FL Date: 12-01-2019

FL Number: FL-000063-00

Citation: Morneau, Rick. 1994. «Designing an Artificial

Language: Opposites.» FL-000063-00, Fiat
Lingua, . Web. 01
December 2019.

Copyright: © 1994 Rick Morneau. This work is licensed

under a Creative Commons Attribution-
NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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Designing an Artificial Language:


by Rick Morneau

July, 1992
Revised July 19, 1994

Copyright © 1992, 1994 by Richard A. Morneau,
all rights reserved.

[The following is an edited version of my contribution to a
discussion on the Conlang email list. The discussion was
about opposites and about how to deal with them in
constructed languages. The Conlang mailing list is
dedicated to the discussion of the construction of
artificial languages. To subscribe, send an email message
with the single line: 


to [email protected] .

Questions about the implementation of opposites in artificial languages (henceforth ALs) are
really questions about the interaction between morphology and lexical semantics – two of my
favorite subjects.

Linguists have written quite a lot on the subject of opposites. For a highly readable reference, I
recommend Lexical Semantics by D.A. Cruse, Cambridge University Press, 1986. The book
contains three chapters just on opposites. Here’s a partial breakdown of the kinds of opposites
you can run into:

Complementaries: mutually exclusive – no gray area, such as
true/false, dead/alive, hit/miss

Antonyms: gradable, such as long/short, good/bad, hot/cold.
This group has several sub-groups.

Directional opposites: north/south, up/down, forwards/


Antipodals: cellar/attic, head/toe, full/empty

Counterparts: male/female, ridge/groove, heaven/hell

Reversives: rise/fall, enter/leave, tie/untie

Converses: before/after, above/below, in front of/behind

Relational: doctor/patient, predator/prey, parent/child

and much more.

Fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve never heard of a natural language that marks its words
consistently and equally for polarity. When it occurs at all, there is always an imbalance, as with
the English «un-» (For example, the word «marked» is unmarked, while the word «unmarked» is

However, both natural and artificial languages mark their words for many other things, and I see
no reason why we can’t extend this idea to cover polarity. For example, in many Malayo-
Polynesian languages (Indonesian, Tagalog, Fijian, et al.) verbs are derived from primitives to
mark their transitivity and whether they are active or passive. Or, consider Iroquoian langauges,
such as Mohawk and Cherokee, which mark their verbs for the semantic roles agent and patient
played by the arguments. As for nouns, consider the Bantu langauges which mark for class
(which is often semantically relevant).

What if we extended these morphological derivations to indicate their polarity by doubling the
number of marker morphemes? In other words, where you may now have one morpheme to mark
a specific feature, instead have two: one for positive and one for negative. For example, let’s say
your AL marks its verbs for transitivity, like this:

ke- = positive, transitive (X does something to Y) 
bu- = negative, transitive 
di- = positive, intransitive (something happens to X) 
sa- = negative, intransitive

If the root meaning free, non-captive is booga, then we could create the following words:

kebooga = to free, to release 
bubooga = to capture 
dibooga = to escape 
sabooga = to surrender


This approach is okay for a crude first pass, but it is unsatisfying as a real solution because
transitivity is a syntactic phenomenon. I feel that a semanticsolution based on thematic relations
would be much more flexible, and I have LOTS to say on this in my (very long!)
monograph Lexical Semantics. Also, this solution is too simplistic, because it fails to deal
adequately with gradeable concepts, like hot, warm, lukewarm, ambient, cool, cold, frigid. For
these, you could start with derived primitives to handle basic (+), (0) and (-) concepts, and then
add fine-tuning morphemes to cover the cases in between. For example:

positive (+) primitives: CVNC

where N is a nasal, homorganic with the C that follows

neutral (0) primitives: CVLC

where L is a liquid, such as /l/ or /r/

negative (-) primitives: CVSC

where S is either /s/ or /z/, agreeing in voicing with
the C that follows it.

Next, add the fine-tuning morphemes:

ki- = to move in a positive direction 
no- = to move in a negative direction

So, to put it all together, let pend = ‘hot’, peld = ‘ambient’, and pezd = ‘cold’. With the fine-tuning
morphemes, you can now get:

kipend = scalding, red-hot 
pend   = hot 
nopend = warm, not too hot 

kipeld = lukewarm, tepid 
peld   = ambient, room-temperature 
nopeld = slightly cool 

kipezd = cool 
pezd   = cold 
nopezd = frigid

You can, of course, add more fine-tuning morphemes to handle finer distinctions or more
extreme ones, such as ‘super hot’ and ‘super cold’.

The only problem I have with all of this is that it is definitely unnatural, and I would normally be
reluctant to include a feature in an AL that could potentially go against some linguistic universal.


However, I doubt if this is a serious problem, since linguistic purists could always regard the
combination of a primitive + polarity marker as a single morpheme.

I will say no more about this because I’ve written a lengthy monograph Lexical Semantics that
goes into considerably more detail on the whole topic of lexical semantics for ALs, and I prefer
to say it all there rather than here. Besides, the approach I discuss in the monograph is
considerably different than the one discussed here, and, in my opinion, considerably better as
well.  🙂 

End of Essay

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