Good Glosses

The problem

When creating a language, you might find yourself making a simple word-list something like this:

adri v.i. walk.
ahyoloi n. flower.
aprangu v.t. bury.
asopa v.i. fall apart.
awiru v.i. sink.

But if you look in a good bilingual dictionary of natural languages, you'll see something more like this (adapted from Doke and Vilakazi's Zulu-English dictionary, Witwatersrand University Press, 1958):

hamba v.i. 1. travel, move along, go, walk, proceed; 2. flow, run (as water); 3. live, be well.
mbali n. 1. flower, blossom. 2. comely person, with well-formed features.
ngcwaba v.t. 1. bury. 2. forget.
phihlika v.i. 1. fall apart, crumble, decay; get smashed. 2. fall in showers (as rain). 3. break out in sores. 4. be abundant (as harvest).
shona v.i. 1. sink, go down; 2. go out of sight, disappear; 3. set (of sun or moon); 4. die; 5. lose heavily, go broke, become ruined.

Now, you don't necessarily want to get that elaborate, but if you want your language to seem natural, you'll need to go beyond a word-list that's comprised mostly of one-to-one translations. In other words, you need Good Glosses.

Some possible solutions

In an attempt to help solve the problem of impoverished glosses, I've written up some notes on how to make good glosses. This how-to guide goes through a few examples using relatively simple techniques, and touches on something I call semantic n-space (which some of you may recognize, though almost certainly under a different name; I'm afraid I haven't had time to research the subject and provide references).

A fairly long list of ready-made glosses may also be useful (and much quicker). These glosses might further be altered or expanded using techniques such as those described in the how-to document. These ready-made glosses have been made the old-fashioned way: by real speakers of real languages over hundreds of years.

Copyright 2003 Paul M. Hoffman. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License, version 2.0.

Creative Commons License

Last modified Friday, April 23, 2004 at 21:01:50 GMT -0500