How to make good glosses


For me (and probably for you, too), creating a language is a very personal thing. Each creator has her or his own strategies and tactics, which are liable to change over time, and what works for one person may not work for another. My hope in writing this how-to is to help glottopoeists of all stripes, but it would be silly to pretend that there is some ideal, universally useful, process for creating good glosses; the best I can do is this description of some methods that work well for me. Caveat lector.

Gloss-making methods

In general, I recommend a simple three-step approach:

  1. Find one or more English* words that are somehow related (in meaning) to the one-word gloss you're trying to expand upon.
  2. Think about what the English words have in common. (You may have already done this in finding the words in step 1.)
  3. In your mind, stake out an area that covers one or more of these related meanings, picking two or three English words that seem representative. (You may decide simply to list two English words with the same meaning.)

* Substitute your preferred language of description for English, of course.

Using a thesaurus

Let's use the Sinampaiton noun odande as an example. This is currently glossed 'hook'. To fill out this gloss I'll begin by finding one or two close synonyms. My Roget's International Thesaurus (Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1977) lists hook under 9 entries; picking one at random (entry 252.2) I see the following:

curve, curvi-, sinus; bow, arc; crook, hook; parabola, hyperbola; ellipse; [etc.].

Nearby (252.3) I also see the following:

bend, bending; bow, bowing, oxbow; turn, turning, [etc.].

This is good; I'll give odande two basic senses: (1) a hook (like you'd use to catch a fish or hang a coat on), and (2) a sharp bend in a curving (or sometimes straight, sometimes curving) thing--e.g., a river or other geographical feature. I see (1) as a more specific application of the more abstract (2); if I want to, I can go on to specify other applications of (2): a cape or spit of land, an elbow, a kink in a garden hose, and so on. Hey presto--mission accomplished.

Now, if you like, you can go on to other related entries in the thesaurus, but for the sake of brevity I'll leave it at that.

Using a dictionary

The simplest way to come up with good glosses is simply to copy glosses from a bilingual dictionary. That's easy enough, but it can introduce a bias toward the language whose words' glosses you're copying; besides, it's boring!

The second way is practically identical to the thesaurus approach, but I tend to use it more so I'll run through it in more detail. As an example, I'll use the Sinampaiton verb lapen, currently glossed 'push'. But first, a note about the dictionary I'll use...

One of my favorite bilingual dictionaries is the Zulu-English dictionary by C. M. Doke and B. W. Vilakazi; I have the second edition, published in 1958 by Witwatersrand University Press in Johannesburg. When I was in high school, my father, who was once more or less fluent in Mpondo (a dialect of Xhosa, closely akin to Zulu), gave me this dictionary and a number of other books on Zulu and Xhosa. (Thanks, Dad!) Doke & Vilakazi is a wonderful dictionary of a language very unlike English, containing some 900 pages of Zulu-to-English entries. (A companion work by Doke et al., going from English to Zulu, is helpful but not in the same league as the Zulu-English work). Though I can't really judge the quality of the entries from a purely practical point of view (i.e., to Zulu speakers or to others learning the language), the dictionary is filled with multiple senses, the typography is terrific, and there are lots and lots of good examples of usage, including many that illustrate idiomatic uses.

Getting back to the task at hand, I begin by looking up the word push in the English-Zulu dictionary. Several Zulu translations are listed: phusha (borrowed from English), hlohla, hlukumeza, qhuba, sunduza, and qhubusha. I'll skip the English borrowing, since one of my aims in using a bilingual dictionary is to minimize the bias toward the language of description (English, in this case). Instead, I'll just pick two whose shapes appeal to me; here they are in the Zulu-English dictionary (edited for clarity):

hlohla 1. push, ram, drive in; 2. get flooded, become over-clouded. 3. load (a gun). 4. Idioms: hlohla ikhwelo blow ("push") a whistle, hlohla umsindo make ("push") a noise.
sunduza move, shift; push aside; shove.

(Interesting sidenote: compare hlohla with French pousser 'push', which is used, like Zulu hlohla, to denote the production of various non-verbal sounds and uterrances: e.g., Elle poussa un cri 'She shouted/cried out'.)

At this point, I could stop and assign the Sinampaiton verb lapen a gloss like 'push, shove; drive (in or away)' that combines senses from both of these entries without being overly complicated. That would be a perfectly satisfactory gloss, but I'll go on instead.

One thing I noticed is that sense 1 of hlohla and the middle sense of sunduza both denote a (somewhat forceful) movement of an object away from the speaker: the former more specifically into another object, the latter simply out of the way of the speaker. On the other hand, hlohla in sense 3 and sunduza in its first sense don't necessarily entail motion away from the speaker. Also, I particularly like the grouping of the two senses 'push away' and 'push aside'. Make what you will of these observations; it can be very helpful to notice things like this, but I won't dwell on them here.

The next step is to look up the words ram, drive (in), move, shift, and so on in the English-Zulu dictionary, seeing where they take me in the Zulu-English dictionary. I don't want to go overboard, so I'll just look up the translations for move and drive in their transitive uses (again, edited for clarity):

move v.t. susa, nyikinya, nyukuza.
drive v.t. qhuba; hambisa, shayela.

Quick trips to the words susa and hambisa yield the following:

susa [Interestingly, the word move doesn't appear in this entry! Nevertheless, I think it's fair to say that its underlying meaning is 'take or (cause to) move off or away'.] 1. remove, take away; drive off. 2. deduct, subtract. 3. kill, remove, get rid of. 4. erase (from a list or register). 5. Idioms: susa insini (be humorous [lit., 'move off laughter'?]), susa umsindo (make a noise) [lit., 'move off sound/din'].
hambisa [This is a causative form of the verb hamba 'go, travel, etc.'.] 1. cause to walk or travel; make flow. 2. send off, drive. hambisa incwadi dispatch a letter. 3. accompany on wedding trip. 4. purge (as medicine).

There's plenty of good material to choose from here; you can mix and match words from these entries, or look up the other Zulu words to branch out more. (Shayela in particular looks intriguing; it's derived from shaya 'strike' and means, essentially, 'drive along or away by striking').

Other means

Another approach, which to me is much more of a game than a chore, is to take two or three bilingual dictionaries and follow a chain of meaning through all of them. This sort of thing can be a lot of fun, though there's the risk of getting carried away and ending up with hideously complicated glosses.

Another tool you might find handy is WordNet. Looking up troponyms and hypernyms can be particularly helpful. For example, a troponym of push is a verb that designates a particular way of pushing something. A hypernym of push is ... well, the easiest way to define it is to say that the hypernyms of push are those words to which push is a troponym. Got that? WordNet lists move and displace as hypernyms of push.



I've already mentioned bilingual dictionaries and thesauri; these and similar tools can be very helpful. The most important tool of all, however, is your own mind, and especially your imagination and your capacity to think abstractly. Dictionaries and thesauri are very useful tools, but remember that you can always put down the books and just think about a word and the "thing" (object, action, etc.) it represents, focusing on a particular aspect of it and thinking of other things that share that same aspect (closely or otherwise). This is perhaps easiest when done with nouns that denote a physical object, but can work well for other kinds of words, too.


In general, I look for dictionaries with sizeable entries (preferrably of "exotic" languages which nonetheless seem easy to pronounce, at least approximately). I have some favorites besides Doke and Vilakazi's Zulu-English dictionary; here are a few of them. As you can see, these are all quite old; I suppose I should buy some new ones:


I prefer the true Roget's--i.e., editions of Peter Mark Roget's original thesaurus, which consist of numbered entries. I prefer this method of organizing groups of synonyms because of the way it keeps clusters of meaning close to each other (for the most part). Furthermore, it keeps together words with different parts of speech that nonetheless share a common meaning. A quote from the thesaurus's front matter (How to use this book) explains (emphasis mine):

[This thesaurus] has a structure especially designed to stimulate thought and help you organize your ideas. The backbone of this structure is the ingenious overall arrangement of the large categories. [...] Beginning at 448, for example, you will see HEARING, DEAFNESS, SOUND, SILENCE, FAINTNESS OF SOUND, LOUDNESS, etc., a procession of similar, contrasting, and opposing concepts, all dealing with the perception and quality of sounds. So, when you are not quite satisfied with what you find in one glance, glance at nearby categories too [...].

Other thoughts

About semantic n-space

I like to think of word senses (meanings) as points in an n-dimensional space. Well, OK, I just imagine a cloud of senses and think about how they're clustered and the shapes those clusters take. Perhaps a simple two-dimensional example will help. I'll have to resort to ASCII art, I'm afraid.

I'll begin with the word sharp. Looking in my thesaurus, I'll pick an antonym: dull. Here's a diagram:

sharp -------+------- dull

The plus sign in the middle is meant to represent a central "point"--a semantic point which denotes neither sharpness nor dullness.

Next, I'll pick another antonym of sharp: smooth. To plot it, I'll make another axis. Note that I put the word sharp in a second time:

sharp -------+-------- dull

The fact that sharp appears twice is a reflection of its two distinct meanings. The sharp-dull axis has something to do with the cutting potential of an edge, while the sharp-smooth axis has to do with (say) taste. (It could be something else, but let's stick with taste.) In some hard-to-define way, these two meanings are quite similar. In fact, it may help to think of sharp as two different, synonymous, words.

Another thing you might observe from this diagram is that smooth and dull are, in a way, synonymous. Or rather, they're synonymous in the same way that their antonyms, the two senses of sharp, are syonymous. To see this more clearly, reverse the situation. Let's create a word ndiyo that carries both "un-sharp" meanings: 'smooth (of an edge), dull (of taste)'. And let's give it two distinct antonyms: kluva 'sharp (of an edge)' and kwetta 'sharp (of taste)'. Here's what the diagram looks like now; compare it to the English diagram above:

kluva -------+-------- ndiyo

Et voilà! Another good gloss...


Try out some of these techniques and see what you think. If you'd like, you may contribute your creations to the list of ready-made glosses by sending them to me at In the meantime, have fun!

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

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Last modified Friday, April 23, 2004 at 21:02:16 GMT -0500