by Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D.
(linguistics; UCSD)



I want to pause in the lessons at this point and let you work on a linguistics problem -- so that you can start putting what you're learning about linguistics to use, and so that I can find out whether I've been making myself clear. We're going to do something very general and basic first, and see what happens. If everyone finds this problem ridiculously easy, we'll move on immediately to something harder; if not, I'll come back and explain before we try anything else.

Suppose you're the Terran linguist on an exploratory spaceship, and you've just landed on the outskirts of a large town on Planet X. Planet X is a planet astonishingly similar to Earth/Terra -- which is why the money has been spent to send an exploratory expedition there -- and it has a sentient humanoid population that Terrans are going to have to interact with. Your job as ship's linguist is to learn the local language as quickly as you can and write a basic grammar for it, so that communication can begin. (We'll take it as a given here that you aren't carrying a "universal translator" gizmo.) One of the ways to get started with that task is to wander around among the local population, pointing at things for which you can reasonably come up with a Terran-language (in this case, English)! name, looking inquisitive until someone understands what you're after, and then writing down the Planet-X-ian name that you're given. Then -- once you have a large enough set of data to be of some use -- you would start analyzing the set, identifying its morphemes, and looking for rules. The linguistics problem in this lesson will give you an idea of how that's done, except that I've already done your "fieldwork" for you.

I'm going to give you a set of words from the constructed science fiction language called Láadan. The first A in that word has an accent over it, to show that it carries high tone. Speakers of English would hear the high-toned vowels as a bit higher in pitch, like hearing "night" in "nightingale"; for any language with only one tone, it's that simple.

Some of the items in the data are identified as a prefix or suffix. A prefix is a chunk like "un-" in "unhappy"; a suffix is a chunk like "-ing" in "walking." A similar chunk in the middle of a word is called an infix; all the "fixes" are called affixes. The hyphen before and/or after an affix just means that it can't "stand alone" as a word all by itself. If you want information about the pronunciation of the language, you'll find that in the first Láadan lesson, on this site; you don't have to have it to do the problem, but many linguists (me, for example) find it easier to solve problems if they have some idea how the data would sound. If the size of the problem gives you trouble, you can choose a smaller set and work only with that set; however, linguists will tell you that "the mo!re data you have, the better" is a reliable principle.

Please look at the data below, searching for patterns. Find all the morphemes for which the data provides evidence. Send me your morpheme list; I'd also be interested in knowing what the data tells you about the language. Finally, answer the questions at the end of the problem.

The easiest way to send your morpheme list (and the one that will require the least typing) is for you to do a cut-and-paste operation: Select the whole list of data, copy it, and drop it into your e-mail program as a message. Then all you have to do is type in the morphemes beside the words, as in the example below. No need to type in any morpheme twice; if you've listed it beside one word and find it in another, you don't have to list it again. If you'd rather do this some other way, that's also fine; just try not to make it more complicated than it needs to be.

Example as it would look in the problem:

morpheme -- yudáan

Example as it would look when e-mailed to me:

morpheme -- yudáan -- yu/fruit, dáan/word

That is, you're telling me that in the word "yudáan," which means "morpheme," you have found two morphemes: "yu," which means "fruit," and "dáan," which means "word."

If you should come up with any proposed rules for Láadan phonology (the rules for combining sounds into morphemes), or for its morphology (the rules for combining morphemes into words), I'd be very interested in seeing them, and I will comment on them. Here you go; I look forward to seeing your work.



  • "agent" [do-er] suffix -- á
  • animal breeder -- womilá
  • animal husbandry -- ewomil
  • beaver -- eduthemid
  • beetle -- yum
  • bee -- zhomid
  • biology -- emid
  • building -- math
  • butterfly -- áalaá
  • camel -- hibomid
  • cat -- rul
  • cow -- dithemid
  • creature -- mid
  • deer -- lemamid
  • dog -- lanemid
  • earthworm -- shéeba
  • economics -- elosh
  • elephant -- domid
  • fawn -- háalemamid
  • fish -- thili
  • fowl/poultry -- lub
  • friend -- lan
  • frog -- ríibib (coined by Judith Penelope and her students)
  • gentle -- lem
  • goat -- éezh
  • hill -- hibo
  • insect -- zhub
  • insect, noxious -- lhezhub
  • livestock -- womil
  • "male" suffix -- -id
  • money/credit -- losh
  • moth -- óoloó (coined by Sharla Hardy)
  • mule -- wothemid
  • nuisance -- uhud
  • "offspring" prefix -- háa-
  • old -- balin
  • owl -- húumid
  • pejorative affix -- -lh-
  • pig -- muda
  • rabbit -- shanemid
  • "science-of" prefix -- e-
  • sheep -- éesh
  • snake -- ezha
  • sound (audible) -- zho
  • spider -- dathimemid
  • squirrel -- eloshemid (coined by Sharla Hardy)
  • stable -- midemath
  • stag -- lemamidid
  • strong -- do
  • tick -- uhudemid
  • turtle/tortoise -- balinemid
  • use (verb) -- duth
  • voice -- dith
  • water -- ili
  • wisdom -- woth


  1. What do you think would be the word for "architecture"?
  2. What would be the word for "acoustic science"?
  3. For "entomology"?
  4. For "cattle barn"?
  5. For "builder"?
  6. For "venomous and aggressive snake"?
  7. For "calf"?
  8. For "bull"?
  9. What do the words for "butterly" and "moth" have in common?
  10. What other pair of words in the data set is analogous to "butterly" and "moth"?

As always, I'd welcome your comments, suggestions, criticisms, questions, and other input, with a note telling me if you prefer to stay anonymous; you can e-mail me directly at Thank you for your help.

— Suzette Haden Elgin

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