Monday, March 7, 2011


In January of this year a Frenchman working under the pseudonym Frédéric Werst had a book published, Ward : Ier-IIe siècle. I first heard about it at Language Hat. It's a historical anthology of the Wards, an invented people, in an invented language, Wardwesân. I figured my library of conlang grammars (Láadan, Esperanto, Klingon) could use some Gallic company, so I ordered the book. It finally arrived, and I thought I'd give a quick overview of the language a bit. I haven't yet had time to read the main body of the text too much — my French is rusty, and literary French is much harder going for me than technical French — but I'll grab a few examples from it for analysis.

Sound System

The vowels are a, ā, e, ē, o, ō, i, y and u. Long ā has regional variantions, pronounced either [œ] or, apparently, as a long /a/ (ou commme un â français très marqué). For /e/ and /o/ sounds the ones with the macrons are tense, those without are lax, e [ɛ] ē [e], o [ɔ] ō [o]. The y is IPA [y], but is also usable as a consonant, [j]. The diphthong ae is [aɪ].

These consonants are as in French: b, d, j, k, l, m, n, p, ph, s, t, z; g is always hard, [g], r is "always rolled;" sh is [ʃ], kh is [x], gh is [ɣ], th is [θ], zh is [ð] (really!), x is [ts] and xh is [tʃ], q is [q], jh is the ich-laut, [ç].

Word accent is always on the first syllable.

There is no discussion of phonotactics or phrase accenting.

The Noun

Much loving attention was devoted to the morphology of the noun.

Most nouns do not have overt gender marking; inanimates never do, animates may, -a for masculine, -e for feminine: westa "king", weste "queen." There are some other minor patterns.

Plurals got quite a lot of work, though not all nouns get plural forms.

  • First, there is the common class of internal plurals which show some vowel change: gan "night" gaen, mazira "pheasant" mazōra. These seem quite common.

  • Second, some may have an internal vowel alteration, with or without additional change: thanor"pond" thōnar.

  • Third, some take a prefix al- or ar-: karz "child" alkarz. This may also involve vowel changes: barw "name" arbyrw.

  • Fourth, some take suffixes or other word-final alterations: rame "sister" rameth.

  • Fifth, nouns in -ael may form a plural in -aldon: zagael "young man" zagaldon.

  • Sixth, nouns starting in o- often have a plural in wo-: ora "plant" wora.

  • Finally, many nouns, abstract nouns especially, have no proper plural at all. But, if one is really needed, the postpositive particle amōn may be used.

Werst had fun with these many plural forms, with a number of lexical items with the same singular having different plurals: gem, gemazhan "cheek" (actually an example of the dual, -zhan) but gem, argym "cloud."

Vowel alterations are not only used for marking the plural. Agent nouns will convert an /a/ in the first syllable to /e/, and an /e/ in the first syllable to /o/: merwān "to manufacture" morwa "author."

There appear not to be adjectives, but nouns of qualification, which are joined to nouns with the appositive particle ab (which reminds me a lot of Persian ezafé). So, mega "something new", but mega ab magha "new god".

The Verb

The verb system is rather simple. There is a small collection of co-verbs which encode person and time, and participles which encode number. There are three active participles, and these are mixed and matched with co-verbs to produce quite an array of tense forms.

The co-verbs are regular: present wena (1st person), wega (2nd person), weza (3rd person masc.) and wetha (3rd person fem.), with er- replacing we- for the perfect, me- for the imperfect and wa- for the subjunctive.

The participles are -an (pl. -anōn) for present, -azan (pl. -azanōn) for past and -agō (pl. -agōn) for future.

A full conjugation for arbān "to write":

Singular Plural
1st wena arban wena arbanōn
2nd wega arban wega arbanōn
3m. weza arban weza arbanōn
3f. wetha arban wetha arbanōn

This strikes me as rather regular, but an interesting way to split the load. There is, however, a small number of verbs which have irregular — and fully conjugated — perfects (which I will not give here).

There is no passive conjugation, though there are passive participles in -ēnd, which are joined to their noun with ab: kamazh ab arbēnd "a written book."

There is a "gnomic" tense, which ends in -aoth. It has neither tense nor number, and indicates general activities, arbaoth "one writes, people write, it is usual to write." The ending may alter the final consonant of some stems.

The imperative is in -ax (pl. -axō): jarān "to come" jarax, jaraxō.


Prepositions have two forms, strong and weak. It is easiest to say that the weak forms are used whenever the governed noun is modified by another noun, and the strong in all other situations. For example (in order of weak then strong) az, azōn "with". First, strong forms:

  • azōn yarn "with a friend"

  • azōn yarn nēs "with my friend"

  • azōn yarn ab Xamōn "with (my) friend Xamôn"

Weak forms:

  • az Xamōn yarn "with Xamôn's friend"

  • az warma yarn "with a sick friend"

Note especially the last form: it causes the qualifying noun to act more like what we expect with an adjective, rather than the warma ab yarn we'd otherwise expect.


Indeclinable particles do a number of syntactic jobs. As we have seen above, there is the appositive particle ab. The genitive relation is handed with tha, as in barzha tha qaman "the destruction (qaman) of the building."

The particle zha means something like "which has," which can also be used to create the effect of an adjective, mazaraon zha kazhar "a certain dating" (kazhar "certitude").

Various combinations and particles are used for verb aspect (which I'll omit here).

Et Cetera

There are several particle combinations with na which combine evidentiality and judgement, na zant for opinion from experience ((se) dire), na qant to express certainty, etc (these are a little regular for my taste, all in C-ant).

There are several kinds of article and demonstratives.

The grammar as a good (though not huge) section on the syntax of the language, which I will omit here.

Small Examples

A sentence grabbed at random from the text part of the book.

Na warzawēr nama aw aexeth ren ab arkan em aw bamastan baratha ab eman. (Il et évident à tout le monde que l'oeil a pour fonction de voir, et pour utilité de regarder, p. 215).

  • na, nāz, "in the function of; according to"

  • warzawēr "all, everyone"

  • nama "evidence, spectacle"

  • aw (also ā, ō) aspectual particle, quant à

  • aexeth "use, utility"

  • ren "act, action"

  • arkan "vision"

  • em, emzhan "eye"

  • bamastan "utility, service"

  • baratha "action, movement"

  • emān "to see," here in the present participle.

More interesting, for the verse of the Wards he picked a system of assonance and alliteration (a few lines, untranslated):

dura meth math derw mez denan

ukan gōn garth ag urben ganta danagh

dwan jaen jar jarga darnan

zeman nāz naen nāz naba zeran...


  1. Hi,

    Just a few comments:
    - Your sound system description lacks "w". Given that it's quite a common sound in Wardwesân, you'd think it would be in his description. My main question would be: is it /w/ or /v/? (à la German. Both can be found in French, which is why it's not clear which is meant here, especially since there's no "v", as far as I can tell, and words like "barw" make the value /w/ unlikely).
    - Did Frédéric Werst really describe â, ê and ô as long? (I take it in his text he uses circumflexes rather than macrons) To me, it sounds more like he was trying to describe the French /ɑ/, /e/ and /o/. At least, "ou commme un â français très marqué" sounds like someone trying to describe /ɑ/ to me. It used to be a phoneme in French (almost always spelled "â", but it's nearly disappeared from the language nowadays, except among literary people who tend to be rather conservative in their language).
    - For the rest, it looks like an interesting conlang. At least it's clear Werst tried to stay out of relexing French. Even the semantics look well thought out and not clear copies of French.

    What about the book in general? Would you recommend it? I'm thinking of buying it. I'm French, so the language is no barrier in this case, but I'd like to know whether it's worth it.

  2. Drat, I forgot w. It is pronounced as English.

    He doesn't describe any vowels as either long or short — the macrons mark different vowel qualities. He does have the idea of different dialects and periods of the language, so he may have historical background making them long, but I've not run across it so far.

    I agree it's not just a relex of French, but the production of a two-gender system is at least very Romance. :)

    If you are a fan of elaborate world-building, then you should get the book. I don't know enough about your taste in reading to say more than that.

  3. "W" is /w/? Weird. How are you supposed to pronounce "barw" then? The best I can do is [barʷ]. Maybe that's what he means...

    Are they really macrons? I thought he used circumflexes. Circumflexes would have made more sense to indicate different vowel qualities. But then, I'm on record for having an orthography that marks stress with the diaeresis, so I shouldn't be one to talk ;) .

    Well, two-gender systems are not only Romance. They are not even only Indo-European. Don't forget Semitic languages have them as well, and Werst has said himself that Arabic was a big inspiration for him.

    As for my taste in books, let's just say that I loved the Silmarillion. Especially the appendices ;) . So give me elaborate world-building any day, as long as it's well written :) .

    I'm still a bit wary: Werst seems to be a very academic type (he's a teacher, after all), and my experience with reading French academic types has always been very negative: their style is often overly pompous. But this could be different. Is there a sample reading somewhere? I can't remember seeing one on Amazon...

  4. They are really macrons in the main body text, but they turn into circumflexes when translated into French. You can see scans of a few pages in this article.

    Werst is a French Academic Type all the way down to his toenails. The page before the dedication page has a quote by Heidegger about "to be" — a verb Wardwesân quite conspicuously lacks.

  5. A fine work if I may say so. However I can't quite get used to seeing zh as [ð] or x as [ts] and xh is [tʃ], even jh as [ç] is somewhat weird. I think it would even improve the look of the language to revert these to more familiar conventions, even though I really like the phonotactics and most of the words are nicely constructed.

    gemazhan would look nicer as gemaðan, the same with mazaraon ða kaðar for mazaraon zha kazhar, or this might be my old old-english student me.

    In any case, it's a very interesting finding!

  6. Here's a link to an interview in French, with two excerpts of the Wardwesân language, spoken by the author.

    I think he's more of a Literary type than Linguist type, hence the funny spelling conventions. He studied Classical Arabic, among other languages.

    He also states that he never read Tolkien. His references (Pessoa, Borges, Perec, Bakhtine) are much more valued by the French intelligentsia than the Secret Vicious.
    It must be noted that he goes further than JRRT in the use of his invented language : he writes directly in Wardwesân then translates to French.

  7. I've been out of the loop for a long time now, but in my day, at least, phonotactics were rarely fully described by conlangers, and often not described at all: you had to deduce them from the vocabulary lists. It's good to see them explicitly included in some conlang descriptions now. (Lojban has always been good at this, at least in native words: in borrowings and proper names, things are not so tightly spelled out, and in principle at least, prvllgllpppggttst is a valid proper name, and even pronounceable with appropriate epenthetic vowels.)