Thinking back on Terry Winograd's "Blocks World" for his research conlang
SHRDLU ( ) it occurred to me that I
often hit a point in my conlang building when I start feeling overwhelmed
by the shear volume of lexicon that seems to be needed to do any
significant translations. Last night it occurred to me that one could build
a tiny microcosm with a small number of people and objects and a small
number of things that can be discussed. That way grammars could be explored
within that microcosm with the advantage that a complete lexicon already
exists for every object and activity possible in that micro-culture.

Then another odd idea occurred to me. Assume this microcosm has nothing
that functions as a "market" and that the economy is a gift/debt economy
that works as follows: token (cowrie shells, wampum beads, porcupine
quills, whatever) represent certain fixed values in relation to "consumer
goods" like potatoes, onions, carrots, bamboo poles, palm leaves for
thatching, chickens, eggs, a pig, etc. (There would be a fixed number of
plants, animals and construction materials with no need to ever coin new
words for new plants or animals.) To accept, say, 4 eggs you must also
accept tokens of value equal to four eggs. By doing so you accept a debt to
the community as a whole (never to another individual). Your debt is
repaid, for example, when someone else asks you for a bunch of carrots. You
give that person the carrots and the appropriate number of debt tokens, and
this person now has a debt to society that, in turn, repays by giving
something (along with some debt tokens) to the next person.

Nobody would want to accumulate this kind of "money" (or un-money) since
the money tokens do not represent wealth extracted from the community, but
obligation owed to the community. Money is a "hot potato" that you want to
pass along to the next person as soon as possible.

Imagine what kind of money-based idioms would turn up in that kind of

Assuming that the weather was always warm and perfect, that there always
exactly the right amount of rain to grow crops, that there were no diseases
(aside from old age), there were no seasons, there are only 150 or so
individuals and no need for "government" since decisions about group
actions are preordained by tradition, nothing is known of other villages or
the outside world, what would the vocabulary include?

Names of a handful of plants and animals (including humans)
Names of body parts of humans and animals
Names and descriptions of two or three simple and universally used clothing
Kinship terms for immediate family
Environmental phenomena (rain, cloud, wind, day, night, sun, moon, stars)
Terms for the creation myth religious beliefs, as well as a corpus of their
traditional word of mouth stories
Terms for individual human activities (cook, eat, sleep, drink, gather
eggs, thatch roof, ...)
Terms for a small enumerated inventory of person-to-person interactions
Terms for a few types of un-money transactions

It should then be possible to have a closed lexicon of every word you would
ever need to function in such a microcosm and you could focus on grammar