monosyllabic language

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Macnerd
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monosyllabic language

Postby Macnerd » 2019-02-18, 18:05

Earlier today I read about the Thai language being monosyllabic.

The following text is copied from a website.
To audition: /tót-sòp-gaan-sà-daeng/
to test: /tót-sòp/
to perform/to show: /sà-daeng/
performance (show/play): /gaan-sà-daeng/
“Audition” in Thai is a “test of one’s ability to perform (in a show or play)”.

Soundtrack: /don-dtree-bprà-gòp-pâap-pá-yon/
music: /don-dtree/

attach: /bprà-gòp/
picture: /pâap/
machine: /yon/
movie/film: /pâap-pá-yon/
So in Thai a “soundtrack” is “music attached to a movie”.

I thought that was interesting! The Thai word defines itself. Normally one would look up a word in a dictionary to get the definition. Is there a linguistic term that means that a word is self-defining or that the word is the definition? I read about semantic primes but this isn't the same. Similar, I suppose.

I'd love to create a conlang. I've spent hours on YouTube & Google.

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Re: monosyllabic language

Postby linguoboy » 2019-02-18, 18:31

Macnerd wrote:I thought that was interesting! The Thai word defines itself. Normally one would look up a word in a dictionary to get the definition. Is there a linguistic term that means that a word is self-defining or that the word is the definition? I read about semantic primes but this isn't the same. Similar, I suppose.

We talk about words being "compositional" rather than "lexically opaque".

The English expression is actually pretty "self-defining" as well. The "sound track" was originally the area on a strip of filmstock where the music to accompany the images was recorded. Later it became extended to refer to the recorded music itself, regardless how it was distributed.
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Re: monosyllabic language

Postby Macnerd » 2019-02-18, 20:23

"lexically opaque" ? Please define.

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Re: monosyllabic language

Postby Linguaphile » 2019-02-18, 20:40

Macnerd wrote:Earlier today I read about the Thai language being monosyllabic.

The following text is copied from a website.
To audition: /tót-sòp-gaan-sà-daeng/
to test: /tót-sòp/
to perform/to show: /sà-daeng/
performance (show/play): /gaan-sà-daeng/
“Audition” in Thai is a “test of one’s ability to perform (in a show or play)”.

Actually, it can be broken down even more than that:

To audition: /tót-sòp-gaan-sà-daeng/ ทดสอบการแสดง
to carry over: /tót/ ทด
test, verify, check: /sòp/ สอบ
noun-forming prefix ("activity of"): /gaan/ การ
to act, perform /sà-daeng/ แสดง

Soundtrack: /phleng-bprà-gòp-pâap-yon/ เพลงประกอบภาพยนต์ร์
music: /phleng/ เพลง
prefix: /bprà/ ประ
scoop, take: /gòp/ กอบ
picture: /pâap/ ภาพ
machine: /yon/ ยนตร์

However, Thai also makes use of loanwords. The word ดนตรี above (you had it as /don-dtree/) is a loan from Sanskrit तन्त्री; "music" in Thai is also เพลง /pʰleːŋ/, and "soundtrack" can also use that word as well in place of ดนตรี, making each element of meaning just one syllable. That's the one I used in my example above. (แสดง "to act, perform" is still two syllables though and I don't know how to break it down more than that. This happens a lot in Hmong too; maybe the individual syllables at one time had individual meanings but the combination of words together has taken on a new, fossilized meaning that is now separate from its parts.)
By the way, Thai also has ซาวนด์แทร็ค /saːw tʰrɛ́k/ for "soundtrack" (from English) and ออดิชั่น /ɔː dì tɕʰân/ for "audition" (also from English). :D

Macnerd wrote:I thought that was interesting! The Thai word defines itself. Normally one would look up a word in a dictionary to get the definition.

Many languages do this. Even English sometimes, but in English, often the word parts are Latin or Greek (etc) and so the meaning is not immediately as clear to English speakers. But, think about it; in school everyone has to memorize the meanings of Latin and Greek affixes and roots... and this is exactly why. Memorizing those affixes and roots helps to allow many English words to "define themselves", too.
Here is "audition" in Estonian:

audition: esinemisproov
in front: esi
decausative infix: -ne-
infinitive verb suffix: -ma (note: together the above three parts make the verb esinema, "to act, to present, to deliver [in front of others]")
noun-forming suffix, which replaces -ma: -mine (it becomes -mis here due to declension)
a try, an attempt: proov

But you can see that the process is a little different here than it was with Thai, because elements are not only added to each other, but also modified (-mine becomes -mis-) and/or taken away (-ma disappears because this is not an infinitive verb anymore) in the process.
Technically this is just a two-part compound, esinemise + proov, but the above shows how the word was formed and how the word parts do define the word as a whole (a try for presenting in front).

"Soundtrack" in Estonian in the sense of "a recorded set of music taken from a film" is made up of loanwords (filmimuusika), although still a self-defining compound since both film(i) and muusika are used in Estonian on their own. In the older sense of "area on a strip of filmstock where the music to accompany the images was recorded" which linguoboy mentioned as the origin of the English word, Estonian has a different word for that: heliriba (heli = sound, riba = strip), although heliriba normally refers only to that strip of recorded sound added to a tape (or to a soundbar, but let's not confuse things to much here. :mrgreen: )
When the sound is removed from its accompanying video and played on its own, it becomes filmimuusika. I would think that the self-defining nature of the compound is precisely why heliriba is not as often used for the type of "soundtrack" that is sold commercially (it's no longer a strip of sound at that point) and it becomes filmimuusika when it takes the form of an mp3 file, CD album, Youtube playlist, or whatever.

Macnerd wrote:"lexically opaque" ? Please define.

Lexically transparent: You can correctly figure out the meaning from looking at or hearing the word (for example, from its individual parts, or possible from cognates in a language you are familiar with), even if you haven't encountered that particular word before.
Lexically opaque: you can't.
Last edited by Linguaphile on 2019-02-18, 20:43, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: monosyllabic language

Postby linguoboy » 2019-02-18, 20:41

Macnerd wrote:"lexically opaque" ? Please define.

"Opaque" means that the meanings of the components aren't obvious. A word like gesundheit is opaque to monolingual English-speakers. We learn it as a single unit with a particular meaning ("something you say when someone sneezes"). When people try to write it down for the first time, they often produce odd phonetic spellings like "gazoontite" because it's just a string of syllables to them. But a German-speaker recognises this as a compound of gesund "healthy" (cognate to English sound) and the abstract nominal suffix -heit (cognate to -hood). To them, its literal meaning of "health" is as obvious as the meaning of "healthy" is to us.

Another example: hospital to us is just the name of the place where you go when you're sick. The parts of it don't have any meaning to us--and even if we knew that it was ultimately derived from Latin hospes "guest", that still wouldn't be enough for someone to guess the meaning without having learned the definition. But the equivalent in many other languages is compositional and, thus, the meaning is perfectly transparent:

(de) Krankenhaus "sick person" + "house"
(zh-tw) 醫院 "medicine" + "public building"
(fa) بیمارستان "sick" + "place"

This is one reason why education in English-speaking countries tends to spent a considerable amount of time teaching Greco-Latin roots. That allows students to pull apart words we've borrowed from Greek or Latin and guess the meaning from the component parts (or at least remember the meaning once they've been taught it).
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Re: monosyllabic language

Postby md0 » 2019-02-18, 20:48

although still a self-defining compound since both film(i) and muusika are used in Estonian on their own

How is film or music self-defining?

Many compound words have compositional meanings like linguoboy mentioned (at least as one of their definitions), but "self-defining" is a dangerous way to think about it (many language myths boil down to "our language is the only one in which sound and meaning are not arbitrarily paired").
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Re: monosyllabic language

Postby Linguaphile » 2019-02-18, 21:08

md0 wrote:
although still a self-defining compound since both film(i) and muusika are used in Estonian on their own

How is film or music self-defining?

I didn't say that film or muusika were self-defining, only that a compound made of those two words has an obvious meaning (film's music = music from a film) to a person who knows the individual parts. An Estonian speaker would have no problem figuring out the meaning of the word filmimuusika from its parts because the words film (genitive filmi) and muusika are well-known Estonian words. Naturally a person would have to know those word parts first, but that's true of any of these examples, and film and muusika are both very common words in Estonian.

md0 wrote:Many compound words have compositional meanings like linguoboy mentioned (at least as one of their definitions), but "self-defining" is a dangerous way to think about it (many language myths boil down to "our language is the only one in which sound and meaning are not arbitrarily paired").

My comment didn't have anything at all to do with the sounds of the words, or with the fact that the component words happen to be cognates with English. I chose the example filmimuusika because it was the translation of the Thai word given in the first post. It happened to be an English cognate, but that wasn't the point. To give a (perhaps better) example, I consider the word allmaaraudteejaam* to fall into the exact same category because it is made out of parts that would all be familiar to an Estonian speaker and form a word whose meaning is made up of those parts.

Maybe "self-defining" isn't a good term ("transparent" works better), but I was using it because of the comment in the original post, "the word defines itself," which I thought was a nice way to put it.

*allmaaraudteejaam = "subway station"
all = under
maa = land
raud = iron
tee = road
jaam = station
Last edited by Linguaphile on 2019-02-18, 22:11, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: monosyllabic language

Postby linguoboy » 2019-02-18, 21:10

Linguaphile wrote:*aalmaaraudteejaam = "subway station"
all = under
maa = land
raud = iron
tee = road
jaam = station

Holy crap! According to Wiktionary, jaam is cognate with . I did not see that coming!
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Re: monosyllabic language

Postby Linguaphile » 2019-02-18, 21:11

linguoboy wrote:
Linguaphile wrote:*aalmaaraudteejaam = "subway station"
all = under
maa = land
raud = iron
tee = road
jaam = station

Holy crap! According to Wiktionary, jaam is cognate with . I did not see that coming!

Yep, through Russian though.

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Re: monosyllabic language

Postby linguoboy » 2019-02-18, 21:12

Linguaphile wrote:Yep, through Russian though.

And Mongolian, apparently. But still pretty close phonetically.
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Re: monosyllabic language

Postby Linguaphile » 2019-02-18, 22:15

linguoboy wrote:
Linguaphile wrote:Yep, through Russian though.

And Mongolian, apparently. But still pretty close phonetically.

/ja:m/ in Estonian.
By the way, I was in a rush and mis-typed the first syllable as *aal instead of all in one place above (it's the one that reappears in your quote). I fixed it in my post above.

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Re: monosyllabic language

Postby linguoboy » 2019-02-18, 22:21

Linguaphile wrote:By the way, I was in a rush and mis-typed the first syllable as *aal instead of all in one place above (it's the one that reappears in your quote). I fixed it in my post above.

Now that makes me giggle. Aalmaaraudtee makes me think of German nonce compound aalmarode "as scruffy as an eel".
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Re: monosyllabic language

Postby Macnerd » 2019-02-19, 15:26

WOW! Lots of responses.

English does it some by combining parts of speech to form new words like stirfry & girlfriend.

I don't know if you have heard of semantic primes. They are words that are self-defining. But it isn't practical. Imagine trying to define the word "atom" or "computer" using only semantic primes.

I'm really fascinated by languages & grammar & syntax. I've spent hours on YouTube & Google.

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Re: monosyllabic language

Postby linguoboy » 2019-02-19, 15:39

Macnerd wrote:English does it some by combining parts of speech to form new words like stirfry & girlfriend.

As I say above, all languages use compositionality to a degree.

Macnerd wrote:I don't know if you have heard of semantic primes. They are words that are self-defining. But it isn't practical. Imagine trying to define the word "atom" or "computer" using only semantic primes.

The problem with semantic primes is one of rigour. What methodology do you use that would guarantee that speakers of completely unrelated languages starting from different assumptions would all arrive at the same set? Cognitive linguists like Lakoff have tried to develop one, but it's still very contested.

Macnerd wrote:I'm really fascinated by languages & grammar & syntax. I've spent hours on YouTube & Google.

I'm sure there are some great videos on YouTube and articles on the web, but there's really no substitute for reading book-length treatments of these issues. Wierzbicka wrote the book on semantic primes and Lakoff's Women, fire, and dangerous things is still a very accessible introduction to taking a cognitive approach to language.

Plus there's really no substitute for learning more about how natural languages actually work. Half of Chomsky's mistakes could have been avoided if he had a thorough knowledge of any other language besides English.
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Re: monosyllabic language

Postby Linguaphile » 2019-02-19, 15:54

Macnerd wrote:I don't know if you have heard of semantic primes. They are words that are self-defining. But it isn't practical. Imagine trying to define the word "atom" or "computer" using only semantic primes.

I don't consider semantic primes as self-defining though. Aren't they more like words that can't be easily defined using other words in the same language? I'd think of them more as a set of words that must be actively learned through use and experience (for native speakers and second-language speakers who learn through immersion) or translation (for second-language speakers who learn through their first language). Once learned, they are useful and you might be able to use them to develop a core vocabulary from which other words are derived. But on their own, they are kind of the opposite of self-defining.

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Re: monosyllabic language

Postby linguoboy » 2019-02-19, 16:00

Linguaphile wrote:Aren't they more like words that can't be easily defined using other words in the same language?

No, semantic primes are terms in a metalanguage. This is indicated by citing them in all caps, e.g. DO is a semantic prime whether or not there is a single verb in the language corresponding to it. (English do overlaps with DO but has several usages which are outside the scope of it; the reverse is also true.)
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Re: monosyllabic language

Postby Linguaphile » 2019-02-19, 16:06

linguoboy wrote:
Linguaphile wrote:Aren't they more like words that can't be easily defined using other words in the same language?

No, semantic primes are terms in a metalanguage. This is indicated by citing them in all caps, e.g. DO is a semantic prime whether or not there is a single verb in the language corresponding to it. (English do overlaps with DO but has several usages which are outside the scope of it; the reverse is also true.)

Ha. I think you misunderstood me because I didn't meant that all words that can't be easily defined are semantic primes. But those words you describe are usually a set of words that can't be easily defined using other words. "Do" certain is not self-defining, for example (whether you write it in all caps or not).

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Re: monosyllabic language

Postby linguoboy » 2019-02-19, 16:09

Linguaphile wrote:
linguoboy wrote:
Linguaphile wrote:Aren't they more like words that can't be easily defined using other words in the same language?

No, semantic primes are terms in a metalanguage. This is indicated by citing them in all caps, e.g. DO is a semantic prime whether or not there is a single verb in the language corresponding to it. (English do overlaps with DO but has several usages which are outside the scope of it; the reverse is also true.)

Ha. I think you misunderstood me because I didn't meant that all words that can't be easily defined are semantic primes. But those words you describe are usually a set of words that can't be easily defined using other words. "Do" certain is not self-defining, for example (whether you write it in all caps or not).

I don't think I misunderstood you. I think you might be misunderstanding what the term of art "semantic prime" means and how it's been defined by Wierzbicka and others. But this is a discussion for another thread.
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Re: monosyllabic language

Postby Linguaphile » 2019-02-19, 17:10

linguoboy wrote:
Linguaphile wrote:
linguoboy wrote:
Linguaphile wrote:Aren't they more like words that can't be easily defined using other words in the same language?

No, semantic primes are terms in a metalanguage. This is indicated by citing them in all caps, e.g. DO is a semantic prime whether or not there is a single verb in the language corresponding to it. (English do overlaps with DO but has several usages which are outside the scope of it; the reverse is also true.)

Ha. I think you misunderstood me because I didn't meant that all words that can't be easily defined are semantic primes. But those words you describe are usually a set of words that can't be easily defined using other words. "Do" certain is not self-defining, for example (whether you write it in all caps or not).

I don't think I misunderstood you. I think you might be misunderstanding what the term of art "semantic prime" means and how it's been defined by Wierzbicka and others. But this is a discussion for another thread.

You can be so condescending sometimes. Yes, I said "I think you misunderstood me" as well, but (to me) there's a big difference between saying "I think you misunderstood me" (I honestly thought you had, and still do, and that's as much on me as on you) and saying "I don't think I misunderstood you; I think you are misunderstanding the whole concept, but let's not discuss that here", which was how I understand your response.
We approach linguistic concepts from different backgrounds. My field is mainly second language acquisition (SLA) research. Wierzbicka does come up in second language acquisition research, though, and I still maintain that semantic primes are not self-defining, which is the only point I was making about them. Try teaching a list of these exponents to someone in a language they don't speak well, without using their native language at all, or try learning a list of them that way in an unfamiliar language, and you'd see what I mean.
Semantic primes (along with other types of so-called "basic wordlists") are sometimes (mis-)used as a basis for so-called "minimal" language texts - basic forms of English and so on. That is useful for people who have learned those words, since it presents a very simplified text. It also doesn't take much time to learn those words in a new language through translation because each language has an equivalent and they are a small set of words. But throw a "minimal English"-based text at a group of students who haven't learned those words yet, in a situation in which translation isn't an option, and you'll find yourself struggling to explain a text that consists almost entirely of words that are very difficult to explain. It may be possible to convey the overall meaning of a text using nonverbal communication, but not to convey the meaning of the individual words. The text is therefore not a good one for language teaching, in fact it is an especially poor one. With a more standard text, it would usually be easier to convey the meaning of a few of the key words (using images, cognates, etc., drawing from the prior knowledge of the audience) which would form a context for the rest of the passage and some language learning would occur along with the understanding of the content. But with a text based on semantic primes (or any similar set of words, since for purposes of second language acquisition it's rare to find one that is truly based only on semantic primes) that is basically stripped away.
I'm well aware that what I'm describing is not what semantic primes (or minimal languages) are intended for and it's therefore a mis-use of them. But because I've had that oddity in my background, I've experienced just exactly how "non-self-defining" these words are. That's the perspective I come to with this and it seems very relevant to this discussion. They aren't self-defining in the sense described in the original post here.
I just didn't want to get into all of that in my post earlier. It is a rather long and idiosyncratic story as to how I came to the conclusion I mentioned about these words being "the opposite of self-defining". But I do stand by it. Conlangs are hardly every learned/studied/etc in a monolingual context, so it really shouldn't be a problem for a conlang (which is why it didn't seem necessary to get into all of these details in my earlier post). But, I do consider it true that semantic primes are words that can't be easily defined using other words in the same language. I firmly stand by that.

Edit: if you look back through the posts in this thread, Linguoboy, I think you'll see that we've been saying a lot of the same things all along. Two days ago we were even posting at the same time with very similar content. Your first post about semantic primes alludes to the situation I've described here when you posed the question: "What methodology do you use that would guarantee that speakers of completely unrelated languages starting from different assumptions would all arrive at the same set? " It's not the same point, but it's a related issue. So my earlier post about the words not being self-defining was meant to add to what you said, not dispute it. It didn't seem necessary to give a lengthy explanation because I thought we were all on the same page. But that's why I was so surprised and confused when you responded with "No, semantic primes are terms in a metalanguage" as if you thought my post had contradicted yours or missed the point, followed up with "I don't think I misunderstood you, I think you might be misunderstanding what the term means " etc.


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