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Posted: 06 January 2012 01:13 PM   [ Ignore ]
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In the thread “The Written World”, languagehat said, “The concept word is a relatively modern one, and surprisingly hard to define.”

The lexicography sense of “word” under sense III in OED cites it from 1200 or earlier, so I’m not sure why it’s so hard to define, and what we do mean by a “word”, when I’ve always assumed it’s what we all recognize as such.  What factors do linguistic experts (and I’m not one) take into account when trying to define such terms?

The wikipedia articles on Chinese and Japanese mention their “words”, which, following lh’a comments in “The Written World”, confused me even more - do they or don’t these languages have words and if not, what should we call the things that in English would be a word - a name for something, an action, a pronoun, an adverb etc etc etc?  Are there spoken languages (ie not whistling etc languages) which have no words at all?

Thanks in advance for any help.

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Posted: 06 January 2012 01:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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The lexicography sense of “word” under sense III in OED cites it from 1200 or earlier, so I’m not sure why it’s so hard to define, and what we do mean by a “word”, when I’ve always assumed it’s what we all recognize as such.

I’m not sure what the age of the word word has to do with its being easy or hard to define; if you’ll look at the OED’s attempt to define it (in the relevant sense), I think you’ll find it remarkably unhelpful in terms of deciding what is or isn’t a word (and of course “what we all recognize as such” is even less helpful).

From the Wikipedia article:

The task of defining what constitutes a “word” involves determining where one word ends and another word begins—in other words, identifying word boundaries. There are several ways to determine where the word boundaries of spoken language should be placed:

Potential pause: A speaker is told to repeat a given sentence slowly, allowing for pauses. The speaker will tend to insert pauses at the word boundaries. However, this method is not foolproof: the speaker could easily break up polysyllabic words, or fail to separate two or more closely related words.
Indivisibility: A speaker is told to say a sentence out loud, and then is told to say the sentence again with extra words added to it. Thus, I have lived in this village for ten years might become My family and I have lived in this little village for about ten or so years. These extra words will tend to be added in the word boundaries of the original sentence. However, some languages have infixes, which are put inside a word. Similarly, some have separable affixes; in the German sentence “Ich komme gut zu Hause an”, the verb ankommen is separated.
Phonetic boundaries: Some languages have particular rules of pronunciation that make it easy to spot where a word boundary should be. For example, in a language that regularly stresses the last syllable of a word, a word boundary is likely to fall after each stressed syllable. Another example can be seen in a language that has vowel harmony (like Turkish): the vowels within a given word share the same quality, so a word boundary is likely to occur whenever the vowel quality changes. Nevertheless, not all languages have such convenient phonetic rules, and even those that do present the occasional exceptions.

There is a great deal of (mostly very technical) stuff written about this topic, but hopefully it’s clearer now why it’s a problem.  As far as Chinese and Japanese are concerned, their writing system muddies the waters hopelessly, so that characters are equated with words and people say silly things like “Chinese has only one-syllable words” (when in fact most words in modern Chinese have two or more syllables).

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Posted: 06 January 2012 02:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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and of course “what we all recognize as such” is even less helpful

The fact that you’re now taking side swipes in response to a perfectly reasonable post is less than helpful and leads me to think that maybe you don’t understand that by saying “what we all recognize as such” I meant that the rest of us non-linguists know a word when we see one and would recognize a word as the OED definition describes. I for one am not sure why the OED dictionary definition (which I didn’t quote, though maybe I should have instead of just giving a date which I thought would indicate that the meaning has been around since 1200 or so) isn’t accurate and I’d appreciate some clarification, both from linguistics experts and from anyone else on what they understand to be a word.  The wikipedia article defines “word” by using the word “word”, (in other words “what we all recognize as such") so what is a definition of “word” and am I wrong in calling what I recognize as a word, a word?

I’m hoping that this can be discussed in a civilized manner with contributions from both linguists and non-linguists.

Here is the OED definition which I omitted:

III. An element or unit of speech, language, etc.
12. Any of the sequences of one or more sounds or morphemes (intuitively recognized by native speakers as) constituting the basic units of meaningful speech used in forming a sentence or utterance in a language (and in most writing systems normally separated by spaces); a lexical unit other than a phrase or affix; an item of vocabulary, a vocable.Sometimes used specifically to denote either an item of vocabulary in the standard form in which it is generally cited in a dictionary, etc. (e.g. the infinitive of a verb), or this form considered together with its grammatical inflections as expressing a common lexical meaning or range of meanings.

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a. With reference to the spoken form primarily or considered together with the written form.

OE Ælfric Gram. (St. John’s Oxf.) 5 Butan ðan [read ðam] stafum ne mæg nan word beon awriten.

lOE tr. Alcuin De Virtutibus et Vitiis (Vesp.) in R. D.-N. Warner Early Eng. Homilies (1917) 103 Þu cweðst, ‘Cras’, þæt is Leden word & is on ure þeodan ‘Tomorgen’.

?c1200 Ormulum (Burchfield transcript) Ded. l. 109 He ne maȝȝ nohht‥Onn ennglissh writenn rihht te word. Þatt wite he wel to soþe.

a1225 MS Trin. Cambr. in R. Morris Old Eng. Homilies (1873) 2nd Ser. 17 Þe salme þe hie alle writen is cleped credo, After þe formeste word of þe salme.

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Posted: 06 January 2012 04:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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I think a lot depends on what we mean by “define” and “recognize.”

On one level, it is easy to define and recognize a word. This is the OED’s “intuitively recognized by native speakers.”

But it is not easy to distinguish between various inflections and compounds and determine if these are different words.

Is the computer mouse the same word as the rodent mouse? Is mice the same word as mouse?

Is time line two words? What about time-line? What about timeline?

The dictionary definitions of word won’t help you make any of these determinations.

The concept word is a relatively modern one, and surprisingly hard to define.

I’m not so sure that’s correct. I’m pretty sure the Romans and ancient Greeks understood the concept of the lexical word, even if they didn’t use spaces between words when writing. And I certainly wouldn’t use the word “modern.” Words were most definitely with us in the medieval period, and I have trouble reconciling “relatively modern” with medieval.

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Posted: 07 January 2012 06:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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The fact that you’re now taking side swipes in response to a perfectly reasonable post is less than helpful and leads me to think that maybe you don’t understand that by saying “what we all recognize as such” I meant that the rest of us non-linguists know a word when we see one and would recognize a word as the OED definition describes.

Eliza, I’m not “taking side swipes,” and I would hope you would recognize by now that I’m very fond of you and wouldn’t dream of taking swipes at you.  I am merely pointing out that “we know it when we see it” is not a helpful definition, since what you’re going by is the division of words already decided on by printers and lexicographers.  If you saw “base ball” (as it used to be written), you’d say “That’s two words,” but when you see “baseball” (as it’s now written), you say “That’s one word.” And yet nothing about the word/expression/lexeme has changed except that an arbitrary space has been added.  So does “word” have any meaning beyond “arbitrary division decided on by printers and lexicographers”?

I’m pretty sure the Romans and ancient Greeks understood the concept of the lexical word, even if they didn’t use spaces between words when writing. And I certainly wouldn’t use the word “modern.” Words were most definitely with us in the medieval period, and I have trouble reconciling “relatively modern” with medieval.

With respect, I’m not sure you’ve thought enough about this, or done enough research, to decide that.  What exactly did a medieval person, let alone a Greek or Roman, mean by “word”?

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Posted: 07 January 2012 07:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I haven’t done a lot of research, true, but going from the knowledge that Romans and Greeks were conscious of inflections and from poetic prosody that treats words as distinct units, I’d say they understood a word to be a collection of phonemes that carried semantic meaning(s).

I understood the statement in the Bragg radio show to be in the context of whether or not words are clearly demarcated in writing (a difference in whether you consider writing to be mainly archival/aid to memory or whether you consider writing to be mainly about conveying new information, which leads one to clearly demarcate words for ease of comprehension), and not about whether or not earlier peoples understood the concept of “word.”

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Posted: 07 January 2012 11:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I’m pretty sure the Romans and ancient Greeks understood the concept of the lexical word, even if they didn’t use spaces between words when writing.

Seems to me that the fact that they didn’t (invariably) use spaces between words when writing, signifies that they assumed (correctly) that the reader would know where the spaces ought to be, i.e. what words were being represented. The fact that there might arise occasional misunderstandings during reading is neither here nor there - most systems are imperfect, that doesn’t necessarily invalidate them.

*Another implicit assumption necessarily made by writers who didn’t use spaces (by any writer, actually), would be that reader was familiar with the language being written.

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Posted: 07 January 2012 02:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Seems to me that the fact that they didn’t (invariably) use spaces between words when writing, signifies that they assumed (correctly) that the reader would know where the spaces ought to be, i.e. what words were being represented.

But you’re assuming that they thought in terms of “words” that “ought to” have spaces between them, which is begging the question. Seriously, there are whole books written about this stuff, it’s not something you can form a top-of-the-head judgment on.  The more you examine the “word” concept, the trickier it gets.  There are languages where every sentence is in effect a single “word.”

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Posted: 07 January 2012 10:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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The more you examine the “word” concept, the trickier it gets.

I couldn’t agree more.

What does Macbeth mean when he says “She should have died hereafter. There would have been a time for such a word” ??? For many years I’ve (occasionally, such as right now) wondered what he was talking about. My schoolteachers couldn’t tell me.

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Posted: 08 January 2012 04:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Word here is “news,” in particular the news of his wife’s death. Macbeth is saying that Lady Macbeth was destined to die, but had it come somewhat later he would have had time to grieve.

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Posted: 08 January 2012 07:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Thanks, Dave. Makes better sense than before.

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Posted: 08 January 2012 06:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Eliza, I’m not “taking side swipes,” and I would hope you would recognize by now that I’m very fond of you and wouldn’t dream of taking swipes at you.

I also read your response as a condescension. Thus a ‘side swipe.’. I’m not sure, LH, that you are even very much aware of how your responses are read by folks like Eliza and me. Too often they come off as schoolmarmish (despite your professed commitment to descriptivism). My own contributions have decreased dramatically in the last two years for fear of the LH condescension.

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Posted: 08 January 2012 08:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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I don’t see it as a sideswipe at all (and I have a deep respect and affection for both eliza and oeco). “What we all recognize as such” isn’t helpful in defining word. Surely we all know each others’ posting styles too well by now to see disrespect where I’m sure none was intended.

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Posted: 09 January 2012 03:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Yes, it’s Potter Stewart’s old “I know it when I see it” definition. It wasn’t helpful in determining what was pornography back then, and it isn’t very helpful in determining what a word is now.

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Posted: 09 January 2012 06:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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My own contributions have decreased dramatically in the last two years for fear of the LH condescension.

I’m sorry to hear that, but there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it other than to assure you there’s no condescension involved.  If you’re unwilling to take my word for that, then the problem lies with you.

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Posted: 09 January 2012 10:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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LH has taken swipes at me, mainly pointing out some unfortunate misapprehension, so I can handle and welcome it. Being called a religious bigot by him was a bit hard, though, when all religious people I’ve ever met agree with me about religions other than their own. That was slightly galling :)
I have so far listened to one of the Bragg programmes and was fascinated to learn Irish scribes of sacred stuff introduced spaces between words because they couldn’t speak Latin and it made it easier to read. I think written Thai, Burmese, and Cambodian don’t bother with them but they do have a space between sentences. I wonder if they always had these for sentences and if any intelligibility would have been lost without sentence spaces rather than word ones. What does Chinese do? I know written Japanese has adopted a hollow period (full stop) at some point to end a sentence and they sometimes use imported exclamation marks/points. I think cuneiform had a word-space symbol.

Would boustrophedon increase reading and writing speed significantly at all?

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