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So I have a list of basic words in my budding conlang. I would like to construct compound words now, like we do with Latin/Greek in English (e.g. "hyacinthoides"). One word I can create in this conlang is "third fingered abnormality":

saloyowizitxihawinanoyotxa

That is 12 syllables(!) How do I tell if these compound words are too hard to say and/or remember? There is a word separator, -wi-, in that word, so you can tell how it is spliced together. Another option is to use hyphens, but I love how in English we have these long chemical/other names which are one word no hyphens, and I want to do similarly.

I tried asking about the languages with the longest words (like Latin/Greek in English), but it seems to come down to aggutinativity. Then what is it like speaking an agglutinative language with very long words in a long sentence, is it easy to understand? How about reading comprehension, is it also easy to read? Finally, what are some examples of languages which aren't agglutinative that have long words with as many syllables as my word above?

I think Sanskrit may be a close contender for long words. This list also helps.

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  • 'internationaliseringsstrategier' is a perfectly valid word in Swedish, and would not raise an eyebrow if uttered in normal conversation or in the news. And it's just the first that comes to mind. It has 12 syllables, if I'm not mistaken.
    – Edvin
    Commented Dec 31, 2021 at 19:12

2 Answers 2

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The complexity of a pronouncing a word does not depend on its length, but more on its phonological structure. Even long words in a language you are familiar with will be quite easy to pronounce (provided you can remember them), whereas short words in languages with a very different phonology could be much harder.

In agglutinative languages you have the equivalent of a sentence or phrase in one word; that is essentially the same as writing a sentence in English without spaces and saying that -- this should not be any more difficult than saying the sentences in the 'normal' way.

The compound word in your language is only hard because to people not knowing the language it is a meaningless collection of letters. If you had "thirdfingeredabnormality", this would be easy to say for any English speaker, as you can make sense of groups of letters. If I gave you "Dreifingrigebesonderheit" (an approximate German translation), it's still easy for me (as I speak German), and you might find it easier (even if you did not speak German yourself) because there is some resemblance to English morphemes.

So, to summarise, it's familiarity, not length, which is the main factor in determining how difficult something is to pronounce. And reading comprehension of long words is fine, as long as you can make sense of their components, just as you make sense of the words in a (long) sentence.

For non-agglutinative languages: German forms compounds by simply joining words together (possible with linking morphemes), where English links them but keeps spaces or hyphenation. This is rarely taken to extremes, but you can form quite long words. One infamous example is the Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän, the "captain of the Danube steam boat company". You could easily expand it to refer to his daughter, the Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänstochter, etc. Any German speaker would immediately understand the meaning of those words without difficulty.

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  • To use a personal example, there's a village in northern Québec called Kangiqsualujjuaq. Many English and French speakers look at that one for a long time and stumble over it, not sure how to begin. After a while exposed to Inuktitut and how its syllable structure works and what its morphenes are, even those of us who don't speak the language would be able to rattle off [kaŋ iq su a lu ju 'aq] without any issue. Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 18:40
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Be careful to distinguish the words of the language and the orthography - the latter can sometimes obscure the former¹. If the German orthography spelled it Donau Dampfschifffahrts Gesellschafts Kapitän (perhaps with some additional spaces in the second word) , the end result would be the same, it would just be more readable (cf. scriptio continua). Similarly English could equally well write it Danubesteamboatcompanycaptain and still be called English as we know it. This is just a convention and as a conlang author, you are free to pick one.

Though, if we dive deep enough, we find the very definition of "word" somewhat unclear and fuzzy - is the French qu'est-ce que four words, or just a simple single interrogative pronoun/particle? (that could be written kesk in some con-orthography)

Word stress can be helpful to determine what are the word boundaries, but then you have e.g. Slovak where stress falls on prepositions (and yet we do not call them inflectional prefixes); languages without word stress (above mentioned French, or Chinese); short "words" are often unstressed; there are clitics; there are exceptions (English Baghdad).

Modern Chinese (pǔtōnghuà) takes it to the extreme: the language is written without word boundaries, there is no word stress, there is an extremely limited number of syllables and almost each of them is a meaningful morpheme (often unrelated to the word it forms). E.g 中国 - 中 means "central" and 国 "country". Yet, 中国 means "China" - one word or two? Then, 共产 means "communist" - one word or two? (共 is "common,together" and 产 "produce"). And 党 is "party". Is then 共产党 (communist party) one word, two words or three words? And what about 中国共产党 (Communist party of China)? Why cannot we say it is one word?

¹ Although written languages are generally considered somehow "inferior" or "derived", I do not think that by today this is entirely valid - written languages have their own life, their own rules, ecology and sociolinguistic standing, ever since near 100% literacy. Just consider how much communication (including this one) is predominantly in written form.

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  • Good points on not obscuring based on orthography, that is useful to think about. I appreciate the insight.
    – Lance
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 15:58

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