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I am thinking of examples like these (in English and Vietnamese from Google Translate):

  • creationism: thuyết sáng tạo
  • create: tạo
  • creatable
  • creatively

When do you make it one word, and when do you make it many words? Is it the particular language style (agglutinative vs. isolating, etc.)? What about when you combine those words with other words:

  • creationist people

It seems to me that "concepts" broadly defined don't always map to one word. Only a few concepts map to one word, and it depends on the language. Concepts can be many words, and somehow by saying when to make it one word vs. many words, we can aid in the memorization process of mapping new concepts to sequences of (fuzzily-defined) "words".

In my conlang, I am thinking (initially) about making it so you can do like English and create a single word for "creationism" by combining:

  • bam: create
  • yan: -tion
  • yog: -ism

And maybe connect them with an -e-, like:

  • bameyaneyoga

But then why not make "creationism team" one word too:

  • bameyaneyogetima

In fact, why not make all noun phrases one word? Are there languages like this?

Or the reverse, why not make all noun phrases be composed of separate words/atoms?

  • bam yan yog tima

Side note: Is there any research outlining the mental toll either approach takes, or the benefits it provides to learning, memorization, or speaking?

I am having a hard time deciding, from a purity standpoint, what would be better for a minimal language, something like English where we have a mixture of separate words and complex-multi-part-words, or something like Vietnamese (or something even more atomic) where everything is composed of individual words (even all just one syllable each).

My question is, what factors should be weighed when making this decision on how to structure more complex concepts?

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  • As a rule of thumb, when the combined words become something more than their concepts combines. e.g. waist coat --> waistcoat. A waistcoat is more than a garment; it's a statement of social status. Sep 22 at 12:45

2 Answers 2

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This is mostly about the 'look and feel' of your language.

Some languages (eg Japanese) are 'analytic', where you have many different words/particles to express grammatical relationships. So you will have texts containing lots of short words. Other languages (eg Finnish) are 'synthetic', ie you express grammatical relationships by adding affixes to the word stem. Here you get fewer but longer words in your texts. This applies to a certain degree to all languages.

It is the same with compound nouns. In English you can say bottle of beer, using of to express the relation between beer and bottle, whereas in German you simply say Bierflasche, where the ordering of the morphemes within the word determines their relationship. So in English you have on average shorter words, in German longer.

As for cognitive effort: I have not seen any research, but I would assume the difference must be negligible, otherwise on type of language would have died out in favour of the other -- either you learn more words, or you learn rules that form more words (and the frequent ones you'd memorise anyway).

So think about how you want your texts to look like: few long words -- favour complex and compound words; many shorter words -- use particles to bind the items together. Also, you could bake in some cultural associations: many Asian languages are analytic, so having short words might evoke associations with Asian cultures with your target audience. This is something to bear in mind when using your conlang.

As an aside: depending on how you define "word", this is one of the reasons for the eskimo-words-for-snow myth: as far as I know, Inuit is very synthetic, so phrases ("the snow that falls in the morning and is powder dry") would be expressed in a single "word", where English uses a whole phrase instead. And thus it appears that there are many words meaning "snow", when it's really only "many phrases that describe different kinds of snow".

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    Aren't synthetic and analytic the other way around? In particular, I distinctly remember Inuktitut being specifically called out as "polysynthetic"
    – No Name
    yesterday
  • @NoName You are correct, my apologies! I have corrected the answer. 12 hours ago
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The difference really comes down to how you define a "word".

You've got a lot of units that you're combining together to convey more elaborate concepts. Are you putting "words" together to make "phrases", or are you putting "morphemes" together to make "words"?

One common definition is that, the separations between words are the boundaries phonological processes can't cross. Under this analysis, French noun phrases are actually just words with some spaces inside them.

Another common definition is that, the separations between words are wherever people write a space. But this depends on the writing system, not on the language itself.

A third is, words are put together by one set of rules (morphology) and phrases are put together by a different set of rules (syntax). But there are definitely commonalities between how these two sets of rules work; how do you decide which group to categorize a certain rule into?

Fundamentally, the definition of a word is "whatever is the most useful for explaining the data". And since you're inventing the data, you can have it be whatever you want it to be.

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