This question was sparked off a recent question: Are Sanskrit words more than the sum of the parts? I am serious when I ask, because as an outsider to Sanskrit, I would think the parts would add up to the whole, but they don't. Likewise, in English (as @Draconis pointed out), the word "fireman" has no notion of "fighting fires", but that's what it means.

So from a conlanging perspective, I have been fighting with this issue for probably a year. At one point I was thinking about wrapping noun phrases in affixes to let it be known:

This is a formal gray fox or gorilla ("large monkey" in the conlang), we are not simply describing a gray fox or a large monkey.

So it was either going to be:

a- [...noun phrase...] -wa

as opposed to just

[no prefix] [...noun phrase...] [no suffix]

So like a-gray fox-wa or a-large monkey-wa. Then I thought, maybe create words instead (bounding words), so form gray fox morf or form large monkey morf, but then things started to get long and verbose.

So coming across Sanskrit, and coming to this realization that in real languages, you can have words which mean more than the sum of the parts, that means I can say "large monkey" (without any extra words or affixes), and have it be known that "large monkey" is always talking about gorilla. This seems like how Chinese works actually, but I always thought that was kind of limiting or strange.

For example, in Chinese, "river horse" is "hippo", but if you want to talk about a horse of the river, you can't say the string "river horse", you have to say something else like "the horse of the river", otherwise you are talking about hippo. In Chinese, these words must be memorized and avoided, which to me that would cause errors, because say in year 1800 you said "The river horse was cool" (talking about a horse of the river), then in year 1900 "river horse" came to be defined as "hippo", then the old text would maybe be misinterpreted (you would have to take the day of writing and word origin history into account when interpreting, jeez!).

So I am wondering, how can you reason with yourself to determine that saying "fire man" in your conlang means "fire fighter" basically, and yet also be able to say the abstract descriptive "fire man" (meaning man of the fire, or other meanings based on context)? Is it okay to leave off my affixes (or extra words), and do like Sanskrit does and just have "fire man" mean "one who fights fires"? Rather than saying "a-fire man-wa" (which would be more unambiguous). How do I make sure that you can still talk about fire man as a general adjective thing, if this word takes up a specific meaning?

I don't get how to think through that and make sure the conlang isn't going to run into problems.

  • If words and phrases like "fireman" and "river horse" don't cause problems for speakers of English, Chinese, and Sanskrit, why would they cause problems for speakers of your conlang? Commented May 15, 2023 at 13:06

2 Answers 2


Fundamentally, all words have meanings by convention, and a learner of the language simply has to learn them. Even when the meaning of the whole does come straightforwardly from the meaning of the parts, how do you know that a "firefighter" fights against fire, while a "swordfighter" fights with a sword? The answer is that you've learned this as part of your knowledge of English. Similarly, you can't replace "firefighter" with something like "firekiller" that seems like it should mean the same thing: that's simply not the word for this thing.

Compound words exist because they're an easy way to make new words, and they're easier to learn than just a random string of syllables. But they're still words, which have to be learned as part of the mental lexicon.

As for ambiguity, since a compound word is made of specific pieces, you can get the literal meaning by just exchanging a synonym for one of those. Something like "flame fighter" doesn't have the fixed meaning that "firefighter" does.

Or you can use different syntax: in Latin and Greek, compound words remove the case marking from all components except the last one. In English, compound words are single words, so they take different stress patterns than a full phrase would: "ríverhorse" vs "ríver hórse". And so on.


TLDR: It is very ambiguous, with some regularity.

I struggle with the problem of ambivalence versus economy a lot. I have terrible memory, and I think I am much too afraid of ambivalence. In reality, such an awful lot is context-dependent, convention-dependent, semi-systematic, and it still works.

I think that the details are largely due to intuition, convention, and just day-to-day use. People need a word for someone who kills others. Killing-man, killer, murderer, dead-making-person, king of collecting heartbeats - whatever, one of them sticks. If there are two competing words, and both survive, they will likely mean something slightly different.

How do I know that a fireman fights fires, as opposed to lighting them? Only from hearing the word many times. There is some rule to it: I know that -man is often used for a "-doer" (because only men were allowed in the workforce in the past, I guess). I can make educated guesses. But ultimately, as a foreign speaker, I just have to learn it.

Indeed, many jokes work by misinterpreting those conventional meanings. "Haha, look how his head burns, he's a real fireman..." (it's a TERRIBLE joke, I know) - hahaha, how funny.

In a naturalistic conlang (for worldbuilding), I would try and find a few "compound schemes" like XYZ-doer, ABC-type-thing, DEF-abstraction etc., derive those from some root, and try not to copy too much from my own language. And I would have a few separate root-words for a concepts specific to that culture. Eg "free slave", a derogatory term for an employee - "money worker", a neutral term for the same, and "tidhi" - a term of endearment.

  • The meaning of "fireman" as "person who fights fires" is contextual. The only reason you immediately know what it means without having to ask for more a more specific context is that there aren't as many steam engines or coal furnaces around these days that require firemen (an equivalent term to the word "stoker") to maintain them. Commented Jun 19, 2023 at 20:15

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.