Mimimum number of words for a language

For the discussion of language mechanics, grammar, vocabulary, trends, and other such linguistic topics, in english and other languages.

Moderators: gmalivuk, Moderators General, Prelates

hallux sinister
Posts: 5
Joined: Wed Apr 11, 2012 11:24 pm UTC

Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby hallux sinister » Wed Apr 11, 2012 11:55 pm UTC

I was reading something about languages, and it occurred to me to wonder, what is the minimum number of words, by which I mean individual symbols, required to have a usable language?

By symbol, I mean a thing that can stand for another thing, conveying the idea of that thing. For instance, the sound of the word "cat", as well as the written word "cat", itself, as well as a drawing of a cat, can all be symbols (the first two in English, the last more universal) for the noun that is a small (generally,) furry (usually,) water-averse (commonly believed,) house-pet of the type "feline". Although the word "cat" can mean numerous things, it can refer to a piece of earth-moving equipment made by the Caterpillar Company, a lion, tiger, or other large feline, or even be a pseudonym for something that just resembles a cat, in some one or more ways.

The onomatopoeia "meow" can also, in the right context, be a symbol for cat. Even the act of licking the back of one's hand, then wiping the top of one's own head with it, could be a symbol (by emulating typical behavior of) for "cat". This could also be a symbol for clean, the act of cleaning, or of a cat taking that specific action. In certain eastern systems of language, each symbol in writing is literally represented by a symbol, such as Japanese Kanji characters. I am using the word symbol as a stand-in for the word "idea," or "concept".

So, "symbol" at least loosely defined, how many symbols are required to form a useable language? Obviously every noun will have to have a symbol. Every verb will have to have one, though they could be modified versions of nouns in most cases, such as the noun for a flying animal could be "bird". The verb form of the word "bird" could mean "to fly". There could be linguistic structures set up, like in Spanish, where there are at least two different words for "to be", one expressing a temporary or non-fundamental state of being, and one indicating a permanent state of being. So "Soy caliente!" means something different from "Estoy caliente!" though both would seem to translate as "I'm hot", the former takes the word "hot" to mean "sexually promiscuous, or precocious" and the latter means "I'm hot" as in, "I wish it were cooler. I am sweating like a pig" or something along those lines. Multiple different words denoting state of being could be used to mean "literally is" versus "metaphorically is" versus "is in the sense of looking like" versus "is in the sense of smelling like" versus "is in the sense of sounding like", etc.

Corollary question for consideration: could such a language be simplified enough to allow people to communicate with it by touch? That is, in such a way as it could be used both by the deaf, AND by the blind? A sort of sign-language/braille? I can imagine, for instance that the person "speaking" could draw a finger along the palm of the hand of the person "listening" from the direction of the listener's wrist toward the fingers to mean "me" and the reverse (from palm near fingers TOWARD wrist) to mean "you". The language would also have the nifty feature of being almost silent.

People could of course just draw letters with fingers on each other's palms, but that would be slow, tedious, and require people to focus more on spelling, making it easy to forget actual words, or the entire message before it could all be transmitted. Try this sometime with someone you don't mind touching the palm of, and who doesn't mind your touching his/her palms... such as a boyfriend or girlfriend, etc.

So how about it? A sort of linguistic challenge. How simple can an effective symbolic language be, and can it be adapted for use by people who can neither see, nor hear?

goofy
Posts: 911
Joined: Thu May 01, 2008 3:32 pm UTC

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby goofy » Fri Apr 13, 2012 12:09 am UTC

hallux sinister wrote:Obviously every noun will have to have a symbol. Every verb will have to have one


You're getting ahead of yourself here, since "noun" and "verb" are linguistic concepts, they don't exist outside of language. It's like you're saying "every noun in my new language should be represented by a noun."

Bassoon
Posts: 476
Joined: Wed Nov 28, 2007 10:58 pm UTC
Location: Wisconsin

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby Bassoon » Fri Apr 13, 2012 1:58 am UTC

Additionally, every noun and verb does not need to have a representation in language through only one symbol. Two examples: English has no single-word equal of the German "schadenfreude," and I believe there are tribes in Brazil that only use one word for both blue and green. So it's not nearly as cut-and-dry as you seem to think. I think languages only need as many words that make sense within that culture's context. The English culture didn't need to develop a word to describe the German idea of schadenfreude, so it didn't.

User avatar
gmalivuk
GNU Terry Pratchett
Posts: 26188
Joined: Wed Feb 28, 2007 6:02 pm UTC
Location: Here and There
Contact:

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby gmalivuk » Fri Apr 13, 2012 2:58 am UTC

hallux sinister wrote:Multiple different words denoting state of being could be used to mean "literally is" versus "metaphorically is" versus "is in the sense of looking like" versus "is in the sense of smelling like" versus "is in the sense of sounding like", etc.
Um, we have this in English already. We use "look", "smell", "sound", etc.

Could such a language be simplified enough to allow people to communicate with it by touch? That is, in such a way as it could be used both by the deaf, AND by the blind?
Again, this is already possible in English. Helen Keller could communicate, and was both deaf and blind. (Though presumably the language she used to do so when not speaking or writing was more akin to American Sign Language than to English.)
Unless stated otherwise, I do not care whether a statement, by itself, constitutes a persuasive political argument. I care whether it's true.
---
If this post has math that doesn't work for you, use TeX the World for Firefox or Chrome

(he/him/his)

User avatar
Proginoskes
Posts: 313
Joined: Mon Nov 14, 2011 7:07 am UTC
Location: Sitting Down

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby Proginoskes » Fri Apr 13, 2012 6:26 am UTC

Bassoon wrote:English has no single-word equal of the German "schadenfreude,"


"Gloating"?

User avatar
eSOANEM
:D
Posts: 3649
Joined: Sun Apr 12, 2009 9:39 pm UTC
Location: Grantabrycge

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby eSOANEM » Fri Apr 13, 2012 11:14 am UTC

Proginoskes wrote:
Bassoon wrote:English has no single-word equal of the German "schadenfreude,"


"Gloating"?


Schadenfreude is a noun, "gloating" is the present participle/progressive form of the verb "to gloat". Also, "gloat" is used outside of the context of someone else's misfortune (someone may gloat over their own success for instance) so there is a clear distinction between the two.
my pronouns are they

Magnanimous wrote:(fuck the macrons)

goofy
Posts: 911
Joined: Thu May 01, 2008 3:32 pm UTC

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby goofy » Fri Apr 13, 2012 12:36 pm UTC

Bassoon wrote:English has no single-word equal of the German "schadenfreude,"


"Schadenfreude"

User avatar
gmalivuk
GNU Terry Pratchett
Posts: 26188
Joined: Wed Feb 28, 2007 6:02 pm UTC
Location: Here and There
Contact:

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby gmalivuk » Fri Apr 13, 2012 1:20 pm UTC

eSOANEM wrote:Schadenfreude is a noun, "gloating" is a gerund and thus also syntactically a noun
Fixed, because I don't think switching "schadenfreude" and "gloating" in a sentence would make it ungrammatical, even though it would change the meaning.
Unless stated otherwise, I do not care whether a statement, by itself, constitutes a persuasive political argument. I care whether it's true.
---
If this post has math that doesn't work for you, use TeX the World for Firefox or Chrome

(he/him/his)

User avatar
eSOANEM
:D
Posts: 3649
Joined: Sun Apr 12, 2009 9:39 pm UTC
Location: Grantabrycge

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby eSOANEM » Fri Apr 13, 2012 2:11 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:
eSOANEM wrote:Schadenfreude is a noun, "gloating" is a gerund and thus also syntactically a noun
Fixed, because I don't think switching "schadenfreude" and "gloating" in a sentence would make it ungrammatical, even though it would change the meaning.


That's a good point. Syntactically the two overlap (gloating can be used in additional ways e.g. "he was gloating"works but "he was schadenfreude" doesn't). Semantically the two have significant differences.
my pronouns are they

Magnanimous wrote:(fuck the macrons)

goofy
Posts: 911
Joined: Thu May 01, 2008 3:32 pm UTC

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby goofy » Fri Apr 13, 2012 4:13 pm UTC

Gerunds aren't nouns. Gerunds can have subjects and objects. For instance:
I enjoy eating cakes.
The gerund "eating" has the object "cakes". I can't replace the gerund with a noun.
*I enjoy consumption cakes.

User avatar
Iulus Cofield
WINNING
Posts: 2917
Joined: Wed Apr 07, 2010 9:31 am UTC

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby Iulus Cofield » Fri Apr 13, 2012 7:34 pm UTC

Yes, yes, we all get confused by gerunds/present participles/continuing aspect verbs.

Toki Pona, as far as I know, is the "smallest" functioning language with "only" 123 words, although the number of compound words approaches infinite and because each of the base lexemes are highly polysemous, they and their compounds tend to be highly context dependent.

User avatar
gmalivuk
GNU Terry Pratchett
Posts: 26188
Joined: Wed Feb 28, 2007 6:02 pm UTC
Location: Here and There
Contact:

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby gmalivuk » Fri Apr 13, 2012 7:52 pm UTC

goofy wrote:Gerunds aren't nouns. Gerunds can have subjects and objects. For instance:
I enjoy eating cakes.
The gerund "eating" has the object "cakes". I can't replace the gerund with a noun.
*I enjoy consumption cakes.
Sure, so my earlier statement should have been that you can generally replace "schadenfreude" with "gloating" without ungrammaticalizing a sentence, while the opposite substitution won't always work.
Unless stated otherwise, I do not care whether a statement, by itself, constitutes a persuasive political argument. I care whether it's true.
---
If this post has math that doesn't work for you, use TeX the World for Firefox or Chrome

(he/him/his)

User avatar
Qaanol
The Cheshirest Catamount
Posts: 3055
Joined: Sat May 09, 2009 11:55 pm UTC

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby Qaanol » Fri Apr 13, 2012 8:03 pm UTC

Bassoon wrote:Additionally, every noun and verb does not need to have a representation in language through only one symbol. Two examples: English has no single-word equal of the German "schadenfreude," and I believe there are tribes in Brazil that only use one word for both blue and green. So it's not nearly as cut-and-dry as you seem to think. I think languages only need as many words that make sense within that culture's context. The English culture didn't need to develop a word to describe the German idea of schadenfreude, so it didn't.

‘Schadenfreude’. Also ‘epicaricacy’.

But yeah, your point stands. There are plenty of concepts—especially highly specific concepts that don’t come up often—for which we have no single word, but instead rely on combining multiple words to describe. “The specific piece of film on which was recorded the most recently made footage that still exists of live Tasmanian tigers” is a physical object, but we don’t have a dedicated word for it.
wee free kings

zukenft
Posts: 44
Joined: Mon Dec 20, 2010 11:34 am UTC

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby zukenft » Sat Apr 14, 2012 7:31 pm UTC

Hmm...if you want to keep the language concise, then you'll necessarily have to make a lot of words, just to explain concepts that need a long sentence to explain, like the arguments posted above. So it's a trade between the number of words and the size of a sentence in your language.

Although if you want to be a bit cheeky, do what the Hungarians do and call a sentence without spaces a 'word'.

hallux sinister
Posts: 5
Joined: Wed Apr 11, 2012 11:24 pm UTC

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby hallux sinister » Fri Apr 20, 2012 9:55 pm UTC

IN RESPONSE TO ALL WHO POSTED:

Okay, since everyone has been pulled into the Schadenfreude vortex, I'll try a different tack. Let's define "vrooshoom" as a word meaning "I just saw a UFO fly low overhead, hover a moment, then take off with seemingly impossible speed." Two people could meet, a UFO could fly low overhead while one of the people was bent down tying his shoes, hear a sound, look up too late to see it, and say "what happened?" The other could then reply "vrooshoom" (pronounced: v'REW-shOOM, a short vee sound, a sound like the English word "rue", a sound like the English word "shoe", terminating in an "emm" sound, two syllables total).

As far as I know, no language has a word that means the same as "vrooshoom". Does that matter? Should we hijack a thread to discuss words that exist in one language but which have no single-word translation in another? Did you know that German has no word for "sorry"? As in, you bump into someone, and say "sorry", but if you bumped into someone whom you know understands only German, and wanted to express the same sentiment, you'd say something like "Es tut mir leid" or "Ich bitte um Entschuldigung", meaning in the first place "It does me sorrow", and in the second, "I plead about (for your) pardon." or some such thing.

You could simply say "Entschuldigung," or " 'schuldigung," but that means "pardon," not "I'm sorry" or just "sorry". The notion that English has no word (before borrowing "Schadenfreude", which properly should be capitalized, as the first letter of all German nouns (excl. pronouns) are,) for the concept is not significant, the fact is even without Schadenfreude, you could express the concept in English, just not as compactly. You could say, "The pain and/or humiliation brought joy at the misfortune." You could pare this sentence down further, but the point is not that you can't express what Schadenfreude is in English. You can, it just takes more than 4 syllables. Of course, if you can mimic Nelson's hyena-like laugh from "The Simpsons", saying "HAA ha!" you can express the sentiment in only two, and that's English, thank you very much.

But that all is beside the point. The notion of nouns and verbs is besides point. Nouns are words corresponding to objects, verbs are words corresponding to actions. Although language is artificial, sure, the notion of nouns and verbs is fairly universal, most languages have, I think, as a minimum, no matter how primitive, something akin to nouns and something akin verbs if it can be used to express symbolic thought from one being or entity to another. In forming a first, primary language by creatures intelligent enough to form one, but who don't have one yet, they need to be able to say things like "Look out, a Leopard is chasing you!" eventually.

"Look out!" is enough for immediate threats, but you eventually need to be able to warn about things that are far away, in place or time. For example, if a family of humans with no language has parents who want to warn kids about bears, they need to be able to convey the concept of "bear" without necessarily having one handy. Same goes for fire, rushing water, lightning, poisonous plants, the edges of cliffs, sharks, falling rocks, excessive sunlight, and of course, the bane of all primitive societies, high fructose corn syrup.

If a member of your tribe is getting ready to set out to the other side of the river, and the only warning you can give is "Look out!" he might suddenly duck, or react to whatever default fear he might have. You shout "look out!" and he assumes a snake is about to bite him. He whirls around, and NO snake. He thinks you are pulling his leg, but what you meant was "look out when you get to the water because no one of us has invented swimming yet, so if you fall in you're screwed! Also, sharks." Obviously, more than just a single interjection is required. Nouns to identify objects, (even if you don't have the word "noun" or an equivalent, you still need nouns) and verbs to identify actions. "Snake in hole" is useful, so I think it can be shown prepositions are handy. Even if they're not single individual words, a full-featured basic language needs to allow its users interchange of useful information. If you don't want to have verbs, but want the nouns to carry both identification of an object information, AND action information, you're going to need a separate noun for every object, AND conceivable action, and that would mean that the language would have impossibly many symbols. You'd need words for snakeslithers, snakecoils, snakeswims, snakebites (the action, not the resulting puncture wounds), snakeeats, snakeshedsskin, snakefalls, snakeclimbs, snakehangs, snakehatches, snakeexiststwoheadedly, snakeexistswithspots, snakeexistsandisgreen, snakeexistsandisbrown, snakehasredandblackandwhitestripes, snakespits, snakerattles, snakemates, snakestarves, snakeiscrushed, snakeiseaten, snakehisses, snakedies, and of course, snaketasty! The list goes on and on. That's a lot of nounverbs. Then if you want to converse about something else, like "tiger", you'll need a whole new collection, tigerstalks, tigerleaps, tigergrowls, etc. even if you are talking about the same action, such as "tigerdies". If "ssseaghr" is snakedies, you still need a completely separate word "ugurghea" for tigerdies. It would be infinitely more efficient, I don't think it can be contested, to have nouns and verbs be SEPARATE words. That way, you only need the word "dies" to express the passage from living to non-living states of living things.

Even if you have a language in which the subject (noun) and verb are combined into a single word, the words are still individual things. "Johnran to the store" means the same thing as "John ran to the store", in that you can combine any other noun with the "ran" to indicate someone else doing the same action. No matter how written or pronounced, the noun and verb are still basically separate, except maybe for a few fundamental verbs, like in Spanish where a pronoun can often be excluded because the form of the verb implies which pronoun is appropriate. But it still HAS pronouns and nouns, just the same.

So I don't think I'm getting ahead of myself when I suggest a language needs to have, as basic features, nouns and verbs, even if the language is not sophisticated enough to be able to discuss it in itself, it still needs to have basic features.

As for Helen Keller, she used Braille, as I understand it. Maybe studying how she communicated with others, I might find an answer to my original question. I am gratified by all the responses, I just wish we hadn't gotten sidetracked by Schadenfreude. The reason so many people love the idea, I think, is that German has a "single" word for it, and that German culture is what it is, having produced people like Friedrich Nietzsche, and all his often dismal philosophy, plus a mindset that allowed for the dubious "flowering" of one of the most fascist, repressive regimes in recent history, if not indeed in ALL of history.

I'm sorry, but I must dispel this notion, however. Schade means bad, and Freude means joy, in German. Schadenfreude is in fact, a COMPOUND WORD. German forms multiple words together into a single word whereas in other languages, (like English) they are typically kept separate. Take Fernsehapparat, for example. Seems like a long word... it is formed of the particles "fern" "seh" and "apparat". "Fern" means far, or distant, or remote; "seh" is a conjugation of "sehen," which means "to see" or "seeing" and "apparat" is a cognate of apparatus, it's a device. In other words, A "Fernsehapparat" is a TV set. Nowadays, I understand this term has been shortened, and just as "television set" or box has simply become "T.V." or just "TV". They now call it a "Fernseher".

Schadenfreude is "Bad joy" or "misfortune happiness". Bear in mind though, it's only a single word IN GERMAN. There are lots of long words in German, that we would consider multiple words, such as Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz, winner of the 1999 longest German word award, (see http://german.about.com/library/blwort_long.htm) and many others.

In English, we would not consider these as single words, so neither should we care about Schadenfreude being a single word, because really it's two. Therefore, German does NOT in fact have a single word to represent the idea of "Schadenfreude" EITHER, when it comes right down to it. Not as WE define single words. Okay? Can we all collectively forget about Schadenfreude now?

Dankeschoen.

User avatar
gmalivuk
GNU Terry Pratchett
Posts: 26188
Joined: Wed Feb 28, 2007 6:02 pm UTC
Location: Here and There
Contact:

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby gmalivuk » Fri Apr 20, 2012 10:17 pm UTC

hallux sinister wrote:I just wish we hadn't gotten sidetracked by Schadenfreude.
Dude... you just wrote several times as much about schadenfreude as had existed in this thread previously. So please don't whine to the rest of us about sidetracking the thread.

And since you spent most of your post talking about schadenfreude, it's definitely not off-topic for me to respond to some of it:
"Schadenfreude", which properly should be capitalized, as the first letter of all German nouns (excl. pronouns) are
But as used in this thread, it's not a German word. It's an English word, and in English we only capitalize proper nouns.

In English, we would not consider these as single words, so neither should we care about Schadenfreude being a single word, because really it's two.
No, really it's one. Just like "supervision" and "oversight" and other compounds that are written as one word are, in fact, one word. "Television" in English also means "far-see", so is it similarly not a single word?
---
As for Helen Keller, she used Braille, as I understand it.
That's how she read books, sure. It was not, however, how she had conversations with people. To do that, she spoke with her own voice and read people's lips with her hands or had them sign into her hands. (Presumably she also sometimes signed herself, of course.)
Unless stated otherwise, I do not care whether a statement, by itself, constitutes a persuasive political argument. I care whether it's true.
---
If this post has math that doesn't work for you, use TeX the World for Firefox or Chrome

(he/him/his)

hallux sinister
Posts: 5
Joined: Wed Apr 11, 2012 11:24 pm UTC

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby hallux sinister » Fri Apr 20, 2012 10:39 pm UTC

Dude... you just wrote several times as much about schadenfreude as had existed in this thread previously. So please don't whine to the rest of us about sidetracking the thread.

A train, once derailed, takes much more energy to return it to rights than it does to propel it down a length of track. You're right, though, I should not have said it got sidetracked, I should have used the word "derailed". However, since I started this thread... seems to me I have the right to object here and not have it called whining, if anyone does.

But I digress.

User avatar
gmalivuk
GNU Terry Pratchett
Posts: 26188
Joined: Wed Feb 28, 2007 6:02 pm UTC
Location: Here and There
Contact:

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby gmalivuk » Fri Apr 20, 2012 10:46 pm UTC

hallux sinister wrote:
Dude... you just wrote several times as much about schadenfreude as had existed in this thread previously. So please don't whine to the rest of us about sidetracking the thread.

A train, once derailed, takes much more energy to return it to rights than it does to propel it down a length of track. You're right, though, I should not have said it got sidetracked, I should have used the word "derailed". However, since I started this thread... seems to me I have the right to object here and not have it called whining, if anyone does.

But I digress.
Once you start a thread, it is more or less out of your hands. And while it might be true that it takes more energy to get a thread back on track than it did to veer off, your problem was that all the energy you spent went toward pushing it farther off track. The correct way to "solve" the "problem" of people talking too much about a word is to say, "Let's not get sidetracked by that word, please." One of the most incorrect possible ways to "solve" it is to spend most of your post continuing to do precisely that thing you're bothered by others doing.
Unless stated otherwise, I do not care whether a statement, by itself, constitutes a persuasive political argument. I care whether it's true.
---
If this post has math that doesn't work for you, use TeX the World for Firefox or Chrome

(he/him/his)

goofy
Posts: 911
Joined: Thu May 01, 2008 3:32 pm UTC

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby goofy » Sat Apr 21, 2012 12:47 am UTC

hallux sinister wrote:So I don't think I'm getting ahead of myself when I suggest a language needs to have, as basic features, nouns and verbs, even if the language is not sophisticated enough to be able to discuss it in itself, it still needs to have basic features.


I agree. I think it's agreed that all languages have nouns and verbs.

But that's not what you said originally. You said "every noun will have to have a symbol." But that's approaching the problem in the wrong way. In fact its tautological, it's like saying "every noun will be represented by a noun." A better way to say it would be like you said it above: "my language needs, as basic features, nouns and verbs."

lorb
Posts: 404
Joined: Wed Nov 10, 2010 10:34 am UTC
Location: Austria

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby lorb » Sun Apr 22, 2012 2:38 pm UTC

Back to topic:
hallux sinister wrote:I was reading something about languages, and it occurred to me to wonder, what is the minimum number of words, by which I mean individual symbols, required to have a usable language?


What defines a language as usable? I do think from a purely information-theoretic point of view 1 symbol should be enough. Most likely it would be a language that is even less practical than a unary numeral system but in theory capable of conveying any information you want.
Please be gracious in judging my english. (I am not a native speaker/writer.)
http://decodedarfur.org/

Twelfthroot
Posts: 131
Joined: Sat Mar 21, 2009 1:40 am UTC
Contact:

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby Twelfthroot » Sun Apr 22, 2012 10:16 pm UTC

I think this is a very interesting question, though as has been pointed out, I'm not sure there's any way to answer it meaningfully without applying more boundary conditions. You can remove any number of words from a language at the expense of some degree of clarity or exactness, until your language consists of a single word meaning (I would imagine) "pay attention! / alter your behavior by inferring my reason for using language!". (Though I suspect that given only two words, I would choose "yes/good/positive" and "no/bad/negative"; given a third, I would add "indifferent/neutral".)

It is interesting to note that none of these words I've proposed as maximally necessary seem to have concrete referents. But if our next step were to add only one word that actually designates an object/event, what would it be? It seems the most universal would be "it/that/this", but then we haven't really gained anything -- pointing to something to establish it as "that" then saying "that bad" is hardly different from being in a situation where that is contextually salient and saying "bad". Perhaps the reason is that in this limited language model, the act of pointing is acting as a word. Indeed, when we say just "bad", we must mean something is bad. However, "that" becomes more useful if we allow/realize that "that" can retain its referent even once that is no longer present and salient.

Given that I've gotten through two paragraphs without really making a point I think it's safe to say I don't have a useful answer here, though I hope that offers some ideas to think over so the original question can be refined. That said, I do want to make a minor quibble over one statement:

I am using the word symbol as a stand-in for the word "idea," or "concept".

I think you should be very wary of this claim; or at least, you should be careful to distinguish between the word cat and the concept of cat. The concept of cat is that which the word 'cat' generally shares with the words 'gato' and '猫', whereas it is not the same concept as that to which 'cat' refers in the phrase "he's a hip cat". While either could be in some way thought of as a symbol, I imagine only the former (the word) as behaving symbolically in the usual sense of the word. Even if we had word which corresponded uniquely and exactly to the concept of cat, it would still not be identical, as that word itself would have a distinct concept -- the referent of the phrase "the word cat" (or whatever the word may be). Similarly, I take issue with your phrasing "the noun that is small, furry, etc" -- nouns are not furry. These are properties we ascribe to the concept to which the noun refers. It's nitpicking, but if we're going to discuss semantics we're going to have to argue semantics.

User avatar
krogoth
Posts: 411
Joined: Wed Feb 04, 2009 9:58 pm UTC
Location: Australia

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby krogoth » Sun Apr 22, 2012 11:54 pm UTC

lorb wrote:Back to topic:
hallux sinister wrote:I was reading something about languages, and it occurred to me to wonder, what is the minimum number of words, by which I mean individual symbols, required to have a usable language?


What defines a language as usable? I do think from a purely information-theoretic point of view 1 symbol should be enough. Most likely it would be a language that is even less practical than a unary numeral system but in theory capable of conveying any information you want.

Marklar Marklar Marklar Marklar, Marklar Marklar.


(had to)
R3sistance - I don't care at all for the ignorance spreading done by many and to the best of my abilities I try to correct this as much as I can, but I know and understand that even I can not be completely honest, truthful and factual all of the time.

Derek
Posts: 2176
Joined: Wed Aug 18, 2010 4:15 am UTC

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby Derek » Mon Apr 23, 2012 12:51 am UTC

krogoth wrote:What defines a language as usable? I do think from a purely information-theoretic point of view 1 symbol should be enough. Most likely it would be a language that is even less practical than a unary numeral system but in theory capable of conveying any information you want.

Marklar Marklar Marklar Marklar, Marklar Marklar.


(had to)

That's three symbols: "Marklar", comma, and period. We might also count space as a symbol, but that might be pushing it.

Twelfthroot
Posts: 131
Joined: Sat Mar 21, 2009 1:40 am UTC
Contact:

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby Twelfthroot » Mon Apr 23, 2012 1:04 am UTC

That's three symbols: "Marklar", comma, and period. We might also count space as a symbol, but that might be pushing it.


The comma and period correspond to prosodic features which allow us to correctly formulate the grammatical structure with which to interpret the utterance. Marklar is the only semantically meaningful symbol, though its meaning is of course different with each use -- e.g. we all know Marklar Marklar Marklar is horribly rude whereas Marklar Marklar Marklar is quite reasonble.

User avatar
Iulus Cofield
WINNING
Posts: 2917
Joined: Wed Apr 07, 2010 9:31 am UTC

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby Iulus Cofield » Mon Apr 23, 2012 1:36 am UTC

I always thought there were some supersegmentals in the Marklar language that distinguished between marklar and marklar. I also suspect that there are important reduplication rules in there somewhere.

User avatar
krogoth
Posts: 411
Joined: Wed Feb 04, 2009 9:58 pm UTC
Location: Australia

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby krogoth » Mon Apr 23, 2012 2:04 am UTC

It's been years since I've heard someone speak Marklar, but I expect inflection ect may play a part. Also interestingly when used, mixed with English it does take on some English rules, like the addition of s for ownership or some pluralization. That is assuming Stan used it correctly, though he's not a native Marklar so I can't be sure.
R3sistance - I don't care at all for the ignorance spreading done by many and to the best of my abilities I try to correct this as much as I can, but I know and understand that even I can not be completely honest, truthful and factual all of the time.

lorb
Posts: 404
Joined: Wed Nov 10, 2010 10:34 am UTC
Location: Austria

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby lorb » Mon Apr 23, 2012 11:46 am UTC

krogoth wrote:
lorb wrote:Back to topic:
hallux sinister wrote:I was reading something about languages, and it occurred to me to wonder, what is the minimum number of words, by which I mean individual symbols, required to have a usable language?

What defines a language as usable? I do think from a purely information-theoretic point of view 1 symbol should be enough. Most likely it would be a language that is even less practical than a unary numeral system but in theory capable of conveying any information you want.

Marklar Marklar Marklar Marklar, Marklar Marklar.

Very nice example that language does not exist without context.

Heres an example of a language that knows only 1 symbol:
The sign is # and its referent is negation. An affirmative is expressed as a double negation: ##. Everything else is contextual.

But i think the crucial point really is whether you can have a single symbol denote multiple referents. Let's device a language where every word is a prime number. Any composed number refers to the combined meaning of it's prime factors.
Example:
2=red
3=a cat
6=a red cat
How many symbols does this language have? 2 or 3? (or sthg. else?)
Please be gracious in judging my english. (I am not a native speaker/writer.)
http://decodedarfur.org/

relmn3iko
Posts: 4
Joined: Wed Apr 25, 2012 8:31 am UTC

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby relmn3iko » Wed Apr 25, 2012 8:42 am UTC

I think you need to specify what kind of language you are talking about: a natural language or an artificial one? If you have an artificial language I suppose you can create whatever number of words you want to suit whatever purpose you want. You can argue that all computer languages go back to two "words": 0 and 1. But those aren't natural (human) languages.

And I think you need to clarify also if you mean morpheme or word, because defining exactly what a word is is an argument you can pursue until infinity.

If you want a human language with a minimum of words I would suggest the rather sadistic practice of raising an entire culture of people inside a small white room with minimal stimuli and all their bare needs provided and nothing else. With no rich environment, they wouldn't need much of a vocabulary to handle their lives. They would have some necessary grammatical words, words to describe their bodies and food and pooing and such, but maybe not much else. But this is just a theory. Oooh, someone write a sci fi novel on this.

User avatar
eSOANEM
:D
Posts: 3649
Joined: Sun Apr 12, 2009 9:39 pm UTC
Location: Grantabrycge

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby eSOANEM » Wed Apr 25, 2012 5:15 pm UTC

relmn3iko wrote:You can argue that all computer languages go back to two "words": 0 and 1.


This would be akin to claiming English has fewer than 100 words because it has fewer than 100 phonemes.
my pronouns are they

Magnanimous wrote:(fuck the macrons)

User avatar
Sir Novelty Fashion
Posts: 78
Joined: Tue Apr 13, 2010 1:36 pm UTC
Location: The Eleven-Day Empire

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby Sir Novelty Fashion » Mon May 07, 2012 3:49 pm UTC

I find myself epicaricatic at the cochleal periphrases already performed on the subject of a Teutonic lexeme of such attenuated necessity. :P

Bassoon wrote: and I believe there are tribes in Brazil that only use one word for both blue and green.

Just to pick up on this, this is not that uncommon a thing with languages: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue-green_across_cultures
The art of advertisement, after the American manner, has introduced into all our life such a lavish use of superlatives, that no standard of value whatever is intact.

User avatar
Pressed Bunson
Posts: 27
Joined: Sun Jun 17, 2012 12:52 pm UTC

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby Pressed Bunson » Mon Jun 18, 2012 5:50 pm UTC

Twelfthroot wrote:
I am using the word symbol as a stand-in for the word "idea," or "concept".

I think you should be very wary of this claim; or at least, you should be careful to distinguish between the word cat and the concept of cat. The concept of cat is that which the word 'cat' generally shares with the words 'gato' and '猫', whereas it is not the same concept as that to which 'cat' refers in the phrase "he's a hip cat". While either could be in some way thought of as a symbol, I imagine only the former (the word) as behaving symbolically in the usual sense of the word. Even if we had word which corresponded uniquely and exactly to the concept of cat, it would still not be identical, as that word itself would have a distinct concept -- the referent of the phrase "the word cat" (or whatever the word may be). Similarly, I take issue with your phrasing "the noun that is small, furry, etc" -- nouns are not furry. These are properties we ascribe to the concept to which the noun refers. It's nitpicking, but if we're going to discuss semantics we're going to have to argue semantics.
I'd also like to add that, even in the same language, a concept is not necessarily restricted to one word, and vice versa (although the latter was briefly touched on in 12th root's post). For example, if I wanted to communicate the concept of "Possessing physical features, behaviors, personality traits or other properties that are mainly attributed to infants and small or cuddly animals", I could use either "cute" or adorable". As for the opposite of that, depending on the context, "hot" could either mean "of a high temperature" or "pretty/handsome".
Asmodieus wrote:Knock knock.
Whose there?
Your friends, we're staging an intervention.

black_hat_guy wrote:There once was an X from place B,
Who satisfied predicate P,
The X did thing A,
In a specified way,
Resulting in circumstance C.


Ncoppa jammo ja, funiculì, funiculà!

ri.kenji
Posts: 5
Joined: Thu Jun 21, 2012 9:14 pm UTC

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby ri.kenji » Fri Jun 22, 2012 12:17 am UTC

From a pragmatic standpoint, a "word" should stand for a unit of speech where meaning cannot be inferred from its subunits or where it has no subunits. In other words, its definition needs to be learned and cannot be systematically constructed from simpler words to create a well-defined compound word. Take the compound word "headache" for example. Its meaning is easily inferred from similar compound words like "stomachache," "backache," and "bellyache." As long as one knows the formula <body part> + "ache" = an ache in the <body part>, a list of words for all the different aches can only be limited by the number of words to name the different parts of the body. "Backspace," however, is a compound word whose parts do not equal the whole as knowing the meaning of "back" and "space" does not alone allow one to infer that "back" + "space" refers to a physical button on a keyboard that deletes previously typed characters.

For both Chinese and English, the bare number of words to communicate seems to be around 800. The Chinese word lists I have lists 800 words for the basic version, and the Simple English Wikipedia is limited to 850 words (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_English) not including special terminology for the article. Toki Pona (or whatever constructed language claiming to have an extremely small amount of words) will still have to have novel combinations or forms made from the small inventory of basic words, and those novel forms will not have meanings readily inferred from their parts.

User avatar
Iulus Cofield
WINNING
Posts: 2917
Joined: Wed Apr 07, 2010 9:31 am UTC

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby Iulus Cofield » Fri Jun 22, 2012 2:03 am UTC

ri.kenji wrote:From a pragmatic standpoint, a "word" should stand for a unit of speech where meaning cannot be inferred from its subunits or where it has no subunits. In other words, its definition needs to be learned and cannot be systematically constructed from simpler words to create a well-defined compound word.


The problem with this is it reduces words to root morphemes. So "construction" isn't a word, because it's construct + ion. But construct isn't a word either, because it's con + struct. And then there's no words, because both con and struct are bound morphemes that can't exist on their own in English. So, effectively, that definition not only dewords compounds and words derived from other words, but also a bunch of words that don't have a single free morpheme.

User avatar
eSOANEM
:D
Posts: 3649
Joined: Sun Apr 12, 2009 9:39 pm UTC
Location: Grantabrycge

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby eSOANEM » Fri Jun 22, 2012 8:37 am UTC

Iulus Cofield wrote:
ri.kenji wrote:From a pragmatic standpoint, a "word" should stand for a unit of speech where meaning cannot be inferred from its subunits or where it has no subunits. In other words, its definition needs to be learned and cannot be systematically constructed from simpler words to create a well-defined compound word.


The problem with this is it reduces words to root morphemes. So "construction" isn't a word, because it's construct + ion. But construct isn't a word either, because it's con + struct. And then there's no words, because both con and struct are bound morphemes that can't exist on their own in English. So, effectively, that definition not only dewords compounds and words derived from other words, but also a bunch of words that don't have a single free morpheme.


No, it reduces them to their lexemes. Construction is morphologically construct-ion, but not in terms of lexemes because "-ion" carries no meaning in and of itself, instead being a nominaliser acting on the lexeme "construct". As such "construction" would be the nominalised form of the lexeme "construct".

The main problem with defining a lexeme as a word is that idioms are arguably lexemes in their own right as their meaning is not deducible from their parts however I doubt there are many people who, when asked, would say "raining cats and dogs" is a single word.
my pronouns are they

Magnanimous wrote:(fuck the macrons)

Makri
Posts: 654
Joined: Sat Oct 03, 2009 4:57 pm UTC

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby Makri » Fri Jun 22, 2012 9:50 am UTC

Did you know that German has no word for "sorry"? As in, you bump into someone, and say "sorry", but if you bumped into someone whom you know understands only German, and wanted to express the same sentiment, you'd say something like "Es tut mir leid" or "Ich bitte um Entschuldigung", meaning in the first place "It does me sorrow", and in the second, "I plead about (for your) pardon." or some such thing.


I know this is a bit old, but I cannot let such utter nonsense stand uncontradicted. I can think of four German single-word expressions that mean "sorry"; actually more if you count fast-speech variants.
¬□(∀♀(∃♂(♀❤♂)⟷∃♂(♂❤♀)))

User avatar
eSOANEM
:D
Posts: 3649
Joined: Sun Apr 12, 2009 9:39 pm UTC
Location: Grantabrycge

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby eSOANEM » Fri Jun 22, 2012 12:03 pm UTC

Makri wrote:
Did you know that German has no word for "sorry"? As in, you bump into someone, and say "sorry", but if you bumped into someone whom you know understands only German, and wanted to express the same sentiment, you'd say something like "Es tut mir leid" or "Ich bitte um Entschuldigung", meaning in the first place "It does me sorrow", and in the second, "I plead about (for your) pardon." or some such thing.


I know this is a bit old, but I cannot let such utter nonsense stand uncontradicted. I can think of four German single-word expressions that mean "sorry"; actually more if you count fast-speech variants.


Furthermore, languages using various phrases to do with sorrow for "sorry" is not unusual. The French "desolé" is cognate with the English "desolated", the Spanish "lo siento" means "I feel it" and the English "sorry" is from an old English word meaning "full of sorrow".
my pronouns are they

Magnanimous wrote:(fuck the macrons)

User avatar
MinotaurWarrior
Posts: 31
Joined: Tue Nov 11, 2008 9:21 pm UTC

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby MinotaurWarrior » Fri Jun 29, 2012 2:54 am UTC

hallux sinister wrote:I was reading something about languages, and it occurred to me to wonder, what is the minimum number of words, by which I mean individual symbols, required to have a usable language?


Could you have a language with the following words:

defining
thing
oneplus

?

So, let's say you're in a gym. You non-verbally indicate that the listeners focus should be given to a set of dumbells. You say "Defining thing oneplus". Then you mime lifting and say "defining thing oneplus oneplus." Emphatically saying "thing oneplus oneplus thing oneplus!" would then mean "lift the set of dumbells I pointed to earlier!" the meaning associated with every [thing & number] would only last for a single encounter, so thing oneplus oneplus isn't just an overly long word for "lift". Later on that day, it could come to mean "apples" or "then".

This would be a terrible, terrible language, and would likely prevent the development of complex skills or knowledge, but I see no reason why it couldn't work. However, I'm not particularly knowledgeable about these things.

User avatar
eSOANEM
:D
Posts: 3649
Joined: Sun Apr 12, 2009 9:39 pm UTC
Location: Grantabrycge

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby eSOANEM » Fri Jun 29, 2012 8:45 am UTC

MinotaurWarrior wrote:I see no reason why it couldn't work.


There are several.

1. It can only refer to things which are present or can be mimed.

2. It can only talk about objects not abstract nouns such as the properties of objects.

3. The only thing you can do to objects is add them, they can't be taken away and you can't tell people to move things/themselves.
my pronouns are they

Magnanimous wrote:(fuck the macrons)

User avatar
MinotaurWarrior
Posts: 31
Joined: Tue Nov 11, 2008 9:21 pm UTC

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby MinotaurWarrior » Fri Jun 29, 2012 9:41 am UTC

eSOANEM wrote:
MinotaurWarrior wrote:I see no reason why it couldn't work.


There are several.

1. It can only refer to things which are present or can be mimed.

2. It can only talk about objects not abstract nouns such as the properties of objects.

3. The only thing you can do to objects is add them, they can't be taken away and you can't tell people to move things/themselves.


1 & 2 don't strike me as preventing something from being a language. There are many sorts of things that English cannot be used to talk about (events happening outside of time, for example), but it's a language. Now, the things my hypothetical 3-word language can't discuss are way more important than the things English can't discuss, but I can see it being sufficient to get by. It allows you to communicate a wide range of things, and covers everything necessary for at least basic survival and recreation. It'd be a terrible pain, but it could be done. However, maybe just barely allowing you to cover survival needs isn't enough to technically qualify as a language. I don't know. If a form of communication needs to be capable of expressing abstract thoughts or faraway objects to qualify as a language, then this certainly wouldn't qualify as a language.

3 isn't true. My example sentence was about moving an object, and after saying, "defining thing oneplus" while shuffling to the left, and "defining thing oneplus oneplus" while non-verbally indicating the listener, emphatically saying, "thing oneplus thing oneplus oneplus" would mean "you should shuffle to the left."

User avatar
Iulus Cofield
WINNING
Posts: 2917
Joined: Wed Apr 07, 2010 9:31 am UTC

Re: Mimimum number of words for a language

Postby Iulus Cofield » Fri Jun 29, 2012 10:22 am UTC

I'm not sure what information "defining" adds at all that is unclear from the non-verbal communication. I also don't think "thing" has much utility either. What is the difference between "thing oneplus" and just "oneplus" when compensatory miming is already necessary to establish what thing is? How much of the sentence "lift the set of dumbells I pointed to earlier!" is actually transmitted by "thing oneplus oneplus thing oneplus!" and how much is inferred by miming and context? Can every word be replaced with "ook" and still be equally understood?


Return to “Language/Linguistics”

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 8 guests