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Which are better at Word Formation?

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Senior Member
Hong Kong
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 Message 1 of 7
31 December 2015 at 3:14pm | IP Logged 
What languages allow you to do more with less vocabulary? What languages make extensive use of compounding and have a highly developed morphological system?

Regarding more commonly taught languages, English is certainly less powerful, while Esperanto and Chinese are on the other end of the spectrum. But what about the others?

If there have been discussions or papers about this topic, please refer me to them. If not, could you share your hyperpolyglot insight? Thanks a lot.

Edit 1:
The question put more clearly: Is there any list of morpheme per word ratios of languages?

Edited by Paco on 03 January 2016 at 10:49am

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Senior Member
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 Message 2 of 7
31 December 2015 at 9:14pm | IP Logged 
It's the natural logic of agglutinative languages which have relatively less stem/root
count than their non-agglutinative counterparts but contrarily which enjoy richness of
suffix. I don't consider it as a matter of being powerful, it's more of a way to cope
with the need of expression.
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 Message 3 of 7
02 January 2016 at 2:17am | IP Logged 
Languages with noun incorporation are probably what you're looking for. It's mostly
polysynthetic languages that have this feature. Basically the noun (or adjective or verb or
whatever, but usually noun) becomes part of the verb to form one word. There are different
possible levels of incorporation, but with a highly incorporating language like Mohawk, you
can form an entire sentence with a single word. One word like he-had-deer-killed means he
killed a deer. English has weak incorporation, like breastfeed.

It's found in a lot of the American Indian languages and in some of the families in Australia
and Papua New Guinea (I think...) among other places.

Marianne Mithun and Mark Baker both wrote a lot about it if you want to read academic papers.
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Senior Member
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 Message 4 of 7
02 January 2016 at 3:42pm | IP Logged 
Thanks you. It seems I have not raised the question intended, but nonetheless got answers for an intriguing one - to me at least.

The question I originally intended to ask may be something like this: Which languages has a smaller inventory of morphemes?

Languages do not usually differ in their power to express ideas, but some do so with less morphemes, while others employ more. For example, English often uses words of different etymologies to convey formality when it is sometimes just a difference in inflection in Japanese. Another example is that English uses such different words as (the classic example, sometimes humiliating) shrimp, prawn, and lobster when Chinese only says small shrimps, big shrimps, and dragon-shrimps. One more example is cow, beef, and bovine, versus just cow whatsoever in Chinese.
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 Message 5 of 7
02 January 2016 at 4:49pm | IP Logged

"In linguistic typology, a synthetic language is a language with a high morpheme-per-word ratio, as opposed to a low morpheme-per-word ratio in what is described as an analytic language."

You are wrong saying that Chinese is on the other end of the spectrum, because - quite on the contrary - Chinese has one of the lowest morpheme-per-word ratios there is.

From what I remember, Chinese had a 1.01 ratio [the lowest possible being, of course, a 1.0], English a 1.27, whereas Polish had something like a 2.x or more, for comparison. Don't quote me on the last number though, I had this lecture at the university some 9 years ago ;)

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 Message 6 of 7
03 January 2016 at 1:29am | IP Logged 
I've lurked this forum for so long, and finally I have something to say.

Derian makes a good point about inflectional morphology, but I think the OP is more interested in derivational
morphology. I don't have enough knowledge of any Chinese language to say for sure, but it does seem they make
extensive use of compound words, although on the other hand they might just have been collocations.

I think the OP is looking for agglutinating languages like Turkish or Hungarian, which make extensive use of derivational
morphology, ending up with vocabularies that are just as extensive yet made of relatively few roots compared with
languages that make less use of derivational morphology, or as the OP said, use entirely different words for different

Japanese has prominent agglutinating inflectional and derivational morphology, but in my experience the derivational
morphology is comparable to English in productivity.
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Senior Member
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 Message 7 of 7
03 January 2016 at 3:26am | IP Logged 
Dear Derian,

O! I can't resist, for the numbers I desire! If you insist, please decide kindly between the lives of yours and the lecturer's. If nothing else, it'll feed my curiosity! I have found a few tables and combined them together below, though I hope I will be able to locate better, more modern ones, if they exist; especially those after the boom of computational linguistics. I am sorry that I did not include your data because they are 9 years old; no, age is not a problem, but your English ratio differs quite a lot from other tables I found. Nonetheless, your Polish ratio seems to agree with the combined table. I wonder which one has a lower ratio, Vietnamese or Chinese, and I believe you are right, that Chinese has one of the lowest morpheme-per-word ratios, which means I was right, too (I am sorry; I find the first post ambiguous and confusing too!).

However, I was wrong that the ratios alone would appease my appetite. A low morpheme-per-word ratio can imply either of the followings: 1) a language makes extensive use of compounding and/or have a highly developed morphological system, or 2) a language has as many morphemes as it has words, and it indeed has lots of both of them. I would attribute my surprise at English having such a low ratio to the fact that I did not realise the possibility of (2) when I started the thread; and I would claim, by intuition, that Chinese is a case of (1).

The combined table of ratios of morphemes per word:

West Greenlandic 3.72
Sanskrit _______2.59
Swahili ________2.55
written Turkish __2.33
Yakut _________2.17
Old English _____2.12
Lezgian ________1.92
German _______1.92
Greek _________1.82
spoken Turkish __1.75
Modern English __1.68
Persian ________1.52
Vietnamese _____1.06

Understanding Morphology, pp. 6 (by Martin Haspelmath & Andrea Sims)
Wikipedia - Agglutination
Greenberg, Joseph. (1960) A Quantitative Approach to the Morphological Typology of Language. International Journal of American Linguistics, 26, pp. 178-194.

There are other interesting ratios in Greenberg's paper as well, such as the ratios of agglutination, prefixing, suffixing, gross inflection, and pure inflection.

Edited by Paco on 03 January 2016 at 10:50am

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