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I've been reading this article about linguistic idiomaticity, and there's a good research on English idioms and indirect speech, in general.

I've been thinking on different amounts of idiomaticity in various languages. I haven't seen any academic researches that would compare languages side-by-side, but my naive assumption was the following:

Isolating languages have fewer amount of stems (usually limited by phonetics), so they should expose higher amount of idiomaticity.
Synthetic ones naturally have broader morphology, so there should be higher chance finding special words for individual terms, therefore, lower amount of idiomaticity.

There are lots of examples proving this assumption. However, there are exceptions that confuse me:

English: yesterday; it has a complicated etymology, but generally it's a single term nowadays, matches the rule
Ukrainian: вчора - single term, matches the rule
Thai: เมื่อวานนี้, literally at the time + day +this, idiomatic term, matches the rule
Chinese: 昨 - single term, does not match the rule

Another example:

Chinese: 多少, lit. a lot + a few, idiomatic term, matches the rule;
Thai: เท่าไหร่, lit. amount classifier + what - idiomatic term, matches the rule;
Ukrainian: скільки - a single term, matches the rule;
English: "How much" - idiomatic term, does not match the rule

Hence, the question: is there any pattern on how various languages expose idiomaticity and indirection? I'm also wondering if there's any academic research on this matter.

  • I am a little unclear on your question. In the first data set "yester" is a prefix for "day" (evidenced by the word "yesteryear", although the meaning of "yester" is slightly different) and the Thai example appears to be a compound word (i.e. both can be decomposed). Neither the Ukrainian nor the Chinese can be decomposed yet you single out the Chinese as having special status. Am I missing the point? What features I should be looking at? – acattle Aug 1 '12 at 5:17
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    @acattle: "yester-" is not prefix a prefix in the modern English word "yesterday". "Yester" originally meant "yesterday" on its own and is cognate to German "Gestern". "Yesterday" is etymologically composed of two roots rather than of a prefix plus a root, and is now just a single root. "Yesteryear" is a newer blend/portmanteau word based on analysing "yester-" as a prefix. – hippietrail Aug 1 '12 at 9:57
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    @hippietrail Fair enough. I'm still confused but I'll have to just keep watching and see if I can figure it all out from context. – acattle Aug 1 '12 at 12:25
  • @acattle Sorry for my poor wording. I will try to re-phrase my question right away. – bytebuster Aug 1 '12 at 19:08
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    Note that Chinese 昨 actually never occurs alone. The usual word for yesterday is 昨天 (where 天 means 'day'). Cf. 今天 'today' (lit. 'now'+'day') and 昨夜 'last night'. A Chinese friend of mine confirmed my non-native intuition that these are all compositional words. – musicallinguist Aug 2 '12 at 14:12

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