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All languages in the world that I know of use words with more than one syllable. Are there any where all words have strictly one syllable? That would mean that there is just one vocal cluster per word, be it a single vowel (short or long) or a diphthong.

I have read that Chinese or Vietnamese has polysyllabic words even though morphemes are monosyllabic. That would be the closest I have found. Are there any real monosyllabic languages out there?

As @leoboiko explains below, the number of possible syllables would need to be quite high to support a sizeable vocabulary. But it is not unfeasible to combine e.g. 30 consonants 'C' with 9 vowels 'V' with 5 semi-consonants S, to yield 30 x 5 x 9 x 5 x 30 ~ 200k possible combinations with the structure CSVSC. Adding some tones like in SE languages would give us even more possibilities. The question is, does this happen in practice?

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The official Chinese language isn't "supposed to" be monosyllabic, at all. That's a misconception. Chinese languages are polysyllabic and that's it, including the putonghua standard (the pīnyīn orthographic standard, for example, includes rules to space the letters by polysyllabic words).

The confusion arises because Chinese morphemes are usually monosyllabic, so that most (not all!) syllables are also morphemes (source: Packard, The Morphology of Chinese). This feature is reflected in the traditional writing system, which is syllabic, and thus lends an impression of "monosyllabism". But morphemes are not words, and syllables being morphemes isn't the same as the language being monosyllabic.

In the past, some people (Karlgren) have argued that Chinese used to be monosyllabic. According to this old hypothesis, the syllables used to be more complex, and were used as independent words; as the phonetic system simplified, they supposedly became too similar to one another, so that new, polysyllabic words had to be coined. However, in reality polysyllabic words occur throughout the historical record; they're not new at all (see: Mair, Buddhism and the Rise of the Written Vernacular in East Asia, & forthcoming; and Dong, The Prosody and Morphology of Elastic Words in Chinese).

It's not hard to see why languages aren't monosyllabic. English has well over 100,000 words; so does my copy of the CEDICT Chinese dictionary. Even with tones and unusually complex syllables, the number of possible syllables hardly reaches the low-tens of thousands. So a language that was monosyllabic would have to deal with an unusually restricted vocabulary—and the words would sound confusingly similar to one another, to boot.

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  • Chinese has been put to rest; but what about Vietnamese? – user6726 Aug 14 '17 at 15:42
  • I'm not qualified to answer about Viet. The romanization seems to space by syllables; but, given the existence of specialized word segmentation tools – with an accuracy of 98%, suggesting that word segmentation isn't trivial even with word lists – I'm going to guess that words are bigger than syllables, too (that is, the entries in that list probably aren't just sequences of words, but unitary words including bound morphemes). – melissa_boiko Aug 14 '17 at 15:57
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    Did Karlgren ever actually argue that Chinese used to be entirely monosyllabic? It is certainly true that it used to be more monosyllabic than it is now; that is, the ratio of polysyllabics to monosyllabics has risen. And of course, the trouble with defining whether a language is monosyllabic or not is the ever-present niggle of what constitutes a word. Even modern Mandarin is still largely monosyllabic in the sense that the vast majority of morphemes are words; most polysyllabic words are just compounds and thus countable as separate words. Otherwise, if compounds are counted as → – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 14 '17 at 17:40
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    @JanusBahsJacquet: See Dong (above) for argument/data that Middle Chinese, at least, wasn't more monosyllabic than modern Mandarin. Old Chinese perhaps was; but Mair, Kennedy and others have shown that past Sinologists overlooked many poly words in classical sources. This is compounded by the fact that Chinese is "elastic" (see Dong, and also work by Duanmu), and Classical Chinese is maximally "compressed", so one has to know where to look to interpret it, and it may not be very indicative of spoken OC (I understand this is an ongoing argument). – melissa_boiko Aug 14 '17 at 17:56
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    I agree completely that Mandarin is no more monosyllabic than English. The trouble arises when you try to quantify the actual difference between a ‘word’ and a compound. Is 花儿 a word? Definitely. Is it a compound? Hardly. Is 电话 a word? Sure. Is it a compound? I’d say yes. Is 素食主义者 a word? Well… maybe. Or maybe not. Is it a compound? Definitely. Is 中国共产党委员会宣传部 a word? No, that would be stretching it. Is it a compound? Absolutely. The majority of polysyllabics here can be counted as compounds; some also as single words. That is not true of English, which was the difference I was highlighting. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 14 '17 at 18:12
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Vietnamese is monosyllabic, at least according to some teachers of Vietnamese to non-Viet speakers.

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