I'm looking for words that are monomorphemic in English – preferably basic words describing things in nature such as star, water, tree, grass, etc. – but polymorphemic in other languages. It would be great if you could then also name the individual morphemes of the words.

Why am I interested in this? I'm currently writing a paper in which I want to criticize Jerry Fodor's thesis that there is a "language of thought" (call it "Mentalese") that is universal to all humans and prior to all public languages. He upholds a kind of linguistic atomism in which the meaning of a phrase (or in this case, a thought) is derived from the meaning of its basic constituents (in this case, its basic concepts). Fodor argues that basic concepts are those concepts that are expressed by monomorphemic names for individuals and kinds (like the above examples). He exclusively uses English as an example, however.

If I can provide some examples of words that would be monomorphemic in English and thus very good candidates for being basic concepts, but are formed out of multiple morphemes in other languages, then I can argue that Fodor either cannot say anything substantial on what basic conepts are, or that he must admit that the language we speak shapes the way we think, a thesis he admantly rejects.

Since I only know German and English, I would be very thankful for examples.

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    You can also look for words that are polymorphemic in English but monomorphemic in other languages. The demonstration will be more rigorous showing some arbitrary in the word formation as it was stated by Saussure.
    – amegnunsen
    Commented Jan 4, 2019 at 15:00
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    Basic colour is a great indicator for this - "pink" is monomorphemic in English, but a derivative of powder "粉" and red "紅" in Chinese. Conversely, "azzurro" in Italian would be "sky blue" in English (although azure is possible).
    – Michaelyus
    Commented Jan 4, 2019 at 15:51
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    What about words that are etymologically polymorphic, but now appear in monomorphic form? For instance, "phone" is derived from "telephone", "piano" is derived from "pianoforte", etc. Commented Jan 4, 2019 at 19:44
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    Are you familiar with the Language of Space? It seems closely related to what you describe as Fodor's theory, but has much more fundamental (seemingly universal) building blocks than the complex examples you provide.
    – Wildcard
    Commented Jan 4, 2019 at 23:26
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    Maybe more important than monomorphemic:polymorphemic lack of 1:1ness, there are also the semantic nuances. So for example in US English, rabbit is for almost every case where the rest of the world might use hare, and hare is almost archaic. There are millions of those. Commented Jan 5, 2019 at 10:32

4 Answers 4


As I understand your interest, you don't need the relationship to be English (monomorphemic) to Other (polymorphemic), it works just as well if you have English being the polymorphemic example and Other being the monomorphemic example. North Saami [gabba] is "all-white reindeer" – there are other words for various coloring, sexes and ages of reindeer, also numerous terms describing states of snow. This is described in a paper "Diversity in Saami terminology for reindeer, snow, and ice" by Ole H. Magga which used to be out there in the wild but is now behind the paywall. He also jievja 'light, nearly white', čuoivvat 'yellowish grey', but also čáhhpat 'black', which is actually polymorphemic (the root "black" is /čáhhpV/ – you would need to investigate proposed examples, but gabba, jievja, čuoivvat are good enough).

So unless we declare that English is The Basic Language, "all-white reindeer" is a basic concept in human language which then implies, given Fodor's general theory, that humans have genetic knowledge that there are reindeer.


An example that springs to mind: English "love" vs. Danish "kærlighed", which is actually tri-morphemic, consisting of "kær" (dear), "-lig" (derivational morpheme creating adjectives, thus "kærlig" = "loving") and "-hed" (derivational morpheme creating nouns from adjectives, like English "-ness").


One easy source for this is words that used to be polymorphemic, but fossilized by the time they reached English.

For example, "desire", "depend", "destroy", "descend", and "delete" are irreducible in English: there are no verbs *sire, *pend, *stroy, *scend, and *lete. However, in Latin, de- was a productive derivational prefix meaning "down, from, away", and all those words can be analyzed further: the base morphemes mean "star", "hang", "build", "climb", and "smear", respectively. All of these came from Latin through Romance to French and then to English, and by the time they reached English their original derivation was lost.

Many recent loanwords are the same way, though those don't illustrate your point as well. For example, "Inuit" and "Bantu" both mean "the people", and can be decomposed into "person" plus a plural marker (inuk + -it and ba- + ntu).

P.S. Well, okay, "sire" is an English verb, but it's unrelated. The point stands.

EDIT: It seems there are also archaic verbs "pend" and "scend"; however, I've never heard a native speaker use them.

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    dictionary.com/browse/pend Commented Jan 4, 2019 at 19:41
  • en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/scend
    – obscurans
    Commented Jan 5, 2019 at 4:37
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    As a native English speaker, I use "pend" on a weekly basis (if not even more frequently) at work, to describe the act of postponing a task until a prerequisite has been completed: e.g "we will pend Task A until next week, so that Test B can be run first". This reflects that Task A depends on Test B being completed. We also make regular use of the related term "pending" Commented Jan 5, 2019 at 23:19

I see from earlier answers that you're after words of the same meaning. It wasn't clear to me from the OP that that's how the English and other words are to be related.

The German word for "glove" is "Handschuh".

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