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I'm looking for a name for the phenomenon whereby some languages like to put chains of words together that mean the same thing, while others don't - just some terminology that would help me search for relevant material.

In English for example, sports athlete and work colleague sound wrong to me (although I realise colleague doesn't always mean someone you work with), as do constructions like the reason is because or the price is expensive or it doesn't weigh that heavy. I can see that these are not exactly the same, but there is a family resemblance IMO.

My language of interest (Thai) seems to like to do this kind of thing (e.g. because I X, I therefore Y or in my opinion, I think X) so I am trying to get a better handle on it.

In light of the answer and comments, it's clear that pleonasm is a relevant term. I agree it doesn’t follow from the fact that word meant superfluous in ancient Greek that it means the same in modern English, but even so, if the Wikipedia page is anything to go by, the basic idea is that we taking a sentence that is already complete and adding something that doesn’t really belong. Most of the Wikipedia article therefore looks at cases where this can be justified by special pleading.

I think that the basic difference I have been reaching for could be that, whereas most of the English examples are cases of duplicating something that is already present, the Thai examples are cases of expressing something that would otherwise have been implied. That does not involve duplication, so wouldn't it be appropriate to distinguish the two types of case, and maybe reserve pleonasm for the first type?

Also, no one seems to have any trouble with oak tree, so why is tuna fish discussed so much? Is the difference to do with the meaning of the modifier? Maybe in the first example, oak means (of a tree or its wood) of the oak variety, whereas in the second, tuna means a fish of the tuna variety. It could be that Thai modifiers tend to be more like our oak than our tuna. I don't know whether there's any established terminology that captures this difference.

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    People do say "work colleague" in English, and it doesn't sound odd to me like some of your other examples. – abarnert Jan 17 at 7:12
  • My impression is that it was never said in the UK until maybe 20 years ago, and that I was far from being the only one who thought it sounded ridiculous when it first came into vogue. I've become desensititsed now but still can't say it myself. – Minty Jan 18 at 4:53
  • For your last question, why "tuna fish vs. tuna" is discussed so much more than "oak tree vs. oak", I suspect that's just a matter of the way linguistics gets done in general. The examples used in the first article to tackle a subject almost always end up being discussed to death in further articles, included in textbooks, etc.—and not necessarily because there's anything particularly salient about those examples. Look at how many times "the cat is on the mat" and "the cat on the mat" are discussed, for example. – abarnert Jan 18 at 20:29
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I think what you're asking for is covered under a cluster of different terms, but mainly pleonasm.

In general, pleonasm is the use of redundant words, and a pleonasm is a phrase or construction that uses redundant words.1

In some specific subcases, tautological is sometimes used instead of pleonastic. For example, using a modifier attributively when the thing being modified already contains the sense of the modifier—as in "sports athlete"—is tautological attribution.

Every language (or dialect, or sociolect; whatever) has specific—and different—constructions where pleonasm adds emphasis or intensity or some other meaningful connotation. For example, in English:

  • The reason Raid's advertisements say "Raid kills bugs dead" instead of just "Raid kills bugs" is that the pleonastic resultative construction "kills… dead" connotes more intensity.
  • Multiple negation, like "There ain't nothing wrong here", connotes intensified negation in any English dialect that allows it.
  • I don't know if this has a name, but compare "The store is located at 123 Main St." to "The store is at 123 Main St." Adding the pleonastic adjective/participle "located" strengthens the adjective's usual connotation, implying in this case that the location is more precise.
  • Tautological attribution, like "sports athlete", connotes nothing in English. Why? It's not logically substantially different from the resultative case above; it's just the way English happens to be.

There are also specific cliches or idioms that are pleonastic. For example, in English, even though the construction of tautological attribution is meaningless, many specific cases of it are not:

  • "Tuna fish" is (at least to Americans) the same thing as "tuna"—except that it implies the cheap stuff in a can, not the stuff they sear at a fancy restaurant. This doesn't work for "trout fish".
  • "Safe haven" is the same thing as "haven"—except that it implies something rich people, companies, or countries use to shelter assets, not, say, refugees. This doesn't work for "safe sanctuary".
  • "Null and void" is the same as "void"—except in legal jargon, there's case law established around "null and void", and nobody wants to write the first contract that tests whether that case law applies to "void".

Using a pleonasm when the construction has no inherent connotation and the words don't form a cliche usually sounds redundant. A good enough writer/rhetoricist/whatever can sometimes push a new connotation (think of Shakespeare's famous "most unkindest cut of all"). And tolerance for meaningless pleonasm in song lyrics is much higher than in rhetoric. But in general, meaningless pleonasm often sounds not just pointless, but weird.

I think that's the effect you're asking about. And the reason the same sentences in Thai sound fine is that Thai presumably has a different set of meaningful pleonastic constructions from English.


In the comments, you raised the question of whether these really are cases of pleonasm. Well, it's really a matter of definition. We've got these things that at first glance appear redundant and meaningless, but when you look more carefully, language finds meaningful uses for them. Do we want to say that really isn't pleonastic, because there really isn't any redundancy?

It's really a matter of definition. And this isn't a case where we've got an everyday meaning of the word. Nobody but linguists and lexicologists ever says "pleonasm", and anyone else who hears it has to look it up to know what it means. And when they look it up, they're going to see a definition that matches the use of "tuna fish" and "kills… dead" in English (usually even giving "tuna fish" as the example). So, why shouldn't that be the definition?

It's true that the literal meaning of the ancient Greek word "pleonasmós" is "something superfluous", and this doesn't quite fit. But so what? People were already using the word 1500 years ago (obviously in Latin, not English) to mean "effective use of redundancy to score rhetorical points". We're not speaking ancient Greek.


1. But be careful. In formal syntax theory, pleonasm has a slightly different meaning. For example, in the sentence "It's raining", the word "it" is required by English, so it's not at all pleonastic in the ordinary sense—but it's not required by "universal grammar", or by the general need to map form to meaning, so it is pleonastic in the syntactic-theory sense.

  • Thanks - that is a great way in and there is quite a long wiki page on pleonasm. It's a bit of a misnomer if you ask me because the whole point is that the additional words are not redundant - they emphasise or amplify or change the scope in some way. It's a bit like the complaint that it ain't nothing is a double negative - obviously it's not a double negative in dialects that permit it - it is more a case of agreement. Similar logic underlies it weighs heavy and because I saw him sitting on his own, so I went over (translation). Some languages seem to be oriented towards the... – Minty Jan 18 at 4:59
  • ... agreement model and some (like English) prefer to say things once and find it strange if you say them twice. I am not sure there is much difference between the resultative and attributive cases myself. I think we did have an ad that said Domestos kills germs... dead - but I think we also had one about sports athletes and Lucozade and one about positive mental attitude. Also, isn't work colleagues attributive? Legal contexts are different as you say because there is always the possibility of one term being interpreted as having a different scope from the other. – Minty Jan 18 at 5:06
  • @Minty I don't think it's really true that English prefers to say thing once. The high-status dialects avoid repetition because of prescriptively-driven mistaken appeals to logic, but other dialects don't. That's exactly why "It ain't nothing" is invalid in standard (British or American) English, but means "it's really nothing" in almost every other dialect (and doesn't mean "it is something" in any dialect, because the silly "double negative" rule imagined by schoolteachers is not a rule of any human language). – abarnert Jan 18 at 5:10
  • @Minty What I think is true is that different languages prefer different kinds of repetition. Ultimately, larger constructions are the same kinds of mental things as words and idioms, and that's what each language is made up of. English includes the pleonastic resultative as a meaningful construction; most other languages don't. (English uses the hell out of resultatives in general…) But English is missing various other redundancy-as-intensifier constructions that, say, Thai has. – abarnert Jan 18 at 5:13
  • Safe haven sounds OK to me but then haven can just mean harbour so it is a way of forcing the place of safety interpretation. Tuna fish is the same in the UK and this makes me think of oak tree, ash tree, beech tree etc. Is this rendudancy or is it because ash can also be a type of timber (lumber). So this has been a thought provoking answer but I think the question is whether something is pleonatistic at all, and if not, why not. There is some more general difference that explains this, I think. Possibly there are differences between speakers too... – Minty Jan 18 at 5:14
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The edited question raises some further points that I think can only be covered by putting forth a speculative theory of how English speakers understand tautological attribution, which doesn't really fit into my already-too-long initial answer, so I'm going to do that here. I have little theoretical justification and no empirical justification for this theory; it's more just to show how you could explain these facts.

Is there a salient difference between "tuna fish" and "oak tree"?

Let's compare them.

  • "Tuna" is a kind of fish or fish meat; "oak" is a kind of tree or tree wood. Not much difference there.
  • Both "tuna" and "oak" can be used in ways that feel like noun compounding: "tuna melt", "oak grove".
  • Both can be used in ways that feel more like adjective attribution, but with the sense of "tuna-like" and "oak-like": "tuna flavor", "oak finish".
  • Only "oak" seems to have uses that feel adjective-y, while also using the "of oak" rather than "oak-like" sense. In fact, even "oak finish" can mean "a finish that's oak-colored because it's made of oak wood".

So, what difference could this make?

Well, we seem to be happier to extend "X tree" to new trees a lot more than "X fish" to new fish. If you've never heard "beechnut tree" or "trout fish" before, I suspect you'd accept the former while marking the latter as weird. This is something that could be tested by gathering a bunch of speakers and a bunch of examples—you could even do psycholinguistic surprise-measure tests. Of course I haven't done any such tests, but let's assume that it's true.

So, what could explain it?

Let's start with Peter Culicover's Construction Grammar-style view of the lexicon and semantic processing, as described in the books ''Simpler Syntax'' and ''Grammar and Complexity''.

When you hear "oak tree", the syntax-semantic interface ends up activating the generic attribution construction in the lexicon, which applies "oak" to "tree", and flags it as redundant. But, at the same time, "oak tree", as a cliche, has its own node in the lexicon, which isn't flagged as redundant, and which overrides the generic construction. So, you understand it as a perfectly normal bit of English, and don't notice any redundancy (unless you think about the words consciously).

What happens when you hear "beechnut tree"? The same generic attribution construction activates the same way. There is no "beechnut tree" cliche to override it. But memory isn't a hash-table-style exact associative lookup, it works by analogy. And "beechnut tree" is similar to "oak tree" and "ash tree" and a bunch of other things, similar enough to activate them to some tree.

If the total activation of this cluster is strong enough, your brain sees "beechnut tree" as something that should have an analogous node: this is an English cliche that you just didn't know. If it isn't, as with "trout fish", the generic construction takes effect, and you get a "redundancy asterisk" in your conscious understanding of the phrase.

So, why would this happen for "beechnut tree", but not for "trout fish"? The difference isn't really a rule, it's the result of a process similar to the kinds of determinations that a multi-level neural network makes.1 So, factors like how "nice" of a pleonasm "oak tree" is, how "adjective-y" the "beechnut" node is, how many "X tree" cliches you have stored, how often you hear them, etc. all come into play in an analog computation that either does or doesn't reach a sufficient threshhold.

Over time, the clusters of related cliches that languages grow will be partly just a matter of chance, and partly a matter of non-linguistic factors (do English speakers have reason to talk about kinds of trees more often than kinds of fish?), but also partly determined by linguistic factors—the fact that "oak" can be used adjectivishly more easily than "tuna" only matters because English has an adjective+noun construction that's more productive than noun+noun.

And you'd expect both the nonlinguistic cultural factors and the linguistic factors to be different for Thai speakers than for English speakers.

Unfortunately, I know little about Thai, but let's compare Japanese and Spanish to English.

In Japanese, nouns being used as modifiers need a special particle—but it's a fully productive construction. Plus, many words that tend to be adjectives in other languages are nouns in Japanese, even ones rarely used outside the modifier construction. So, the fact that "oak" is sort of adjectivish shouldn't matter at all, and all tautological attribution cliches should be very "nice", so it should be much easier for the pattern to spread to new idioms. It might even generalize to the level where we'd call it a semi-regular construction, or even to a productive one that can be applied anywhere.

In Spanish, on the other hand, you can't modify nouns with nouns except for a very restricted, non-productive set. Instead, you're usually forced to use prepositional constructions (like "the fish of the tuna" as opposed to "the tuna fish"). Those are less likely to be stored as idioms, so you'd expect Spanish to have fewer "tuna fish"-style cases, and to be much more resistant to forming new ones.

Again, I haven't done any research to see whether these expectations are true, but let's pretend I did, and they are. So then, you could look at Thai and make some predictions about how freely it accepts "tuna fish" style pleonasms, and see if those predictions are right. You could then apply similar reasoning to other pleonastic constructions. If it all works out, instead of a vague sense that "Thai seems to allow more redundancy than English", you'd have a catalog of the kinds of pleonasm that Thai and English each tend to allow, and how freely each language allows them.

But again, I haven't done all that work. All I can do is show that it makes sense for English and Thai to differ in the kinds of pleonasm they allow and how freely they allow them, for (at least partly) linguistic reasons. And that it's at least plausible that the contrasts you were asking about are real, and can be explained, but don't have a single simple explanation.


1. Of course at the bottom level, your brain is such a neural network. But this is probably a few levels higher than that, and we manifestly do have rule-like as well as network-like reasoning at that level. In particular, the syntax-semantic interface that gives us "modifier + modificand" and the semantic processor that therefore applies the modifier to the modificand are rule-like.

  • I appreciate the thought-provoking answer. I think it may be simpler than that though. There’s no a priori reason why the name of a tree has to include the concept ‘tree’, as opposed to being the name of a variety which happens to be a variety of trees, and the same applies to the name of a fish. In practice though we tie ourselves up in knots if we try to include the concept ‘tree’ in ‘oak’, because we can’t then say ‘oak table’ - whereas that doesn’t apply to ‘tuna’, because we can still say ‘tuna sandwich’. – Minty Jan 23 at 9:32
  • On that basis you would expect the names of varieties of fruit and nuts to behave like the names of varieties of fish, which predicts that you can drop the tree in oak tree but not so much in apple tree or beechnut tree. In general the name of a variety of X may or may not include the concept X, and whether it does or not will depend on practical and historical considerations. If it does not, the full form won’t be flagged as pleonasm in the first place and there is no need to check for/assume there must be a cliche. – Minty Jan 23 at 9:32
  • I was able to check with a native speaker who says that you can’t really drop ‘fish’ in Thai - you have to say ‘salmon fish’, ‘tuna fish’ etc. You can contrive a context where you can drop it because you are clearly talking about fish, but it feels as though it is implied (I’m told), rather than not being there at all. I think the difference is semantic. In Thai salmon fish means ‘a fish of the salmon variety’, whereas in English it means ‘a fish of the salmon variety fish’, so the Thai is not really pleonastic, and it is only the translation that makes it seem that way. – Minty Jan 23 at 9:33
  • There is a definite difference for me between using a word that belongs in the sentence but can optionally be left implied, and true duplication. For example, although I gave it him on Friday is fine for me, adding the to is not duplication – in a sense it was there all along. In contrast, in I gave him a present, there is no need to imply to because it is encoded by the word order, so adding it really is duplication and I gave to him a present sounds stilted at best. – Minty Jan 23 at 9:34
  • I think the difference between the languages is that Thai lets you drop things more often, so as a learner you come across incomplete forms a lot, and have no way of knowing they are incomplete. When you then come across the corresponding complete form, it's bound to feel like pleonasm – but it isn’t really, it just means that you had read more meaning into individual elements than was really there, because you didn’t realise that some words had been left out. – Minty Jan 23 at 9:37

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