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From what I've read, compounding is one of a number of word-formation processes. By word-formation, I mean "the process of creating new lexemes in a language."

  • One common process is the use of derivational morphemes. So "inform" becomes "information."

  • In modern English, a number of new words are formed by blending. So "smoke" + "fog" = "smog".

  • Forming acronyms has become widespread among modern English speakers, especially those who work in the sciences and in bureaucracies. So "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation" becomes "laser."

  • Back formation involves the analysis of some part of a word as an affix, which is then removed. So "edit" was historically derivedfrom "editor." And, yes, "to las" is a verb meaning "emit coherent light" is a back-formation from "laser."

  • Sometimes, if a language lacks a word or term that a foreign language has, the foreign word or term is borrowed and becomes a loanword. That's why the use of the word "schadenfreude" is no longer for German-speakers alone. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Word_formation

  • Then we have compounding, i.e., combining two or more lexical morphemes into single words.

To my knowledge, such strategies are not used with equal frequency across languages. Languages spoken by isolated communities, like the Sentinalese, are less likely to borrow foreign words for obvious reasons. I find it hard to understand how the languages of preliterate societies would form acronyms. Blends seem to be more common in modern English, particularly in brand names, than they were in nineteenth century English prose. I don't even have a ghost of a guess as to how common back formations are across languages.

So I have to ask: Is compounding universal? If so, is there any data about the frequency with which this strategy is used across languages. Do languages vary significantly when it comes to the percentages of compound words in their lexicons?

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    No actual data here, but as I understand it, Inuit languages (and I imagine also Yupik and Aleutian languages) do not form compounds at all, since each word can have at most one root. They have a lot of suffixes that semantically correspond to roots in other languages (such as -vik/-fik ‘place’), but you can’t combine multiple roots to form a compound the way you can in most languages. There are probably other languages as well that don’t form compounds. Apr 10, 2023 at 0:50
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    Incidentally, some acronym-like abbreviations do exist separate from writing. Chinese (and, due to heavy borrowing, also Korean, Japanese and – I think – Vietnamese) abbreviate long words by a process somewhat like blending, but retaining semantically meaningful entities. For example, the official name 中国共产党[中]央委员会[宣]传[部] Zhōngguó Gòngchǎndǎng [Zhōng]yāng Wěiyuánhuì [Xuān]chuán[bù] (Publicity Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China) is a very long compound and is abbreviated in common speech by only using the bracketed words: 中宣部 Zhōngxuānbù. Apr 10, 2023 at 0:55
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    It is sometimes said that Semitic does not, or only rarely, use compounding. However, there are fixed nominal phrases, typically written separately, so it depends on how you define “word”.
    – Keelan
    Apr 10, 2023 at 5:40
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    @Anixx I’m thinking for example of in Biblical Hebrew, ben mawet ‘son of death’ = ‘dead man’, could be argued to be one, but there are better examples. But like I said, it’s debatable.
    – Keelan
    Apr 10, 2023 at 9:50
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    @Keelan Amharic definitely has compound nouns, of various types. Some reflect the construct state which is only an unproductive relict in Amharic (ቤተ ክርስቲያን bet-ä krəstiyan ‘house-of Christian > church’), but simple N+N compounds exist as well (ፖስታ ቤት posta bet ‘post office’), as well as various other types. Suffixation is generally on the last noun (as definite object: ቤተ ክርስቲያኒቱን bet-ä krəstiyan-it-u-n, ፖስታ ቤቱን posta bet-u-n) as a true compound, though less rigidly so than in English (ፖስታውን ቤት posta-w-ən bet is also possible, though not with construct state compounds). Apr 10, 2023 at 10:44

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This will depend how you define "word", but the process of combining words (expressions with fixed, learned meanings) to create bigger words (expressions with fixed, learned meanings) seems to be universal. This is how idioms form: specific combinations of words take on specific meanings which are different from the sum of their parts.

If you're stricter about your definition of "word" (for example, maybe you say that the parts of a "word" can't be rearranged syntactically), then you'll first have to show that every language has "words" larger than one morpheme! If a language lacks that, then compounding can't exist, by definition.

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    Not sure idioms can really be used as an argument here, since they tend to be sentences (or at least phrases) more than individual words. No one would argue that ‘better a bird in the hand than two in the bush’ is a compound word. I’m also not really sure idioms are relevant at all – most compounds do just equate the sum of their parts, after all (a tennis ball is a ball for tennis, a footprint is a print made by a foot, etc.). Apr 10, 2023 at 1:19
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Seems like there's a fuzzy boundary between idioms and metaphors.
    – Barmar
    Apr 10, 2023 at 14:36
  • Yes those highly isolating languages with no words bigger than a morpheme can't have compounding. I'm thinking of Vietnamese and Keo (Austronesian) in particular, but I suspect there are others. Apr 15, 2023 at 0:42

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