The languages I am thinking of are Vietnamese and Tibetan, but perhaps there are others. And I know that technically these two are classified on the opposite of the spectrum (analytic vs. agglutinative), but at least the romanization of both creates very small words of basically 1 syllable each. Chinese may be like this too.

In that sense, how do native speakers conceptualize of these "units"? Are they just syllables, just words, just morphemes, just something else? Do they all have "meaning" by themselves, or only meaning when combined? Do they think of them as "separated" or as part of a longer "concept"? I'm not talking how a linguist would think of them, but how does a native speaker think of them?

I am wondering because I know the definition of "word" is vague and almost impossible to define, yet is familiar in English (and the more and more I think of it, maybe word only is definable in English). So I am wondering what these languages with such short/primitive units think about when conceptualizing them. Are they thinking of words, or something else?

I have the same question for agglutinative languages with extremely long sentence-words, but I will separate that into a separate question so not too many questions in a single question.

1 Answer 1


From a Thai/Lao perspective (and Chinese is similar), each syllable is ordinarily spoken/thought of as a "word," but if one is sitting in a language class and addressing it in grammatical terms, there is a separate word that can be used to mean "syllable" (a word that is seldom used, and not likely to be invoked outside of a language class).

However, it should be understood that in these Asian languages a syllable is rarely without a meaning/signification on its own merits. When combined with another syllable, the meaning can dramatically shift.

Two examples:

รถ (rot) = "vehicle"
ไฟ (fai) = "fire"
รถไฟ (rotfai) = "train" ("fire car")

เป็น (bpen) = "is"
ไป (bpai) = "go"
ไม่ (mai) = "not"
ได้ (dai) = "can"
เป็นไปไม่ได้ (bpenbpaimaidai) = "impossible"

It is a rare syllable that does not have some inherent meaning all by itself, so it is easy to see why native speakers of these languages rarely think of "syllables" and generally consider them as "words."

Because no word spaces are used to delimit words, the concept of "word" is made the more fuzzy. Furthermore, the reader must decipher the written text to determine where a word actually starts and ends. In many cases, separation of syllables versus lumping them into a single word can change the grammatical function, similar to what we see in English between "any one" and "anyone", where their grammatical function is quite different and the two are not interchangeable. Due to the lack of word spacing, these grammatical possibilities not infrequently result in ambiguities.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.