Martinet's "double articulation of language": With phonemes we build morphemes, and with morphemes, words. I'd like to get a sense of how productive are these combinations: With only a few phonemes we can build more than X morphemes, and with those people have built more than Y words.

It's easy to count phonemes, and languages seem to range from ~13 to ~112. "Words" (lexemes) are fuzzy things, but we can get an easy rough estimate from dictionaries (more than 150k in the OED). So from the first level to the third we jump 3 to 4 orders of magnitude. But what about morphemes? What's a typical number of morphemes in a speaker's lexicon? (I'm not sure if we can use Chinese characters as a good representation of the set of morphemes, but if so it would suggest the low ten-thousands…)

  • And this is a much better question than asking how many "words" a language has, because different languages have different morphosyntactic strategies.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 3:39
  • actually, it's quite hard to count phonemes, since rarely do two analyses of a given language ever agree on what is a phoneme and what is an allophone. Y R Chao's 1934 piece "The non-uniqueness of phonemic solutions of phonetic systems" is the classic here.
    – flow
    Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 10:50
  • @flow But at least it's comparatively easier to estimate the order of magnitude (I doubt anyone would propose 1000 phonemes for English). Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 15:23

1 Answer 1


The definition of a morpheme is that it is the smallest meaningful unit of language. Morphemes do constitute words but they also include root words. Therefore there's no point in trying to enumerate them in a single language let alone across languages.

You could enumerate things like inflectional or derivational morphemes which would are always very limited inventories but that would not really help you.

The point of the double articulation thesis is that you have a system of articulation meaning (morphemes, words, sentences, texts) that is built upon a system of articulation without meaning (phonemes, syllables, etc.). It is not intended to support a separate thesis about the productivity of language associated with Chomsky.

The thing to remember is that although strictly speaking morphemes are built out of phonemes, phonemes actually don't combine into morphemes. They combine into syllables which do not have a straightforward relationship with morphemes (a morpheme can consist of two syllables, e.g. 'simple' but one syllable can also represent two morphemes, e.g. 'runs'). Syllables then combine into metric/intonational units which again do not always map straightforwardly onto words, phrases, clauses and sentences.

  • 1
    I don't see how enumerating morphemes is pointless. I believe the literature calls the process "measuring a speaker's working vocabulary". Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 22:04

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