What is a word?

The dictionary definition of a word is:

one of the units of speech or writing that native speakers of a language usually regard as the smallest isolable meaningful element of the language.

In most written languages, words are separated by spaces so it’s easy to see where each word begins and ends. In spoken language however, words are uttered in a more or less continuous stream and we mentally insert the gaps between the words. If you listen to an unfamiliar language, you are probably unable to separate the sounds you hear into individual words. As you learn a language your ability to ‘hear’ to individual words in speech gradually improves.

I think that written language shapes our perceptions of spoken language, at least to some extent. In some languages, such as German and Dutch, words are often glued together to make long compound words, e.g. Donaudamfschifffahrtskapitaen. If you speak on of these languages but can’t read or write it, you may perceive such compounds as separate words. In other languages, such as Chinese and Vietnamese, every syllable is written separately, which gives you the impression that such languages are monosyllabic, when in fact they do have many multi-syllable words.

This entry was posted in Language, Writing.

6 Responses to What is a word?

  1. Mike says:

    I’ve noticed that when Japanese is written (especially, it seems, when written vertically), a single word can spill over onto the next line without any sort of indication that it continues on the next line (unlike in English, in which a hypen is used to show that part of the current word is written on the following line). This sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish where a word actually ends, especially if it is a long compound word made up of several kanji. This problem is absent from the spoken language, though.

  2. Polly says:

    My understanding of what a word is has changed as I’ve grown in my understanding of what language is and isn’t. I’ve found in trying to speak another language that knowing the words of the language and actually communicating in that language are often two totally separate things! I used to view language as a collection of vocabulary arranged by the rules of grammar. But, in reality, the majority of spoken language (any language) is so thorougly laced with idiomatic expressions and non-literal constructions that simply learning the verbs and nouns gets you only to the level of mastery of a child. Even in the preceding sentences I used the word “used” as a past tense adverbial time modifier (something like that), and not as the past tense of the verb “to use.” Other examples: “I HAVE to go”, “I am GOING to bake a cake”, (These constructions are probably the result of French conquest 1,000 years ago)… “I’m TAKING a nap” Really? Where are you going with it? Phrases and idiomatic expression are words in the sense that they are indivisible and can’t be broken down without losing their meaning.

  3. Weili says:

    Isn’t morpheme considered the smallest unit of a language?



    “A meaningful linguistic unit consisting of a word, such as man, or a word element, such as -ed in walked, that cannot be divided into smaller meaningful parts.”

    In any case, I personally find the attempt to fit East Asian languages into European standards awkward at best. I can’t speak for other East Asian languages but in Chinese, we have different units for languages, namely 字 zi (character) and 词 ci (compound word). Many Westerners confused zi for word, but that is not accurate. Although a zi can definitely be a word, but not all Chinese words are a single zi, many that are bi- and multisyllabic are what we call ci. Many of these bi- and multisyllabic words simply can’t be broken down and still have the same meaning. For example, the Chinese word for computer is 电脑 diannao in Taiwan or 计算机 jisuanji in mainland China, the former meaning literally “electronic brain” while the latter meaning literally “calculating machine”.

  4. Simon says:

    Weili – for linguists, morphemes are indeed the smallest unit of a language. However, non-linguists generally think of words as being the smallest units.

    In many languages, words change to indicate such things as tense, person, number, etc. For example, the English verb “to walk” changes to walks in the third person singluar (he/she/it walks), walked in the simple past tense (I/you walked), and walking in continuous tenses (I am/was walking). Adding an s to the end of a word indicates number, i.e. plural: walks. Each of these words are considered variants of walk. There are relatively few such endings in English, but in other languages there are far more.

    One of the things I like about Chinese is that words don’t change as they do in many other languages. So you don’t have to learn lots of variant forms of verbs and few nouns have plural forms.

  5. Lev says:

    > I think that written language shapes our perceptions of spoken language, at least to some extent.

    There is evidence on that:
    In Russian, a preposition can consist of a single consonant, e.g., “v”. A survey has shown that preschool children don’t consider such a preposition a word, but rather a part of the following word.

  6. Pavel says:

    Not exactly, many languages mark word boundaries in some way. (stress)

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