Thursday, September 30, 2004

Words, words, just words

I remember the good ol' days in Ling 101 when we watched this series of videos about language. One of the videos was called "American Tongues", but I don't think the bit I'm thinking of now comes from that particular video. It was a discussion about what a word is - and I remember that the only really convincing - yet unsatisfying - reply was that it was the string that went between two spaces.

I remember also looking in amazement at "words" from agglutinative languages like Chukchi which were, basically, a whole sentence - predicate and arguments all mashed up into one - and thinking to myself, "Why don't they just put spaces in between and split them up into "logical" words?

Well, now I "know" there're more complicated ways of figuring out what a word is - by prosody and minimal units and so on - though I don't think there's 100% agreement on a definition - witness the qualifier "sometimes" repeated in the SIL definition.

But there seems to be something psychologically "real" about the notion of a "word", doesn't there? I mean, would any native Turkish speaker object to writing this word (Cekoslavakyalilastiramadiklarimizdan) as a single string? (Of course, there's ambivalence over some words, especially compound words - should they be written as one word (redbrick), a hyphenated word (in which case does it count as one word or two?) (red-brick), or two words separated by a space (red brick)? But there's probably genuine ambiguity there due to different parses of such words by different native speakers.)

We're so used nowadays to the notion that a word is the thing that goes between the spaces that we still turn to that as the easiest, most accurate and yet most artificial definition of the word "word". This article about the history of punctuation (via BoingBoing) reminded me that once upon a time, words weren't separated by spaces at all. They just ran one into the other. So here's my question: when the practice of inserting spaces between words first came into general use, did people have difficulties with the whole idea? Were there ambiguities about what was to be separated? What sorts of mistakes, if any, did people make? Or are words such psychologically real objects that they wouldn't have had any trouble at all?

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