Disyllabicity is the Answer

Mandarin Chinese is a monosyllabic language, right? Analytic; tones; 21 initials, 3 medials, 2 nucleuses, 4 codas. Not a lot of options. Yet there’s even a few gaps in those possibilities! That leaves 1,668 possible syllables. (That’s 417 different sets of segments before tone.) So where does Mandarin get all its words? How do people even talk about anything in such a mathematically opposed language, you might ask.

The answer is you’re wrong!

Mandarin is not a monosyllabic language! That would be ridiculous given its phonotactical constraints. Only a language with very heavy syllables via consonant clusters would be able to be strictly monosyllabic analytic.

Mandarin is primarily disyllabic.

So now if we do the math, we find that 1668 monosyllabic words become 2,782,224 disyllabic words. (A simple permutation: 16682). Add the monosyllabic words back in and you get 2,783,892 possible words. That sounds like quite enough for a proper language. The highest claims for the size of the English lexicon are about a million, so 2.7 is plenty to have the same sized language. (They do use way more of their possibilities because their phonology is so constrained.) But—disyllabic words are not the end of Mandarin’s lexical possibilities. There are tri- and quadrisyllabic words, many combing di- and/or monosyllabic words, which tend to cover more specific or technical terms. This means that Mandarin has more than enough possibilities for people to not be confused with choosing between 50 monosyllabic homophones all day long, as the perception of Chinese tends to be. “It’s so complicated!” the quivering language learner yelps. “Chinese is the hardest language to learn”, an astute phylogenist submits.

It seems though that the hardest part is getting around language hearsay and realizing that of course Mandarin speakers get along just fine with all the phonological tools they have at their disposal—and there are plenty of words in their language, if you just tune into the music of it.


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