The Longest Word

Sure, there’s pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. I learned that in 5th grade. But that’s a compound word. And a very contrived one at that, not actually used to refer to the disease that normally goes by the term silicosis. Ah, isn’t that refreshing? To make an Orwellian paring down to a smaller word that’s just as sufficient?

How about the longest word in the English language that might be used in any given day or at least is not a compound word. What would that be?

This is a slightly more difficult answer to come up with (and try it for and old language like Latin!) because of our fascination with the contrived and unpragmatic. Everyone just starts talking about volcanic diseases and descriptions of proteins that take 3 hours to recite. (Yes, this is how unhelpful the internet can be even in the 10s.) What about non-compound words? Well, there is a Wikipedia article on the longest single syllable words in English. What if it has more than one syllable but isn’t a compound word? I haven’t found an explicit answer, so, alas, a derived version of such a one syllable word will have to do for now.

The longest word in the English language, not made up about Smurfs:

strengthened

Strength is a noun, which can be made into the verb strengthen, and then in the past tense it would be strengthened. Both bound morphemes on a very cluster heavy syllable. (I’m sure Polish has a heavier.) And because we’re concerned about sounds rather than letters (what does that even signify except a tortured history for the poor word), the word’s syllable structure is: CCCCVC.CSC [stʃɹɛŋ.θn̩d]. (Where to break the syllables, before or after the dental fricative is of course up for debate.) Four consonants—count them, four!—a vowel, two consonants, a syllabic consonant (for bonus points), and a final consonant. That’s nine segments total.

That’s a mouthful for many people around the world.

Speaking of mouthfuls for even our linguistic next of kin (OK, half-kin. You win Normans!), honorable mentions are:

  • strengths [stʃɹɛŋθs] CCCCVCCC, longest single syllable word, 8 segments, initial 4 segment cluster
  • scrunched [skɹʌntʃt] CCCVCCCC, 8 segments, final 4 segment cluster
  • squirreled [skwɚld] CCCVCC, as in she squirreled around the table
  • schmaltzed [ʃmɑʟtst] CCVCCCC, technically English meaning ‘imparted a sentimental atmosphere to’, I guess compare to schmoozed [ʃmuzd] (only 5 segments) being a word we consider to be fully adopted into English

So, turns out the longest word is the strongest word!

 


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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.