Sunday, January 7, 2018

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and such

If you are a hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobe, i.e., someone with a fear of long words, you will likely want to stop reading here. If not, you may be interested in noting, if you haven’t already, that the longest word in English language dictionaries is currently pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling very fine ash or sand dust. Some prefer to refer to it as silicosis, which means pretty much the same thing. It's pneumonoultramikroskopikosilikovulkanokonioosi in Finnish;  neumonwltramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis in Welsh; Viêm phế quản-phế quản giác mạc in Vietnamese, 폐렴 현미경 in Korean.

I remember as a kid being told that the longest word in English was antidisestablish-
mentarianism.  I see now that that word wasn't even close. Just another "fact" that needed correction in due course of learning about the world and its complexities.

Long words are rare in most languages, but common in German, where words can go on forever as long as they convey something about the real world. Mark Twain observed that German words are so long that some of them even have perspective.

Grundstücksverkehrsgenehmigungszuständigkeitsübertragungsverordnung (in English: “regulation on the delegation of authority concerning land conveyance permission.”) hit the dust a few years ago, pushing Vermögenszuordnungszuständigkeitsübertragungs-verordnung (“regulation on the delegation of authority concerning fortune responsibility”) into first place as the allegedly longest word in the language.  [Note, please, that the hyphens in the above words are not there naturally. I put them there so I could break the words in a way that would keep the margins pleasing to the eye. The words are properly written without hyphens.]

In regular use, that is. Germans can combine words till the cows come home, thanks to the German convention of writing words together which express single concepts, as opposed to our way of keeping them all apart if they have meanings that stand alone.  Take any number, for example. What we write as three hundred sixty four thousand five hundred twenty-two, Germans write as dreihundertvierundsechzigtausentfünfhundert-zweiundzwanzig. And you can see the potential as you climb into the godzillions.

Speaking of being misinformed about long words, I remember years ago being told that the longest German word was Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft, which I read as “Union of lower rank officers of the Danube steamship’s main electrical workshop company,” but I am happy to defer to a native speaker from Dresden named Hutschi, who has determined it should be rendered in English as “Company for subordinated state employees for the main control office for electricity constructions/building for Danube Steamboat shipping. At the same time, I feel obliged to point out that “Haupt” (“head” or “main”) is ambiguous and could refer to a number of things – the Betrieb (enterprise), the Betriebswerk (factory of the enterprise), the Bau (construction being done by the factory of the enterprise), the Beamten (officials – actually “Unterbeamten” – or subordinate officials) or the Gesellschaft (society, or union, or company) Main lesson to draw from this, I guess, is length cannot be counted on to disambiguate.

Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft, while being proof that speakers of German can be as witty (or silly) as anybody else in the world (the word is made up as a means of poking fun at bureaucratic language), it also illustrates what can happen when people try to simplify things. There once was a German spelling rule dictating that if three identical letters come together, as in “voyage by ship” (Schiff-fahrt), one of them must be dropped. However, in its infinite wisdom, the folks who brought about the spelling reform of 1996, which I have not gotten a handle on to this day, decided to drop that rule of dropping the third letter. Hence, the three fs in the Schifffahrt of Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhaupt-betriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft is now once again de rigeur. You might like to meditate on the German words for "stinging nettle" - Brennnessel; "having 'grip strength'": grifffest; and "fast-moving/short-lived": schnelllebig.

Place names are a separate category of their own. There is Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyllllantysiliogogogoch, a village on the island of Anglesey in Wales ; and  Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu, a thousand foot high hill in Northern New Zealand.

But back to the world of non-proper nouns, we must take note of the word Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz (“the law concerning the delegation of duties for the supervision of cattle marking and the labelling of beef), introduced by EU authorities in 1999 during the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis (which many prefer to abbreviate to the BSE crisis – or use the slang “mad cow disease”). Because it was in regular use there for a while, it had its own abbreviation, the RkReÜAÜG. Which was OK for written materials, I suppose. Don’t know what they did every time they had to speak of it.

To a linguist, this discussion is just plain silly. One only has to reflect upon the distinction between a word and a morpheme (defined as “the smallest unit in a word that carries a distinct meaning”:  “Say” in English is a single word and a single morpheme, but “says” is a single word but two morphemes, the suffix -s signaling that the word is in the third person singular. Antidisestablishmentarianism contains the morphemes anti (against); -dis (undo); -establish; -ment (the suffix that makes the verb establish a noun); -arian (a person who does this sort of thing); and –ism (the ideology which advocates this sort of thing. Incidentally, use the Google translator to get the Chinese translation for antiestablishmentarianism and they give you 反政教分離運動.  Character by character, that comes out  Fǎn zhèngjiào fēnlí yùndòng.  My knowledge of Chinese characters acquired through the study of Japanese tells me these "words"/"syllables"/"morphemes mean, in order: anti-politics-separation-movement. (Put it back into a Chinese-to English translator at Google Translate and you get Anti-Semitism movement - but that's a hurdle for another day.)

Chinese, in terms of word formation, is at one end of a spectrum one might say. It doesn’t have words. It has only morphemes, with a character for each morpheme. (OK, OK, that’s an oversimplification, but stay with me here). At the other end of the spectrum are agglutinative languages, languages like Japanese, which pile up morphemes into a single word.  “I had to do it,” in Japanese, is “shinakerebanaranakatta.”  Proof of the existence of demons who roam the earth seeking the ruination of souls lies in the fact that the designers of the Japanese writing system chose Chinese characters as the basis of their written language. Imagine drawing an elaborate character for each of the syllables in shinakerebanaranakatta. Cleverly, following the principle of designing magnificent microsystems for dealing with their ridiculously cumbersome macrosystems, the Japanese created two separate systems – one based on Chinese character images, which they use for the content words, and one based on sounds, which they use for writing the string of grammatical forms. 

The point being there is nothing strange or unusual about what seems like impossibly long words. They are a natural feature of agglutinative languages like Japanese or Turkish. If your eyes have not clouded over by now and you want to know how to say "As though you happen to have been from among those whom we will not be able to easily/quickly make into a maker of unsuccessful ones," in Turkish, Wikipedia has a marvelous morpheme-by-morpheme breakdown of
Muvaffakiyetsizleştiricileştiriveremeyebileceklerimizdenmişsinizcesine here

There. See?  I can go a whole day without once mentioning Agent Orange (as the Russians call him) in the White House. Or the need to go to the polls in November to throw out the bums currently taking money from the poor and giving it to the superrich, throwing people off of health care, advocating drill, baby, drill, along both of our coastlines, removing regulations put in place to keep children from ingesting lead, and pouring kerosene on fires all over the Middle East. Or wringing my hands in despair at the ever growing numbers of our arrogant and overweight population inclined to advocate notions that are comfortable to believe rather than truths that can be grounded in fact.

A whole day.

Maybe tomorrow.


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