Monosyllabic language

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A monosyllabic language is a language in which words predominantly consist of a single syllable. Monosyllabism is the name for the property of single-syllable word form. Monosyllabism is connected to ideographic writing systems, because of the one-glyph for one word (idea) principle, and Chinese and other languages of Southeast Asia are sometimes referred to as monosyllabic languages. The natural complement of monosyllabism is polysyllabism.

The languages of the Asian region tend to be highly isolating and can be phonetically complex (the phonetic rules of Thai language permits 23 638 possible syllables, compared to, for example, Hawaiian language's 162). The difficulty of defining the term "word", such as the difficulty of telling apart collocations, set phrases and compound words in languages such as Chinese or English (is "dog house/doghouse" a single word or a two-word phrase?), the subjective question of what constitutes "most" words to make a language monosyllabic (there are no living languages that are strictly monosyllabic) and other such considerations render the topic non-scientific and unencyclopedic.

Single-vowel form[edit]

A monosyllable may be complex and include seven or more consonants and a vowel (CCCCVCCC or CCCVCCCC as in English "strengths") or be as simple as a single vowel or a syllabic consonant.

Few known recorded languages preserve simple CV forms which apparently are fully functional roots conveying meaning, i.e. are words—but are not the reductions from earlier complex forms that we find in Mandarin Chinese CV forms, almost always derived with tonal and phonological modifications from Sino-Tibetan *(C)CV(C)(C)/(V) forms.

Examples of monosyllabic languages include Vietnamese and Old Chinese. However, all known varieties of modern Chinese are not monosyllabic;[1] see Chinese morphology and Vietnamese morphology for discussion.

"Monosyllabic writing"[edit]

Syllables are units of speech. The text below attempts to introduce the concept into a discussion about the writing systems.

One such language that does record simple C(V) forms as words is hieroglyphic Egyptian where signs for single consonants (with implied vowel) denoting words are marked as words with a short horizontal line: e.g. 3 ₵, which means 'vulture (or perhaps 'the bird')'; and ', which means 'arm'. Another early language that allows us to see simple CV forms as words is cuneiform (and earlier pictographic) Sumerian, in which, with some reservations based on the multiple readings of most signs, we can specify the final V: e.g. da, 'side'; and sa, 'sinew'. Some scientists, however, believe that Sumerian may have been a tonal language, which seems plausible given the number of homonyms in the language.


  1. ^ Hannas, Wm. C. (1997) Asia's Orthographic Dilemma. Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press. ISBN 9780585344010.