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An autoethnography on searching for the meaning of a 'single word'

Posted on Nov 20, 2022 by Chung-hong Chan

This story has a beginning: I want to talk about the game Just One, a board game I recently have played a lot on an online platform.

Just One is probably the simplest board game which ever made it to das Spiel des Jahres. Actually, one can play even without the official set. It is like the classic game Charade, the word guessing game. Instead of acting like a mime artist, each player provides the guesser a single-word clue. For example, the so-called Mystery Word is Pirate. Players can provide single-word clues such as Sparrow, ship, pillage. The guesser then based on these clues, makes a guess. If the guess is correct, that’s good. If the guess is incorrect, that’s bad. And that’s the overall process of the game.

But there is a catch: All repeated clues are canceled. If a player provides an invalid clue, their provided clue is also canceled and not provided to the guesser. According to the rules, the following are valid and invalid clues.

This clue must be no more than a single word and must also be valid. A proper noun (Sherlock, Lego), compound word (merry-go-round), number (007), onomatopoeia (Riiiing), acronym (FBI), or special character($) are all considered to be valid clues. Invalid clues are: 1) The Mystery Word written in a different language (Vert to guess Green), 2) A word in the same family as the Mystery Word (Princess to guess Prince), 3) A made-up word (Cuppajo to guess Coffee), 4) A homophone of the Mystery Word (Flour to guess Flower).

One of the players acts as the gatekeeper and cancels invalid clues. And I would say almost all of disputes and controversies over the game come from this part. I would also say most of the rules are actually quite easy to follow. The translation rule, made-up word rule, and homophone rule are quite clear cut and there is nothing controversial about them. The problem usually comes from the “same-family” rule and “This clue must be no more than a single word”. And actually, even the former is not as controversial as the latter. So here comes the subject of this blog post: What is the meaning of a single word?

Unlike highly competitive games such as Scrabble, Just One is a party game. (As a matter of fact, Just One is not even a competitive game, it’s a collaborative game like Hanabi.) Scrabble’s official rules have a very strict definition of playable words:

Before the game begins, all players should agree upon the dictionary that they will use, in case of a challenge. All words labeled as a part of speech (including those listed of foreign origin, and as archaic, obsolete, colloquial, slang, etc.) are permitted with the exception of the following: words always capitalized, abbreviations, prefixes and suffixes standing alone, words requiring a hyphen or an apostrophe.

There is room for dispute, still, but there is a thing called the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. Any dispute about the validity of a played word can be resolved by check the dictionary. Therefore, there is an official gatekeeper, an extension to the official rules.

A key difference between Scrabble and Just One is that Scrabble doesn’t allow proper nouns, whereas Just One does. It is impossible to have an official dictionary for Just One because there are probably indefinite amount of proper nouns. If you don’t know what is a proper noun, well, boy is a common noun, but Sebastian is a proper noun; Drinks is a common noun, but Fanta is a proper noun; Singers is a common noun, but Madonna is a proper noun. Also, Scrabble has only character tiles. Therefore, commonly accepted common nouns with any punctuation mark are not accepted. Father-in-law, pocket-knife are two examples.

So, for Just One, there is no official gatekeeper likes an official dictionary. The gatekeeping role is now a person and the judgment is based on his or her understanding of various linguistic concepts in the rules. I am tellin’ ya, it is not as universal as one would imagine. But before we really start: We are here dealing with the game Just One and it has only been published in mostly Western languages. I will only deal with English here. I don’t want to open a can of worms to define what is a single word in non-delimited languages such as Chinese.

Metalinguistic awareness

This is sort of a detour, but I can assure you it is relevant to the story. Open parenthesis.

As I said last time: Division, but not unison, sells. Let me talk about something that doesn’t sell then: English as a second language. The ultimate unifying force that is important enough to have an acronym: ESL.

There are 1.4 billion English speakers on this planet. But the so-called L1 (First-language) speakers are actually way less than L2 (Second-language) speakers. The ratio is around 1:3. Therefore, ESL is a way important subject in terms of the number of people affected. Also, many people learned English through the so-called “ESL teaching methods”. When I was young, there was no such thing as “native English teacher”, as well as the current norm of the so-called “direct method”. The mainstream ESL teaching method at the time was the so-called grammar-translation method. I learned my English with a target language (my mother tongue) and the whole endeavor was to memorize words. Grammatical rules were taught tacitly. Pronunciation was not very important.

As a matter of fact, L1 speakers do not learn English the way L2 speakers do. As a migrant worker in Germany, I saw it in first hand how the English-speaking expats from anglophone countries are different to me. As you might know English is the lingua franca of the academic world. All of the academicians need to know English in one way or another. But I have attended some entry-level German classes for academics. Some classmtes from anglophone countries struggled a lot because of no prior knowledge in grammatical terms: subject, (indirect / direct) object, preposition, etc. They had a hard time following what the teachers is teaching, which is basically in the abovementioned grammar-translation method. If I need to speak in the academic language, these expat classmates lacked metalinguistic awareness. Why is it so? Well, in the anglophone world, learning a “foreign language” is not a mandatory part of the education. It is not common to see a monolingual foreign student in Germany from the anglophone world; whereas a student from, let’s say Czech Republic, is at least bilingual in the mother tongue of Czech and English, probably more.

I used to live in a semi-caste system and I had no opportunity whatsoever to learn with the so-called native English speakers even during the late colonial era of the 80s and 90s. The revelation of the lack of metalinguistic awareness of these expat classmates shocked me at the time. But upon a bit of empathetic thinking, it’s not that shocking. I acquired my first language the same way as this expat acquired English. I never think, when I speak, the grammatical functions of the word 喺. I can understand the grammatical function of the word subconsciously. The people surrounding me when I was a child did not tell me that 喺 is a mixture of verb and preposition, so you should use 喺 with an accusative object or something like that. I acquired the language by mimicking them.

Is lacking metalinguistic awareness an issue? Probably not. L1 speakers can correct L2 speakers without metalinguistic awareness. They can judge the correctness of the language of L2 speakers based on whether or not it sounds natural to them. Many scientific journals still mandate L2 speakers to ask L1 speakers to check the manuscript for language issues before submission. Many reviewers still prescribe this to manuscripts with grammatical errors also. So, it is the same as gatekeeping by how the English written by those 3 persons —in the ratio I presented to you previously— sounds natural to that 1 person. However, if an L2 speaker needs to gatekeep the correctness of the language of another L2 speaker —or even an L1 speaker, in some rare cases—, they needs to invoke a lot of grammatical terms to show the (in)compliance of established grammatical rules.

Well, I also need to say something about grammar. Grammar is a linguistic concept of rules on how to construct sentences. Again, if your prefer academic language again, there are the debate of prescriptive versus descriptive grammar. Prescriptivists think that grammar is what all speakers should follow, whereas descriptivists think that grammar is a description of how the language is used. L2 speakers tend to think grammar in the prescriptive sense.

I have a hypothesis about that: an average L2 speaker is more conscious of linguistic concepts of their acquired language than an average L1 speaker. I don’t have a proof. Don’t ask for that. However, there are some studies on the correlation between bilingualism and metalinguistic awareness.

Sidebar information: Alfred Mosher Butts, the inventor of Scrabble, was American. The two authors of Just One, Ludovic Roudy and Bruno Sautter, are French. The game was first published in French. The English version shortly followed.

Close parenthesis.

Single word, or word

With all the introduction and detour, let’s talk about the subject: What is the meaning of a single word? Maybe we can step back a bit: What is the meaning of a word?

You can find the meaning of the English word word in a dictionary. The Cambridge Dictionary says that word is “a single unit of language that has meaning and can be spoken or written”. In everyday language, this meaning is enough. But what if I tell you there is no consensus among linguists on how to define a word?

Linguists invented a lot of concepts to describe what is essentially a word in everyday language: token, morpheme, lexicon, just to name a few. But there is no consensus on how to define a word, even though the word “word” is used in many linguistic concepts. Of course, we can just conclude that there is no definition of word and therefore we can instead resort to our own intuition on what a word is. We can actually rely on our intuition in some simple cases. For example, we would all agree that apple, orange, Madonna are words. But how about father-in-law, heroessquare, pineapple, ice cream? Analytically, we really need a definition of word. For example, in natural language processing, there is a technique called “Word Segmentation” and the correctness of the technique depends on the definition of word. The definitions of word would change whether “father-in-law” should be segmented into [“father-in-law”] or [“father”, “in”, “law”]; or even “pineapple” should be segmented into [“pineapple”] or [“pine”, “apple”]. And actually, the gatekeeping process in Just One is an analytical process. The rules actually imply that there is an analytical definition of what a single word is. Or more accurately, what a single word isn’t. And the lack of such analytical definition is the source of many disputes.

But is there really no analytical definition of word? Haspelmath (2017) lists out 10 criteria of a “word”. One criteria is uninterruptibility. For example, I am is not a word because one can interrupt it by adding things into it, e.g. I surely am. Another criteria is “potential pauses”. Absolutely is a word because we can potentially add pauses before and after it.

But even with these 10 criteria, Haspelmath suggests that they do not converge and sometimes they contradict with each other. For example, we can somehow interrupt absolutely by saying abso-fucking-lutely. (I don’t recommend doing the same with father-in-law) So, absolutely is kind-of interruptable. So absolutely isn’t a word? You see, a thing that even the Fachleute can’t decide. How can one assume that the amateurs can decide?

Let’s suppose there were an analytical definition of word. Let’s move to the adjective single. But before I move on, I also need to stress that the rules explicitly allow compound words and give merry-go-round as an example.

Again, we probably have an intuition on what a “single word” is for simple cases. We would all agree that apple, orange, Madonna are “single words”. We would all disagree I am or two cats are “single words”. We probably determine the “singularity” by the so-called word boundary. The space, or the delimiter, indicates there is a word boundary. But is it that simple?

As I said, the rules explicitly allow compound words. There are actually three kinds of compound words: hyphenated, closed, and open. The example given in the rules, merry-go-around, is a hyphenated compound word. Other examples are father-in-law, long-term, and Jack-o’-lantern. Examples of closed compound words are basketball, forever, and without. The last kind, open compounds, are probably the most problematic for the analytical problem we are facing: washing machine, heart attack, and ice cream. Please be aware that all examples above are compound nouns. But the rules say compound words.

If Just One allows compound words in toto, we should also accept open compound words. It once again invokes the analytical problem. Should we consider washing machine as a “single word”? Or two different words? Actually, the rules do not say anything about whether open compound words such as washing machine should be accepted. I tend to believe the original authors do not want to accept open compound words (but who knows?). However, hyphenated compound words should be accepted, as indicated by the explicit example of merry-go-around.

But let’s complicate the picture even more. In English, there is a thing called (attributive) compound adjectives. This mouthful grammatical construct can be seen in sentences such as I am walking this two-way street. The street has two ways. In this sentence, the adjective two-way is used attributively before a noun. A compound adjective is also a compound word. Then should we also accept hyphenated compound adjectives?

We can create long hyphenated compound adjectives. I am a 40-something-year-old man researching a not-so-popular discipline of human-machine communication. In some social media communication, some speakers deliberately create very long compound adjectives for the comical effect. And I started to hate myself for speaking the academic language too much already. But that’s about the distinction between the so-called “standard adjectival compounding” (e.g. bitter-sweet, sky-high, and wire-rimmed) and “phrasal adjectival compounding” (e.g. 40-something-year-old). Bauer (1983) gives this example:

He was the groundsman, handyman, if-there’s-any-sort-of-difficulty-ask-William-and-he’ll-fix-it-for-you person.

So, if we accept merry-go-around, should we then also accept if-there’s-any-sort-of-difficulty-ask-William-and-he’ll-fix-it-for-you?

The closure

There is no doubt that human languages are chaotic. So do the rules of this simple game and the numerous disputes surrounding the game. As one can see from the previous section, I left a lot of question marks. But I don’t have any answer. Maybe the vagueness of the rules is the appeal of the game. It’s like football, right? The rules do not allow using hands to touch the ball. Exceptions are you are a goalkeeper or the referee doesn’t see it. That’s what make Diego Maradona’s Hand of God so exciting.

That being said, arguing what is a single word has nothing to do with one’s fluency in a language or whether or not one is a native speaker. Instead, it has more to do with one’s metalinguistic awareness. That’s actually a paradoxical part and it somehow gives L2 speakers an edge in gatekeeping. However, on the platform I played the game, it is not uncommon to see someone claims to have the final say about complicated linguistic concepts such as “single word” and “word family” because this person is a native speaker. To me, this is supremacist thinking: “I am native English speaker, so you have to listen to me.” The 3 in the 1:3 should be listening to the 1.

I am ashamed of my broken English. I am ashamed of my heavy accent too. But I can at least make a compelling argument of what a single word is because of my metalinguistic awareness.


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