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What Is a Monosyllabic Language?

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  • Written By: Mark Wollacott
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  • Last Modified Date: 30 October 2016
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A monosyllabic language is a language that mostly consists of words with a single sound to them. Such languages can have a wide number of monosyllabic words, but often use different tones in order to produce a wider variety of sounds. Monosyllabic languages include Chinese, Vietnamese and Bantu.

A syllable is a basic unit of sound in a language. All words contain at least one voiced syllable. Languages such as Japanese use syllables as their basic linguistic unit and as their alphabet. Others, like English, use their alphabet to create a larger number of sounds. The character of the language defines how many syllables tend to make up the average word.

This sound can be made from a single letter, but is most often a combination of two letters. Usually, this takes the form of a vowel (V) and a consonant (C) in a CA or VC form. It is often possible for the consonant to be followed by two vowels, such as ‘moo,’ with the sound still making a single syllable.

In many languages, single-syllable words can include a larger number of letters. For example, in English, the words ‘want’ and ‘have’ both have CVCC constructions with consonants on either side of the vowel while still creating a single sound. The longest monosyllabic word in English is Schmaltzed, with a CCCCVCCCVC construction including two separated vowels.

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A monosyllabic language often has another way of increasing the number of sounds. This is achieved through the introduction of tones. Chinese is the most prominent example of a tonal language, but there are others, like Bantu and Thai. With tonal languages, a single monosyllabic word can have a whole host of meanings depending on the tone used. This makes a monosyllabic language difficult to learn and increases the chances of making a mistake.

In Vietnamese, there are six tones. This means that any one monosyllabic word can have six meanings by changing the tone. While Vietnamese is a non-Chinese language, Mandarin and particularly Cantonese have had a similar effect on the language as Latin has had on English.

Why certain languages prefer to be monosyllabic, with or without tones, is unknown. Some languages, such as German, naturally create polysyllabic words by forming compounds, whereas others such as Latin and Hungarian conjugate their words by adding additional suffixes. It is hypothesized by some that some monosyllabic languages began life as polysyllabic ones, but changed over time or under the influence of another language. This may be the case for Vietnamese, for example.

Another idea is that each proto-language began life as a monosyllabic language. Such scholars believe that languages developed in Africa in line with human development. They believe humans began creating new sounds by imitating the sounds of animals around them. This has been demonstrated by the names for the first Egyptian Gods: Ba (Ram), Mu (Cow) and Mau (Cat).

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literally45
Post 3

@stoneMason-- Chinese is the same way and boy is it difficult to learn! I have been studying Chinese for two years now and there is still so much to learn. I haven't been able to perfect my pronunciation yet. I'm planning on teaching English in China for a while just so that I can get more experience hearing and speaking Chinese. I love the language but it's tough because it's monosyllabic.

stoneMason
Post 2

I'm not familiar with monosyllabic languages but I did notice the difference between monosyllabic and polysyllabic language recently while watching a Thai film.

Thai also has multiple tones. When I was watching the film, I could hear that many words were very similar but the tone used by the actors varied a lot. The tones went up and down in pitch as the words were pronounced.

As someone who has only spoken and heard polysyllabic languages her whole life, it was very interesting to hear a monosyllabic language.

burcinc
Post 1

I doubt that humans made new sounds by imitating animals. They may have used sounds from animals and nature to come up with new words for objects, animals and concepts.

I do agree however that many of the early languages may have been monosyllabic. If we look at the early people's language, such as during the stone age, we see that they used the same symbols in different combinations to mean different things. If this is true then it's not difficult to imagine that the same words pronounced differently could mean different things in their languages, much like Chinese or Vietnamese today.

Of course, I'm not a linguist, historian or an expert in general. I would love to hear from experts on these topics who can clarify some of these points though. Do we have any linguists here?

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