In Chinese, virtually no derivational morphology is now productive and it is unclear to what extent it was active even in antiquity. Now, morphology is a central tool of etymology in those languages that have it. In its absence, in Chinese, one of the principles of etymology is that phonologically similar words of similar meaning may be placed together and called a "word family" (tóngyuán yǔzú 同源語族). I have discussed some of the issues surrounding early Chinese morphology and word families in two papers (Branner 2002, 2003 in the references at the bottom of this post). Victor Mair has just mentioned this issue in a criticism of William Rozycki's 1997 essay on "phonosymbolism" and I am moved to comment here.
The thing Rozycki calls "phonosymbolism" (or sound symbolism) is related to synesthesia (stimulation of one kind of sense-impression by another) and other rhetorical concepts. The key idea that connects all of them to the Chinese "word family" is that they enable us to reduce the number of distinct morphemes in the inventory of a language. When I try to do this — sift down the number of morphemes — in real language materials, two worries come immediately to mind:
- Exclusion. English words that seem to belong to Rozycki's "kap" group (meaning 'to take' etc. etc. etc.) are easy to think of: have, cop, grab, … . On what principles am I to say that a word does not belong to a certain group? Formally, if we have a rule for inclusion, we also need one for exclusion.
- Systemic order. If you go through all the morphemes and corral together those that seem to belong to substantial groups, you find there are still large numbers that belong to no group. With labor, you may be able to create smaller groups — groups of two or three or four members — but even then there will be a huge residue of morphemes that don't fit comfortably into any group. What is accomplished by establishing word families is a reduction in the total number of recognized morphemes. The formal question is, after we have done that and a huge list of isolated morphemes inevitably still remains, just how much have we increased the overall orderly state of the system of the language?
A third worry also emerges if you put aside dictionaries and do not try to work on the inventory of a "whole" standard language, as documented from multiple sources:
- Artificial enrichment from written sources. In oral languages known to one speaker or a small community of them and documented in great detail through linguistic fieldwork, you find that the number of semantically redundant morphemes — including exact synonyms as well as those connected more imprecisely by phonosymbolic or word family relations — drops to almost none. It is not that people do not know all those other words, but the inventory or morphemes they prefer to use in speech is generally quite restricted. Formally speaking, on examination much phonosymbolic and word family variation seems to be an artefact of the written documentation of a language, whose scope generally exceeds the scope in active use by individuals and small communities of speakers. Is it meaningful for us to define the scope of a language in terms of our own convenience in hunting for cognate forms?
This idea was developed in Branner 2010 on Chinese secret languages, documented from original materials collected in fieldwork. Phonosymbolism through productive morphology, of course, is a separate matter because it does not affect the number of morphemes in the inventory.
Branner, David Prager. 2002. "Common Chinese and Early Chinese Morphology." Journal of the American Oriental Society, 122/4:706-721.
Branner, David Prager. 2003. "On Early Chinese Morphology and its Intellectual History." Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Ser. 3, 15/1:45-76.
Branner, David Prager. 2010. "Motivation and Nonsense in Chinese Secret Languages". In Anne Yue-Hashimoto and W. South Coblin, eds., Luó Jiéruì xiānsheng qīzhì jìn sān shòuqìng lùnwénjí 羅杰瑞先生七秩晉三壽慶論文集, (Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong Press), 473-520.
Mair, Victor H. 2012. "Phonosymbolism and Phonosemantics in Chinese", posted to Language Log, January 13, 2012, accessed 20120114.
Rozycki, William. 1997. "Phonosymbolism and the Verb cop." Journal of English Linguistics, 25.3 (September, 1997), 202-206. (Cited unseen from Mair 2012.)