Why short is almost always sweet when it comes to language

PUBLISHED: 06:00 08 October 2019

'Cuppa', in the sense of 'a cup of tea', is now recognised as a word in its own right by the Oxford English Dictionary. Picture: PA Images

'Cuppa', in the sense of 'a cup of tea', is now recognised as a word in its own right by the Oxford English Dictionary. Picture: PA Images

Anthony Devlin/PA Archive/PA Images

For our most commonly-used words, brevity is an obvious advantage, says PETER TRUDGILL. But that doesn't mean it always applies.

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On the train the other day, I was wondering why the people across the aisle from me kept saying "again", until I realised that they were Hungarian and were in fact saying igen, the Hungarian word for 'yes'.

To English speakers, it might seem rather surprising that a word as common as 'yes' should consist of more than one syllable: the vast majority of European languages use a single-syllable word to express the affirmative, such as German ja, Spanish si, Romanian da and Polish tak. But Hungarian, it turns out, is not alone in this: in both Czech and Slovak the word for 'yes' is ano, and in Turkish it is evet.

It is still generally true, however, that the words which are used most often in a language tend also to be amongst the shortest. The ten most frequent words in spoken English are a, and, are, for, in, is, of, the, to, you, all just one syllable in length.

Moreover, these words are routinely reduced to an even shorter form in normal everyday speech: is is very often just 's, as in that's right; the f of of is very often absent, as in a nice cuppa tea; and and commonly gets shortened to a simple n, as in bread 'n' butter.

If you think about it, this all makes sense. It is partly a matter of efficiency. If the word for the was five syllables long, all of us would take much longer to say or write anything than we do now - I have already used the word nine times in this piece.

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In addition, the more frequent a word is, the more predictable it is to listeners, and the fewer the clues they therefore need to recognise what the word is. Furthermore, all of these short lexical items as cited above are grammatical words which have very important jobs to do in the language but not much meaning as such: if someone asked you what the means, you might not find it very easy to come up with an answer, even though you use it scores of times a day.

Many words of this type can be left out in forms of written English where brevity is required, such as in newspaper headlines or pay-per-word telegrams or tweets, where characters are limited. And there are languages around the world which lack independent words corresponding to some of these words altogether: the is absent from Chinese; are does not occur in Russian; and yes is not found in Gaelic.

The single-syllable English conjunction but, a typical grammatical word, predictably corresponds to equally short words in most other European languages: French mais, Dutch maar, Danish men, Italian ma. But some languages stand out as having two-syllable words in this function: German aber, Spanish pero.

The word for and similarly consists of only one syllable in nearly all European languages, as with German und, Norwegian og, and Dutch en. In fact, in a number of European languages the word for and consists of just a single vowel: a, e, i and u mean 'and' in respectively Czech, Portuguese, Catalan, and Maltese. Gaelic, on the other hand, expresses and by means of the surprisingly two-syllable word agus; in Scottish Gaelic, 'tea, sugar and milk' is tì agus siùcar agus bainne, which might seem to be a bit of a mouthful. But just as English and is frequently shortened to 'n', so Gaelic agus is very often shortened to is or 's. Similarly, Basque eta ('and') very often occurs in the one-syllable form ta.

Interestingly, there is almost total pan-European agreement that the word for no should have only one syllable: if we look around the continent, we find ei, ez, le, ne, nee, nein, nej, nie, non, no, nu… The only European language which refuses to conform to this pattern is Greek, which rather gloriously has a two-syllable word for no: ochi.

Cuppa

Cup of tea is normally pronounced "cuppa tea" - which has led to cuppa being used as an abbreviated version of the phrase. Cuppa in the sense of 'a cup of tea' first appeared in print in the 1920s, and is now recognised as a word in its own right by the Oxford English Dictionary.

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