A corpus-based analysis of mandarin nominal root compound

Richard Sproat, Chilin Shih

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Mandarin has many compound-like expressions which seem to be derived directly from (non-word) roots. For example, yi, the root of the word mayi 'ant', occurs in many derived words, including I gongyi 'worker ant'. It seems reasonable to analyze these constructions as compounds, yet traditional theories of compounding as well as recent work on Mandarin morphology (Dai (1992)) have assumed that true compounding is word-based. Dai further implies that only true compounding is productive and that what we shall term 'root compounding' is unproductive, thus apparently strengthening the distinction between the two types. We show, using a corpus-based measure of morphological productivity due to Baayen (1989), that many nominal roots in fact productively form root compounds; thus, at least on the basis of productivity, there is no compelling reason to consider word and root compounding as distinct morphological processes. The question arises of why root compounds (as opposed to word compounds) are formed. As a partial answer we provide a preliminary analysis of the semantics of nominal roots, arguing that they represent kinds (Carlson (1977)); root compounds are formed when the 'kind' interpretation is appropriate, though stylistic issues are argued also to be involved. We also consider a prosodie constraint on (root) compounding proposed by Lu and Duanmu (1991) and show that this constraint can be overridden when semantic or stylistic considerations demand it.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)49-71
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of East Asian Linguistics
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1996
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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