LINGUIST List 11.1888

Thu Sep 7 2000

Qs: "4U"-Type Constructions, Redundancy/Ambiguity

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  1. Lorenz Hofer, Term for expressions like "4U" and alike
  2. HMooney, degrees of redundancy/ambiguity/comprehensibility

Message 1: Term for expressions like "4U" and alike

Date: Thu, 07 Sep 2000 23:17:10 +0200
From: Lorenz Hofer <>
Subject: Term for expressions like "4U" and alike

Dear list, 

I guess that there is a term for written expressions which are combined from
Digits and Letters, like english "4U", "CU2" or "4SALE" or german "8TUNG"
Is there one, or are there several (scientific) terms for such combinations?
I also would like to know, wheather anybody knows about lists or other types
of collections of such expressions.

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Message 2: degrees of redundancy/ambiguity/comprehensibility

Date: Thu, 7 Sep 2000 13:31:13 -0700
From: HMooney <>
Subject: degrees of redundancy/ambiguity/comprehensibility

I have long thought that some languages might actually be easier to understand
than others.

I realize the concept "easier to understand" is a tricky one to define, and
might be interpreted
differently depending on whether we are speaking from the point of view of a
native speaker
or a foreigner. But my intuitive feeling is that miscommunication caused by
ambiguity, homophony, or confusion of one phoneme with another is more likely in
some languages than in others.

This connects with the concept of redundancy.

An example: "airplane" is more "redundant" than "plane". It is also less
likely to be misunderstood.

"I took a plane trip" could be interpreted as "I took a plain (i.e., not very
exciting) trip." But "I took an airplane trip" could not. Therefore, in a
situation involving a lot of "noise" (e.g., a bad phone connection, a
conversation in a noisy restaurant, or on a moving subway train), you might
deliberately choose a longer, less ambiguous word in order to make sure that you
are understood correctly.

My hypothesis is that some languages are inherently more likely to have this
problem than others. Two mechanisms come to mind. The first is the predominance
in a some languages of very soft consonants.

Spanish comes to mind: "lavado" ("washed") is pronounced with a soft, bilabial
burr for the "v" and a very soft, voiced dental fricative for the "d". The "d"
in such words is so soft that it can practically disappear in fast speech,
resulting in a diphthong (/lavao/). The cognate word in Italian, on the other
hand, has a solidly pronounced "v" (a dental fricative) and a clear, unambiguous
"t" that never will tend to disappear even in rapid speech: /lavato/.

Spanish also runs vowels together across word boundaries. e.g., "ella ha
hablado" is likely to be realized as /eyablao/, with the three "a" vowels
combined into one. Again, Italian does not do this: Ella ha aperto (la porta)
("she opened (the door)") would be pronounced with three clearly distinguished
"a" vowels: /ella a aperto/.

French is notorious for this kind of thing, and in fact *spoken* French probably
has one of the highest rates of homophony of any language. Huge numbers of
French words are likely to be homphonous, at least slightly. e.g., /livr/,
although it clearly means "book", could also mean "books". You only know which
by context. Examples of homophones with totally different meanings abound: /o/
(= "eaux" "water" ; = "haut" "above"); /so/ (= "sot" "fool"; = "saut" "jump"; =
"seau" "a kind of glass container").

Chinese, with its strict limits on syllable form and its "monosyllabic"
structure, also contains huge numbers of homophones. German, I would guess, is
at the other end of the scale, with very few.

My question is this: has anyone systematically investigated this question,
either within the context of phonology, language processing and perception,
language acquisition or information theory?

I'll post a summary if I get enough responses.


Hank Mooney
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