monosyllabic roots

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at
Sat Apr 1 15:10:21 UTC 2000

On Fri, 31 Mar 2000 19:41:53 +0200, Waruno Mahdi wrote:
>Austronesian languages have a tendency towards retaining a certain
>degree of "overtness" of former monosyllabic roots, but that which
>one might perceive as a meaningful monosyllabic radical on the
>synchronic plain does not always reflect an historical root.
>So, although the 'submorphological' feature as a whole probably in
>some way reflects some particularity of Austronesian historical
>morphology or wordformation, there is not necessarily a direct
>relationship between monosyllabic radicals of the current language
>and monosyllabic roots of the proto-language.
>In Indonesian Malay this is particularly evident, where coining
>acronyms a.o. with such monosyllabic radicals is the favourite
>sport of Indonesian officialdom.
>For example, one recent creation is Menkumdang for _MENteri kehuKUMan
>dan perunDANG-undangan_ 'minister of justice and legislation'.
>_men_ is quite a standard radical for _menteri_ 'minister', a word
>      of Sanskrit origin, where _men_ is not an historical root;
>_kum_ also occurs in other acronyms as radical for _hukum_ 'law' and
>      its derivations; the word is of Arabic origin, cognate with
>      Indonesian _hakim_ 'judge' and _mahkamah_ 'court, tribunal',
>      hence the actual root is _h.k.m_, and not _kum_;
>and only _dang_, representing the root morpheme _undang_, might
>theoretically reflect an historical root.
>In Javanese, inventing such pseudo-historical concoctions is
>extremely popular, a kind of game of 'charades' that may also
>serve to demonstrate a person's literary educatedness. The more
>obvious the non-historicity of the creation, the higher usually
>its entertainment value.

Note also that in languages like Javanese and Sundanese this type of
playful "etymologizing" focuses on word-final syllables (e.g., _cangkir_
'cup' = _panyanCANG piKIR_ 'tether for thinking').  This process emulates
the highly productive creation of blends from word-final syllables of a
phrase (e.g., _tongpes_ 'flat broke' = _kanTONG kemPES_ 'deflated pocket').
 Indonesian acronymy on the other hand (in part influenced by Soviet
bureaucratic terminology) tends to focus on word-initial syllables -- the
example of _Menkumdang_ is a bit unusual in this respect.

Blust's findings, regardless of their validity for the reconstruction of
protoforms, seem to indicate that many Austronesian languages are
semantically focused on word-final syllables (or more accurately, final
syllables of root-morphemes).  Blends and folk-etymological pseudo-blends
in Javanese and Sundanese bear out this biasing tendency of lexical


Benjamin G. Zimmer
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Bandung 40262 Indonesia
Tel/Fax: (62-22) 731-2551
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bgzimmer at

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