[Lingtyp] Non-compositional words for “rock-paper-scissors"

JOO, Ian [Student] ian.joo at connect.polyu.hk
Wed May 4 06:42:10 UTC 2022

Dear all,

thank you all for your replies which helps me building my data of RPS terms in different languages.
I apologize for the confusion I’ve caused with the term “compositionality”. Perhaps the better term would have been “analyzability”, i.e. whether the term is analyzable into smaller meaningful units (as in the case of the English word “rock paper scissors”) or not (as in the case of Korean mwuk cci ppa). One could say that mwuk cci ppa is also analyzable as “mwuk”, “cci”, and “ppa”, as these indicate the specific handshapes of this game, but I was looking for such cases where the word does not mean anything other than the game itself.

On 3 May 2022, 9:13 PM +0900, Nate Sims <nsims at ucsb.edu>, wrote:
Hi all,

The Chinese equivalent is 石头-剪刀-布, "rock-scissor-cloth". In Sichuanese Mandarin, the playground name for this game is [sɨ21.tɕʰɚ45] the first syllable is 'rock' but the second syllable is not otherwise meaningful (at least not in my understanding).

So I guess the Sichuanese name for the game would be semi-compositional? I take compositional here to mean etymologically transparent.


On Mon, May 2, 2022 at 8:03 PM Daniel Ross <djross3 at gmail.com<mailto:djross3 at gmail.com>> wrote:
Yes, that's the definition I'm assuming. "Rock-paper-scissors" describes a game involving "rocks", "papers" and "scissors" (metaphorically speaking, as hand shapes).

As we've discussed, this usage is semi-productive, and productivity requires some degree of compositionality: the parts somehow contribute to the meaning. It's a specific usage context, and it's metonymy as you noted, but there's still some degree of internal semantic structure (i.e. compositionality).

I agree with you that there may be a better term for Ian to use to frame this, but I understood what he meant, and even in a technical sense there's some degree of compositionality that is relevant here, at least for the productive cases. (I don't know if that applies to other languages.)

On Mon, May 2, 2022 at 10:54 AM David Gil <gil at shh.mpg.de<mailto:gil at shh.mpg.de>> wrote:


Sorry to nitpick (all with the best of intentions), but I still don't understand your usage of the term "compositional" below:

On 02/05/2022 20:40, Daniel Ross wrote:
Haha, yes, that's a great example, David, thanks for reminding me of that one.

Yes, I wonder also about the (possible) meanings of the components in the other languages. It is interesting, though, that the terms in English have, at least as far as I am aware, no other meaning at all. (It's interesting that in Thai the third is "choop", and, not knowing Thai, I'm going to guess that one might be scissors, assuming individual components can be identified. I wonder if it's a general ideophone, in which case then it would also arguably be compositional to some degree.)

Could you, or anybody else, explain what "compositional" means in the above sentence.  For me, "compositionality" is when the meaning of a construction is derived from the meaning of its constituent parts.  I'm pretty sure that this is by far the most common meaning of the term in semantics and related fields, as reflected in numerous definitions in various chapters of the OUP handbook (below).  Are there other usages of the term that I am ignorant of?


Werning, M., W. Hinzen and E. Machery eds., (2012) The Oxford Handbook of Compositionality, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

David Gil

Senior Scientist (Associate)
Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Deutscher Platz 6, Leipzig, 04103, Germany

Email: gil at shh.mpg.de<mailto:gil at shh.mpg.de>
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