Travel bans, limits on how far from home you can go to exercise, and the need to stay two meters away from everyone else – in the era of coronavirus, distance has become an obsession. But at least this social challenge is linguistically straightforward: “distance” comes from the Latin word “distare”, which literally means “to stand apart”. To distract ourselves from lockdown boredom, we decided to investigate another type of linguistic distancing: compound words. And we discovered that while some languages force these tightly-knit terms apart with spaces or hyphens, other – such as Chinese – have dispensed with spaces altogether.
Spaced-out compounds: an English disease?
The rule for compounds is simple in Germanic languages such as German, Swedish and Dutch: they’re always written as one word. A few topical examples from German: “Virenkampf” (literally “virus fight”), “Ausgehverbot” (going-out ban), and “Betriebsschliessung” (company shutdown). English, however, is less consistent – so much so that the Dutch have nicknamed the tendency to incorrectly write compounds as two separate words the “Engelse ziekte”, or “English disease”. After all, we write “soft drink” rather than “softdrink” – or, for those in need of something stronger, “happy hour”, not “happyhour”.
Confusingly, though, English also features one-word compounds, such as “keyboard”, “policeman” and “moonlight”. And the only way to tell which is which is to look them up in a dictionary, to the distress of language learners – and sometimes native speakers, too. Now, is it “set up”, “set-up”, or “setup”…?
Romance languages mind the gap
Romance languages generally keep an elegant distance from the whole debate. They tend to use noun-adjective constructions rather than compound nouns, and write each word separately, as in the Spanish “novela rosa” (romance novel). In Italian, as in English, compound nouns are written separately: for example, a travel agent is an “agenzia viaggi”, whereas in German, it would be the singular “Reisebüro”. And it’s also possible to sidestep the issue by putting a preposition between the two nouns, as with the tasty French lockdown staple “pomme de terre”, or potato (literally “apple of the earth”).
No spaces? No problem for Asian languages
While many East and Southeast Asian countries have implemented exemplary social distancing measures, the same can’t be said of their languages. Unlike languages written in the Latin alphabet, Chinese doesn’t use spaces to separate words at all, which can make things tricky for those not used to it. The sentence “We’ve already had to stay at home for far too long” looks appropriately claustrophobic in simplified Chinese: 我们憋在家里太久了.
The same is true of Japanese and Thai, where context and linguistic intuition are sometimes the only ways of telling where one word stops and the next begins. When foreign words are imported into these languages, an interpunct is often used to separate them.
Regardless of which language is closest to your heart: keep your distance and stay healthy!
Cover image via Twenty20