What’s the Longest Word?

Before we decide from a long list of contenders, we’ll have to figure out what the word “word” really means…

Otherwords is a new PBS web series on Storied that digs deep into this quintessential human trait of language and fınds the fascinating, thought-provoking, and funny stories behind the words and sounds we take for granted. Incorporating the fıelds of biology, history, cultural studies, literature, and more, linguistics has something for everyone and offers a unique perspective into what it means to be human.

Transcript:


What’s the longest word? Answering that question is a little more complicated than just counting letters but, by that metric, the longest contender is the technical name for the protein titin. It has 189,819 letters, and it looks like this.

If you want to hear what it sounds like, there’s a YouTube video of that. You’ll need about three and a half hours to spare. – (in a foreign language). But there’s a big asterisk at the end of those 180,000 letters because most linguists don’t consider this thing a word, more like a verbal formula.

The longest word in a major English dictionary is pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, a lung disease caused by the inhalation of volcanic ash. But as the entry points out, this was deliberately invented to belong, which puts it in the same category as other made-up mouthfuls like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

We could say the longest word is grandmother, with an infinite number of “great-“s ahead of it (glass shattering), but that would be uncharacteristically simplistic for a linguistic show. If we find a more satisfying answer to this question, we’ll have to dig deeper into what the word means.

If you listen to a conversation in an unfamiliar language, it’s pretty much impossible to pick out individual words. And sometimes, the same goes for your language. If you say to your roommate, aminagothstorjwannything? Are you aware of all the individual words you’re cramming together? Does your brain or your roommate care where one word ends, and another begins?

Some languages allow you to pack whole phrases and sentences into one word like this Turkish word that means as though you happen to have been from among those whom will not be able to easily make a make of unsuccessful ones. and this German word that means the law delegating the monitoring of the labeling of beef.

We can do a little of this in English, in a “this-technically-counts-as-a-word- -but-who-on-earth-would-ever-call-it-that?” kind of way. We can also glue words together to make compound words, but rarely more than two at a time. And whether they get a space can feel pretty arbitrary. Living room: space. Bedroom: no space. Tennis ball: space. Baseball: no space.

That’s why the whole concept of words is sometimes considered primarily orthographic, which means it only matters when you’re writing it down. After all, I’m not thinking about spaces when I say the words front yard, and backyard but if I type them, spell check will let me know there’s a difference.

So are words things that exist only on paper and not in our minds? Maybe not. Many linguists think what makes a word, a word, has to do less with how it’s written and more with how our brains process it.

When you hear the sentence, “Cheetahs can run faster than lions,” your brain analyzes the order of the words to determine the meaning of the sentence, but you don’t need to analyze the words themselves. You know them. Cheetah is a sound you memorized a long time ago because everyone agrees that it means a big cat with spots that can run fast. Your brain doesn’t need to know why it means that. It just does.

If we had to analyze individual words the way we analyze sentences, language would become a slog of incomprehensibility. It’s been tried. In the 1600’s the philosopher Bishop John Wilkins proposed a universal language in which the meanings of the words were baked into their spellings. He tried to divide every concept in the universe into categories and subcategories and assigned them all letters and slots.

For example, the Wilkish word for dog was Zita. A Z in the first slot meant animals, a subsequent I told four-legged, then T for European canines, and finally, A for the specific species, dog. You can probably see why this didn’t catch on. The sheer amount of mental computation required to understand one word would be ridiculous.

A child raised to speak Wilkish would have probably tossed all that nonsense aside and just memorized Zita the way you and I memorized dog. Even the origins of relatively new words quickly become irrelevant. There is probably a short time in 2004 when people were aware that a podcast was a broadcast that you listen to on your iPod, but our brains don’t bother with all that today. It’s called a podcast because that’s just what it is.

The internationalization of the word is further proof that no one cares where the sounds came from. This word violates the same rule that Wilkins’ zita did. It tries to explain its meaning within itself. The power of words comes from the fact that they’re memorized, not analyzed. Because we’ve all agreed on a shared mental dictionary, the actual sounds themselves can be arbitrary.

No one needs to bother with this monstrosity because we’ve already agreed upon a much easier word for the same disease: silicosis. But just because something’s memorized doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s short. Many linguists consider compound words with spaces like ice cream, roller coaster, and high school to be single words because that’s how our brains interpret them, as indivisible units that we memorize to mean a specific thing.

Some linguists push this idea even further, claiming that idioms and cliches should also count as words. When we use phrases like “fly off the handle,” “bite the bullet,” or “jump the shark,” we’re not concerned with their origins or the literal meanings of their parts. We’re just counting on our listeners having the same memorized entry in their mental dictionary.

This is why many English dictionaries don’t include that other famously long word, antidisestablishmentarianism. Originally the word was coined for a political movement of 19th-century Britain that was opposed to, you guessed it, disestablishmentarianism, but it has so little relevance to our lives today that it’s just not a part of our shared vocabulary anymore. (glass shattering) How do we judge whether a word is part of our shared vocabulary? That depends on who the speakers and listeners are, but if a word were used casually in conversation or say a YouTube video and it didn’t set off on any alarm bells “but that would be uncharacteristically “simplistic for a linguistic show. “

Language would become a slog of incomprehensibilities. “The internationalization of the word “is further proof that no one.” These are three of the longest, non-spaced, non-hyphenated English words that are considered “in common usage” If these slip past your ear without slowing down your comprehension, the incomprehensibility these part of your shared vocabulary and strong contenders for the longest, commonly used word in English, to you.

As with all things human, there are very few hard boundaries in language. One person considers a word might be a phrase to someone else and pure nonsense to someone else. Maybe it’s best not to think of a word as something printed in a book with ink or on a screen in pixels but as a unique power of the human mind that only works because it’s shared with everyone else. (easy music) What’s the longest word? Wow, so cool. What’s the longest… These are my words, coming out of my mouth, okay.

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