What is a word? Well, I used four words to ask that question, right?
But people who create spaced-repetition apps, and create word frequency lists, to learn languages don’t understand what a word is. A single word, in the dictionary, can be a lot more “words” in conversation.
In English, people will often say “ain’t ain’t a word.” They might mean that the word “ain’t” is slang. But if we look at aint’s cousins, isn’t, aren’t, weren’t, am not, (and so on) we have a different question on our hands. Are contractions words? Is “to be” one word, or are all the conjugations different words? Is ox the same word as oxen? What about all the different meanings of “on“?
Why is this important? Well, if you don’t want to talk like, “I be hungry yesterday, I be hungry today, if I not get some food, I still be hungry tomorrow,” then it makes sense to learn the different conjugations of to be, even if we don’t need to know what the word conjugation means.
Be is one word in most dictionaries, but it covers different lemmas, or versions of that word, like am, were, is, are, was, will be, being, and so on. In other European languages, the equivalent of “be” has many more lemmas. Sunt, ești, este, suntem, sunteți, sunt, fiu, fie, fiți…fusese, era… check out the full list here: https://dexonline.ro/definitie/fi/paradigma
Now, if we use word frequency generators, we can count lemmas, or forms of a word.
English words do not have as many forms as Romanian words. The definite article in English is simply “the” added before a word. In Romanian, the definite article is a suffix -ul added to a word, or the “ă” turned to “-a”, or other options. English has a few irregular plurals like oxen, but Romanian has multiple regular ways to form plurals. And when you consider the five noun cases in Romanian, you will find much fewer dictionary entries than you might expect for all the different lemmas.
Let us take the word Cluj for instance. Clujului, Clujilor, and Clujul, are all very common translations. They are not interchangeable, just as “I” and “me” are not interchangeable and “am” and “were” are not interchangeable.
Well, imagine you are at Untold, and your roommate, (who is from a country that doesn’t have verb tenses), learned English from word frequency lists. You are leaving the house, and she asks, “Keys?”
You answer, “I have my keys.”
They smile and understand as you lock the door and go to the festival.
Now, on your way back from the festival, the roommate checks her pockets. Then she remembers where the keys are. “Keys?” she asks again in her limited English.
You check your pockets. “I had my keys,” you reply.
To your word frequency list friend, had and have are the same word. So your roommate sits there, waiting for you to find the keys, instead of thinking where you could have dropped the keys or trying to remember whether you gave them to her.
We will get back to how you finally get in the apartment later. For now, we look through a cat flap and see the bread is gone.
“The cat at the bread,” you say. You and your roommate decide it is not worth going to the house because all the food is gone.
But what if your roommate hears you say, “The cat ate bread” in a panicked tone? Does your roommate understand that you are worried that the cat might be sick, because of the ill effects of bread on a pet? Or does your roommate misunderstand and think you are worried about dying of starvation?
Now you are calling the landlord, e to ask for a spare key. Your landlord wants to know why you left the house without a key, and how you locked the door without one. Your landlord speaks good English but is not super fluent. However, to apply for jobs, your landlord claims to be a native English speaker.
You explain the story, and say that you “had had” your keys. The landlord, who doesn’t know the pluperfect tense in English, is satisfied that you found your keys and are merely stuttering after a festival, and hangs up.
So now you call back, with your knowledge of lemmas in Romanian (including verb conjugation, vowel declination, contractions, articulated nouns, and so on), use the correct word order, and explain what happened perfectly.
Your landlord knows that you cannot find the key, thinks you are irresponsible, and still hangs up. But at least this time, it is not due to a misunderstanding.
Fatca Pop is planning on giving Romanian lessons soon. Let us know if you are interested.