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The degree of complexity of multi-word units

In the present section we will compare “our” six languages for specific purposes with respect to how likely they are to use nominal terms of different degrees of complexity. The degree of complexity will be defined, in a rather coarse way, as the total number of a term’s component words, without regard to the part of speech of the modifier(s) or the term’s constituent structure. We must also leave aside the vexed question of which sequences of nouns constitute true compounds in English and which ones are best treated as phrases (cf. Bauer 1988; Pastor-Gomez 2011). As can be seen in Table 17.4, the languages of economics and business, like that of linguistics, have a larger proportion of two-component terms than those of physics, chemistry and, especially, medicine: conversely, the percentage of three-component terms is smaller. Beyond three constituents the number of items is too small to provide genuinely reliable results.

Table 17.4: Number of components in complex nominal terms in selected disciplines (English)

Economics

Business

Medicine

Linguistics

Chemistry

Physics

Two

85.8%

88.5%

70.1%

89.3%

80.2%

82.2%

Three

11.9%

8.9%

25.6%

9.8%

18.3%

16.4%

Four

1.8%

2.4%

3.3%

0.9%

1.3%

1.4%

Five

0.2%

0.2%

0.6%

0.0%

0.3%

0.0%

Six or more

0.3%

0.0%

0.4%

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

Although we do not yet have a solid statistical basis for such a claim, it seems that the nominals used in languages for specific purposes are on average more complex morphologically than those of general, and especially spoken English (cf. Pastor- Gomez 2011:169). The languages of economics and business, as well as linguistics, thus appear, on this parameter, to be closer to general English than those of medicine, physics and chemistry. It remains to be seen whether this distinction is indicative of a general divide between the humanities and social sciences, on the one hand, and the life and “hard” sciences on the other.

Two-component terms constitute the core of the terminology of economics and business. They are overwhelmingly sequences of noun + noun (e.g., admission fee, advertising message, banking system, brand name) or sequences of adjective + noun (e.g., absolute advantage, added value, agricultural output, automotive cluster). Three- component terms, though not as frequent as in the sciences, are nevertheless quite common: bottom-line result, brand-name protection, capital expenditure analysis, cost/quality difference, free-market economy, corporate social responsibility, etc. While three-component terms are still relatively easy for non-natives to interpret, at least if they are fluent speakers, terms of four components and more may constitute a challenge: auto industry steel market, foreign-exchange brokerage company, home office senior management staff, etc. By way of comparison, here are some complex terms from the medicine list: cancer stem cell, fibrin degradation product, leukocyte adhesion deficiency, ventilation/perfusion mismatch, B-cell lymphoproliferative disease, 24-hour urine free cortisol.

In both economics and business, as in medicine, the use of abbreviations within complex-terms is often the only way to keep them within prosodically manageable limits: BOP account (balance of payment account), GDP deflator (gross domestic product deflator), DNA sequence alteration (deoxyribonucleic acid sequence alteration), ACTH-dependent disease (adrenocorticotropic hormone-dependent disease), etc. This same tendency can, of course, also be observed in other disciplines; witness IPA vowel chart (International Phonetic Association vowel chart), etc. In chemistry, the full name built according to the rules of the IUPAC nomenclature often becomes so unwieldy that a parallel short name is introduced, e.g., monoglyme instead of 1,2-dimethoxyethane or 2,5-dioxahexane, diglyme instead of 2,5,8-trioxanonane, or triglyme instead of 2,5,8,11-tetraoxadodecane. As can be seen, the systematic nomenclature of chemistry allows the mixing of words and numbers. The same mixture of words and symbols can also be found in medicine: interleukin-1, CD4 T-lymphocyte function, K+ balance, etc. By contrast, term formation in economics and business strictly obeys the word-formation rules of general English. This is true even of relatively complex terms such as auto industry steel market: even non specialists can correctly interpret this compound as ‘steel market related to the auto industry’ by applying the same general rule of compound interpretation that allows them to interpret auto industry as ‘industry producing autos’ and steel market as ‘market for steel’. The differences relate only to the specific selection and frequency of the patterns of general English.

 
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