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What Does "Quantization" Mean?

In the field of linguistics, quantization refers to the breaking down of something until it can no longer be broken down any further, like the word "tree."
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  • Written By: M. McGee
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 09 September 2014
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    Conjecture Corporation
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Quantization in linguistics is a method used to determine the substructure of an underlying noun to determine how that noun should be used and referred to in a sentence. This term has several other meanings in other fields that seem radically different from the linguistic term, but in reality, are very similar. The underlying meaning of the word refers to breaking down ‘something’ until that ‘something’ is as small as it can possibly be and still be the ‘something.’ This process is very easy in some languages but difficult in others due to the structure of the language itself.

For the most part, quantization is used to determine how a word is placed in a sentence. If a word is single item, say a tree, then that item is ‘tree’ meaning there is one of them. That tree cannot be broken down any further. If there are many of the same items, they need a modifier that shows quantity, such as ‘trees.’

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The quantity of the item determines the form and placement of the word as well as those around it. To continue the example, the sentence may have the phrase ‘a tree’ or ‘the trees’ based on the quantity. This is made more complex through the use of non-quantifiable words that mean the same thing as a counted noun; for instance ‘the trees’ and ‘forest.’ In general, a non-quantifiable word or phrase is used in the same way as a single example of the thing it represents; ‘a tree’ or ‘a forest.’

The complex part of quantization is determining the smallest possible portion of an item that is still the item. This becomes even more difficult when the item can be disassembled. For example, a tree is still a tree regardless of whether it is alive, dead, standing or cut down. Once that tree is processed, so it no longer has bark or limbs, it is still essentially a tree but not entirely. When the processed tree is cut into lumber, it has far too few characteristics of a tree to still be referred to as such.

In American English, quantization is used in a loose fashion. American English pulls in many new words and phrases from many languages and ethnic backgrounds every year. The slang used one year may be common speech just a few years later. As a result, the rules for quantization are often complex and mutable. This also means that American English has far more methods of pluralizing nouns than most other major languages.

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