What Is Nanosyntax?

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  • Written By: A. Leverkuhn
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 13 August 2019
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Nanosyntax is an interesting part of linguistics where experts contemplate smaller bits of syntax that make up larger syntactical structures. Specifically, in the discipline of nanosyntax, scientists theorize that syntax can be broken down into parts smaller than words or understood syllables. This relatively new science dates back to the early 1990s, although some theories may have been put forward well before.

One of the ideas in nanosyntax surrounds a language item called a “morpheme.” The morpheme was traditionally the smallest element of syntax before nanosyntax posited the sub-morpheme unit of language. A morpheme is any part of a word that has its own meaning, for example, consider the way that the prefix “dis” changes the meaning of a word.

By contrast, nanosyntax theorizes that units of language can be broken down much smaller, into individual sounds or other small units that would not appear to be independently meaningful. The most general definition of this term, though, involves looking at language on a “sub-word” level to see how smaller units of speech can have meaning.


One example of how nanosyntax works is as an alternative to a lexical approach. The lexical approach holds that a language is made up of words that are compiled into a lexicon. Here, words are the important unit of language, where speakers and others build these from the lexicon as needed. The lexical approach can provide a functional method for some linguistic activities, but scientists are questioning it as the most fundamental approach to language.

An idea that goes along with challenging the lexical approach is the idea that language is based on repetition. Linguists understand that a written language needs repetitive symbols in order to be meaningful. This is one way that scientists reveal how units of speech smaller than words do have meaning and do contribute to building a larger syntactical structure.

The idea of breaking down words into smaller units of meaning goes along with many other similar kinds of scientific progress in other fields. For example, in chemistry and related disciplines, looking at organic materials in closer ways reveals more about them. Nanosyntax could do much the same for the field of linguistics, especially as scientists are also looking closer at the way the human brain works and how humans process large syntactical structures in advertising. Advertising research and similar fields could also benefit from a closer knowledge of how smaller units of syntax are used by the human brain.


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