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Modern English Word-Formation

Modern English Word-Formation


The ways in which new words are formed, and the factors which govern their

acceptance into the language, are generally taken very much for granted by

the average speaker. To understand a word, it is not necessary to know how

it is constructed, whether it is simple or complex, that is, whether or not

it can be broken down into two or more constituents. We are able to use a

word which is new to us when we find out what object or notion it denotes.

Some words, of course, are more ‘transparent’ than others. For example, in

the words unfathomable and indescribable we recognize the familiar pattern

of negative prefix + transitive word + adjective-forming suffix on which

many words of similar form are constructed. Knowing the pattern, we can

easily guess their meanings – ‘cannot be fathomed’ and ‘cannot be

described’ – although we are not surprised to find other similar-looking

words, for instance unfashionable and unfavourable for which this analysis

will not work. We recognize as ‘transparent’ the adjectives unassuming and

unheard-of, which taking for granted the fact that we cannot use assuming

and heard-of. We accept as quite natural the fact that although we can use

the verbs to pipe, to drum and to trumpet, we cannot use the verbs to piano

and to violin.

But when we meet new coinages, like tape-code, freak-out, shutup-ness and

beautician, we may not readily be able to explain our reactions to them.

Innovations in vocabulary are capable of arousing quite strong feelings in

people who may otherwise not be in the habit of thinking very much about

language. Quirk[1] quotes some letter to the press of a familiar kind,

written to protest about ‘horrible jargon’, such as breakdown, ‘vile’ words

like transportation, and the ‘atrocity’ lay-by.

Many linguists agree over the fact that the subject of word-formation has

not until recently received very much attention from descriptive

grammarians of English, or from scholars working in the field of general

linguistics. As a collection of different processes (compounding,

affixation, conversion, backformation, etc.) about which, as a group, it is

difficult to make general statements, word-formation usually makes a brief

appearance in one or two chapters of a grammar. Valerie Adams emphasizes

two main reasons why the subject has not been attractive to linguists: its

connections with the non-linguistic world of things and ideas, for which

words provide the names, and its equivocal position as between descriptive

and historical studies. A few brief remarks, which necessarily present a

much over-simplified picture, on the course which linguistics has taken in

the last hundred years will make this easier.

The nineteenth century, the period of great advances in historical and

comparative language study, saw the first claims of linguistics to be a

science, comparable in its methods with the natural sciences which were

also enjoying a period of exciting discovery. These claims rested on the

detailed study, by comparative linguists, of formal correspondences in the

Indo-European languages, and their realization that such study depended on

the assumption of certain natural ‘laws’ of sound change. As Robins[2]

observes in his discussion of the linguistics of the latter part of the

nineteenth century:

The history of a language is traced through recorded variations in

the forms and meanings of its words, and languages are proved to be

related by reason of their possession of worlds bearing formal and

semantic correspondences to each other such as cannot be attributed

to mere chance or to recent borrowing. If sound change were not

regular, if word-forms were subject to random, inexplicable, and

unmotivated variation in the course of time, such arguments would

lose their validity and linguistic relations could only be

established historically by extralinguistic evidence such as is

provided in the Romance field of languages descended from Latin.

The rise and development in the twentieth century of synchronic descriptive

linguistics meant a shift of emphasis from historical studies, but not from

the idea of linguistics as a science based on detailed observation and the

rigorous exclusion of all explanations depended on extralinguistic factors.

As early as 1876, Henry Sweet had written:

Before history must come a knowledge of what exists. We must learn

to observe things as they are, without regard to their origin, just

as a zoologist must learn to describe accurately a horse or any

other animal. Nor would the mere statements that the modern horse is

a descendant of a three-toed marsh quadruped be accepted as an

exhausted description... Such however is the course being pursued by

most antiquarian philologists.[3]

The most influential scholar concerned with the new linguistics was

Ferdinand de Saussure, who emphasized the distinction between external

linguistics – the study of the effects on a language of the history and

culture of its speakers, and internal linguistics – the study of its system

and rules. Language, studied synchronically, as a system of elements

definable in relation to one another, must be seen as a fixed state of

affairs at a particular point of time. It was internal linguistics,

stimulated by de Saussure’s works, that was to be the main concern of the

twentieth-century scholars, and within it there could be no place for the

study of the formation of words, with its close connection with the

external world and its implications of constant change. Any discussion of

new formations as such means the abandonment of the strict distinction

between history and the present moment. As Harris expressed in his

influential Structural Linguistics[4]: ‘The methods of descriptive

linguistics cannot treat of the productivity of elements since that is a

measure of the difference between our corpus and some future corpus of the

language.’ Leonard Bloomfield, whose book Language[5] was the next work of

major influence after that of de Saussure, re-emphasized the necessity of a

scientific approach, and the consequent difficulties in the way of studying

‘meaning’, and until the middle of the nineteen-fifties, interest was

centered on the isolating of minimal segments of speech, the description of

their distribution relative to one another, and their organization into

larger units. The fundamental unit of grammar was not the word but a

smaller unit, the morpheme.

The next major change of emphasis in linguistics was marked by the

publication in 1957 of Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures[6]. As Chomsky

stated it, the aim of linguistics was now seen to be ‘to make grammatical

explanations parallel in achievement to the behavior of the speaker who, on

the basis of a finite and accidental experience with language can produce

and understand an indefinite number of new sentences’[7]. The idea of

productivity, or creativity, previously excluded from linguistics, or

discussed in terms of probabilities in the effort to maintain the view of

language as existing in a static state, was seen to be of central

importance. But still word-formation remained a topic neglected by

linguists, and for several good reasons. Chomsky made explicit the

distinction, fundamental to linguistics today (and comparable to that made

by de Saussure between langue, the system of a language, and parole, the

set of utterances of the language), between linguistic competence, ‘the

speaker-hearer’s knowledge of his language’ and performance, ‘the actual

use of language in concrete situations’[8]. Linked with this distinction

are the notions of ‘grammaticalness’ and ‘acceptability’; in Chomsky’s

words, ‘Acceptability is a concept that belongs to the study of

competence’[9]. A ‘grammatical’ utterance is one which may be generated and

interpreted by the rules of the grammar; an ‘acceptable’ utterance is one

which is ‘perfectly natural and immediately comprehensible... and in no way

bizarre or outlandish’[10]. It is easy to show, as Chomsky does, that a

grammatical sentence may not be acceptable. For instance, this is the

cheese the rat the cat caught stole appears ‘bizarre’ and unacceptable

because we have difficulty in working it out, not because it breaks any

grammatical rules. Generally, however, it is to be expected that

grammaticalness and acceptability will go hand in hand where sentences are


The ability to make and understand new words is obviously as much a part of

our linguistic competence as the ability to make and understand new

sentences, and so, as Pennanen[11] points out, ‘it is an obvious gap in

transformational grammars not to have made provision for treating word-

formation.’ But, as we have already noticed, we may readily thing of words,

like to piano and to violin, against which we can invoke no rule, but which

are definitely ‘unacceptable’ for no obvious reason. The incongruence of

grammaticality and acceptability that is, is far greater where words are

concerned than where sentences are concerned. It is so great, in fact, that

the exercise of setting out the ‘rules’ for forming words has so far seemed

to many linguists to be out of questionable usefulness. The occasions on

which we would have to describe the output of such rules as ‘grammatical

but non-occurring’[12] are just too numerous. And there are further

difficulties in treating new words like new sentences. A novel word (like

handbook or partial) may attract unwelcome attention to itself and appear

to be the result of the breaking of rules rather than of their application.

And besides, the more accustomed to the word we become, the more likely we

are to find it acceptable, whether it is ‘grammatical’ or not – or perhaps

we should say, whether or not is was ‘grammatical’ at the time it was first

formed, since a new word once formed, often becomes merely a member of an

inventory; its formation is a historical event, and the ‘rule’ behind it

may then appear irrelevant.

What exactly is a word? From Lewis Carroll onwards, this apparently simple

question has bedeviled countless word buffs, whether they are participating

in a game of Scrabble or writing an article for the Word Ways linguistic

magazine. To help the reader decide what constitutes a word, A. Ross

Eckler[13] suggests a ranking of words in decreasing order of

admissibility. A logical way to rank a word is by the number of English-

speaking people who can recognize it in speech or writing, but this is

obviously impossible to ascertain. Alternatively, one can rank a word by

its number of occurrences in a selected sample of printed material. H.

Kucera and W.N. Francis's Computational Analysis of Present-day English[14]

is based on one million words from sources in print in 1961. Unfortunately,

the majority of the words in Webster's Unabridged[15] do not appear even

once in this compilation – and the words which do not appear are the ones

for which a philosophy of ranking is most urgently needed. Furthermore, the

written ranking will differ from the recognition ranking; vulgarities and

obscenities will rank much higher in the latter than in the former.

A detailed, word-by-word ranking is an impossible dream, but a ranking

based on classes of words may be within our grasp. Ross Eckler[16] proposes

the following classes: (1) words appearing in one more standard English-

language dictionaries, (2) non-dictionary words appearing in print in

several different contexts, (3) words invented to fill a specific need and

appearing but once in print.

Most people are willing to admit as words all uncapitalized, unlabeled

entries in, say, Webster's New International Dictionary, Third Edition

(1961). Intuitively, one recognizes that words become less admissible as

they move in any or all of three directions: as they become more frequently

capitalized, as they become the jargon of smaller groups (dialect,

technical, scientific), and as they become archaic or obsolete. These

classes have no definite boundaries – is a word last used in 1499

significantly more obsolete than a word last used in 1501? Is a word known

to 100,000 chemists more admissible than a word known to 90,000 Mexican-

Americans? Each linguist will set his own boundaries.

The second class consists of non-dictionary words appearing in print in a

number of sources. There are many non-dictionary words in common use; some

logologists would like to draw a wider circle to include these. Such words

can be broadly classified into: (1) neologisms and common words overlooked

by dictionary-makers, (2) geographical place names, (3) given names and


Dmitri Borgmann[17] points out that the well-known words uncashed, ex-wife

and duty-bound appear in no dictionaries (since 1965, the first of these

has appeared in the Random House Unabridged). Few people would exclude

these words. Neologisms present a more awkward problem since some may be so

ephemeral that they never appear in a dictionary. Perhaps one should read

Pope's dictum "Be not the first by whom the new are tried, nor yet the last

to lay the old aside."

Large treasure-troves of geographic place names can be found in The Times

Atlas of the World[18] (200,000 names), and the Rand McNally Commercial

Atlas and Marketing Guide[19] (100,000 names). These are not all different,

and some place names are already dictionary words. All these can be easily

verified by other readers; however, some will feel uneasy about admitting

as a word the name, say, of a small Albanian town which possibly has never

appeared in any English-language text outside of atlases.

Given names appear in the appendix of many dictionaries. Common given names

such as Edward or Cornelia ought to be admitted as readily as common

geographical place names such as Guatemala, but this set does not add much

to the logological stockpile.

Family surnames at first blush appear to be on the same footing as

geographical place names. However, one must be careful about sources.

Biographical dictionaries and Who's Who are adequate references, but one

should be cautious citing surnames appearing only in telephone directories.

Once a telephone directory is supplanted by a later edition, it is

difficult to locate copies for verifying surname claims. Further, telephone

directories are not immune to nonce names coined by subscribers for

personal reasons. A good index of the relative admissibility of surnames is

the number of people in the United States bearing that surname. An estimate

of this could be obtained from computer tapes of the Social Security

Administration; in 1957 they issued a pamphlet giving the number of Social

Security accounts associated with each of the 1500 most common family


The third and final class of words consists of nonce words, those invented

to fill a specific need, and appearing only once (or perhaps only in the

work of the author favoring the word). Few philologists feel comfortable

about admitting these. Nonce words range from coinages by James Joyce and

Edgar Allan Poe (X-ing a Paragraph) to interjections in comic strips

(Agggh! Yowie!). Ross Eckler and Daria Abrossimova suggest that

misspellings in print should be included here also.

In the book “Beyond Language”, Dmitri Borgmann proposes that the

philologist be prepared to admit words that may never have appeared in

print. For example, Webster's Second lists eudaemony as well as the entry

"Eudaimonia, eudaimonism, eudaimonist, etc." From this he concludes that

EUDAIMONY must exist and should be admitted as a word. Similarly, he can

conceive of sentences containing the word GRACIOUSLY'S ("There are ten

graciously's in Anna Karenina") and SAN DIEGOS ("Consider the luster that

the San Diegos of our nation have brought to the US"). In short, he argues

that these words might plausibly be used in an English-language sentence,

but does not assert any actual usage. His criterion for the acceptance of a

word seems to be its philological uniqueness (EUDAIMONY is a short word

containing all five vowels and Y).

The available linguistic literature on the subject cites various types and

ways of forming words. Earlier books, articles and monographs on word-

formation and vocabulary growth in general used to mention morphological,

syntactic and lexico-semantic types of word-formation. At present the

classifications of the types of word-formation do not, as a rule, include

lexico-semantic word-building. Of interest is the classification of word-

formation means based on the number of motivating bases which many scholars

follow. A distinction is made between two large classes of word-building

means: to Class I belong the means of building words having one motivating

base (e.g. the noun doer is composed of the base do- and the suffix -er),

which Class II includes the means of building words containing more than

one motivating base. They are all based on compounding (e.g. compounds

letter-opener, e-mail, looking-glass).

Most linguists in special chapters and manuals devoted to English word-

formation consider as the chief processes of English word-formation

affixation, conversion and compounding.

Apart from these, there is a number of minor ways of forming words such as

back-formation, sound interchange, distinctive stress, onomatopoeia,

blending, clipping, acronymy.

Some of the ways of forming words in present-day English can be restored to

for the creation of new words whenever the occasion demands – these are

called productive ways of forming words, other ways of forming words cannot

now produce new words, and these are commonly termed non-productive or

unproductive. R. S. Ginzburg gives the example of affixation having been a

productive way of forming new words ever since the Old English period; on

the other hand, sound-interchange must have been at one time a word-

building means but in Modern English (as we have mentioned above) its

function is actually only to distinguish between different classes and

forms of words.

It follows that productivity of word-building ways, individual derivational

patterns and derivational affixes is understood as their ability of making

new words which all who speak English find no difficulty in understanding,

in particular their ability to create what are called occasional words or

nonce-words[20] (e.g. lungful (of smoke), Dickensish (office), collarless

(appearance)). The term suggests that a speaker coins such words when he

needs them; if on another occasion the same word is needed again, he coins

it afresh. Nonce-words are built from familiar language material after

familiar patterns. Dictionaries, as a rule, do not list occasional words.

The delimitation between productive and non-productive ways and means of

word-formation as stated above is not, however, accepted by all linguists

without reserve. Some linguists consider it necessary to define the term

productivity of a word-building means more accurately. They hold the view

that productive ways and means of word-formation are only those that can be

used for the formation of an unlimited number of new words in the modern

language, i.e. such means that “know no bounds” and easily form occasional

words. This divergence of opinion is responsible for the difference in the

lists of derivational affixes considered productive in various books on

English lexicology.

Nevertheless, recent investigations seem to prove that productivity of

derivational means is relative in many respects. Moreover there are no

absolutely productive means; derivational patterns and derivational affixes

possess different degrees of productivity. Therefore it is important that

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