The previous summary presented derivation as one process that allows us to introduce new words into a language. While derivation is generally assumed to be the most productive word formation process, there are several others.
Compounds are possibly those multimorphemic words that we most readily identify as consisting of several parts. In a compound several free morphemes are combined, resulting in a word that often derives its meaning from the combination of its components.
classroom = class + room
skyscraper = sky + scraper
wallpaper = wall + paper
In English, compounds are often not written as single words but separated or combined by a hyphen (e.g. dry cleaner, on-line). In contrast to this, German compounds are usually spelled as a single word and compounding is an extremely productive word formation process in German (e.g. Hochschulrektorenkonferenz, Karnevalswochenende, …).
Note that while noun + noun compounds are frequent, other combinations also abound and the result must not be a noun.
verb + noun = noun
adjective + noun = noun
preposition + noun = verb
Many compounds exhibit a so-called modifier-head structure, with one part specifying the other in terms of meaning. Thus a blackboard is a kind of board and a talkshow is a kind of show (not a kind of black or a kind of talk). The modifier may function in different ways, e.g. a raincoat is not a coat for but against rain.
While the abovementioned examples are endocentric (i.e. the meaning of the compound is derived from the meaning of the parts) there are some compounds where this is not the case. A redhead is not a type of head but a person with red hair. Such compounds are called exocentric, because their meaning is not strictly contained in the components.
Another highly productive word formation process is conversion, which is the term used to describe a word class change without any morphological marking.
party (noun) -> party (verb)
We will be at the party
They like to party
must (verb) -> must (noun)
You must eat your soup
It is a must that you call him
Note that we only speak of conversion when it is clear that a word has been “copied” from one word class to another. Frequently words appear similar without having been converted (at least not recently) – for example, English like exists as a verb, a noun, an adjective or a filler/discourse marker.
When a word is imported from another language we describe this process as borrowing. While German also has a large and increasing number of borrowings, especially from English, English itself is well-known for its mixed vocabulary and overall affinity for foreign words. Some words from Latin and Greek (e.g. strata – street, episkopos – bishop) were imported into a large number Indo-European languages before English even existed, emphasizing that borrowing is in no way a novel process. A few examples that illustrate the mixed vocabulary of English:
avalanche – from Romansch via French
bizarre – from Basque via French
candy – from Arabic and possibly Sanskrit via French
coffee – from Arabic via Turkish and Italian
ketchup – from Malay via Amoy Chinese
schadenfreude – from German
French has contributed a very large portion of English loan words and often borrowed words take on different meanings due to competition with indigenous terms (cf. Old English great with Norse big and French large).
Shortening longer words is a popular strategy for conserving breath when speaking and space when writing or typing. Clipping or trimming words in the front or back (and sometimes both) is thus another word formation process in English.
air plane -> plane
advertisement -> ad
influenza -> flu
front and back clipping
Blends are combinations of two or more words in which the sound patterns overlap. Often parts of either or both words are reduced or lost in the blend, though usually the initial components are still recognizable.
brunch = breakfast + lunch
motel = motor + hotel
smog = smoke + fog
Initialisms and Acronyms
Other forms of shortenings are initialisms (also called alphabetisms) and acronyms, which reduce each component word to its initial letter. The difference between to two types lies in how the resulting word is pronounced in spoken language, namely letter by letter or without intermission.
Initialisms: TV, CD, MP3, SUV, YMCA, STFU
Acronyms: UNESCO, NATO, LOL, WYSIWYG, KISS
Sometimes speakers of a language will analyze a word as containing affixes where none are present. By removing these assumed affixes a lexeme can be back-formed.
When critically looking at what you’ve learned about morphology and word formation to this point, you are bound to notice that the harmonious abstractions of the terminology aren’t entirely perfect. Some phenomena such as cranberry morphemes (see below) demonstrate that morphemes are idealized and do not always correspond neatly with atomic units of information. The following “oddities” stand out in English:
A zero morph is a morph that should analytically be there, but that is not represented. A zero (Ø) is often used to indicate the “invisible” morph.
two cats = (ROOT) + -s (PLURAL)
two sheep = (ROOT) + Ø (PLURAL)
I like = (ROOT) + Ø (Non-3. Pers. sing.)
She likes = (ROOT) + -s (3. Pers. sing.)
Note that regarding noun plurals, one should not confuse zero morphs with mass nouns. Mass nouns such as water or metal simply do not have a plural, whereas sheep merely has no visible marking of the plural.
Some inflectional morphemes encode more than just a single grammatical property. These are called portmanteau morphs, because they contain several items inside a single shell (a portmanteau is a large suitcase).
+ 3. person
+ present tense
+ 1. person
Note that this is not to be confused with distinct morphemes which are realized with similar-looking morphs, such as -s as the realization of the plural morpheme vs. -s indicating third person singular.
Sometimes we encounter morphemes which are neither affixes nor genuine free morphemes. Such unique morphemes (which are occasionally also called cranberry morphemes) pose problems for analysis.
Black, straw and blue are lexical morphemes – but what’s a cran or a mul? Cranberry morphemes are most often introduced into a language via borrowing or dialectal variation and therefore only occur in a fixed morphological constellation. They are sometimes described as fossilized terms due to the fact that they can no longer be separately analyzed or used productively to form new words.
- word formation processes
- endocentric – exocentric
- initialisms and acronyms
- morphological oddities
- zero morphs
- portmanteau morphs
- cranberry morphemes
Read this New York Times column and find out what word formation processes William Safire unknowingly mentions.
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