Session 7: Word Formation

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
front clipping

advertisement -> ad
back clipping

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



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.

to edit

to babysit

“Morphological oddities”

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:

Zero morphs

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.

Portmanteau morphs

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).

he sleeps
+ 3. person
+ singular
+ present tense

my cat
+ 1. person
+ singular

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.

Cranberry morphemes

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.

Key Terms

  • word formation processes
    • derivation
    • compounding
      • endocentric – exocentric
    • conversion
    • borrowing
    • clipping
    • blending
    • initialisms and acronyms
    • back-formation
  • 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.

Written by Cornelius in: Morphology,Summaries |


  • Stefan


    my name is Stefan and as a student of English I have to hand in several worksheets – some less others more complicated – the latter led me to write you because I´m searching for help concerning a linguistic question:

    3. Morphology – Word-Formation: In an article celebrating the tenth birthday of the word
    weblog (from which we get blog, blogging, blogger, etc.) at the end of 2007, a journalist
    wrote the following:
    “the word [weblog] was an abbreviation for the ‘logging’ of interesting ‘web’ sites”
    a) Analyse the morphemic structure of the word weblog and determine what wordformation
    technique(s) were used to form it. (5 points)
    b) Based on your analysis in a), explain why the journalist’s explanation cited above
    is not satisfactory from a linguist’s perspective. (5 points)
    NB: You may need to use reference works such as a historical dictionary (e.g. OED) to
    answer this question fully and accurately

    ….. perhaps you have some ideas to help me :-)

    yours sincerely


    Comment | January 28, 2009
  • matthias, from Nairobi, Kenya

    This is a nice, comprehensive quick summary of word formation processes that has proved very helpful to me. However, I think this information would be helpful as far as borrowing is concerned: borrowed words have to adopt the features of the borrowing language e.g. inflectional conventions.

    Comment | March 6, 2009
  • vinod

    there so many word which seperated by root, suffix
    & affix …….

    Comment | February 16, 2010
  • thanx for the explanations iv just read,they are really going to help me a lot coz am having an exam tomorrow

    Comment | May 6, 2010
  • prita

    this is nice, this information will help to study linguistics, i have some linguistic question,
    1. What are the different about abbreviation and acronyms?
    2. analyse the word B4 (create from combination letter and number as a word by taking intial pronounceable, please help me to analyze and determine what word formation process?
    would u mind to help me please to answer the question,,

    Comment | July 22, 2010
  • moses

    wonderfull piece of work done; it has assisted me in my revision and i am advising you to keep up with the good work

    Comment | February 14, 2011

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