Modern English Word-Formation

  The first principle of classification that, one might say, suggests itself is the part of speech formed. Within the scope

Modern English Word-Formation

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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 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 is based on one million words from sources in print in 1961. Unfortunately, the majority of the words in Webster's Unabridged 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 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 surnames.


Dmitri Borgmann 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 (200,000 names), and the Rand McNally Commercial Atlas and Marketing Guide (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 names.


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 (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 “k

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