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2.1. What is a word?

2.1.1. If we set aside exclamations of joy, fear, and so on we can communicate little verbally without words. It is words which, expressed as sounds, convey the thought of a thing, of a concept, from the mind of one person to the mind of another person, providing, of course, that these two people speak the same language.

For speakers of English the word dog, conveyed by means of the sound sequence /dɔg/ or, in the case of many Americans, /dɑg/, transmits the concept of a particular kind of animal.

But what idea is represented by the word spick? Very little. Only when that word is accompanied by two more words, and span, do we have a symbol that represents a concept, a concept similar to that represented by the word clean or the word spotless.

The meaning of the phrase kick the bucket can, in the literal sense of striking ones foot against a pail, be arrived at by a summation of the meaning of the constituent words, but in the idiomatic sense of dying it cannot. The verb is variable for subject and for tense as is the verb die, but otherwise the phrase is set; we do not have leeway that we have in the literal sense to say kick the pail, kick this bucket, and so on. Thus, the three words kick the bucket used idiomatically must, from a functional point of view be regarded as a single unit, for this unit fulfils the same function as the single word die.

Similarly, the phrasal verbs of English are a lexical unit: give in is as much a unit as concede.

Why do we have to use two words to denote a female singer when we can denote a female actor with one: actress?

Thus a unit of meaning may consist of more than one word. It may also consist of less than one word: the un- in unhealthy is a unit of meaning, a very significant one in so far as it completely inverts the sense of healthy.

A unit of meaning can, then, range from an idiom, a phrase that has a meaning not apparent from its constituent words, to a morpheme, a minimal unit of meaning of which there may be several in a word.  

2.1.2. Word, then, will not do as a term for a unit of meaning. Recognizing that phrases like give in are no different functionally from single words like concede, linguists devised the term lexeme or lexical item to denote an item of vocabulary with a single referent whether it consists of one word or more than one word. The term lexeme also allows greater precision in that the forms gives, gave, and so on, can be considered to be different forms of the one lexeme: give.

The lexeme, which one can equate to the form that one would look up in a dictionary, encompasses the set of forms that may be used to realize the lexeme in various environments.

So how can we define a word?

Useful tests might be indivisibility, insertion and substitutability.

Words are indivisible and they can be inserted between other words: we can insert large between the and dog but not within dog.

We can substitute the word cat for the word dog.

But then much the same can be said of phrasal lexemes like kick the bucket and give in.

Similarly, morphemes cannot be divided, can be inserted and can be substituted: the un- of uninformed, can, for example, be replaced by mis-.

The American linguist Leonard Bloomfield (Bloomfield, 1933: 178) considered a word to be a minimum free form:

A word, then, is a free form which does not consist entirely of (two or more)

lesser free forms; in brief, a word is a minimum free form.

The inclusion in this definition of the word free removes bound morphemes, morphemes that cannot stand independently as words, such as un-, from what might be allowed as a word.

This definition does not seem to admit words that are compounds of other words: it would admit fire and man but not fireman. But elsewhere Bloomfield says that a free form which is not a phrase is a word, which would admit fireman.

We may find the sound system helpful in determining what a word is. In both black bird and blackbird the principal stress indicates where the noun starts. Charles Hockett turns to the sound system when he suggests that a word is:

any segment of a sentence bounded by successive points at which pausing

is possible (Hockett, 1958: 167)

In the end, however, we may have to accept that setting aside the convention of leaving spaces between sequences of characters in the written language it is difficult to define satisfactorily what a word is. The range of meaning or function encompassed by a word varies from language to language.

The French equivalent of I shall give is represented by two words je donnerai, the marker for the future tense being incorporated in the verb. In Spanish only one word is required, dar , the element being considered sufficient to indicate who is going o do the giving.

How do we treat elided forms? How many words are there in the French jacheterai or the English Ill buy? The sound system of French might suggest that ja- constitutes one syllable; syntax,on the other hand, would argue for two separate words as an object pronoun can be inserted to give je lacheterai.

How do we treat separable verbs in German? Aufstehen, meaning to get up, would appear to be a single word, but then wefind that in the equivalent of, say, I get up at seven oclock it is split into two parts: ich stehe um sieben Uhr auf.

This variability is reflected in Edward Sapirs description of a word as

merely a form, a definitely molded entity that takes in as much or as little of

the conceptual material of the whole thought as the genius of the language

cares to allow (Sapir, 1921: 32).

This American linguist tells us that in some of the highly synthetic languages of the Native Americans it is not always easy to say whether a particular element of language is to be interpreted as an independent word or as part of a larger word (Sapir, 1921: 33).

2.2. Where Do Words Come From?

2.2.1. The speakers of English refer to a dog by means of the word dog. What is the connection between the sequence of sounds /dɔg/ or /dɑg/, on the one hand, and a particular kind of animal on the other? There is no reason why a person who does not speak English should associate the word with a dog rather than with, say, a ship or the action of cooking.

There is only an association between word and object because the English- speaking community accepts that this is the case. The association is a matter a convention.

Any sequence of sounds could serve just as well to denote a dog; as we have seen, the sounds /ʃjɛ/, the sounds produced by the word chien, do the job just as well for the French. The nature of the association between word and object can be likened to that of the association between a red cross and medical services, or the association between a red light and the requirement to stop.

So if words have no inherent relationship with objects in the real world, what determines their form?

Firstly, of course, some words do have something of an inherent relationship with the thing that they denote. This is clearly the case with onomatopoeic words, words which represent sounds or things which make a sound.

The words bang and crash are clearly imitative of the sounds that they denote.

While the word dog is arbitrary, the young childs equivalent bow-wow is basically imitative, although here, too, a conventional form has developed. A Danish child imitates a dog with vovvov; a Romanian child with ham-ham.

Indeed, the theory that human speech arose as the result of humans imitating animals has been given the name of the bow-wow theory.

Other words, though not directly imitative, may also exhibit sound symbolism, may also reflect the nature of the object or concept that the denote.

The initial cluster sl- of English, it has been suggesed, is indicative of the condition that Leonard Bloomfield called smoothly wet (Bloomfield, 1933: 245). The American linguist listed a large number of examples that suggest an association between sound and characteristic: slide, slippery, slimy.

One case where we do find a widespread correlation is between the concept of mother and the sound [m]: Arabic uses the word ( in transliteration) umm, Chinese uses the word ma. An Inca goddess of agriculture was called Pachamama, Mother Earth. It has been suggested that [m], one of the first consonant sounds that a child makes , has been widely associated with the mother because that is the sound that the child makes when its lips are seeking the breast. Indeed, the Latin word for a breast is mamma, that being the source for such words as mammal and mammary.

Such speculations about inherent links between word and thing may be fascinating. But the fact remains that the vast majority of our words have no discernible link with the real world. So where have they come from?

It would be constructive to consider the different ways in which certain ancestral elements have evolved into the words that we now use to denote the things around us, the different ways in which we acquire labels for new objects and concepts.

Let us imagine that the hankerchief was a new concept in the English-speaking world and that we therefore had no word for such an object. How might we go about getting a word?

We might refer to its form or its function. The Spanish word pañuelo refers to the objects form, pañuelo being a diminutive form of the word paño, meaning cloth.

The French word, on the other hand, refers to the function of the object, mouchoir being derived from the verb moucher which denotes the cleaning of the nose; they are cognates of that is, they are from the same source as - the English word mucus.

The German word, Taschentuch, gives less of an indication of the function of the object than does the French word, for the German word is a compound of the equivalents of pocket and cloth.

As far as the English word is concerned, we might use English elements or borrow from other languages. If we look at what has in fact happened, we see a number of factors at work. The word handkerchief is a hybrid in that the element kerchief derives from Old French covrechef, literally *cover-head, and the native element hand is prefixed to provide a word which denotes a variant that one holds in ones hand. The word has subsequently become slightly smpler in that the sound /d/ is no longer heard. In informal speech it has become significantly simplified, having contracted to hankie.

2.2.2. Having sampled a way in which our words may be shaped, we shall now briefly look at them a little more systematically. Conversion

Conversion is a term used in the study of word formation to refer to the derviational process whereby an item comes to belong to a new word class without the addition of an affix. Other terms used for this phenomenon, which is very common in English, include zero derivation and fuctional shift. The nouns pocket and table have, for example, come to be used as verbs as in to pocket the money and to table a proposal. Derivation

Derivation is a major type of word formation, in which a certain kind of affix (derivatinal affix) is used to form new words.

One word can be formed on the basis of another by the addition of morphemes with a particular significance. The verb cover becomes the verb discover by the addition of a morpheme implying removal. This removal can be negated by the prefix un-: undiscovered.

The verb discover becomes discoverer by the addition of a morpheme implying the person who does the action. This process of word formation is known as derivation.

Clearly, different languages form derivations in different ways. In the Romance languages, for example, it is common to derive a noun related to an activity from the feminine form of the past participle of the verb denoting that activity. In this way, for example, French has derived its words for entrance, an exit and a view: entr e, sortie and vue.

The German equivalents are a prefixed nominal form for the verb: Eingang, Aussgang and Aussicht.

Note: In generative grammar, the term derivation refers to the set of formally identifiable stages used to generate a sentence from an initial symbol to a terminal string. Semantic extension

Extension is a term used used in liguistics to refer to a class of entities to which a word is correctly applied.

Our label for some things is the result of analogy with something else; thus we talk of the foot of a mountain and the mouth of a river. These are metaphors. We are dealing here with semantic extension, a new concept being included within the semantic range of an existing word.

In this way, the word coach, originally denoting a horse-drawn vehicle, now denotes a long-distance bus or a railway vehicle. Semantic extension may reflect the society concerned. Compounding Alternatively, a new word may result from the compounding of existing elements in the language.

Like other Germanic languages, English makes extensive use of compounding. There is almost no limit on the kinds of combinations that occur in English, as the following list of compounds shows:

Adjective Noun Verb

Adjective bittersweet poorhouse highborn

Noun headstrong  rainbow spoonfeed

Verb  carryall pickpocket sleepwalk

When the two words are in the same grammatical category, the compound will be in this category:

noun + noun: girlfriend, paper clip, landlord, fighter-bomber

adjective + adjective: icy-cold, red-hot

In many cases, when the two words fall into different categories, the class of the second or final word will be the grammatical category of the compound:

noun + adjective: headstrong, watertight, lifelong

verb + noun: pickpocket, daredevil

On the other hand, compounds formed with a preposition are in the category of the nonprepositional part of the compound:

overtake, hanger-on, sundown, downfall, uplift

It is, however, rather arbitrary about whether the elements should be written as one word, as two words or as a hyphenated word. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1993) has fireman, fire station and fire-fighter.

This all helps to justify the concept of the lexeme, but one is still left with a grey area: is leather bag a compound noun or do we simply have here a modified simple noun as we do with big bag? Meaning of compounds

The meaning of a compound is not always the sum of the meanings of its parts; a blackboard may be green or white.

Other compounds show that, underlying the juxtaposition of words, different grammatical relations are expressed. A boathouse is a house for boats, but a cathouse is not a house for cats. (It is slang for a house of prostitution or whorehouse).

A magnifying glass is a glass that magnifies, but a looking glass is not a glass that looks; nor is an eating apple an apple that eats. In all these examples, the meaning of each compound includes at least to some extent the meanings of the individual parts.

However, there are other compounds that do not seem to relate to the meanings of the individual parts at all. A turncoat is a traitor. A highbrow does not necessarily have a high brow, nor does a bigwig have a big wig, nor does an egghead have an egg-shaped head.

As we can see, the meaning of many compounds must be learned as if they were individual simple words.

As an alternative to using native elements to produce a new label, one can, of course, turn to other languages for material.

A language can form new compounds using elements taken from the classical languages. The word television is composed from a Greek element indicating distance and the Latin element indicating sight.

The Greek elements Thermos hot plus metron measure gave the word thermometer.

In the field of medicine, terminology is generally based on classical elements; hepatitis, for example, is based on the Greek equivalent of liver.

Such words are called neo-classical compounds. Like blend words, they are composed of elements that cannot exist by themselves. Blend words

Two words of a compound to produce blends (or portmanteau words). Blends are similar to compounds but parts of the words that are combined are deleted and so they are less than compounds.

The elements of a compound may be merged such that at least one element is abbreviated. In this way, for example, the phrase motor cavalcade became motorcade, camera recorder became camcorder. Other common blends are smog from smoke + fog; motel, from motor + hotel; brunch from breakfast + lunch, etc.


A language can also, of course, acquire a word ready-made from another language. An object or concept acquired from another society may be given the label used by that society.

Thus the word sauna came to us from Finnish. The words chocolate and tomato came frm a native language of what is now Mexico. The people of the Andes gave Europe the word llama.

Societies that are pioneers in a particular field often provide the labels for other societies. In this way Italy has exported musical terminology, France has provided terminology in the field of cooking or cuisine! and the German-speaking world has provided terminology in the field of psychology.

Thus, from the Latin verb crescere, meaning to grow, the English have by way of Italian the musical term crescendo and by way of French the word for a bakery item: croissant.

In the seventeenth century the Dutch were a major maritime power and Dutch maritime terminology was adopted widely. The Dutch word jacht went into Geman as Jacht, into Russian as яxта, into English as yacht.

When a word is adopted by one language from another it is referred to as a loanword.

Loanwords may retain a pronunciation similar to that which they had in their language of origin or the pronunciation may be adapted to the phonology of the adoptive language. Some people retain the French pronunciation of the word with the sound / / but others replace this rather alien sound with / d

So, too, the word may or may not retain its native morphology; spaghetti retains its Italian plural form, possibly because the English do not recognise it as such the word means small pieces of string but musicians play cellos, not *celli.

One might, of course, argue whether or not a foreign word has been adopted by the English language. The word spaghetti is so widely used in the English-speaking world that most people would accept that it has been adopted by the English language, but might not its retention of an Italian plural morpheme and the fact that it denotes a food so closely associated with Italy lead one to argue that it is an Italian word that may be inserted into an English sentence?

Perhaps less likely to be deemed an English word, if only because its use is largely restricted to the people that it denotes, is cognoscenti. Also counting against its adoption is the fact that much of its function is already performed by a cognate of French origin, the word connoisseur.

How long can a word be in a language and still be considered a loanword? The word connoisseur has not come from modern French; the diphthong / oi / was a feature of Old French; the modern French equivalent is connaisseur.

The word chef would generally be accepted to be a loanword, but what about the cognate chief which, as the spelling and the original sound / t show, was transferred from Old French?

Is take to be considered a loanword because it was of Norse origin and ousted the Old English niman?

Linguists (Poole, 1999: 19) conclude that such concepts as a loanword are useful guides to the process involved but that there is a danger of oversimplifying what happens in the real world.

Loan translations or calques

Instead of borrowing, to use the usual term, or adopting, to use a more appropriate term, a word from another language, a society may take the principle of a foreign word but translate its constituent elements. In this way the literal sense of the English word honeymoon was imitated as lune de miel in French.

The English term skyscraper gave rise to the literal equivalents gratte-ciel in French, Wolkenkratzer in German, and so on.

Terms acquired in this way are called loan translations or calques.

Here, too, we do not have a category with distnct boundaries. It is relatively easy to identify a loan translation when the term is as idiosyncratic as honeymoon. But when the term is more prosaic, like mousetrap, it is quite feasible that different communities happen to have independently produced a term from the equivalent semantic elements.

The creativity of word coinage is also revealed by the number of eponyms in the english vocabulary, words that derive from proper nams of individuals.

A word may derive from the name of a place or person. Items may be named after the person who invented or discovered them. Thus, the Italian Alessandro Volta gave his name to the volt and the Italian Luigi Galvani gave his name to the process of galvanization.

Other common and widely use terms are:

sandwich: named for the fourth Earl of Sandwich, who put his food between two

slices of bread so that he could eat while he gambled.

robot: after the mechanical creatures in the Czech writer Karel Capeks play

R.U.R., the initials standing for Rossums Universal Robots.

gargantuan: named for Gargantua, the creature with a huge appetite created by

Rabelais. Word coinage

New words may also enter a language in a variety of ther ways. Some are created outright to fit some purpose: Kodak, nylon, etc. Specific brand names such as Xerox, Kleenex, Vaseline are sometimes used as the generic name for different brands of these types of products. Notice that some of these words were created fro existing words: Kleenex from the word clean. Acronyms

Acronyms are words derived from the initials of several words. Such words are pronounced as the spelling indicates: NASA from National Aeronautics and Space Agency, UNESCO from United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, radar from radio detetcting and ranging, laser from light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.

Acronyms are being added to the vocabuary daiy with the proliferation of computers and widespread use of the Internet, including MORF (male or femae?), POP (post office protocol) among many more.


We commonly consider the word to be the fundamental building block of language, but as units of meaning may be expressed by more than one word, linguistics has the concept of lexeme.

Some lexemes arguably have some intrinsic association with the things that they denote, but the origins of most words are lost in the mists of time.

What we can establish is how these elements subsequently provide the lexemes that we use.

New lexemes can be produced from native elements by such means as derivation, semantic extension and compounding or from foreign elements by such means as borrowing or translating foreign words. Acronyms, blends, eponyms also add to the given stock of words.

Words can be coined outright, limited only by the coiners imagination and the phonetic constraints of English word formation.


1. Write what you consider to be the best defintion of the term word. Justify the

choice of the elements that you incorporate in your definition.

2. Suggest alternatives to the word towel to denote a towel. Account for your


Guide to exercises:

1. Your definition should acknowledge the fact that a word is a sound or, usually,

a sequence of sounds that is conventionally associated with an object, concept,

and so on.

To distinguish a word from a bound morpheme you should allude somehow to

the independent nature of words; this may be done with reference to, for

example, substitution or pausing.

You should acknowledge the problem of distinguishing a word from a phrase

with a similar function, e.g. to appear and to turn up. One might address the

problem by arguing that, while turn and up form a unit in this sense, they can

be used independently of each other in other senses.

2. One might refer to the form or the function of a towel. The former approach

might produce a compound like clothsquare. The latter approach might

produce something like handdrier. A combination of the two approaches might

produce handcloth or drycloth.

One might borrow a term from a foreign language, e.g. the French term essuie-


Alternatively, the elements of the French term might be translated into English,

this being another development that might produce handdrier. This would be an

example of loan translation.

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