Word formation in English

Morphology is the branch that deals with the internal structure of words, whose structure are mainly modified by means of two phenomena: INFLECTION and DERIVATION.

  • Inflection: interacts with syntax. In English there are just a few examples left such as the genitive ‘s, but it’s almost inexistent in Present day English. In Old English inflection was quite rich.

  • Derivation: the introduction of new elements in the vocabulary leads to the creation of new words. It’s the most dynamic mechanism in word formation.

UM_pc012_A79-041_008_0007_005_0001 - Example of Elizabeth trance automatic writing

L.R. Trask pointed out the importance of other mechanisms involved in word-formation:

  • COMPOUNDING: the combination of two terms create a new term. One of the members usually qualifies (qualifier) the other (head). For example football, blackbird, greenhouse.

  • CONVERSION or ZERO DERIVATION: moving one word from a lexical category to another with no affixation or modificaion. Drink>verb>>noun

  • CLIPPING: reducing a word to a shorter form: telephone, brassiere, gymnasium > phone, bra, gym. It shouldn’t be mixed up with abbreviation. We don’t call it clipping until it has become a regular conventional word.

  • BLENDING: combination of compounding and clipping. Abbreviated forms of two terms combined into a single word: motel, heliport, Eurovision, brunch.

  • BACK-FORMATION: need of speakers to maximize existing strategies in an economic and convenient way. The suffix -er is added to verbs to denote the agent that performs the action (lover, singer). At different points English borrowed from Latin: sculptor, actor, editor. From Norman French: lecher, burglar. All these end up in what seems to be a phonetic variant of -er and are reinterpreted as one of their compounds: verb + agent indicator, and after accepting the noun, they start using the 1st morpheme as a verb.

  • REANALYSIS: using similar mechanisms to those of back-formation but more complex. Notion is similar to analogy. It’s necessary step previous to analogical development. Trask uses the following example to illustrate reanalysis: bikini = piece of clothing in two parts. Originally, Bikini was related to an atoll where the earliest nuclear bomb tests took place; thus, the meaning it confers to the piece of clothing is that it is supposed to have huge impact compared to bathing suits; as in English the prefix bi- = two, when a new bathing suit involving only the bottom part of the bikini was launched, it was called monokini, as bi in bikini was re-analysed as bi = two.

  • FOLK ETYMOLOGY: speakers give a transparent meaning to a word with a dark structure. For instance: bridegroom = in ancient times [guma = man + bryd = bride] = brydguma = brideman. When guma disappeared, the origin of bridegroom became obscure. Then, speakers associated it with groom = servant. Today groom = somebody who works with horses.

  • INITIALISM: reduction of a phrase or name to a few letters (usually the first one) of the principal words. When the letters are spoken one by one. As in FBI, BBC.

  • ACRONYMS: reduction of a phrase or name to its initial letters, but pronouncing it as a new word: RADAR, NATO.

(From Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable).

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