Modern English Word-Formation

A derivational affix may become productive in just one meaning because that meaning is specially needed by the community at a particular phase in its history. This may be well illustrated by the prefix de in the sense of undo what has been done, reverse an action or process, e. g. deacidify (paint spray), decasualize (dock labour), decentralize (government or management), deration (eggs and butter), de-reserve (medical students), desegregate (coloured children), and so on.

Furthermore, there are cases when a derivational affix being nonproductive in the non-specialized section of the vocabulary is used to coin scientific or technical terms. This is the case, for instance, with the suffix ance which has been used to form some terms in Electrical Engineering, e. g. capacitance, impedance, reactance. The same is true of the suffix ity which has been used to form terms in physics, and chemistry such as alkalinity, luminosity, emissivity and some others.

Conversion, one of the principal ways of forming words in Modern English is highly productive in replenishing the English word-stock with new words. The term conversion, which some linguists find inadequate, refers to the numerous cases of phonetic identity of word-forms, primarily the so-called initial forms, of two words belonging to different parts of speech. This may be illustrated by the following cases: work to work; love to love; paper to paper; brief to brief, etc. As a rule we deal with simple words, although there are a few exceptions, e.g. wireless to wireless.

It will be recalled that, although inflectional categories have been greatly reduced in English in the last eight or nine centuries, there is a certain difference on the morphological level between various parts of speech, primarily between nouns and verbs. For instance, there is a clear-cut difference in Modern English between the noun doctor and the verb to doctor each exists in the language as a unity of its word-forms and variants, not as one form doctor. It is true that some of the forms are identical in sound, i.e. homonymous, but there is a great distinction between them, as they are both grammatically and semantically different.

If we regard such word-pairs as doctor to doctor, water to water, brief to brief from the angle of their morphemic structure, we see that they are all root-words. On the derivational level, however, one of them should be referred to derived words, as it belongs to a different part of speech and is understood through semantic and structural relations with the other, i.e. is motivated by it. Consequently, the question arises: what serves as a word-building means in these cases? It would appear that the noun is formed from the verb (or vice versa) without any morphological change, but if we probe deeper into the matter, we inevitably come to the conclusion that the two words differ in the paradigm. Thus it is the paradigm that is used as a word-building means. Hence, we may define conversion as the formation of a new word through changes in its paradigm.

It is necessary to call attention to the fact that the paradigm plays a significant role in the process of word-formation in general and not only in the case of conversion. Thus, the noun cooker (in gas-cooker) is formed from the word to cook not only by the addition of the suffix er, but also by the change in its paradigm. However, in this case, the role played by the paradigm as a word-building means is less obvious, as the word-building suffix er comes to the fore. Therefore, conversion is characterized not simply by the use of the paradigm as a word-building means, but by the formation of a new word solely by means of changing its paradigm. Hence, the change of paradigm is the only word-building means of conversion. As a paradigm is a morphological category conversion can be described as a morphological way of forming words.

Compounding or word-composition is one of the productive types of word-formation in Modern English. Composition like all other ways of deriving words has its own peculiarities as to the means used, the nature of bases and their distribution, as to the range of application, the scope of semantic classes and the factors conducive to productivity.

Compounds, as has been mentioned elsewhere, are made up of two ICs which are both derivational bases. Compound words are inseparable vocabulary units. They are formally and semantically dependent on the constituent bases and the semantic relations between them which mirror the relations between the motivating units. The ICs of compound words represent bases of all three structural types. The bases built on stems may be of different degree of complexity as, for example, week-end, office-management, postage-stamp, aircraft-carrier, fancy-dress-maker, etc. However, this complexity of structure of bases is not typical of the bulk of Modern English compounds.

In this connection care should be taken not to confuse compound words with polymorphic words of secondary derivation, i.e. derivatives built according to an affixal pattern but on a compound stem for its base such as, e. g. school-mastership ([n + n] + suf), ex-housewife (prf + [n + n]), to weekend, to spotlight ([n + n] + conversion).

Structurally compound words are characterized by the specific order and arrangement in which bases follow one another. The order in which the two bases are placed within a compound is rigidly fixed in Modern English and it is the second IC that makes the head-member of the word, i.e. its structural and semantic centre. The head-member is of basic importance as it preconditions both the lexico-grammatical and semantic features of the first component. It is of interest to note that the difference between stems (that serve as bases in compound words) and word-forms they coincide with is most obvious in some compounds, especially in compound adjectives. Adjectives like long, wide, rich are characterized by grammatical forms of degrees of comparison longer, wider, richer. The corresponding stems functioning as bases in compound words lack grammatical independence and forms proper to the words and retain only the part-of-speech meaning; thus compound adjectives with adjectival stems for their second components, e. g. age-long, oil-rich, inch-wide, do not form degrees of comparison as the compound adjective oil-rich does not form them the way the word rich does, but conforms to the general rule of polysyllabic adjectives and has analytical forms of degrees of comparison. The same difference between words and stems is not so noticeable in compound nouns with the noun-stem for the second component.

Phonetically compounds are also marked by a specific structure of their own. No phonemic changes of bases occur in composition but the compound word acquires a new stress pattern, different from the stress in the motivating words, for example words key and hole or hot and house each possess their own stress but when the stems of these words are brought together to make up a new compound word, 'keyhole a hole in a lock into which a key fits, or 'hothouse a heated building for growing delicate plants, the latter is given a different stress pattern a unity stress on the first component in our case. Compound words have three stress patterns:

a)     a high or unity stress on the first component as in 'honeymoon, 'doorway, etc.

b)    a double stress, with a primary stress on the first component and a weaker, secondary stress on the second component, e. g. 'blood-ֻvessel, 'mad-ֻdoctor, 'washing-ֻmachine, etc.

c)     It is not infrequent, however, for both ICs to have level stress as in, for instance, 'arm-'chair, 'icy-'cold, 'grass-'green, etc.

Graphically most compounds have two types of spelling they are spelt either solidly or with a hyphen. Both types of spelling when accompanied by structural and phonetic peculiarities serve as a sufficient indication of inseparability of compound words in contradistinction to phrases. It is true that hyphenated spelling by itself may be sometimes misleading, as it may be used in word-groups to emphasize their phraseological character as in e. g. daughter-in-law, man-of-war, brother-in-arms or in longer combinations of words to indicate the semantic unity of a string of words used attributively as, e.g., I-know-what-you're-going-to-say expression, we-are-in-the-know jargon, the young-must-be-right attitude. The two types of spelling typical of compounds, however, are not rigidly observed and there are numerous fluctuations between solid or hyphenated spelling on the one hand and spelling with a break between the components on the other, especially in nominal compounds of the n+n type. The spelling of these compounds varies from author to author and from dictionary to dictionary. For example, the words war-path, war-time, money-lender are spelt both with a hyphen and solidly; blood-poisoning, money-order, wave-length, war-ship with a hyphen and with a break; underfoot, insofar, underhandsolidly and with a break[25]. It is noteworthy that new compounds of this type tend to solid or hyphenated spelling. This inconsistency of spelling in compounds, often accompanied by a level stress pattern (equally typical of word-groups) makes the problem of distinguishing between compound words (of the n + n type in particular) and word-groups especially difficult.

In this connection it should be stressed that Modern English nouns (in the Common Case, Sg.) as has been universally recognized possess an attributive function in which they are regularly used to form numerous nominal phrases as, e. g. peace years, stone steps, government office, etc. Such variable nominal phrases are semantically fully derivable from the meanings of the two nouns and are based on the homogeneous attributive semantic relations unlike compound words. This system of nominal phrases exists side by side with the specific and numerous class of nominal compounds which as a rule carry an additional semantic component not found in phrases.

It is also important to stress that these two classes of vocabulary units compound words and free phrases are not only opposed but also stand in close correlative relations to each other.

Semantically compound words are generally motivated units. The meaning of the compound is first of all derived from the combined lexical meanings of its components. The semantic peculiarity of the derivational bases and the semantic difference between the base and the stem on which the latter is built is most obvious in compound words. Compound words with a common second or first component can serve as illustrations. The stem of the word board is polysemantic and its multiple meanings serve as different derivational bases, each with its own selective range for the semantic features of the other component, each forming a separate set of compound words, based on specific derivative relations. Thus the base board meaning a flat piece of wood square or oblong makes a set of compounds chess-board, notice-board, key-board, diving-board, foot-board, sign-board; compounds paste-board, cardboard are built on the base meaning thick, stiff paper; the base board meaning an authorized body of men, forms compounds school-board, board-room. The same can be observed in words built on the polysemantic stem of the word foot. For example, the base foot in foot-print, foot-pump, foothold, foot-bath, foot-wear has the meaning of the terminal part of the leg, in foot-note, foot-lights, foot-stone the base foot has the meaning of the lower part, and in foot-high, foot-wide, footrule measure of length. It is obvious from the above-given examples that the meanings of the bases of compound words are interdependent and that the choice of each is delimited as in variable word-groups by the nature of the other IC of the word. It thus may well be said that the combination of bases serves as a kind of minimal inner context distinguishing the particular individual lexical meaning of each component. In this connection we should also remember the significance of the differential meaning found in both components which becomes especially obvious in a set of compounds containing identical bases.

Compound words can be described from different points of view and consequently may be classified according to different principles. They may be viewed from the point of view:

(1)  of general relationship and degree of semantic independence of components;

(2)  of the parts of speech compound words represent;

(3)  of the means of composition used to link the two ICs together;

(4)  of the type of ICs that are brought together to form a compound;

(5)  of the correlative relations with the system of free word-groups.

From the point of view of degree of semantic independence there are two types of relationship between the ICs of compound words that are generally recognized in linguistic literature: the relations of coordination and subordination, and accordingly compound words fall into two classes: coordinative compounds (often termed copulative or additive) and subordinative (often termed determinative).

In coordinative compounds the two ICs are semantically equally important as in fighter-bomber, oak-tree, girl-friend, Anglo-American. The constituent bases belong to the same class and often to the same semantic group. Coordinative compounds make up a comparatively small group of words. Coordinative compounds fall into three groups:

a)     Reduplicative compounds which are made up by the repetition of the same base as in goody-goody, fifty-fifty, hush-hush, pooh-pooh. They are all only partially motivated.

b)    Compounds formed by joining the phonically variated rhythmic twin forms which either alliterate with the same initial consonant but vary the vowels as in chit-chat, zigzag, sing-song, or rhyme by varying the initial consonants as in clap-trap, a walky-talky, helter-skelter. This subgroup stands very much apart. It is very often referred to pseudo-compounds and considered by some linguists irrelevant to productive word-formation owing to the doubtful morphemic status of their components. The constituent members of compound words of this subgroup are in most cases unique, carry very vague or no lexical meaning of their own, are not found as stems of independently functioning words. They are motivated mainly through the rhythmic doubling of fanciful sound-clusters.

Coordinative compounds of both subgroups (a, b) are mostly restricted to the colloquial layer, are marked by a heavy emotive charge and possess a very small degree of productivity.

c)     The bases of additive compounds such as a queen-bee, an actor-manager, unlike the compound words of the first two subgroups, are built on stems of the independently functioning words of the same part of speech. These bases often semantically stand in the genus-species relations. They denote a person or an object that is two things at the same time. A secretary-stenographer is thus a person who is both a stenographer and a secretary, a bed-sitting-room (a bed-sitter) is both a bed-room and a sitting-room at the same time. Among additive compounds there is a specific subgroup of compound adjectives one of ICs of which is a bound root-morpheme. This group is limited to the names of nationalities such as Sino-Japanese, Anglo-Saxon, Afro-Asian, etc.

Additive compounds of this group are mostly fully motivated but have a very limited degree of productivity.

However it must be stressed that though the distinction between coordinative and subordinative compounds is generally made, it is open to doubt and there is no hard and fast border-line between them. On the contrary, the border-line is rather vague. It often happens that one and the same compound may with equal right be interpreted either way as a coordinative or a subordinative compound, e. g. a woman-doctor may be understood as a woman who is at the same time a doctor or there can be traced a difference of importance between the components and it may be primarily felt to be a doctor who happens to be a woman (also a mother-goose, a clock-tower).

In subordinative compounds the components are neither structurally nor semantically equal in importance but are based on the domination of the head-member which is, as a rule, the second IC. The second IC thus is the semantically and grammatically dominant part of the word, which preconditions the part-of-speech meaning of the whole compound as in stone-deaf, age-long which are obviously adjectives, a wrist-watch, road-building, a baby-sitter which are nouns.

Functionally compounds are viewed as words of different parts of speech. It is the head-member of the compound, i.e. its second IC that is indicative of the grammatical and lexical category the compound word belongs to.

Compound words are found in all parts of speech, but the bulk of compounds are nouns and adjectives. Each part of speech is characterized by its set of derivational patterns and their semantic variants. Compound adverbs, pronouns and connectives are represented by an insignificant number of words, e. g. somewhere, somebody, inside, upright, otherwise moreover, elsewhere, by means of, etc. No new compounds are coined on this pattern. Compound pronouns and adverbs built on the repeating first and second IC like body, ever, thing make closed sets of words










On the whole composition is not productive either for adverbs, pronouns or for connectives.

Verbs are of special interest. There is a small group of compound verbs made up of the combination of verbal and adverbial stems that language retains from earlier stages, e. g. to bypass, to inlay, to offset. This type according to some authors, is no longer productive and is rarely found in new compounds.

There are many polymorphic verbs that are represented by morphemic sequences of two root-morphemes, like to weekend, to gooseflesh, to spring-clean, but derivationally they are all words of secondary derivation in which the existing compound nouns only serve as bases for derivation. They are often termed pseudo-compound verbs. Such polymorphic verbs are presented by two groups:

(1)   verbs formed by means of conversion from the stems of compound nouns as in to spotlight from a spotlight, to sidetrack from a side-track, to handcuff from handcuffs, to blacklist from a blacklist, to pinpoint from a pin-point;

(2)   verbs formed by back-derivation from the stems of compound nouns, e. g. to baby-sit from a baby-sitter, to playact from play-acting, to housekeep from house-keeping, to spring-clean from spring-cleaning.

From the point of view of the means by which the components are joined together, compound words may be classified into:

(1)  Words formed by merely placing one constituent after another in a definite order which thus is indicative of both the semantic value and the morphological unity of the compound, e. g. rain-driven, house-dog, pot-pie (as opposed to dog-house, pie-pot). This means of linking the components is typical of the majority of Modern English compounds in all parts of speech.

As to the order of components, subordinative compounds are often classified as:

a)     asyntactic compounds in which the order of bases runs counter to the order in which the motivating words can be brought together under the rules of syntax of the language. For example, in variable phrases adjectives cannot be modified by preceding adjectives and noun modifiers are not placed before participles or adjectives, yet this kind of asyntactic arrangement is typical of compounds, e. g. red-hot, bluish-black, pale-blue, rain-driven, oil-rich. The asyntactic order is typical of the majority of Modern English compound words;

b)    syntactic compounds whose components are placed in the order that resembles the order of words in free phrases arranged according to the rules of syntax of Modern English. The order of the components in compounds like blue-bell, mad-doctor, blacklist ( a + n ) reminds one of the order and arrangement of the corresponding words in phrases a blue bell, a mad doctor, a black list ( A + N ), the order of compounds of the type door-handle, day-time, spring-lock ( n + n ) resembles the order of words in nominal phrases with attributive function of the first noun ( N + N ), e. g. spring time, stone steps, peace movement.

(2)  Compound words whose ICs are joined together with a special linking-element the linking vowels [ou] and occasionally [i] and the linking consonant [s/z] which is indicative of composition as in, for example, speedometer, tragicomic, statesman. Compounds of this type can be both nouns and adjectives, subordinative and additive but are rather few in number since they are considerably restricted by the nature of their components. The additive compound adjectives linked with the help of the vowel [ou] are limited to the names of nationalities and represent a specific group with a bound root for the first component, e. g. Sino-Japanese, Afro-Asian, Anglo-Saxon.

In subordinative adjectives and nouns the productive linking element is also [ou] and compound words of the type are most productive for scientific terms. The main peculiarity of compounds of the type is that their constituents are nonassimilated bound roots borrowed mainly from classical languages, e. g. electro-dynamic, filmography, technophobia, videophone, sociolinguistics, videodisc.

A small group of compound nouns may also be joined with the help of linking consonant [s/z], as in sportsman, landsman, saleswoman, bridesmaid. This small group of words is restricted by the second component which is, as a rule, one of the three bases man, woman, people. The commonest of them is man.

Compounds may be also classified according to the nature of the bases and the interconnection with other ways of word-formation into the so-called compounds proper and derivational compounds.

Compounds proper are formed by joining together bases built on the stems or on the word-forms of independently functioning words with or without the help of special linking element such as doorstep, age-long, baby-sitter, looking-glass, street-fighting, handiwork, sportsman. Compounds proper constitute the bulk of English compounds in all parts of speech, they include both subordinative and coordinative classes, productive and non-productive patterns.

Derivational compounds, e. g. long-legged, three-cornered, a break-down, a pickpocket differ from compounds proper in the nature of bases and their second IC. The two ICs of the compound long-legged having long legs are the suffix ed meaning having and the base built on a free word-group long legs whose member words lose their grammatical independence, and are reduced to a single component of the word, a derivational base. Any other segmentation of such words, say into long and legged is impossible because firstly, adjectives like *legged do not exist in Modern English and secondly, because it would contradict the lexical meaning of these words. The derivational adjectival suffix ed converts this newly formed base into a word. It can be graphically represented as long legs à [ (longleg) + ed] à longlegged. The suffix ed becomes the grammatically and semantically dominant component of the word, its head-member. It imparts its part-of-speech meaning and its lexical meaning thus making an adjective that may be semantically interpreted as with (or having) what is denoted by the motivating word-group. Comparison of the pattern of compounds proper like baby-sitter, pen-holder
[ n + ( v + er ) ] with the pattern of derivational compounds like long-legged [ (a + n) + ed ] reveals the difference: derivational compounds are formed by a derivational means, a suffix in case if words of the long-legged type, which is applied to a base that each time is formed anew on a free word-group and is not recurrent in any other type if words. It follows that strictly speaking words of this type should be treated as pseudo-compounds or as a special group of derivatives. They are habitually referred to derivational compounds because of the peculiarity of their derivational bases which are felt as built by composition, i.e. by bringing together the stems of the member-words of a phrase which lose their independence in the process. The word itself, e. g. long-legged, is built by the application of the suffix, i.e. by derivation and thus may be described as a suffixal derivative.

Derivational compounds or pseudo-compounds are all subordinative and fall into two groups according to the type of variable phrases that serve as their bases and the derivational means used:

a)     derivational compound adjectives formed with the help of the highly-productive adjectival suffix ed applied to bases built on attributive phrases of the A + N, Num + N, N + N type, e. g. long legs, three corners, doll face. Accordingly the derivational adjectives under discussion are built after the patterns [ (a + n ) + ed], e. g. long-legged, flat-chested, broad-minded; [ ( + n) + ed], e. g. two-sided, three-cornered; [ (n + n ) + ed], e. g. doll-faced, heart-shaped.

b)    derivational compound nouns formed mainly by conversion applied to bases built on three types of variable phrases verb-adverb phrase, verbal-nominal and attributive phrases.

The commonest type of phrases that serves as derivational bases for this group of derivational compounds is the V + Adv type of word-groups as in, for instance, a breakdown, a breakthrough, a castaway, a layout. Semantically derivational compound nouns form lexical groups typical of conversion, such as an act or instance of the action, e. g. a holdup a delay in traffic' from to hold up delay, stop by use of force; a result of the action, e. g. a breakdown a failure in machinery that causes work to stop from to break down become disabled; an active agent or recipient of the action, e. g. cast-offs clothes that he owner will not wear again from to cast off throw away as unwanted; a show-off a person who shows off from to show off make a display of one's abilities in order to impress people. Derivational compounds of this group are spelt generally solidly or with a hyphen and often retain a level stress. Semantically they are motivated by transparent derivative relations with the motivating base built on the so-called phrasal verb and are typical of the colloquial layer of vocabulary. This type of derivational compound nouns is highly productive due to the productivity of conversion.

The semantic subgroup of derivational compound nouns denoting agents calls for special mention. There is a group of such substantives built on an attributive and verbal-nominal type of phrases. These nouns are semantically only partially motivated and are marked by a heavy emotive charge or lack of motivation and often belong to terms as, for example, a kill-joy, a wet-blanket one who kills enjoyment; a turnkey keeper of the keys in prison; a sweet-tooth a person who likes sweet food; a red-breast a bird called the robin. The analysis of these nouns easily proves that they can only be understood as the result of conversion for their second ICs cannot be understood as their structural or semantic centres, these compounds belong to a grammatical and lexical groups different from those their components do. These compounds are all animate nouns whereas their second ICs belong to inanimate objects. The meaning of the active agent is not found in either of the components but is imparted as a result of conversion applied to the word-group which is thus turned into a derivational base.

These compound nouns are often referred to in linguistic literature as "bahuvrihi" compounds or exocentric compounds, i.e. words whose semantic head is outside the combination. It seems more correct to refer them to the same group of derivational or pseudo-compounds as the above cited groups.

This small group of derivational nouns is of a restricted productivity, its heavy constraint lies in its idiomaticity and hence its stylistic and emotive colouring.

The linguistic analysis of extensive language data proves that there exists a regular correlation between the system of free phrases and all types of subordinative (and additive) compounds[26]. Correlation embraces both the structure and the meaning of compound words, it underlies the entire system of productive present-day English composition conditioning the derivational patterns and lexical types of compounds.

[1] Randolph Quirk, Ian Svortik. Investigating Linguistic Acceptability. Walter de Gruyter. Inc., 1966. P. 127-128.

[2] Robins, R. H. A short history of linguistics. London: Longmans, 1967. P. 183.

[3] Henry Sweet, History of Language. Folcroft Library Editions,1876. P. 471.

[4] Zellig S. Harris, Structural Linguistics. University of Chicago Press, 1951. P. 255.

[5] Leonard Bloomfield, Language. New York, 1933

[6] Noam Avram Chomsky, Syntactic Structures. Berlin, 1957.

[7] Ibidem, p. 15.

[8] Ibidem, p. 4.

[9] Ibidem, p. 11.

[10] Ibidem, p. 10.

[11] Jukka Pennanen, Aspects of Finnish Grammar. Pohjoinen, 1972. P. 293.

[12] K. Zimmer, Levels of Linguistic Description. Chicago, 1964. P. 18.

[13] A. Ross Ecklers letters to Daria Abrossimova, 2001.

[14] Kucera, H. & Francis, W. N. Computational analysis of present-day American English. University Press of New England, 1967.

[15] Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language. Random House Value Pub. 1996.

[16] A. Ross Ecklers letters to Daria Abrossimova, 2001.

[17] Dmitri Borgmann. Beyond Language. Charles Scribners Sons. 1965.

[18] The Times Atlas of the World. Times Books. 1994.

[19] Rand McNally Commercial Atlas and Marketing Guide. Rand McNally & Co. 2000.

[20] Prof. Smirnitsky calls them potential words in his book on English Lexicology (p. 18).

[21] Ginzburg R. A Course in Modern English Lexicology. Moscow, 1979. P. 113.

[22] Ibidem. P. 114-115.

[23] Marchand H. Studies in Syntax and Word-Formation. Munich, 1974.

[24] Ginzburg R. A Course in Modern English Lexicology. Moscow, 1979. P. 115.

[25] The spelling is given according to Websters New Collegiate Dictionary, 1956 and H.C. Wyld. The Universal English Dictionary, 1952.

[26] Prof. A. I. Smirnitsky as far back as the late forties pointed out the rigid parallelism existing between free word-groups and derivational compound adjectives which he termed grammatical compounds.

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