Word Formation

Word Formation

Howard A. Williams
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8467-4.ch003
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This chapter presents a basic overview of the formation of words, with special attention to English. It covers the basics of both free and bound morphemes and the manner in which they combine. Productive processes including inflection, derivation, and compounding are examined with regard to their transparency and productivity; less common processes including zero-derivation (conversion) blending, clipping, back-formation are also covered, as are borrowing and coinage. Readers will be provided with guided practice in the analysis of English words into their constituent parts and in the principles of formation.
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Morphology, Words, And Morphemes

If the components of language are organized in terms of ‘smallest to largest’, the study of morphology is often described as the next level of analysis above phonetics and phonology. At the bottom level one studies, for example, the very basic question of how a set of individual English sounds such as l, i, and t may or may not be sequenced and sound ‘native’ (e.g., l+i+t versus t+i+l versus i+l+t are possible, while t+l+i is not). Morphology is only tangentially concerned with sound. However, calling it ‘the next higher level’ is a bit misleading. The crucial difference is that while the key terms, concepts, and principles of phonetics and phonology involve sound alone, the study of morphology involves key terms, concepts, and principles built around meaning. While the sound system tells us that the sequences til, lit, and ilt are all possible words of English, it tells us nothing about actual words nor about the status of those actual words as meaning-bearing elements in sentences. It might be best to say that the two studies are simply parallel and that they occasionally intersect.

The basic unit of morphology is the morpheme, which is thought of as a mental representation of a unit of meaning in a language. These mental representations are constructed by language learners through the language heard around them and are realized in such pronounced forms as girl, tall, and, fast, below, and them. Each counts as an analytically basic structural unit of meaning; in other words, each points to a single real-world ‘picture’ or visualization. Since each would also be labeled in everyday language as a word, it is worth asking why we need to apply the specialized term ‘morpheme’ to them.

The answer is that not every morpheme counts as a word, and not every word consists of a single morpheme. Let us take an example. In a word such as played, we are capable of distinguishing two parts to the meaning. The first part is ‘play’, which denotes a certain activity, and the second part (most often, at least) denotes ‘past time’. We process the two parts of the word together to indicate a certain event or activity in the past. The suffix, which is pronounced as a -d, has a meaning but unlike ‘play’, it could not be called a word. We would thus say that the word played consists of two morphemes, only one of which could stand on its own as a word. The other morpheme must be attached to a verb like play in order to be interpreted at all. The same observation could be made about the word books. If one were to enter a room and shout “Book!”, hearers would be able to associate the utterance with a certain kind of object and, perhaps, respond with “What book?” If, on the other hand, a person were to enter a room and shout “S!”, hearers would not associate the sound with plurality and respond with, “How many?” Rather, they would have no idea what the speaker was indicating.

The relevant distinction here, then, is between free and bound morphemes. While all morphemes carry basic elements of meaning, a free morpheme can normally stand on its own as a word while a bound morpheme normally cannot; a test like that above can serve to distinguish them.1 In English and many other languages, bound morphemes may occur either after a free, root morpheme (in which case it counts as a suffix), or before it (in which case it is called a prefix).

Consider the following words. How many morphemes make up each word? Which morphemes are bound, and which free?

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