By Kamil Wisniewski July 06th, 2007

Nowadays, the terms ‘word formation’ does not have a clear cut, universally accepted usage. It is sometimes referred to all processes connected with changing the form of the word by, for example, affixation, which is a matter of morphology. In its wider sense word formation denotes the processes of creation of new lexical units. Although it seems that the difference between morphological change of a word and creation of a new term are quite easy to perceive there is sometimes a dispute as to whether blending is still a morphological change or making a new word.

There are, of course, numerous word formation processes that do not arouse any controversies and are very similar in the majority of languages:

  • Compounding is a process in which two different words are joined together to denote one thing. For example flower-pot is a compound made of two words: flower and pot, but it does not denote two things, it refers to one object. Some English compounds include: windmill, waterfall, fingerprint, scarecrow. Compounds are pronounced as one unit, but sometimes difficulties in writing arise: some compounds are written with hyphens: full-time, good-looking; some are written separately: bank account, mini skirt; and some can be written in both ways.
  • Blending is very similar to compounding, but it is characterized by taking only parts of words and joining them. Famous English examples include: smog which combines smoke and fog, motel made of motor and hotel, Spanglish which is combination of Spanish and English; and guesstimate, from guess and estimate.
  • Clipping is shortening or reducing long words. It is very common in English which can be seen on the following examples: information is clipped to info, advertisement to advert or ad, influenza to flu, telephone to phone.
  • Coinage is creation of a totally new word. This word formation process is not frequent, however large corporations attempt to outdo one another to invent short eye-catching names for their products. Some examples of these could include: aspirin or xerox. Sometimes the products that the companies want to sell simply take over the name of the creator or inventor. In such case the new word is called an eponym. Some well known eponyms include: sandwich, or hoover. They are very frequently used in science where units of measurement are named after people, like: hertz, volt, (degree) Celsius.
  • Borrowing is taking a word from one language and incorporating it into another. The English language has been very absorbent and took over words from all over the world, some of them include: biology, boxer, ozone – from German; jackal, kiosk, yogurt – from Turkish; pistol, robot – from Czech.

There is also a special type of borrowing called calque or loan translation. Here there is a direct translation of the elements that a term consists of in the source language into the target language. For example the English word worldview is thought to be the calque of the German Weltanschauung, antibody calques German Antikörper.

  • Acronym is a word formed from initial letters of a few words in a phrase or a name. Some acronyms are pronounced by saying each letter separately, as in CD, DVD, VCR, IBM, FBI. Some are pronounced as words, like NATO, laser, AIDS, scuba.
  • Backformation is a process in which a word changes its form and function. Word of one type, which is usually a noun, is reduced and used as a verb. To show it on an example: the English word arms meaning weapon was backformed to arm to mean provide weapons, similarly edit was backformed from editor, or typewrite from typewriter.
  • Conversion is a change in function of a verb without changing its form. Nouns start to be used as verbs like: bottle – to bottle, bottling: I’m bottling the compote; butter – to butter, buttered: I’ve buttered the bread. Also verbs can become nouns: must – a must: Watching this film is a must; guess – a guess: It was a lucky guess.
  • Derivation is probably the most common word formation process in the English language. It is achieved by adding affixes: prefixes – are added at the beginning of a word, suffixes added to the end of a word, or infixes which are inserted inside a word, but infixes are unusual in English. English prefixes include for example re-, un-, mis-, pre-, dis-; suffixes include for instance -ful, -less, -able, -or. It seems that infixes in English are confined to curse words such as: absofuckinglutely, in fuckingcredible.

The above mentioned word formation processes are the most frequent or important in the English language, but it is rarely the case that only one process occurs in one word. Words can be loaned and then backformed, later on gaining an affix. There are practically no boundaries to those processes other that human ingenuity.

Yule G. 1996. The study of language. Cambridge:CUP.
Brown K. (Editor) 2005. Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics – 2nd Edition. Oxford: Elsevier.
Crystal D. 2005, The Cambridge encyclopedia od the English language – 2nd edition. Cambridge: CUP.

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