Words in English public website
LING 216 course information
Rice University
Prof. S. Kemmer

Terms and Definitions

LING 216 is about the systematic study of words in English. Such systematic study relies on a body of knowledge and concepts that are well established in the field of Linguistics. Although the course is not designed to teach the field of Linguistics, we need to rely on the terminology and associated concepts established in Linguistics to a certain extent, especially in the parts of the course dealing with word structure and analysis.

There is a glossary in our textbook that starts on page 277. I decided to give my own definitions for many of the concepts because some of the book's definitions are a little overly technical in my opinion, and there is more space on the web to explain and to give examples. You can use both glossaries, or whichever you find most helpful. Mine is less complete than the book's. I am gradually adding more definitions.

So, the definitions below are designed to help with the acquisition of the concepts that the course introduces. I will not ask you to define the technical concepts yourself in the exams; but I may ask you to recognize the correct definition in a multiple choice type question. The most important thing is to understand the concept: recognize examples of it, reason about how concepts relate (e.g. morpheme and allomorph; root and affix), and recognize true vs. false statements about the concepts.

initialism. A word formation process in which the first letters of a phrase, often a title, are strung together and formed into a new word. Initialisms may be pronounced as a sequence of letters, as in FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) or BYOB (Bring Your Own Booze); or they may be pronounced as an ordinary word by the rules of English spelling, in which case they are acronyms (as in radar; see under acronym). Initialisms are the result of a shortening process turning phrases into words. Unlike abbreviations, they are not just shortenings of a written form that still has its full pronunciation (like cont. for 'continued'). The pronunciation is actually shorter than the phrase.

acronym. A word formation process in which the first letters (sometimes the first few letters) of the words in a phrase are extracted and put together to form a word, pronounced as a word by the usual rules of English spelling, with the same meaning as the original phrase. Acronyms provide a way of shortening phrases into words. Our book classifies acronyms as a subtype of initialism. Examples: radar (RAdio Detection And Ranging), snafu (Situation Normal All Fucked Up, and sonar (SOund Navigation And Ranging).

blend. A new word formed by joining the start of one word with the end of another. Example: Dunkretaries 'Duncan secretaries', formed from Duncan and secretaries.

clipping. Another word formation process that shortens words. In this case, a longer word is made into a shorter one by dropping off part of the original word. Info, exam are examples. Sometimes people's names are clipped to form nicknames, e.g. Jen from Jennifer. (Nicknames like Bill in which a different sound is substituted for one of the consonants are not technically clippings; but they are often historically old clippings based on baby talk/sound simplifications and/or old pronunciations, e.g. Bill; Dick for Richard)

novel creation. A word formation process in which a new word is creating 'from scratch', that is, without using other words to create it via other word formation processes. Occasionally slang words are formed this way (bling, krunk) and sometimes even words for new objects (blimp). Sometimes sound symbolism seems to play a role. The words either imitate sounds associated with the thing, or else they sound in part like some other word or words in the same concept family.

conversion. A type of derivation in which a word usually used in one part of speech is converted to a word having another part of speech. The company name Google underwent conversion when it began to be used as a verb to mean 'to search via Google'. Conversion is often called zero-derivation. The idea here is that it is a type of derivation in which no morphemes are added.

morpheme. A meaningful element in a word that cannot be broken down further into meaningful subparts. Morphemes are thus minimal units of meaning in a word. They are units that link a form, which is a distinctive string of sounds, with a meaning or a function. A morpheme is uniquely identified by its form and meaning together, e.g. bi 'two', or pol 'community, city', or bi 'life'. So we can't just say "the morpheme bi," because that does not fully identify the morpheme. We need the meaning too. As it happens there are two morphemes that sound the same, bi 'life' and bi- 'two'. (Because the second one is an affix, not a root, we write it with a hyphen showing its point of attachment to the roots it appears with.)

Two different morphemes can have the same form, as in the case of bi and bi- above and libr 'weigh, balance' and libr 'book'. Or, two morphemes can happen to have the same meaning, for example, the Latin morpheme uni 'one' and Green mono 'one'. So similarity or identity of form does not mean that two items are the same morpheme, nor does similarity or identity of meaning (if meanings can ever be identical) indicate that two items are the same morpheme.

The book distinguishes between morphs ("simple (minimal) meaningful components") and morphemes ("simple (minimal) meaningful components that speakers understand as the same unit"). This means that a morpheme is a cognitive or psychological unit, and such a unit may have variants in pronunciation that speakers pretty much ignore, or are even unaware of. Morphs, on the other hand, are simple meaningful components without regard to whether or not they are grouped together as a single unit.

We won't focus on the difference between morphs and morphemes. The important concept for our purposes is the concept of morphemes. They are linguistic units and sometimes these units get expressed in different ways. The result is variant forms, called allomorphs. For example, the morpheme an- 'not' appears in two forms: a- and an-. These forms are allomorphs of the same morpheme.

compound A word containing more than one root. In English, roots are typically free morphemes so compounds are composed of free morphemes: sandbox is composed of two free morphemes, sand and box. In Latin and Greek, most roots were bound: they could not appear by themselves, but had to have affixes of various kinds (inflectional or derivational) to form a whole word. So in many English words from Latin and Greek, two roots combine to form a compound, and these roots do not generally occur by themselves.

Occasionally we find cases in which it appears as though a Latinate root occurs as a free morpheme. Generally in these cases some other process has occurred such as clipping, in which case the clipped item is no longer the same as the original bound morpheme.

For example, the English loanword photograph is a compound formed of two bound roots from Greek, phot/phos and graph, with a linking morpheme -o- between them. The allomorph phot- meaning 'light' is a bound root. However, the English word photo 'a snapshot or image taken by means of photography' is an independent word formed from a clipping of photograph. Neither phot nor photo occured as independent words in Greek. English photo has only become an independent root by acquiring a different meaning, and thus status as a different morpheme from phot/phos. A similar process has happened with auto 'car', and hyper 'hyperactive', both the result of clipping. With photo and auto, the linking morpheme was reanalyzed along with the prefix as a new root; in the case of hyper, the prefix hyper- and the new root hyper sound exactly the same. Nevertheless they are two morphemes, with different meaning and different function in a word (prefix vs. root).

compounding. the word formation device that creates compounds (see under compound): it puts two (or more) roots together. In some languages a linking morpheme is required between the roots.

root. The most meaningful part of a word. It is the least dispensible part and also has a meaning more concrete than that of most affixes. See the page Roots and affixes. Roots can in some languages stand alone as a word, like the root giraffe in English. But in some languages roots need inflectional affixes to form whole words.

affix. A morpheme that cannot stand alone as a separate word and must be attached to a root. Because an affix is dependent on a root, it must be a bound morpheme by definition. Another important feature is that affixes do not have the kind of specific and concrete meanings that roots have. The meanings of affixes are generally grammatical meanings, like a part of speech (-y ADJ suffix), or noun grammatical categories like plural, or person and number categories on verbs. Such meanings depend semantically on the meaning of the root, so affixes are not only formally dependent, but also semantically dependent on roots. See Roots and affixes for a more complete characterization.

prefix. An affix whose position is preceding a root. Examples: de-, pre-, in-, ab-, infra-. Prefixes are conventionally written with a hyphen following. The hyphen shows where the root is attached.

suffix. An affix whose position is following a root. Examples: -able, -ate, -ify, -ion, -er. Suffixes are written with a hyphen preceding them. The hyphen shows where the suffix attaches to its root.

free. Able to occur alone as a word. Term is used of morphemes.
In English, and some other Germanic languages, many roots are free morphemes. In Latin and Greek, on the other hand, roots do not generally stand alone; they have to have some inflectional suffixes to make a complete word.

bound. Requiring another element to form a complete word. Bound elements are unable to stand alone. Roots in some languages, like English, are free morphemes characteristic of some roots and all affixes and linkers)

Sometimes elements that start out as bound can LOOK free, for example, words like hyper 'hyperactive', auto'automobile', and photo 'picture taken by photographic methods'. However, these cases come from larger words that have undergone clipping. The clipped form as the same meaning as the older, larger word, and that meaning is different from the meaning of the clipping. (Contrast the root phot 'light' in the word photograph, with the word photo, which not only was clipped with the linker morpheme from photograph, but actually now has the meaning 'photograph' and not 'light'. In these clipped words, the free morpheme has become independent of the bound form and is no longer the same morpheme as the bound one.

inflection A lexical process that does not create another word, but merely another form of a word. Inflection is usually done by affixation (e.g. shoe vs. shoes, walk vs. walks vs. walking. ), but there are also cases of inflection where the new form of the word is created via vowel changing (ride vs. rode). Sometimes the word inflection can be used to mean inflectional affix , see next.

inflectional affix A bound morpheme used to signal some grammatical meaning such as plural or 3rd person singular.

A word formation process that involves turning one word into another. Most derivation is done by the addition of affixes (affixation), but other derivation processes include making no formal change at all (this is called zero-derivation or conversion, as in run (v.) becoming run (n.)) and changing the stress of a word (e.g. contract (n.), stressed on first syllable, vs. contract (v.), stressed on second syllable).

derivational affix
An affix that changes the meaning or the part of speech of a word. Example: Penury 'poverty' vs. penurious 'impoverished'. -ous is the derivational affix added to penury to produce the derived word.

parsing Division of a word into its component morphemes. A good parsing indicates all morpheme boundaries, has each morpheme defined, and contains a definition of the whole word. See the examples on the page Parsing.

etymology. The study of the history of words. Also, the particular history associated with a word. A full etymology is an attempt to trace a word back as far as we can get in history. The parsing of a word has some things in common with an etymology, namely an attempt to identify original meanings of its word parts; but a parsing does not give a full word history. It just focuses on how the word is constructed from parts.

part of speech the syntactic category of a word. Words have various functions in syntax, such as serving as nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions. Ancient grammarians already analyzed the words in a sentence into categories of these types. Each language has its own set of syntactic categories (and definitions of them), but there are some strong similarities at least across the European languages, so we use in large part the same terms for English as the Romans did for describing Latin. (The term "parts of speech" goes back to antiquity. "Parts" meant 'kinds' then. ) Modern linguists have added more syntactic categories to describe English better, but these additions will not generally concern us. One I mentioned in class was verb particle which is the class of words that look like prepositions but actually form part of the verb they refer to. The second word in each of the following constructions is a verb particle: give up, spread out, goof off, look up, throw up, fool around, stand up.

linker or linking morpheme. A morpheme whose only function is to stand between other morphemes. There is no particular meaning to a linker, making it very unusual as morphemes go. The book uses the terms empty morph.

stem the part of a word that an inflectional affix attaches to. Stems include minimally a root, but they often have additional morphology such as derivational affixes; or they can include more than one root, as in a compound.

variety or language variety a particular way of using language associated with a group of language users or with a type of context. If we think of a language as a system of norms for speaking or writing, then a variety is a subsystem within the language as a whole. "Norms" means 'usual practices'. Norms are also thought of as observable features of the variety, like particular pronunciations or phonological rules, or use of particular sets of words or phrases or even spellings. Varieties are not sharply distinguished from other varieties, but are simply loose groupings of norms that tend to co-occur together. The defining features of a variety are generally stated in linguistic terms; but the variety also has as part of its definition who uses the variety and/or under what circumstances. For example, internet language (the variety of language that characteristically appears in email, chat, blogging, and text messaging) has particular words associated with it (LOL, BRB, etc.) and particular spelling conventions (substitution of numbers for homonymous parts of the spoken word, like 4get for forget). AND it is associated with internet usage. Varieties can partially overlap. So, for example, internet language partially overlaps with the language of computer gaming, which is understandable since a lot of gaming occurs over the internet. Yet the two varieties are not co-extensive. Many usages are specific to gaming (e.g. pwn 'beat or destroy in a computer game' and not characteristic of more general internet use.)

zero derivation Another name for conversion. See also derivation.

© Suzanne Kemmer