Words in English public website
Rice University
Prof. S. Kemmer

Questions about Words
in English

Here are some questions that the course Words in English will address. Many of these are things most people have not thought about -- have not even considered there to be a question about. Anyone with a little intellectual curiosity who sees these questions, however, might be surprised to realize just how little they know about the words in their language. And how easy it is, with a little guided study, to remedy that lack of knowledge.

Knowledge about the standard languages of Europe is more widespread among the educated populace of European countries than it is in this country, since such knowledge is part of the school curriculum there. Why should we be content to be so ignorant about something so fundamental to our life as the English language?

What are the languages most closely related to English?

What does it mean for a language to be 'related' to another language?

What is the relation of particular English words and morphemes (small, simple, and meaningful word elements) to words and morphemes found in other languages?

How many words are there in English?

What kinds of words are there in English, i.e. what are some ways they can be classified?

Is there any system or structure to the vocabulary?

Why is there often more than one word in English for what seems to be the same or almost the same concept?

Are there any patterns we can discover when we are faced with this situation?

What is the difference between 'native' and 'borrowed' words?

How are words formed?

What kinds of word parts are there in English?

How do prefixes differ from suffixes? Roots from affixes?

Why do some meaningful word parts (morphemes) occur in slightly different forms in different words? (a-morphous vs. an-aerobic: a/an = 'not')

How does sound change affect word elements? Is there any systematicity to such changes?

How does spelling relate to sounds, and to sound change?

How do we know which word parts can be combined? And how are they put together?

Where do words come from?

How do new words get into the language?

What kinds of changes do they undergo?

What happens to words when they've been in the language a long time?

Where do morphemes come from?

How has the English vocabulary evolved?

What was it like in earlier times?

What kinds of changes has it undergone?

Have even the ways of building or forming words in the language changed?

What is slang? Jargon?

How do people use words to create group solidarity?

What is 'standardization' of a language? What is linguistic prescriptivism?

© Suzanne Kemmer