Structure of English

We can study the structure of language in a variety of ways. For example, we can study classes of words (parts of speech), meanings of words, with or without considering changes of meaning (semantics), how words are organised in relation to each other and in larger constructions (syntax), how words are formed from smaller meaningful units (morphology), the sounds of words (perception and pronunciation or articulation), and how they form patterns of knowledge in the speaker's mind (phonetics and phonology) and how standardized written forms represent words (orthography). Since this website is primarily devoted to the exploration of English throught its words, the focus in this website is on morphology (word stucture) and other aspects of words, such as etymology, lexical semantic change, word usage, lexical types of words, and words marking specific linguistic varieties.

Phonetics [Top]

All words are, at the their most basic, collections of different sounds. Phonetics is the branch of linguistics that deals with the sounds of speech and their production, combination, description, and representation by written symbols. Sounds are generally categorized by place of articulation, method of articulation, and voicing. While these individual sounds are the most basic elements of language, they do not have meaning in of themselves (apart from some sounds which can be considered sound symbolic).

Morphology [Top]

Morphology is the study of the structure and form of words in language or a language, including inflection, derivation, and the formation of compounds. At the basic level, words are made of "morphemes." These are the smallest units of meaning: roots and affixes (prefixes and suffixes). Native speakers recognize the morphemes as grammatically significant or meaningful. For example, "schoolyard" is made of "school" + "yard", "makes" is made of "make" + a grammatical suffix "-s", and "unhappiness" is made of "happy" with a prefix "un-" and a suffix "-ness".

Inflection occurs when a word has different forms but essentially the same meaning, and there is only a grammatical difference between them: for example, "make" and "makes". The "-s" is an inflectional morpheme.

In contrast, derivation makes a word with a clearly different meaning: such as "unhappy" or "happiness", both from "happy". The "un-" and "-ness" are derivational morphemes. Normally a dictionary would list derived words, but there is no need to list "makes" in a dictionary as well as "make."

Latin and Greek Morphology [Top]

Many of the words in English are derived from Latin and Greek morphemes. In many cases words taken from Latin or Greek retain the inflectional characteristics and gender from their original languages. Thus, the masculine singular form of "alumni" is "alumnus," while the feminine singular form is "alumna." This example also shows that despite the retention of these Latinate forms, particularly in "learned" language, they are often discarded in casual speech, and "alumni" has come to be a singular noun as well as a plural one.

Word Formation and Neologisms [Top]

Throughout the history of English new words have been incorporated into the language through borrowing (from languages as varied as Latin, Greek, Scandinavian, Arabic, and many others) as well as through the application of morphological and derivational rules to existing words and morphemes. Words currently entering the language are called neologisms (from "neo" new and "log" word).