6.6 Creating New Words

Languages are constantly adding new words. Some of those new words are formed by affixation, and some by processes that are less productive, but more entertaining!


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Back in Chapter 1 we learned that mental grammar is generative, that is, it allows users to create, or generate, brand new words and sentences that have never been spoken before. And in fact, one of the fastest ways that languages change, and the easiest way to observe, is by new words entering the language.

There are all kinds of different ways that new words can make their way into a language. It’s possible to coin a new word, that is, to create a completely new form that hasn’t existed before. So I made up this form vrang; I don’t know what it means because I just made it up. But that was pretty hard to do — any new form I tried to make up turned out to have some obscure definition. So brand new coinages are possible, but they don’t actually happen very often.

One way that English gets a lot of new words is by borrowing them from other languages. For example, the Welsh word hiraeth means longing or yearning. It’s become common enough for English-speakers to use this Welsh word that in 2020, the Oxford English Dictionary added it. You can probably think of many other common English words that started out as borrowings from other languages and became deeply embedded in the English lexicon, like anime, from Japanese, limousine from French, and boomerang from Australian Indigenous languages.

Of course, one of the most obvious ways to derive a new words is with an affix. You might recognize the suffix –ology, which usually means “the study of”. So mythology involves studying myths, criminology is the study of criminality, and epidemiology is the study of epidemics. The Oxford English Dictionary recently added garbageology, the study of a society or community by investigating what people consider to be garbage.

In English, affixation is one of the most productive ways to derive new words: No matter what the word is, you can almost always add an affix to derive a new, related word from it. Some other new affixed words that have found their way into the dictionary are enoughness, farmette (a small farm), and unfathom.

Another extremely productive way of deriving new words in English is by compounding, that is, by taking two existing words, both of which are free morphemes, and sticking them together. For example, the year 2020 saw the words plant-based, jerkweed, and delete key added to the dictionary. You can learn more about compounds in Chapter 7.

So we can say that productivity is a property of morphological processes in the grammar of a language. A given process is productive if it’s one that the language uses a lot, and uses to generate new forms. For example, in English the plural morpheme spelled –s is extremely common, and we see it on words like socks, cars, bananas, stars, and thousands of others. In contrast, a plural affix –en is very rare in English: we see it on the plural forms children, oxen, and the very old-fashioned word brethren, but pretty much nowhere else. And if we coin a new word, like vrang, and then decide we have more than one vrang, the plural we use is going to be vrangs, not vrangen.

If you look through the lists of new words that get added to dictionaries each year, you’ll see that besides affixation and compounding, there are other morphological processes that occur in English. Here are some of them.

One thing that English does a lot is take a word from one syntactic category and just move it to another category with a new meaning. For example, the old meaning of ghost is the noun meaning, and then there’s the newer verb meaning, where if you ghost someone you just stop replying to their messages and kind of disappear from their life. Not very nice! Likewise, catfish and sundown have newer, verb meanings that are different from their original compound noun meanings.

Acronyms pretty frequently make their way into English and some of them stick around, especially in typed form online, like a link that’s not-safe-for-work, the classic LOL, and of course, “too long ,didn’t read”.

Clipping happens when we take a long word and just clip part of it off. Usually the meaning doesn’t change, but often the clipped form becomes much more frequent then the long form. Does anyone even know that fax is shortened from facsimile? And certainly no-one talks about electronic mail anymore.

A few years ago clipping had a brief moment in the way some young people talked, so you might have an outfit that’s totes adorbs, or a relaish that’s not serious, just cazh. This trend seems to have lost its popularity, the way language fads often do.

The word-formation process that I’ve left for last is my favourite because I find a lot of them so funny. That’s the blend, or portmanteau, the process whereby two words are kind of jammed together, but not in a compound. Instead some parts of the two words overlap with each other, like when spoon and fork combine to make spork. The best blends, the ones that stick around in the language and become permanent, seem to share a syllable like the second syllable in both hungry and angry, or at least share some segments and the rhythmic pattern, like athleisure. And then there are some that just seem to be trying too hard, peanutritious, Christmasketball, and (shudder) covidpreneur. I’m no prescriptivist, but I hope these words die a quick death.

All these words are examples of the generativity of grammar. Languages are constantly adding new words, using the productive morphological processes that are part of the grammar. Pay attention to the new words you discover as you read and listen, and see if you can figure out how they’re formed.


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