Chapter 5: Morphology

5.8 Compounding

Compounds: Putting roots together

The last main “type” of morphology is compounding. Compounds are words built from more than one root (though they can also be built from derived words): if you find a word that contains more than one root in it, you are definitely dealing with a compound. Compounding differs from both derivation and inflection in that it doesn’t involve combinations of roots and affixes, but instead roots with roots.

English is a language that builds compounds very freely—this is like other languages in the Germanic language family, like German and Dutch. For almost any two categories, you can find examples of compounds in English.

  • Noun-Noun
    • doghouse
    • website
    • basketball
    • sunflower
    • moonlight
    • beekeeper (note that “keeper” has the suffix -er!)
    • heartburn
    • spaceship
  • Adjective-Noun
    • greenhouse
    • bluebird
  • Verb-Noun
    • breakwater
    • baby-sit
  • Noun-Adjective
    • trustworthy
    • watertight
  • Adjective-Adjective
    • purebred
    • kind-hearted
    • blue-green
  • Noun-Verb
    • browbeat
    • manhandle
    • sidestep
  • Adjective-Verb
    • blacklist

Compounds and Spelling

In English we don’t spell compounds in a consistent way. Some compounds—typically older ones—are spelled without a space, while others are spelled with a hyphen, and many new compounds are spelled with spaces, as though they are separate words.

We can tell that some sequences of “words” are compounds, though, in a few different ways. First of all, there is a difference in pronunciation. Compounds are always stressed (given emphasis) on their first member; by contrast, phrases (sequence of words) get stress on their last member.

So the compounds:

  • blackboard
  • greenhouse
  • bluebird

Are pronounced differently than the ordinary sequences of adjectives followed by nouns:

  • black board
  • green house
  • blue bird

Another difference is in the interpretation: a blackboard need not be black, a greenhouse usually isn’t green (though you grow green things in it).

Finally, there’s a syntactic difference. Something we’ll see when we get to Chapter 6 is that there’s no way to string nouns together in English syntax, without connecting them with prepositions or verbs. So any time you see a string of “words” in English that all look like nouns, you have to be dealing with a compound.

English compounds and spelling

English really likes building very long compounds out of nouns. This is something people usually associate with German. In German, unlike in English, compounds are always spelled without spaces. So you get words like:

(1) Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän
“Danube steam shipping company captain”

The second row in (1) inserts the hyphens in this German compound so that you can see the roots more clearly—but if you look at the English translation, it actually tracks all the same nouns in the German example. English writing has just adopted the convention of writing long or novel compounds with spaces. Structurally, English compounds work just like their German counterparts.

Compounds and Headedness

If compounds have more than one root in them, which of them determines the category of the word?

Most compounds—the ones that you might make up on the spot in particular—have a head. The head of a compound determines its interpretation (a sunflower is a type of flower, a bluebird is a type of bird, etc.) as well as its category.

In English, the head of a compound is always on its right: English is a right-headed compound language.

Compounds that have a head are called endocentric. This is the same endo– morpheme you find in endo-skeleton. An animal (like a human) with a skeleton inside of it is endoskeletal, and a compound with a head inside of it is endocentric.

What about the compound equivalent of exo-skeletal, animals that have a carapace instead of a skeleton (like insects or crabs)? Compounds that are exocentric don’t have a head inside of them—they don’t describe either of their members.

Some exocentric compounds don’t have an interpretive head, but still have what we might call a category head, in that the root on the right matches the category of the whole compound. For example, redhead (“person with red hair”) is often listed as an exocentric compound, because it does not describe a type of head. Similarly sabretooth is exocentric because it doesn’t describe a type of tooth. But both of these are noun-noun compounds that are themselves nouns, so their right-hand member is almost a head. A spoilsport (“person who spoils other people’s fun”) is not a type of sport, but it is still a noun.

But other exocentric compounds don’t even have a head in this sense. For example, outcome looks like a compound of a preposition and a verb, but is a noun. Dust-up is a compound of a noun and a preposition, but is a noun. Tell-all is a compound of a verb and a determiner (all), but is an adjective.

Finally, a special kind of compound is usually called a dvandva compound (terminology from Sanskrit grammar, dvandva means “pair”). Dvandva compounds can be thought of as “co-headed”—they can be paraphrased with an “and” between the two members. In English a lot of our dvandva compounds involve roots that sometimes only occur in the compound, that mirror each other’s sounds. These are sometimes called reduplicatives.

  • zigzag
  • helter skelter
  • flip flop
  • riff raff
  • hocus pocus

But we also have some other dvandva compounds:

  • bittersweet
  • secretary-treasurer
  • parent-child (as in “a parent-child bond”)
  • blue-green (and many other terms for intermediate colours)

These are less common than other types of compounds in English.



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Essentials of Linguistics, 2nd edition by Catherine Anderson; Bronwyn Bjorkman; Derek Denis; Julianne Doner; Margaret Grant; Nathan Sanders; and Ai Taniguchi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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