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An Introduction to Modern English Word-formation


  English is the text-book example of a language that expands its vocabulary by unashamedly raiding other languages. For a thousand years new words have, like dockside imports, often borne an easily readable stamp of their country of origin: outlaw from medieval Scandinavia, gentle from medieval France, madrigal from Renaissance Italy, chutney from nineteenth-century India and karate from twentieth-century Japan, to name a few examples that indicate the chronological and geographical range. Such words clearly and interestingly reflect the contact that English-speaking peoples have had with other countries and other cultures, and so fascinated have scholars been for several generations by the patterns of word adoption that we have tended to regard this process as virtually the sole means by which changes in our vocabulary take place.

  It is not, of course. We sometimes translate the foreign word we need, as Bernard Shaw did with Nietzsche's Uebermensch to produce superman; or we achieve a new means of designation by using an existing word in a different sense, as with the homosexual meaning of gay. Or -to come to the concern of the present book - we can permute existing words and parts of words to make new combinations such as the nouns boathouse, houseboat, or the adjective ungovernable.

   With all of these devices, we see vocabulary change triggered off by cultural change even where no transparently 'exotic' word appears as a result: the homely corn becomes the American word for the exotic maize when and because Americans start encountering maize in their daily life. But changes in vocabulary by the processes of word-formation have, in addition to their cultural and historical interest, a purely linguistic interest.

  That is to say, there are abstractly describable patterns which explain the regularities in the new words we coin and which explain also why certain formations would be unlikely or impossible (such as a negative adjective *ableungovern). By contrast, there are few generalizations that one could make in predicting the shape or internal structure of foreign words that we might adopt. Thus, although foreign words are normally given a 'domesti-cated' pronunciation, we cannot even say that an adopted word will be repronounced with only English sounds and sound sequences (raison d' etre).

  This is not to say that there are rules of word-formation as freely available to the native speaker as his rules of sentence-formation. Where almost every sentence we use is composed ad hoc to suit the occasion and is thus a 'new sentence', it is relatively rare for us to form a 'new word' and when we do our hearers or readers are more or less conscious both of its newness and of the rarity with which they encounter the phenomenon of newness. Even so, they would be generally able to distinguish a new word that seemed well-formed ('This wretched cupboard is ungetinable) from one that is not (*getunablein). To this extent, word-formation is interestingly rule-bound and Valerie Adams gives careful consideration to the many complex kinds of regularity that are to be observed. She deserves especial praise, however, for resisting the temptation to sweep under an exquisitely patterned carpet the irregularities and striking idiosyncrasies which are -to say the least - no less characteristic of the creative side of lexical usage.

  The volume makes a welcome contribution in a difficult and controversial field. As English has increasingly come into world-wide use, there has arisen an acute need for more information on the language and the ways in which it is used. The English Language Series seeks to meet this need and to play a part in further stimulating the study and teaching of English by providing up-to-date and scholarly treatments of topics most relevant to present-day English - including its history and traditions, its sound patterns, its grammar, its lexicology, its rich variety in speech and writing, and its standards in Britain, the USA and the other principal areas where the language is used.

  The study of word-formation offers a great many puzzles to the present-day student of language; as Esko Pennanen (1972) observes in a discussion of some of the difficulties, not the least of these is its status as a branch of linguistic study. I have not tried in this book to grapple with major issues, such as the possibility of devising rules to account for just those compounds and affixed words which exist and are acceptable, and those which could exist and would be acceptable if they were to be formed; or the possibility of giving convincing reasons why some words are unacceptable while Others of similar make-up are not. In the final pages I suggest - as others have recently suggested - that if we are to make much progress in understanding such matters, the topic of 'word-formation' as it is here defined may have to be recognized as after all rather superficially conceived: our real business should be with meanings and how they are expressed and Combined. Questions like these, however, await a better understanding of many syntactic and semantic matters; they are for the future, and for works far more ambitious than this one.

  The chapters which follow are chiefly concerned with data, and with classifications of data. As an introduction to the subject, they cannot claim to be complete, since a comprehensive treatment of the prefixes and suffixes is lacking. But I have tried to indicate to some extent, though in no Very systematic way, how the various traditionally-recognized patterns of word-formation are interrelated; how, for instance, the make-up of noun compounds, verb compounds and compounds containing particles may be considered along with the patterns of zero derivation; how blends and compounds may be compared; how compound-elements and blend-elements may be more, or less, like prefixes and suffixes; and how certain concepts, such as 'instrumentality', 'location', 'resemblance', appear and re-appear in words of various types.

  Throughout, I have included illustrative examples gathered from the most recent sources, chiefly from newspapers and magazines. I believe that such transient coinages are valuable in helping us - and occasionally surprising us - when the dictionary lets us down. I have used them to show, for instance, how we are capable of making new compound verbs, such as to chauffeur-drift, or to consumer-test; and how patterns which we might have thought were played out are still alive. Thus we are able to form adjective compounds like browfurrowed and yawning dull on the patterns of the cliche-like heart-broken and scalding hot; and the little group of 'animal' verbs such as to ape, to wolf, gets a new member with the coining of to squirrel Examples from these sources also provide interesting evidence of how word-elements of all kinds may be taken up and used in new formations. It was as natural for the Victorian journalist of the 1880's to coin the word camelcade for a procession or cavalcade of camels as it was for the reporter of the 1960s; and Sir Thomas More might have been surprised to learn that his invention, Utopia, was to serve as a precedent for such twentieth-century creations as pornotopia.



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