You’re probably familiar with the old adage “the only thing that’s constant is change.” Still, so many people tend to think about language as a relatively fixed affair. I’ve said it before (and will inevitably say it again): all living languages change all the time, and at all levels – phonological (sounds!), morphological (word-bits!), lexical (words!), syntactic (clauses!), and semantic (meaning!).
Historical linguistics (also known as diachronic linguistics) is the study of how and why languages change over time. In this post I’m going to discuss categories of change at the morphological and lexical levels – how new words come into being. In the future, I’ll explore semantic and perhaps phonological change.
Without further ado, here are the main mechanisms of word formation. Almost all examples are for English, but these formation types apply to other languages as well. (NOTE: Processes are not mutually exclusive. It is quite possible for a word to undergo multiple processes simultaneously, or one on the heels of another.)
New words are born by adding affixes to existing words. Affixes are bound morphemes that can be prefixes, suffixes, and even (for certain languages, although not really for English) infixes and circumfixes. Derivation is a very common process cross-linguistically.
Zero derivation (also known as conversion) is a special case where a new word, with a new word class (part of speech) is created from an existing word of a different class, without any change in form.
(Derivation) hater [hate + -er], truthiness [truth + -i (-y) + -ness], deglobalization [de- + globalization], hipsterdom [hipster + -dom]
(Zero derivation) heart as verb, as in “I heart coffee” [heart as noun]; friend as verb, as in “he friended me on Facebook” [friend as noun]; green as noun, in the golf lawn sense [green as adjective]; down as verb, as in “Hector downed a beer” [down as preposition]
This process creates a new word through the removal of true or incorrectly assumed affixes. It’s kind of the opposite of derivation. This one is easier to explain through examples:
|Derived from older word||
donate, automate, resurrect
|donation, automation, resurrection
The nouns were borrowed into English first from Latin. The verbs were back-formed later by discarding the -ion suffix, which speakers did through analogy with other Latinate verb and (-ion) noun pairs that already existed in English.
The older form was initially a mass noun (like water or sand), but was reanalyzed as plural. People then dropped the “plural” -s(e) to form the “singular” count noun pea.
|beg, edit, hawk
|beggar, editor, hawker
Speakers mistook the -ar, -or, and -er on the ends of these nouns (respectively) for the agentive suffix (that did/does exist in English), and removed it to form corresponding verbs.
Actually examples of folk etymology, which is related to back-formation. Here, speakers incorrectly assumed that -rita in margarita and –(t)ini in martini were separate morphemes (indicating the class of cocktail). Under that assumption, they switched out the rest of the word and substituted it with morphemes indicating new twists/ingredients.
Also known as portmanteaus. Blends are produced by combining two or more words, where parts of one or both words are deleted.
Examples: smog [smoke + fog], brunch [breakfast + lunch], infomercial [information + commercial], bromance [bro + romance], hangry [hungry + angry], clopen [close + open]
Also known as loan words. These are expressions taken from other languages. Pronunciation is usually altered to fit the phonological rules of the borrowing language.
Examples: algebra [from Arabic], ménage à trois [from French], whisky [from Scots Gaelic or Irish], bagel [from Yiddish], doppelgänger [from German], karaoke [from Japanese]
Words can be created outright to fit some purpose. Many of these are initially product names.
Examples: Xerox, Kleenex, Jell-O, Google, zipper, Frisbee
Two or more words join together to form a compound. Frequently the joining words are nouns, but they can belong to different parts of speech, including verbs, adjectives, prepositions, etc. Compounds can be separated by spaces, by hyphens, or glued to each other with nothing intervening.
Examples: homework, grocery store, mother-of-pearl, first world problem, binge-watch, weaksauce, fake news
These are words that derive from proper nouns – usually people and place names. If a proper noun is used frequently enough and across multiple contexts, it eventually becomes a common noun (or verb or adjective).
Examples: sandwich [after the fourth Earl of Sandwich], gargantuan [after Gargantua, name of the giant in Rabelais’ novels], boycott [after Capt. Charles C. Boycott], mesmerize [a back-formation from mesmerism, in turn after Franz Anton Mesmer], sadism [after the Marquis de Sade]
Several types of reducing processes exist. The main ones are clipping, acronyms, and initialisms.
New words can be formed by shearing one or more syllables off an existing longer word. Syllables can be removed from the word’s beginning, end, or both.
Examples: fax [facsimile], flu [influenza], droid [android], fridge [refrigerator], blog [weblog]
Words are created from the initial letters of several other words. Acronyms are pronounced as regular words (in contrast to initialisms below).
Examples: NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration], RAM [random-access memory], FOMO [fear of missing out]
Also known as Alphabetisms. Like with acronyms, a word is created from the initial letters of other words, but the resulting term is pronounced by saying each letter. This usually happens when the string of letters is not easily pronounced as a word according to the phonological rules of the language.
Examples: NFL [National Football League], UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles], MRI [magnetic resonance imaging], WTF [what the fuck]
Reduplication is one of my favorite phenomena. It’s a process whereby a word or sound is repeated or nearly repeated to form a new word/expression. This is a productive morphological process (meaning, it’s part of the grammar and happens frequently and rather systematically) in many languages – South-East Asian and Austronesian languages particularly (e.g. Malay, Tagalog, Samoan). It’s not an especially productive process in English, although it does still happen.
(English) wishy-washy, teensy-weensy, goody-goody, cray-cray, po-po
(Samoan) savali [‘he travels’ – third person singular + verb]; savavali [‘they travel’ – third person plural + verb]
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Phew! Since hopefully you can see the light at the end of this long lexical tunnel, I’ll mention that of course languages lose words as well. Diverse factors motivate word loss, but that’s a subject for another post. A few quick examples of words that have fallen out of favor in English:
pell-mell [in a disorderly, reckless, hasty manner]; davenport [couch/sofa – my grandma used to say this]; grass [for marijuana – my mom still says this]; porridge [an oatmeal-like dish boiled in water or milk]; tumbrel [a farmer’s cart for hauling manure]; fain [gladly or willingly]
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And now… ADD WORDS TO THE SPREADSHEET – Word shenanigans!
I’ve got almost 200 in there to start us off. If you’re not sure about the process for any particular word, just leave it blank or take a guess. Free bagel droids to all who contribute.
 Bound meaning they cannot exist on their own, but must be attached to another morpheme.
 Describes a shitty situation where one has to work a closing shift followed by an opening shift. We used this term as bartenders, although I’d never seen it in print until recently. It came up in some paperwork I had to sign relating to work week ordinances, and then I saw it here as well.
 Some languages even have triplication – where the sound/word is copied twice!
 Kidding! These do not exist outside of my head. Sorry.