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What Is Word Formation?

By Cynde Gregory
Updated May 23, 2024
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Many a young child has assumed that words come from books and that, somewhere, there is a huge master tome that contains every word in the language. Nothing could be further from the truth. Despite the efforts of some self-appointed language police, all languages are sprawling sound rivers. The stuff of language is, at bottom, sound that has been wedded to an idea to form a word that can be shared among speakers. For some, linguistics, word formation, or the study of how new words are coined and enter the linguistic stream, is an area of utter fascination.

Anyone who has reached a certain age has been saddened to see favorite words from youth slip into relative disuse and horrified at the kinds of garbled jargon that replaces it. In fact, anything that two speakers decide is a word is a word. For people who talk to themselves, exceptions to the two-person requirement might be made.

This doesn’t mean that semiprivate verbal inventions will last as words. In order for a word’s formation to be study worthy, the word itself has to have staying power. It must become something that spreads from area to area, even something that can leap the boundary of grammar and transform itself from, say, a noun into a verb. Words can be derived from related words, compounded by jamming two words together to create a meaning that eclipses the two, or borrowed from another language. They can be blended or clipped as well.

At the dawn of linguistic time, the first handful of words were metaphors, grunts, or mutterings that represented something so absolutely that they stood in for that thing whether it was there or not. For example, an imaginary first speaker who convinced his or her tribe mates that the sound glurm meant "sun" now had a word that could be used to conjure a mental image even on a rainy day. People didn’t have many words in that ancient time, but they no doubt had many ideas, and the words that were available began to spawn through derivations.

Word formation based upon derivation would be the result if glurm quickly began to also mean "the course of a day." Glurm-a might mean a journey of a handful of days, and glurm-o might be a longer journey. Stars might be named glurmallala, or little suns, and night, perhaps, might be named nonoglurm, or no sun. While this is a fanciful explanation, derivation is, in fact, one important way word formation occurs.

If these ancient speakers had another word, motala, for moon, gluing the word for sun and the word for moon together into glurmmotala could create a new word. Glurnmotala might mean "month," a word that is more than the sum of its parts. In just this way, English words such as neighborhood and featherbrained were coined.

Another type of word formation is the result of blending. When two words share both sound material and the urge to mate, the result is a kind of linguistic overlapping. Anyone who is a self-identified chocoholic, for example, knows just how apt blended words can be. Clipping a word occurs when there’s just too much say and no time to say it or when the speaker is just plain tired. It is understandable, for instance, when influenza is clipped all the way to flu.

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