Compound Formation in English Linguistics

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In linguistics, the formation of compound lexemes is much more intricate than general grammatical and syntactical definitions of compound words imply. At this basic understanding, compounds and the process of word compounding involves putting two words (or more) together to make a new word with the new distinct meaning. This is true; however, a linguistic perspective delves much deeper into the formative and meaning-making processes that word compounding entails.

In linguistics, an English language compound is a word that has two roots or stems (or sometimes, a combination of the two). Compounds, unlike other word formations, are a joining of two or more words and/or morphemes to create a new word with its own distinct meaning. Compound words usually take the form of noun-noun, noun-verb or verb-verb word combinations. These combinations result in a new meaning that is not otherwise expressed by either of the compounding words or morphemes in isolation of each other.

Noun-noun compounds are probably the most common, and are the kinds of compounds commonly taught to elementary school children in traditional grammar workbooks. A few examples of these types of compounds include ladybug, rosebud, earthworm, basketball and so forth. In each instance, these examples are comprised of two root words, both of which are nouns. In addition, each example refers to a distinct, specific thing that is not otherwise defined or even suggested by either root word noun in isolation of the other.

Handstand, breaststroke, eyesight and handshake are examples of another form of compounding known as noun-verb formation process. A more common variation (or, more appropriately, inversion) of the noun-verb compound formation is the verb-noun compound. Examples of this compound type include inchworm, driveway, sit-down, jump-rope swing-set, or even the colloquial term kickback, which refers to the act of receiving a portion of something (such as an investment) in return.

In everyday speech, less formal types of word compounding occurs with great frequency. Take, for example, the verb-verb compound. Sometimes, these words are formed to describe everyday things or informal objects, such as a child’s see-saw. Other times, new compounds are formed both in and out of scholarly discourse to describe new ideas, concepts, objects or processes, such as the relatively recently coined (and commonly used) word, download.

Sometimes, it is difficult to tweeze apart compounds from other lexemes and word-building processes. Derivation and inflection formation processes, for example, often superficially appear to have the form of compounds, because these kinds of words are also comprised of more than a single root or stem. Furthermore, some compounds will require the use of derivational morphemes, making the distinction between these lexeme types even less readily apparent. Derivational, inflective and compound lexemes, however, are actually created by very distinct processes.

Whereas compound formation is comprised of combining two root words such as nouns and verbs, derivation formation generally consists of a root stem (for example, court) and a derivational stem or morpheme (such as -ship). Like compounding, derivation formation results in a new word, but unlike compound formation, the result is not a distinct and separate syntactical meaning. Glorify, madness, quickness and friendship, for example, are formed by adding a stem to a root word, but importantly to note is that the stem is always derivational and cannot stand on its own (as the individual components of a compound can). Furthermore, the newly formed derivational word does not affect the syntactic meaning of the root word in any significant way. Although the new word bears a slightly varied meaning of its root, it still expresses the same essential meaning. Friendship, for example, relates or refers to the root word, friend. Inflection formation is similar to derivation formation, but the major distinction between the two is that inflection formation modifies a root word to express grammatical distinctions in voice, person, number, conjugation, and tense.

One interesting trend in popular discourse is the abbreviation compound, which mimics true compound formation but isn’t quite the same. A good example of this are the nicknames celebrity couples are commonly given and called by. TomKat, for example, is a compound-imitating term that was coined to identify and label the inseparable couple individually known as Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. The former beast popularly known as “Bennifer” (being Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck) is another example.

Another instance of popular language that mimics compound formation is the trend of hyphenating or crossbreeding words. “Frankenboob,” the term popularized by an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction experienced by Tara Reid early in the 2000s, is an admittedly tasteless example of this kind of word formation, but is important for the purposes of this essay for illustrating one kind of popular hybrid word. In this example, part of a word (the name Frankenstein) was crossed with a popular term for breast in order to describe a botched breast implant surgery. Hyphenated or hybrid words that are hyphenated in this way are not true compounds, because the meaning their union creates is not a distinct one, but rather a hybrid or joint meaning of the two root words. Furthermore, these words are usually not formally recognized by any scholarly institution or organization.

As I hope this essay has illustrated, English word compounding is much more insightful to linguistic expression than basic interpretations of this language process imply. At the most basic level, compounds are the result of new meaning made by joining two root words, be them nouns, verbs or even, in some instances, adjectives. This method of language formation process, however, is much more intricate, and sometimes, can be misconstrued as other formation processes. But as popular discourse reveals, compounding is so integral to language communication that oftentimes, new compound words are created to describe new concepts, things or processes, and people often mimic compounding when searching for new ways to describe popular or novel objects or phenomena. An understanding of compound foundations is thus essential to one’s formal study of English linguistics and the concept of linguistic expression in general.

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