Word formation in modern english

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Topics: Affix, Prefix
C H A P T E R I

The ways in which new words are formed, and the factors which govern their acceptance into the language, are generally taken very much for granted by the average speaker. To understand a word, it is not necessary to know how it is constructed, whether it is simple or complex, that is, whether or not it can be broken down into two or more constituents. We are able to use a word which is new to us when we find out what object or notion it denotes. Some words, of course, are more ‘transparent’ than others. For example, in the words unfathomable and indescribable we recognize the familiar pattern of negative prefix + transitive word + adjective-forming suffix on which many words of similar form are constructed. Knowing the pattern, we can easily guess their meanings – ‘cannot be fathomed’ and ‘cannot be described’ – although we are not surprised to find other similar-looking words, for instance unfashionable and unfavourable for which this analysis will not work. We recognize as ‘transparent’ the adjectives unassuming and unheard-of, which taking for granted the fact that we cannot use assuming and heard-of. We accept as quite natural the fact that although we can use the verbs to pipe, to drum and to trumpet, we cannot use the verbs to piano and to violin.

But when we meet new coinages, like tape-code, freak-out, shutup-ness and beautician, we may not readily be able to explain our reactions to them. Innovations in vocabulary are capable of arousing quite strong feelings in people who may otherwise not be in the habit of thinking very much about language. Quirk1 quotes some letter to the press of a familiar kind, written to protest about ‘horrible jargon’, such as breakdown, ‘vile’ words like transportation, and the ‘atrocity’ lay-by.

Many linguists agree over the fact that the subject of word-formation has not until recently received very much attention from descriptive grammarians of English, or from scholars working in the field of

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