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How are words formed in the English language?

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Compounding forms a word out of two or more root morphemes. The words are called compounds or compound words. In Linguistics, compounds can be either native or borrowed. Compounds formed in English from borrowed Latin and Greek morphemes preserve this characteristic.

In simpler terms, compound words are formed from at least two basic morphemes, which are the smallest units of meaning, ("ism" would be considered an example of a morpheme), and as stated above, they can be borrowed or native. This is one way of how words are created in the English language.

How else are words created? Derivation is another type of a word formation process (although sometimes the speech might be changed). Take "abstractionism" for example - abstraction is a word, but ism isn't.

Does anyone else have any thoughts on this? Thanks!

July 22, 2017



I'm not linguist, but I am a conlanger. Other sources of English words include back-formation, loan words, calques, blend words, clipping, and the lexification of acronyms.

Back-formation is essentially reverse derivation; you start with a word X that looks like it was derived from another root word Y, even if it wasn't, and then remove the method of derivation to arrive at the word Y that never existed in the first place. A good example is the verb to edit. It was actually the noun editor which came first, and judging from the -or suffix that is productive as an agentive nominalizer, people assumed that to edit must be a verb. It wasn't, but it soon became one.

From Wikipedia:

In etymology, back-formation is the process of creating a new lexeme by removing actual or supposed affixes.[1] The resulting neologism is called a back-formation, a term coined by James Murray[2] in 1889. (OED online preserves their first use of 'back formation' from 1889 in the definition of to burgle.)[3]

For example, the noun resurrection was borrowed from Latin, and the verb resurrect was then backformed hundreds of years later from it by removing the ion suffix. This segmentation of resurrection into resurrect + ion was possible because English had examples of Latinate words in the form of verb and verb+-ion pairs, such as opine/opinion. These became the pattern for many more such pairs, where a verb derived from a Latin supine stem and a noun ending in ion entered the language together, such as insert/insertion, project/projection, etc.

Loan words, or borrowings are just words that you straight steal from another language and graft into your own; you can either retain their spelling and to some extent their pronunciation, as we did with the French terms laissez-faire and je ne sais quoi, or you can adapt them for your language's native phonology and orthography, as we did, for instance, with the name "John", which was originally Johan, which was adapted from Latin Iōhannēs, which was adapted from Greek Ἰωάννης, which was adapted from Hebrew יוֹחָנָן.

A similar phenomenon is calquing, which is when you adopt a phrase from another language into your own by translating it literally. The resulting word or phrase is called a calque, which is, incidentally, a loan word from French. For example, the word "brainwash" is a literal translation of the Chinese phrase 洗腦, meaning "to wash the brain". Also, funnily enough, the very word loan word is a calque from the German Lehnwort - which means that "calque" is a loan word and "loan word" is a calque!

Blend words are words formed by smooshing two existing words together so hard that they actually blend together and cannot be extracted back out - distinct from a compound, in which the two component pieces are still clearly visible, as in "football". One example of a blend word is cyborg - a blend of cybernetic organism. But neither cyb nor org mean anything on their own, whereas foot and ball do. See also smog ("smoke + fog") and spork ("spoon" + "fork").

Clipping just refers to abbreviating an existing word. This is the process by which gymnasium turns into gym and mathematics turns into math.

Finally, acronyms can be simplified into a single new word. Scuba and laser were once both acronyms - Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus and Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation respectively. But eventually acronyms get annoying to recite and get compressed into a single simple word.


I'm no linguist but I think your example is, well, an example of derivation, not compounding. In derivation you attach something that can't stand alone (such as -ism) to a morpheme that can. In compounding you combine two or more morphemes that can stand alone (such as foot+ball). The key in your quote being root morphemes. Or that's my understanding of it.


Thanks for clarifying; I'm no linguist myself, which is why I brought up this topic! Thanks!

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