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A word is the smallest free form (an item that may be uttered in isolation with semantic or pragmatic content) in a language, in contrast to a morpheme, which is the smallest unit of meaning. A word may consist of only one morpheme (e.g. wolf), but a single morpheme may not be able to exist as a free form (e.g. the English plural morpheme -s).

Typically, a word will consist of a root or stem, and zero or more affixes. Words can be combined to create other units of language, such as phrases, clauses, and/or sentences. A word consisting of two or more stems joined together form a compound. A word combined with an already existing word or part of a word form a portmanteau.

Word may refer to a spoken word or a written word, or sometimes, the abstract concept behind either. Spoken words are made up of phonemes, and written words of graphemes.

Contents

Definitions

Depending upon language in question, it can be either easy or difficult to identify or decipher a word. Dictionaries take upon themselves the task of categorizing a language's lexicon (i.e., its vocabulary) into lemmas. These can be taken as an indication of what constitutes a "word" in the opinion of the writers.

Semantic definition

Leonard Bloomfield introduced the concept of "Minimal Free Forms" in 1926. Words are thought of as the smallest meaningful unit of speech that can stand by themselves.[1] This correlates phonemes (units of sound) to lexemes (units of meaning). However, some written words are not minimal free forms, as they make no sense by themselves (for example, the and of).[2]

Features

In the Minimalist school of theoretical syntax, words (also called lexical items in the literature) are construed as "bundles" of linguistic features that are united into a structure with form and meaning.[3] For example, the word "bears" has semantic features (it denotes real-world objects, bears), category features (it is a noun), number features (it is plural and must agree with verbs, pronouns, and demonstratives in its domain), phonological features (it is pronounced a certain way), etc.

Word boundaries

The task of defining what constitutes a "word" involves determining where one word ends and another word begins—in other words, identifying word boundaries. There are several ways to determine where the word boundaries of spoken language should be placed:

  • Potential pause: A speaker is told to repeat a given sentence slowly, allowing for pauses. The speaker will tend to insert pauses at the word boundaries. However, this method is not foolproof: the speaker could easily break up polysyllabic words.
  • Indivisibility: A speaker is told to say a sentence out loud, and then is told to say the sentence again with extra words added to it. Thus, I have lived in this village for ten years might become My family and I have lived in this little village for about ten or so years. These extra words will tend to be added in the word boundaries of the original sentence. However, some languages have infixes, which are put inside a word. Similarly, some have separable affixes; in the German sentence "Ich komme gut zu Hause an", the verb ankommen is separated.
  • Phonetic boundaries: Some languages have particular rules of pronunciation that make it easy to spot where a word boundary should be. For example, in a language that regularly stresses the last syllable of a word, a word boundary is likely to fall after each stressed syllable. Another example can be seen in a language that has vowel harmony (like Turkish):[4] the vowels within a given word share the same quality, so a word boundary is likely to occur whenever the vowel quality changes. Nevertheless, not all languages have such convenient phonetic rules, and even those that do present the occasional exceptions.

In practice, linguists apply a mixture of all these methods to determine the word boundaries of any given sentence. Even with the careful application of these methods, the exact definition of a word is often still very elusive.

  • Orthographic boundaries: See below.

Orthography

In languages with a literary tradition, there is interrelation between orthography and the question of what is considered a single word. Word separators (typically spaces) are common in modern orthography of languages using alphabetic scripts, but these are (excepting isolated precedents) a modern development (see also history of writing).

In English orthography, words may contain spaces if they are compounds or proper nouns such as ice cream or air raid shelter.

Vietnamese orthography, although using the Latin alphabet, delimits monosyllabic morphemes, not words. East Asian orthography (languages using CJK characters) also tend to delimit syllables rather than full words. Conversely, synthetic languages often combine many lexical morphemes into single words, making it difficult to boil them down to the traditional sense of words found more easily in analytic languages; this is especially difficult for polysynthetic languages, such as Inuktitut and Ubykh, where entire sentences may consist of a single word.

Morphology

In synthetic languages, a single word stem (for example, love) may have a number of different forms (for example, loves, loving, and loved). However, these are not usually considered to be different words, but different forms of the same word. In these languages, words may be considered to be constructed from a number of morphemes. In Indo-European languages in particular, the morphemes distinguished are

Thus, the Proto-Indo-European *wr̥dhom would be analyzed as consisting of

  1. *wr̥-, the zero grade of the root *wer-
  2. a root-extension *-dh- (diachronically a suffix), resulting in a complex root *wr̥dh-
  3. The thematic suffix *-o-
  4. the neuter gender nominative or accusative singular desinence *-m.

Philosophy

Philosophers have found words objects of fascination since at least the 5th century BC, with the foundation of the philosophy of language. Plato analyzed words in terms of their origins and the sounds making them up, concluding that there was some connection between sound and meaning though words change a great deal over time. John Locke wrote that the use of words "is to be sensible marks of ideas", though they are chosen "not by any natural connexion that there is between particular articulate sounds and certain ideas, for then there would be but one language amongst all men; but by a voluntary imposition, whereby such a word is made arbitrarily the mark of such an idea".[5] Wittgenstein's thought transitioned from a word as representation of meaning to "the meaning of a word is its use in the language."[6]

Classes

Grammar classifies a language's lexicon into several groups of words. The basic bipartite division possible for virtually every natural language is that of nouns vs. verbs.

The classification into such classes is in the tradition of Dionysius Thrax, who distinguished eight categories: noun, verb, adjective, pronoun, preposition, adverb, conjunction and interjection.

In Indian grammatical tradition, Pāṇini introduced a similar fundamental classification into a nominal (nāma, suP) and a verbal (ākhyāta, tiN) class, based on the set of desinences taken by the word.

See also

Footnotes

  1. ^ Katamba 11
  2. ^ Fleming 77
  3. ^ Adger (2003), pp. 36–7.
  4. ^ Bauer 9
  5. ^ www.rbjones.com/rbjpub/philos/classics/locke/ctb3c02.htm
  6. ^ plato.stanford.edu/entries/wittgenstein

References

  • Adger, David (2003). Core Syntax: A Minimalist Approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  • Barton, David (1994). Literacy: An Introduction to the Ecology of Written Language. Blackwell Publishing. p. 96. 
  • Bauer, Laurie (1983). English Word-formation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-28492-9. 
  • Brown, Keith R. (Ed.) (2005) Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics (2nd ed.). Elsevier. 14 vols.
  • Crystal, David (1995). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (1 ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-40179-8. 
  • Fleming, Michael et al. (2001). Meeting the Standards in Secondary English: A Guide to the ITT NC. Routledge. p. 77. 
  • Katamba, Francis (2005). English Words: Structure, History, Usage. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-29892-X. 
  • Plag, Ingo (2003). Word-formation in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-52563-2. 
  • Simpson, J.A. and E.S.C. Weiner, ed (1989). Oxford English Dictionary (2 ed.). Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-198-61186-2. 

External links


Quotes

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Sourced

  • Words are good servants but bad masters.
    • Aldous Huxley, as reported by Laura Huxley, in conversation with Alan Watts, about This Timeless Moment, in Pacifica Archives #BB2037
  • Words are pegs to hang ideas on.
  • Words ought to be a little wild for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking.
  • My father still reads the dictionary everyday. He says your life depends on your ability to master words.
  • Words realize nothing, vivify nothing to you, unless you have suffered in your own person the thing which the words try to describe.
    • Mark Twain A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) Ch. 28
  • I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue; I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me.
  • If Shakespeare required a word and had not met it in civilised discourse, he unhesitatingly made it up.
    • Anthony Burgess, A Mouthful of Air: Language and Languages, Especially English (1992)

Unsourced

  • Words have the power to both destroy and heal. When words are both true and kind, they can change our world.
  • So difficult it is to show the various meanings and imperfections of words when we have nothing else but words to do it with.







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