Modern English Word-Formation
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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. Quirk 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 general linguistics. As a collection of different processes (compounding, affixation, conversion, backformation, etc.) about which, as a group, it is difficult to make general statements, word-formation usually makes a brief appearance in one or two chapters of a grammar. Valerie Adams emphasizes two main reasons why the subject has not been attractive to linguists: its connections with the non-linguistic world of things and ideas, for which words provide the names, and its equivocal position as between descriptive and historical studies. A few brief remarks, which necessarily present a much over-simplified picture, on the course which linguistics has taken in the last hundred years will make this easier.
The nineteenth century, the period of great advances in historical and
comparative language study, saw the first claims of linguistics to be a
science, comparable in its methods with the natural sciences which were
also enjoying a period of exciting discovery. These claims rested on the
detailed study, by comparative linguists, of formal correspondences in the
Indo-European languages, and their realization that such study depended on the assumption of certain natural ‘laws’ of sound change. As Robins observes in his discussion of the linguistics of the latter part of the nineteenth century:
The history of a language is traced through recorded variations in the forms and meanings of its words, and languages are proved to be related by reason of their possession of worlds bearing formal and semantic correspondences to each other such as cannot be attributed to mere chance or to recent borrowing. If sound change were not regular, if word-forms were subject to random, inexplicable, and unmotivated variation in the course of time, such arguments would lose their validity and linguistic relations could only be established historically by extralinguistic evidence such as is provided in the Romance field of languages descended from Latin.
The rise and development in the twentieth century of synchronic descriptive
linguistics meant a shift of emphasis from historical studies, but not from
the idea of linguistics as a science based on detailed observation and the
rigorous exclusion of all explanations depended on extralinguistic factors.
As early as 1876, Henry Sweet had written:
Before history must come a knowledge of what exists. We must learn to observe things as they are, without regard to their origin, just as a zoologist must learn to describe accurately a horse or any other animal. Nor would the mere statements that the modern horse is a descendant of a three-toed marsh quadruped be accepted as an exhausted description... Such however is the course being pursued by most antiquarian philologists.
The most influential scholar concerned with the new linguistics was
Ferdinand de Saussure, who emphasized the distinction between external linguistics – the study of the effects on a language of the history and culture of its speakers, and internal linguistics – the study of its system and rules. Language, studied synchronically, as a system of elements definable in relation to one another, must be seen as a fixed state of affairs at a particular point of time. It was internal linguistics, stimulated by de Saussure’s works, that was to be the main concern of the twentieth-century scholars, and within it there could be no place for the study of the formation of words, with its close connection with the external world and its implications of constant change. Any discussion of new formations as such means the abandonment of the strict distinction between history and the present moment. As Harris expressed in his influential Structural Linguistics: ‘The methods of descriptive linguistics cannot treat of the productivity of elements since that is a measure of the difference between our corpus and some future corpus of the language.’ Leonard Bloomfield, whose book Language was the next work of major influence after that of de Saussure, re-emphasized the necessity of a scientific approach, and the consequent difficulties in the way of studying
‘meaning’, and until the middle of the nineteen-fifties, interest was centered on the isolating of minimal segments of speech, the description of their distribution relative to one another, and their organization into larger units. The fundamental unit of grammar was not the word but a smaller unit, the morpheme.
The next major change of emphasis in linguistics was marked by the publication in 1957 of Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures. As Chomsky stated it, the aim of linguistics was now seen to be ‘to make grammatical explanations parallel in achievement to the behavior of the speaker who, on the basis of a finite and accidental experience with language can produce and understand an indefinite number of new sentences’. The idea of productivity, or creativity, previously excluded from linguistics, or discussed in terms of probabilities in the effort to maintain the view of language as existing in a static state, was seen to be of central importance. But still word-formation remained a topic neglected by linguists, and for several good reasons. Chomsky made explicit the distinction, fundamental to linguistics today (and comparable to that made by de Saussure between langue, the system of a language, and parole, the set of utterances of the language), between linguistic competence, ‘the speaker-hearer’s knowledge of his language’ and performance, ‘the actual use of language in concrete situations’. Linked with this distinction are the notions of ‘grammaticalness’ and ‘acceptability’; in Chomsky’s words, ‘Acceptability is a concept that belongs to the study of competence’. A ‘grammatical’ utterance is one which may be generated and interpreted by the rules of the grammar; an ‘acceptable’ utterance is one which is ‘perfectly natural and immediately comprehensible... and in no way bizarre or outlandish’. It is easy to show, as Chomsky does, that a grammatical sentence may not be acceptable. For instance, this is the cheese the rat the cat caught stole appears ‘bizarre’ and unacceptable because we have difficulty in working it out, not because it breaks any grammatical rules. Generally, however, it is to be expected that grammaticalness and acceptability will go hand in hand where sentences are concerned.
The ability to make and understand new words is obviously as much a part of
our linguistic competence as the ability to make and understand new
sentences, and so, as Pennanen points out, ‘it is an obvious gap in
transformational grammars not to have made provision for treating word-
formation.’ But, as we have already noticed, we may readily thing of words, like to piano and to violin, against which we can invoke no rule, but which
are definitely ‘unacceptable’ for no obvious reason. The incongruence of
grammaticality and acceptability that is, is far greater where words are
concerned than where sentences are concerned. It is so great, in fact, that
the exercise of setting out the ‘rules’ for forming words has so far seemed
to many linguists to be out of questionable usefulness. The occasions on
which we would have to describe the output of such rules as ‘grammatical
but non-occurring’ are just too numerous. And there are further
difficulties in treating new words like new sentences. A novel word (like
handbook or partial) may attract unwelcome attention to itself and appear
to be the result of the breaking of rules rather than of their application.
And besides, the more accustomed to the word we become, the more likely we are to find it acceptable, whether it is ‘grammatical’ or not – or perhaps we should say, whether or not is was ‘grammatical’ at the time it was first formed, since a new word once formed, often becomes merely a member of an inventory; its formation is a historical event, and the ‘rule’ behind it may then appear irrelevant.
What exactly is a word? From Lewis Carroll onwards, this apparently simple
question has bedeviled countless word buffs, whether they are participating
in a game of Scrabble or writing an article for the Word Ways linguistic
magazine. To help the reader decide what constitutes a word, A. Ross
Eckler suggests a ranking of words in decreasing order of admissibility. A logical way to rank a word is by the number of English- speaking people who can recognize it in speech or writing, but this is obviously impossible to ascertain. Alternatively, one can rank a word by its number of occurrences in a selected sample of printed material. H.
Kucera and W.N. Francis's Computational Analysis of Present-day English is based on one million words from sources in print in 1961. Unfortunately, the majority of the words in Webster's Unabridged do not appear even once in this compilation – and the words which do not appear are the ones for which a philosophy of ranking is most urgently needed. Furthermore, the written ranking will differ from the recognition ranking; vulgarities and obscenities will rank much higher in the latter than in the former.
A detailed, word-by-word ranking is an impossible dream, but a ranking based on classes of words may be within our grasp. Ross Eckler proposes the following classes: (1) words appearing in one more standard English- language dictionaries, (2) non-dictionary words appearing in print in several different contexts, (3) words invented to fill a specific need and appearing but once in print.
Most people are willing to admit as words all uncapitalized, unlabeled
entries in, say, Webster's New International Dictionary, Third Edition
(1961). Intuitively, one recognizes that words become less admissible as they move in any or all of three directions: as they become more frequently capitalized, as they become the jargon of smaller groups (dialect, technical, scientific), and as they become archaic or obsolete. These classes have no definite boundaries – is a word last used in 1499 significantly more obsolete than a word last used in 1501? Is a word known to 100,000 chemists more admissible than a word known to 90,000 Mexican-
Americans? Each linguist will set his own boundaries.
The second class consists of non-dictionary words appearing in print in a number of sources. There are many non-dictionary words in common use; some logologists would like to draw a wider circle to include these. Such words can be broadly classified into: (1) neologisms and common words overlooked by dictionary-makers, (2) geographical place names, (3) given names and surnames.
Dmitri Borgmann points out that the well-known words uncashed, ex-wife
and duty-bound appear in no dictionaries (since 1965, the first of these
has appeared in the Random House Unabridged). Few people would exclude
these words. Neologisms present a more awkward problem since some may be so
ephemeral that they never appear in a dictionary. Perhaps one should read
Pope's dictum "Be not the first by whom the new are tried, nor yet the last to lay the old aside."
Large treasure-troves of geographic place names can be found in The Times
Atlas of the World (200,000 names), and the Rand McNally Commercial
Atlas and Marketing Guide (100,000 names). These are not all different, and some place names are already dictionary words. All these can be easily verified by other readers; however, some will feel uneasy about admitting as a word the name, say, of a small Albanian town which possibly has never appeared in any English-language text outside of atlases.
Given names appear in the appendix of many dictionaries. Common given names such as Edward or Cornelia ought to be admitted as readily as common geographical place names such as Guatemala, but this set does not add much to the logological stockpile.
Family surnames at first blush appear to be on the same footing as
geographical place names. However, one must be careful about sources.
Biographical dictionaries and Who's Who are adequate references, but one should be cautious citing surnames appearing only in telephone directories.
Once a telephone directory is supplanted by a later edition, it is difficult to locate copies for verifying surname claims. Further, telephone directories are not immune to nonce names coined by subscribers for personal reasons. A good index of the relative admissibility of surnames is the number of people in the United States bearing that surname. An estimate of this could be obtained from computer tapes of the Social Security
Administration; in 1957 they issued a pamphlet giving the number of Social
Security accounts associated with each of the 1500 most common family names.
The third and final class of words consists of nonce words, those invented
to fill a specific need, and appearing only once (or perhaps only in the
work of the author favoring the word). Few philologists feel comfortable
about admitting these. Nonce words range from coinages by James Joyce and
Edgar Allan Poe (X-ing a Paragraph) to interjections in comic strips
(Agggh! Yowie!). Ross Eckler and Daria Abrossimova suggest that misspellings in print should be included here also.
In the book “Beyond Language”, Dmitri Borgmann proposes that the
philologist be prepared to admit words that may never have appeared in
print. For example, Webster's Second lists eudaemony as well as the entry
"Eudaimonia, eudaimonism, eudaimonist, etc." From this he concludes that
EUDAIMONY must exist and should be admitted as a word. Similarly, he can conceive of sentences containing the word GRACIOUSLY'S ("There are ten graciously's in Anna Karenina") and SAN DIEGOS ("Consider the luster that the San Diegos of our nation have brought to the US"). In short, he argues that these words might plausibly be used in an English-language sentence, but does not assert any actual usage. His criterion for the acceptance of a word seems to be its philological uniqueness (EUDAIMONY is a short word containing all five vowels and Y).
The available linguistic literature on the subject cites various types and ways of forming words. Earlier books, articles and monographs on word- formation and vocabulary growth in general used to mention morphological, syntactic and lexico-semantic types of word-formation. At present the classifications of the types of word-formation do not, as a rule, include lexico-semantic word-building. Of interest is the classification of word- formation means based on the number of motivating bases which many scholars follow. A distinction is made between two large classes of word-building means: to Class I belong the means of building words having one motivating base (e.g. the noun doer is composed of the base do- and the suffix -er), which Class II includes the means of building words containing more than one motivating base. They are all based on compounding (e.g. compounds letter-opener, e-mail, looking-glass).
Most linguists in special chapters and manuals devoted to English word- formation consider as the chief processes of English word-formation affixation, conversion and compounding.
Apart from these, there is a number of minor ways of forming words such as back-formation, sound interchange, distinctive stress, onomatopoeia, blending, clipping, acronymy.
Some of the ways of forming words in present-day English can be restored to for the creation of new words whenever the occasion demands – these are called productive ways of forming words, other ways of forming words cannot now produce new words, and these are commonly termed non-productive or unproductive. R. S. Ginzburg gives the example of affixation having been a productive way of forming new words ever since the Old English period; on the other hand, sound-interchange must have been at one time a word- building means but in Modern English (as we have mentioned above) its function is actually only to distinguish between different classes and forms of words.
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