, a word
of a spoken language
can be defined as the smallest sequence of phonemes
that can be uttered in isolation with objective
or practical meaning
. In many languages, words also correspond to sequences of graphemes
("letters") in their standard writing systems
that are delimited by spaces wider than the normal inter-letter space, or by other graphical conventions.
The concept of "word" is usually distinguished from that of a morpheme
, which is the smallest unit of word which has a meaning, even if it will not stand on its own.
Codex claromontanus latin (The S.S. Teacher's Edition-The Holy Bible - Plate XXVIII)
In many languages, the notion of what constitutes a "word" may be learned as part of learning the writing system.
This is the case for the English language
, and for most languages that are written with alphabets derived from the ancient Latin
or Greek alphabets
There still remains no consensus among linguists about the proper definition of "word" in a spoken language that is independent of its writing system, nor about the precise distinction between it and "morpheme".
This issue is particularly debated for Chinese
and other languages of East Asia,
and may be moot[clarification needed]
for Afro-Asiatic languages
In English orthography, the letter sequences "rock", "god", "write", "with", "the", "not" are considered to be single-morpheme words, whereas "rocks", "ungodliness", "typewriter", and "cannot" are words composed of two or more morphemes ("rock"+"s", "un"+"god"+"li"+"ness", "type"+"writ"+"er", and "can"+"not"). In English and many other languages, the morphemes that make up a word generally include at least one root
(such as "rock", "god", "type", "writ", "can", "not") and possibly some affixes
("-s", "un-", "-ly", "-ness"). Words with more than one root ("[type][writ]er", "[cow][boy]s", "[tele][graph]ically") are called compound words
Words are combined to form other elements of language, such as phrases
("a red rock", "put up with"), clauses
("I threw a rock"), and sentences
("I threw a rock, but missed").
There have been many proposed criteria for identifying words.
However, no definition has been found to apply to all languages.Dictionaries
categorize 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 of that language. The most appropriate means of measuring the length of a word is by counting its syllables
When a word has multiple definitions or multiple senses, it may result in confusion in a debate or discussion.
Leonard Bloomfield i
ntroduced the concept of "Minimal Free Forms" in 1928. Words are thought of as the smallest meaningful unit of speech
that can stand by themselves.
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
Some semanticists have put forward a theory of so-called semantic primitives or semantic primes
, indefinable words representing fundamental concepts that are intuitively meaningful. According to this theory, semantic primes serve as the basis for describing the meaning, without circularity, of other words and their associated conceptual denotations.
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.
For example, the word "koalas" has semantic features (it denotes real-world objects, koalas
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.
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, or fail to separate two or more closely linked words (e.g. "to a" in "He went to a house").
- 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): 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.
- Orthographic boundaries: See below.
In English orthography
, compound expressions
may contain spaces. For example, ice cream
, air raid shelter
and get up
each are generally considered to consist of more than one word (as each of the components are free forms, with the possible exception of get
), and so is no one
, but the similarly compounded someone
are considered single words.
Not all languages delimit words expressly. Mandarin Chinese
is a very analytic language
(with few inflectional affixes), making it unnecessary to delimit words orthographically. However, there are many multiple-morpheme compounds in Mandarin, as well as a variety of bound morphemes that make it difficult to clearly determine what constitutes a word.
Sometimes, languages which are extremely close grammatically will consider the same order of words in different ways. For example, reflexive verbs
in the French
infinitive are separate from their respective particle, e.g. se laver
("to wash oneself"), whereas in Portuguese
they are hyphenated, e.g. lavar-se
, and in Spanish
they are joined, e.g. lavarse
uses orthographic cues to delimit words, such as switching between kanji
(Chinese characters) and the two kana
syllabaries. This is a fairly soft rule, because content words
can also be written in hiragana
for effect (though if done extensively spaces are typically added to maintain legibility).
Letters and words
Morphology is the study of word formation and structure. In synthetic languages
, a single word stem
(for example, love
) may have a number of different forms (for example, loves
, and loved
). However, for some purposes these are not usually considered to be different words, but rather different forms of the same word. In these languages, words may be considered to be constructed from a number of morphemes
Thus, the Proto-Indo-European *wr̥dhom would be analyzed as consisting of
- *wr̥-, the zero grade of the root *wer-.
- A root-extension *-dh- (diachronically a suffix), resulting in a complex root *wr̥dh-.
- The thematic suffix *-o-.
- The neuter gender nominative or accusative singular suffix *-m.
Philosophers have found words objects of fascination since at least the 5th century BC, with the foundation of the philosophy of language
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".Wittgenstein
's thought transitioned from a word as representation of meaning to "the meaning of a word is its use in the language."
classifies a language's lexicon into several groups of words. The basic bipartite division that is possible for virtually every natural language
is that of nouns
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 suffixes
taken by the word. Some words can be controversial, such as slang
in formal contexts; misnomers, due to them not meaning what they would imply; or polysemous
words, due to the potential confusion between their various senses.
- ^ a b c d e Haspelmath, Martin (2011). "The indeterminacy of word segmentation and the nature of morphology and syntax" (PDF). Folia Linguistica. 45 (1). doi:10.1515/flin.2011.002. ISSN 0165-4004.
- ^ Charles F. Hockett (1951): Review of John De Francis (1950) Nationalism and language reform in China. Published in Language, volume 27, issue 3, pages 439-445. Quote: "an overwhelmingly high percentage of Chinese segmental morphemes (bound or free) consist of a single syllable; no more than perhaps five percent are longer than one syllable, and only a small handful are shorter. In this sense — in the sense of the favored canonical shape of morphemes — Chinese is indeed monosyllabic." doi:10.2307/409788JSTOR 409788
- ^ Dixon; Aikhenvald (2002). Word : a cross-linguistic typology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 6. ISBN 0511061498. OCLC 57123416.
- ^ Taylor, John (2015). The Oxford Handbook of the Word. p. 93.
- ^ Chodorow, Martin S., Roy J. Byrd, and George E. Heidorn. "Extracting semantic hierarchies from a large on-line dictionary". Archived 2018-02-15 at the Wayback Machine. Proceedings of the 23rd annual meeting on Association for Computational Linguistics. Association for Computational Linguistics, 1985.
- ^ Katamba 11
- ^ Fleming 77
- ^ Wierzbicka 1996; Goddard 2002
- ^ Adger (2003), pp. 36–37.
- ^ Bauer 9
- ^ Note that the convention also depends on the tense or mood—the examples given here are in the infinitive, whereas French imperatives, for example, are hyphenated, e.g. lavez-vous, whereas the Spanish present tense is completely separate, e.g. me lavo.
- ^ "Locke ECHU BOOK III Chapter II Of the Signification of Words". Rbjones.com. Retrieved 13 March 2012.
- ^ "Ludwig Wittgenstein (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)". Plato.stanford.edu. Retrieved 13 March 2012.
- ^ De Soto, Clinton B., Margaret M. Hamilton, and Ralph B. Taylor. "Words, people, and implicit personality theory." Social Cognition 3.4 (1985): 369–82
- Adger, David (2003). Core Syntax: A Minimalist Approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-924370-9.
- 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 978-0-521-28492-9.
- 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 978-0-521-40179-1.
- Fleming, Michael; et al. (2001). Meeting the Standards in Secondary English: A Guide to the ITT NC. Routledge. p. 77. ISBN 978-0-415-23377-4.
- Goddard, Cliff (2002). The search for the shared semantic core of all languages.
- Katamba, Francis (2005). English Words: Structure, History, Usage. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-29893-3.
- Plag, Ingo (2003). Word-formation in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-52563-3.
- Simpson, J.A. and E.S.C. Weiner, ed. (1989). Oxford English Dictionary (2 ed.). Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-861186-2. Missing or empty |title= (help)
- Wierzbicka, Anna (1996). Semantics: Primes and Universals. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-870002-9.
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