Word Foration Types: Compounding

Term Paper 2008 18 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Compounding in History
2.1 Old English
2.2 Middle English
2.3 Early Modern English

3. The Structure of Compounds
3.1 General Features of Compounds
3.2 Nominal Compounds
3.3 Adjectival Compounds
3.4 Verbal Compounds
3.5 Synthetic Compounding

4. Other Types of Compounding
4.1 Neoclassical Compounding
4.2 Copulative Compounding
4.3 Exocentric Compounding

5. Summary

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

When analysing the internal processes in a human’s mind in order to figure out how the processes of word-storage, word-production, and word-retrieving work, one of the features to be investigated is the act of word-formation. Next to the affixation and conversion, the creation of new words by combining two already existing words takes place in the human’s mind – a process called “compounding”.

This paper deals with the act of compounding, the way new words are created by combination, its development in Old, Middle and Early Modern English, different features of standard compounds, and of other types of compounding. First of all, a brief introduction of the process of word-formation that has taken place in the English language over the last centuries, including Old English, Middle English and the Early Modern English will be given. This is followed by an overview of the general features of compounds themselves, including their structure, and a closer insight into nominal, adjectival, verbal and synthetic compounds. In chapter four, different types of compounding, like the neoclassical, the copulative and the exocentric compounds, which are somewhat exceptions to the normal compounds examined in chapter three, will be analysed and discussed regarding the standard compound structure. Concluding remarks will close this paper in chapter five.

2. Compounding in History

2.1 Old English

Just as the act of compounding takes place in our everyday language today, one can observe that this type of word-formation already occurred in Old English.

People in England spoke and wrote Old English over 400 years, from A.D. 700 - 1100. Old English contained many types of compounding, most of them being nouns. Compounds in Old English were predominantly formed of two nouns (niht-waco – “night-watch”), an adjective and a noun (hēah-cliff – “high cliff”), and a verbal noun (ending: -ung/-ing) and a noun (stemping-īsern – “stamping-iron”).[1] Additionally, Old English also included compound adjectives. Here, there were two different ways to form an adjectival compound: by combining a noun and an adjective (mere-wērig – “sea-weary”) and an adjective or an adverb plus an adjective (wīd-cūp – “widely known”).[2]

Another typical occurrence of compounding in Old English is the “Old English kennigar”, which describes a word in a poem that represents “another linguistic sign without displaying any overt relation to it,”[3] just as it happens with the name “Beowulf” that appears in the epic poem (A.D. 1000[4] ) of the same name. The first syllable bēo means “bee”, while the second one, wulf signifies “wolf”. Both combined with each other result in “wolf of the bees”, which represents “an opponent of the bees”, namely a “bear”.[5] Other kenningars are, for example, seglrād (“sail road”) and hrōnrād (“whale road”) for the word “sea”, and bānhūs (“bone house”) for the word “body”.[6]

One can recognize some compounds from Old English which are still used in Present-Day English, such as the days of the week, for example, “Sunday”: Sunnan-dœg – “day of the sun”. Many other compounds, however, cannot be examined in relation to Present-Day English because of the word-development that “leads to obscured compounds,” for example, þrēot ÿ ne – “thirteen”.[7]

2.2 Middle English

In the Middle English period (A.D. 1100 - 1500[8] ), the process of compounding occurred similar to the word-formation tradition in Old English. However, some changes in a small part of the existing compounds occurred, for instance, the additional -s- between the two nouns of a compound: doomsday.[9]

Further differences in the process of word-formation in Old English were the usage of the “sex-denoting attributive copula compounds”, meaning that the pronouns he and she were combined with a noun to refer to the sex of the noun: he lambe – “he-lamb”, she bere – “she-bear”.[10] Next to using he or she to determine the gender of the noun in the compound, the word woman also appeared shortly afterwards. Following examples serve as compounds commonly used during the period: woman friend, woman widow.[11] The equivalent for the male sex was the determiner man, which emerged by the end of the 14th century, mostly in the pluralized form: men-fighters, men-singers. The determiners wife, boy and girl were also used, but not as frequently as their counterparts mentioned above.[12]

Furthermore, compounding in the Middle English period was very much influenced by the French language. This can be seen in compounds like knight errant, which has been adapted from the French chevalier errant (“knight errant”), faucon gentil (“falcon gentle”) and frere cristian (“Christian friar”).[13]

Two other events inside the process of compounding took place in the Middle English period: The first one was the act of creating compounds by adding units that determine the place, for example, the words bak (“back”) and doun (“down”): bak-side – “back-side”, dounfal – “downfall”.[14]

The other one, which was not very frequent in Middle English but still worth mentioning, because the first instances for it emerged in this period, is the forming of compounds that share a rhyme pattern, like handy-dandy and hodge-podge.[15]

2.3 Early Modern English

The development from Middle English to the Early Modern English period (A.D. 1500 - Present) did not emerge many changes inside the word-formation, and especially compounding. Already in Middle English, one can find instances for the use of compounds including an of, such as in the bird of prey – which is, however, more commonly used in Early Modern English: Bill of Exchange, House of Lords, and bird of paradise.[16]

A newly emerged occurrence in regard to the word-formation process of compounding are the Shakespearean Compounds. Most of them were formed by combining two nouns (dunghill villain, hell-kite), however, one can observe, that Shakespeare also united synonymous words (hunger-starved), just as he connected two words to create compounds of a “high metaphorical value” (bed-work, closet-war).[17]

Other elements of this word-formation type will be discussed in detail in the following chapters.

3. The Structure of Compounds

3.1 General Features of Compounds

Compounds are the result of combining already existing words to create a new word. This process of word-formation takes place in many others languages beside English, such as in Chinese and German.[18] The newly formed words can then be extended by another word to form a compound that includes three members or components, and even more. This so-called “recursivity”[19] includes the structural accumulation of as many compounds as possible; however, it is not favourable to gather up too many compounds because of the difficulty for the hearer to understand and process them. A compound is normally categorized in binary structures, which means that in a compound which consists of more than two components, these are analysed themselves again as separate compounds,[20] for example, university teaching award committee member training. In this case, one would divide up the six nouns that form one compound into three separate compounds.[21]

The newly created word can consist of all kinds of components that have been combined, but includes preferably two nouns, such as in bird-house. Usually, people tend to combine a noun and an object that describes the noun’s use to create a short version of a phrase: banana fork instead of “fork used for bananas”.[22] A similar process takes place when describing animals and plants, as they are combined with nouns that express their appearance or the natural surroundings: Widmoor fox and marsh tulip[23]. However, compounds that combine words which already explain themselves, and which do not contain any new information that has to be added to one of the words, are not accepted as compounds, such as, for example, the head hat.[24] Since all hats serve as headgears, the new word head hat would not carry any new specifying information about the word “head” and can therefore not be seen as a regular compound.


[1] Faiß, Klaus. English historical morphology and word-formation: loss versus enrichment. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 1992, p. 62.

[2] Faiß, p. 63.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Finegan, Edward. Language: Its Structure and Use, 4th edition. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2004, p. 501.

[5] Faiß, p. 63.

[6] Finegan, p. 508.

[7] Faiß, p. 63.

[8] Finegan, p. 517.

[9] Faiß, p. 74.

[10] Bauer, Laurie. English word-formation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, p. 203.

[11] Faiß, p. 75.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, p. 74.

[14] Ibid, p. 77.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid, p. 84.

[17] Faiß, p. 85.

[18] cf. Finegan, p. 54.

[19] Plag, Ingo. Word-Formation in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 134.

[20] cf. Hacken, Pius ten. Defining morphology: a principled approach to determining the boundaries of compounding, derivation, and inflection. Hildesheim: Olms, 1994, p. 25.

[21] Plag, p. 134.

[22] Aitchison, Jean. Words in the Mind: An Introduction to the Mental Lexicon. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1987, p. 154.

[23] Ibid, p. 155.

[24] Aitchison, p. 155.


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Title: Word Foration Types: Compounding