Issue 2 |

Master-builders of words

by and on February 12, 2015

Words surround us. We produce them as we go about our daily business. We are beset by them in the ads we see on our way to work or school. We cannot swear without them, at least not as effectively. We experience immense delight when our little ones utter their first word. And admit it, we feel a secret sense of pride when we are able to say supercallifragilisticexpialidocious the same way Mary Poppins said it, without missing a heartbeat. Words are so much a part of our lives and we produce them so intuitively that it is not often we stop to think about how we arrive at a word. Do we just fish our words out of a magic-box or do we have to build them somehow?

The magic-box solution to arriving at a word serves us well for as long as we do not need to add any additional meaning to the word. For example, if we need to refer our friend to a four-legged furry animal with pointy ears and whiskers sitting along the street alley, and that is all we need to do, we can easily call up the word cat from our magic-box to do the job. What happens, however, if we see not one, but many furry animals with pointy ears and whiskers, and we need to refer to not just one, but many of them? We need to do more than just call up the word cat from our magic-box. We need to build the meaning of more than one into the word cat. Clearly then, there are times when we do need to build words.

There are three views put forward about how we build words: the Item and Arrangement view; the Item and Process view; and the Word and Paradigm view. These views were named by the well‑known American linguist, Charles Francis Hockett (1954). Three views have been proposed not because there is something in the magic number of three, although good things do come in threes, but because there are times when one view isn’t quite sufficient to explain how a particular word is built. At these times, we would need another view to step in to do the job. If you have not already been put off by the wordiness of what you’ve read up till this point, the rest of this article will introduce you to these views, with as little jargon as is linguistically possible, we promise!

The Item and Arrangement view

The Item and Arrangement (IA) view to word-building basically describes the word-building process as similar to that of stringing a series of beads together to produce a necklace, where each bead in the necklace is like a meaningful item in a word. To add more meaning to a word, we need to add more items to it in the same way that we string more beads together to get a longer necklace. Returning to the example of cat, and our problem of having to build the meaning of more than one into the word if we happen to see more than one of these furry thingies, the IA view to word‑building guides us towards solving the problem by adding a ‑s to the end of the word cat so that we arrive at cats. And voila, we have built the word cats simply by stringing two items together—one item meaning the four-legged furry animal with pointy ears and whiskers (cat), and the other item meaning more than one (‑s). On top of this, we know to string these items together in a certain fashion so that the item that means more than one comes after the item that means the four-legged furry animal and not before, i.e. cats and not scat. It should be rather obvious to us now why the label Item and Arrangement makes sense when we build a word such as cats from cat and ‑s, since to arrive at cats, we need to put two items together and arrange them in a certain fashion.

However, sometimes we make new words without adding beads to the string. Let us say that instead of spotting many cats along our street alley, we now spot a mouse. Being the nosey humans that we are, we decide to stop in our tracks and observe what the mouse does. On closer inspection, however, we discover that there is more than one mouse going about its business. There are in fact a whole bunch of them. We now have a pesky problem, literally and linguistically speaking (or perhaps it wasn’t a problem until you decide to read this article, but well, you’re too far into this now to stay out of it)! The problem is: in spite of us being master-builders of words, we cannot explain, with the IA view, how we arrive at the word for the meaning of more than one mouse, which is mice, as easily as we can explain how we arrive at the word for the meaning of more than one cat. We do not seem to be building mice from mouse in the same way that we have built cats from cat. We certainly have to change mouse to get to mice, but not by adding additional items at the end. Rather, we have to change a bit of material in the middle of mouse to make it into mice—more specifically, despite the spelling, we have to change the vowel sound.

The Item and Process view

To visualise how the change from mouse to mice involves a processing of the items involved rather than a simple arrangement of them, imagine the colour red to represent the meaning of mouse, the colour white to represent the meaning of more than one, and the colour pink to represent more than one mouse. Now imagine yourself as a painter needing the colour pink. Unfortunately, pink is not available on your palette, but you do have red. Since you are a smart painter who knows that pink = red + white (mice = mouse + more than one), you would mix some white into the red on your palette to get pink. You cannot easily separate the white out of the pink no more than you can easily separate out the additional item that means more than one in mice. This difficulty shows that to get the more than one meaning into mouse, a deeper process of some sort beyond that of simple arrangement has taken place. We may not realise it, but we often see the IP view at work when we build words for humour or to simply make the point about how good we are at building words. If you had ever wondered why having more than one house does not give us hice, or why we do not get from rice to rouse when we have only one grain of this carb, your curiosity is fired precisely by your tacit knowledge that the IP strategy is one means of building words.

We have gone from picking out words from our magic-box to realising that there are times when we have to build them to express specific meanings. Sometimes, we do this more straightforwardly and sometimes, less, but in all instances, we do it with much ingenuity. Up till this point, the idea that we have deviously led you into is that every additional item/bit of additional material in a word carries with it a specific additional meaning. And this is regardless of whether we are able to tease out this additional item easily (as in the IA view) or less so (as in the IP view). It seems very easy for us to say, for instance, that the additional item ‑s in cats equates more than one, so that every time we see a ‑s bit at the end of a word such as cars, toys and bubbles, the ‑s bit means more than one.

However, we run into problems with this view if we take it too seriously. The ‑s bit at the end of the word in cars, toys and bubbles means more than one no doubt, but some bit in oxen, children and alumni means more than one as well. Whatever these bits are, it is clear that they are not ‑s. It is far less easy than we think it is, in other words, to associate a particular bit/item with a particular meaning, because a meaning (of more than one in this case) can exist even without the presence of the bit usually associated with that meaning. And if we think about two sheep, there is no bit at all on sheep that shows that we are talking about more than one.

The Word and Paradigm view

In the WP view, we basically move ourselves away from the sticky problem of saying which item in a word carries the meaning of more than one. Instead, we begin to talk about relationships between words. We begin to talk in analogies or, if you prefer, we begin to talk about relationships that parallel one another. Instead of saying that the ‑s bit in cats mean more than one, we now say that cats is related to cat in the same way that oxen is related to ox, alumnus to alumni and sheep to sheep. What we are saying then is that the relationship between cat and cats parallels the relationship between ox and oxen, which parallels the relationship between alumnus and alumni, and these sets of relationships in turn parallel the relationship between sheep and sheep. And these parallels are such that if we put these pairs of words in columns (or what linguists like to call paradigms) like that shown below, we can easily figure out that a word in the second row of each column as the more than one counterpart of the word above it.

cat ox alumnus sheep
cats oxen alumni sheep

It doesn’t matter now that the additional item in cats, oxen and alumnus all differ, i.e. ‑s versus ‑en versus ‑us, respectively, or that there is no additional item such as in the case of sheep, because the WP view, unlike the IA view, does not demand that we assign specific items in a word to specific meanings. The more than one meaning is infused into the nature of the whole word itself, so to speak. From the WP view of word-building, we do not so much build the meaning of more than one into a word; rather, we assign the meaning of more than one to the whole word. One way of understanding the WP view to word-building is to think of a little girl who has looks similar to a grown woman, but who is much younger in age and smaller in size. Intuition would lead us to a guess that the little girl concerned might be the daughter of the grown woman. This intuition is not pure intuition without any grounds. This intuition stems in fact from our past experience of seeing other little girls who have looks similar to other grown women, but who are much younger in age and smaller in size, being daughters of those grown women. In the same manner that we use to guess how a little girl might possibly be the daughter of a grown woman, we are using our knowledge of how alumni means more than one alumnus, and cats means more than one cat, to arrive at the conclusion that oxen might mean more than one ox.

Before we end this word‑building trip, we have two things to say. First, you may not always be conscious of the word‑building strategies that we’ve introduced partly because word-building itself is so intuitive to all of us. Second, the three views to word-building may not be as clear-cut as we’ve made them out to be. For instance, in case you’re wondering, and if you are, we’re happy that we’ve caused you to wonder, we can explain the shift from cat to cats in any of these views. It is when we start to look at the more marginal types that we begin to think that one of the views may be more explanatory than the others.

We have not spoken about whether any of these views actually corresponds to what goes on inside your head when you want to make a form which means more than one. That would take us too far from our purposes here. Regardless of whether the word-building strategies we use are a matter of choice or necessity, one thing’s undeniable: we surely are master‑builders of words!

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