Word formation

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In linguistics, word formation is an ambiguous term[1] that can refer to either:

  • the processes through which words can change[2] (i.e. morphology), or
  • the creation of new lexemes in a particular language


A common method of word formation is the attachment of inflectional or derivational affixes.


Examples include:

  • the words governor, government, governable, misgovern, ex-governor, and ungovernable are all derived from the base word (to) govern[3]


Inflection is modifying a word for the purpose of fitting it into the grammatical structure of a sentence.[4] For example:

  • manages and managed are inflected from the base word (to) manage[1]
  • worked is inflected from the verb (to) work
  • talks, talked, and talking are inflected from the base (to) talk[3]



Examples includes:

  • etc. from et caetera

Acronyms & Initialisms[edit]

An acronym is a word formed from the first letters of other words.[5] For example:

  • NASA is the acronym for National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • IJAL (pronounced /aidʒæl/) is the acronym for International Journal of American Linguistics

Acronyms are usually written entirely in capital letters, though some words originating as acronyms, like radar, are now treated as common nouns.[6]

Initialisms are similar to acronyms, but where the letters are pronounced as a series of letters. For example:

  • ATM for Automated Teller Machine
  • SIA for Singapore International Airlines[1]


In linguistics, back-formation is the process of forming a new word by removing actual affixes, or parts of the word that is re-analyzed as an affix, from other words to create a base.[3] Examples include:

  • the verb headhunt is a back-formation of headhunter
  • the verb edit is formed from the noun editor[3]
  • the word televise is a back-formation of television

The process is motivated by analogy: edit is to editor as act is to actor. This process leads to a lot of denominal verbs.

The productivity of back-formation is limited, with the most productive forms of back-formation being hypocoristics.[3]


A lexical blend is a complex word typically made of two word fragments. For example:

  • smog is a blend of smoke and fog
  • brunch is a blend of breakfast and lunch.[5]
  • stagflation is a blend of stagnation and inflation[1]
  • chunnel is a blend of channel and tunnel,[1] referring to the Channel Tunnel

Although blending is listed under the Nonmorphological heading, there are debates as to how far blending is a matter of morphology.[1]


Compounding is the processing of combining two bases, where each base may be a fully-fledged word. For example:

  • desktop is formed by combining desk and top
  • railway is formed by combining rail and way
  • firefighter is formed by combining fire and fighter[3]

Compounding is a topic relevant to syntax, semantics, and morphology.[2]

Word formation vs. Semantic change[edit]

There are processes for forming new dictionary items which are not considered under the umbrella of word formation.[1] One specific example is semantic change, which is a change in a single word's meaning. The boundary between word formation and semantic change can be difficult to define as a new use of an old word can be seen as a new word derived from an old one and identical to it in form.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Bauer, L. (1 January 2006). "Word Formation". Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics (Second Edition). Elsevier: 632–633. doi:10.1016/b0-08-044854-2/04235-8. ISBN 9780080448541. Retrieved 17 December 2021.
  2. ^ a b Baker, Anne; Hengeveld, Kees (2012). Linguistics. Malden, MA.: John Wiley & Sons. p. 23. ISBN 978-0631230366.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Katamba, F. (1 January 2006). "Back-Formation". Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics (Second Edition): 642–645. doi:10.1016/B0-08-044854-2/00108-5. ISBN 9780080448541.
  4. ^ Linguistics : the basics. Anne, July 8- Baker, Kees Hengeveld. Malden, MA.: John Wiley & Sons. 2012. p. 217. ISBN 978-0-631-23035-9. OCLC 748812931.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  5. ^ a b Aronoff, Mark (1983). "A Decade of Morphology and Word Formation". Annual Review of Anthropology. 12: 360. doi:10.1146/annurev.an.12.100183.002035.
  6. ^ Carstairs-McCarthy, Andrew (2018). An Introduction to English Morphology: Words and Their Structure (2nd ed.). Edinburgh University Press. p. 71. ISBN 978-1-4744-2896-5.

See also[edit]