01 August 2014

From Aardvark to Zyzzyva: Words and Their Functions

Sick of considering a hammer? All right, as I was saying...

Are there any linguistic units whose functionality is hard to doubt? I think everybody will agree that words are functional. Without attempting to formulate a precise definition, let’s assume that a “word” is a recurrent linguistic element which can be uttered on its own, and which is stored in a speaker’s memory as a bundle of phonetic, morphological, syntactic and semantic propreties.

A word has a phonetic shape: it consists of a string of segments (“speech sounds”), which may be accompanied by a specific pattern of voice pitch and intensity (tone, accent or stress). Every language has a limited inventory of phonetic building-blocks which can be used to form words, and imposes certain constraints on their permissible combinations. In this way, “legal” word shapes are defined for a given language. Different words, with different histories and meanings, may accidentally acquire the same pronunciation. Quite frequently one word has two or more acceptable phonetic variants, or is pronounced differently in different varieties (“accents”) of the same language.

A word can be said to have internal morphological structure if speakers are aware that it consists of smaller meaningful units (morphemes). For example the abstract noun functionality is derived from the adjective functional by combining it with the noun-forming morpheme -ity (which does not occur in isolation). Since there are many parallel formations in English (personal + -ity, formal + -ity, cordial + -ity, etc.), speakers can figure out their structure without much difficulty despite the fact that the suffix has a distorting effect on the base to which it is added (for example, it forces primary stress to fall on the immediately preceding syllable). Functional itself happens to be internally complex: it can be decomposed into the noun function plus the adjective-forming suffix -al.

A word has syntactic properties which determine the manner in which it cooperates with other words to form longer and more complex structures. For example, horse is an English noun. It can be combined with other lexical items into a noun phrase (e.g. the big black horse), which in turn may play certain roles in a sentence, for example the role of its subject (The big black horse jumped over a hurdle). Like other countable nouns in English, horse can be inflected for number (sg. horse, pl. horses).

Finally, words are carriers of information: the vast majority of them have so-called lexical meaning: they point to something in the external world (classes of object, qualities, actions, abstract concepts). There is also a limited inventory of “function words” (prepositions,  pronouns, articles, conjunctions and the like), which specialise in expressing syntactic rel
ations within the utterance and don’t necessarity have any non-linguistic reference. Words are combined into longer utterances which convey complex messages. Their content is determined not only by the individual word meanings and the sentence structure, but also by the situational context in which members of a speech community talk to one another, their shared knowledge, presuppositions, etc. One word may have several core meanings plus a number or peripheral and figurative ones, each with numerous “shades of meaning”; quite often the same or similar meaning can be expressed by different words.

Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year 2013

Let us identify the function of a word with the semantic and/or grammatical role it plays in communication. It’s easy to build a string of sounds which satisfies the well-formedness conditions of a given language, and give it a plausible-looking orthographic shape.  For example, whasket, clenge, crive, borm and scrough (pronounced to rhyme with cow) are all possible English word forms. You could compose an imitation of an English sentence using them (plus a few function words): She scroughed and crove along the borm, clenging her whaskets (crove is of course the past tense of crive). Such pseudowords, hovever, don’t mean anything to anybody (or at any rate have no meaning agreed upon by any substantial speech community); therefore we don’t call them words.

A word is functional by definition: in principle, no word is completely useless – otherwise it wouldn’t be a real word. It’s clear, however, that some words are more useful than others. It would be difficult to communicate without such household words as timeoutmoneystandwhite or three, whereas fancier and more specialised items like oligarchmulchincurious or tailgate are much less indispensable to the general public (though useful in some special situations). You can live a long and happy life without ever rummaging the English word-hoard to the very bottom for rare lexical gems such as coccineousexantlatespurrierululatory or xenophilia, even if you happen to be vaguely aware of their existence. Indeed, thousands of words qualified as obsolescent or obsolete haunt the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary, unheard of by anyone save professional word-hunters. Practically nobody has used them for decades (with the possible exception of Scrabble addicts). Do they still have a function or should they be considered linguistic junk – ex-words (’oose metabolic processes are now ’istory)? The functions of a given word may change in time; different words may compete for the same function. To what extent do we, the language users, control such processes? If words are tools of communication, do we shape them and adapt them to our needs? What role do our individual preferences play? What other forces affect the functionality of words? I’ll broach these questions in the blogs to come.

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