Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Birthers of new words

Morphology - the study of the form of words - is an element of grammar that sometimes gets overlooked at A level in the rush to analyse word classes and sentences, but it's an interesting and productive area. It's productive in that it helps us produce lots of new words and word forms, and productive in that it can help you produce good material in exams.

It's a particularly interesting language framework/method in two areas, child language and new word formation, and it's the latter we'll have a quick look at here. First of all, to refresh your memories about morphology, it's the study of how words themselves are made up of smaller units. Not all of this is essential reading for A level, but I think it's quite interesting to know (and A level should be more than just about doing what the spec tells you to do, shouldn't it?).

There are basically two types of morphology: derivational morphology is about creating (deriving) new words out of other units, while inflectional morphology is more to do with the ways in which words change depending on grammatical functions and forms. For example, to illustrate the latter, verbs inflect depending on the tense and aspect they're in (I walk - I walked - I am walking), the grammatical person they agree with (I walk - she walks) and nouns on whether they're singular or plural (dog - dogs), and there are plenty more too (An Introduction to English Morphology by Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy is a good read if you want to find out more.).

Derivational morphology is to do with putting morphemes (small units that make up words) together to create new words, so respect can become disrespect, terror become terrorise, and so on. A great deal of word formation in recent years has been the product of blending and compounding (bromance, staycation, podcast all being blends, and laptop, muffin top and bunny boiler all being compounds), but a tweet from MacMillan Dictionaries linking to this site offers some interesting examples of new words formed by derivational morphology.

They look at the use of the -er suffix in recent American neologisms. So, the people involved movement that claimed Barack Obama wasn't actually an American and demanded to see his birth certificate, became known as birthers. The US's satirical magazine The Onion even created a spoof movement that denied the providence of Obama's birth certificate after he had produced it, who were called Afterbirthers (demanding to see the placenta).

The Fritinanacy blog also mentions that those who refused to accept the official version of events for 9/11 were called truthers. Now we even have deathers, who refuse to accept that Osama Bin Laden is actually dead, an dthink that his burial at sea was all part of a cunning plan. There are older ones too. They point to right wingers, nutters and we even have some of our own, homegrown British ones such as lifers (prisoners on a life sentence) and ravers (people who like a particular club-based lifestyle).

So, if you're looking for some good examples of word formation processes to impress your ENGA3/ENGB3 examiners this summer, have a think about including morphology and the processes of prefixation (adding morphemes at the start of a root word), suffixation (adding morphemes at the end of a root word), or even infixing (adding morphemes in the middle of a root hoo-f***ing-ray). It will help you avoid being a failer.

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