Thursday, October 22, 2009

How Language Grows -- Compounds

Yesterday a librarian in a middle school in Rogers, Arkansas posted a query on lm_net, a list serv for school librarians. "Is
minivan considered a compound word? We are having quite a discussion about it here at school."

I posted a short answer to lm_net, but I would like to expand here to cover a few more points of linguistics. List servs are great for asking question and sharing ideas from the collective knowledge of the group. Beginners in the profession have a chance to interact with veterans. Sometimes the teachers in their school are colleagues and sometimes librarians and teachers are in two separate educational worlds. Frequently school librarians are the only librarians in their building and have to seek advice from colleagues in other places. Librarians serve the information needs of everyone in the school, while teachers are focused on their classes.

In the language curriculum there is probably a unit on "compound words." Even college writing guides talk about compound words. The first challenge to answering this question is to understand how language grows. How does a new word enter the language? The first words were monosyllabic imitations of natural sounds. We call the descendants of those words onomatopoeic words. Examples are: ding-dong, ring, swish, bang, etc. Eventually grammars and vocabularies developed so that sentences could be created.

These first words were combined to create new words that represented more abstract objects or concepts. For example "sweater" and "sweet" began as onomatopoeia. In Hebrew, which is more root based than English, words formed from roots in a more systematic way than English. For example the root,
ספר (samekh- peh - resh) once meant "to cut." Now we have words such as

סֵפֶּר (safer) meaning book, סִפּוּר (sipur) meaning story and סָפַּר (sapar) meaning both to cut and to count. Early writing was in stone; hence "to cut" was the operation required for writing.

Another way for language to grow is to coin a new word. Someone invents a word based on another word, based on a foreign word, or totally synthetic. Examples are; telephone, television, geography, and microscope. Words can be invented by companies to use as product names. Some of these words have entered into common usage such as: Xerox, Kleenex, and Twinkies.

In linguistics a compound consists of two or more lexemes (meaningful parts)each of which could stand on its own. A prefix or suffix has meaning, but is not a lexeme that can stand alone. When these parts are put together the meaning is a combination of the parts, but with a new meaning. Usually the parts are the same part of speech (i.e. all nouns or all verbs). In German the parts may make a long word with or without a connector. Two examples are "Autobahn" and "Eisenbahn." "Auto" means automobile,"Bahn" means path or road, "Eisen" means iron. "Autobahn" is a limited access highway for cars. "Eisenbahn" is a railroad. In Hebrew and other Semitic languages two words may be combined with the vocalization of first one changing to the construct state. For example "Bayit" בית means house and "kenesset" כנסת means assembly. When combined the vowels change to "beit kenesset" בית כנסת and the meaning is synagogue. Compounding two or more words is a way to create a word for a concept that will be understood even by speakers who previously had not heard the words.

In English the compound may be connected to form one word such as "seaman," connected with a hyphen such as "do-it-yourself," or just in proximity such as "high school" or "tea bag." In speech the emphasis or stress is on the first part. In the conventions of writing make proximity a largely ignored group of compounds. Compare how we pronounce, a white house and the White House

In your example of "minivan" the question is, "Are the two parts stand alone lexemes?" While "mini" is frequently used as word it is still jargon, slang, or proprietary usage. "Mini" is considered a prefix or combining form in most dictionaries. Since "mini" is not a full word, "minivan" would not be considered a compound word in English.

If one uses "minivan" it has a specific meaning as coined and defined by the American automobile market. The spellings "Minivan," "mini-van," and "mini van" are used. "Mini Van" (1960­ - 1982) is a propitiatory name introduced by British Motor Corporation (BMC).

However, why should anyone care if the word is compound or not when the history of the word and the use of compounds is much more interesting?

Here are some of the comments that I received today and yesterday ---

How delightful to start the day off with a little linguistics discussion! It is a neglected little passion of mine, and I enjoyed your post. Thanks for sharing and for brightening a gloomy autumn morning.

Malin Lauschus

Oh my goodness, Dr. Stuhlman! You just sent the best reply! I absolutely adore words of every language, but I can see that my knowledge is nothing compared to yours. I have forwarded your reply to our academic facilitator who was needing to know... Thank you SO much!

Melissa Artman

Amen, Dr. S.! Amen and bravo, too!

Dianne Meyer

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