Processes by which new words come into a language

Essay by climber368University, Master's July 2004

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Processes by which new words come into a language

Language is like a living organism, that is, they can grow(e.g. English) and they can die(e.g. Latin). English is probably one of the more successful languages at growing. You can probably travel to any country in the world and run into someone who knows a few words of English. We might ask the question, how does a language grow? Well, one way is adding new words.

New words can enter a language in a number of ways. In the remainder of this question, I will discuss four ways in which it enters the English language.


Borrowing means just what it says, words are 'borrowed' from other languages. Borrowed words can be of two types: direct and indirect. Direct words are words that are native to the language from which they are borrowed (Fromkin, 2000). An example is the word moose, which is directly borrowed from Algonquin, a native North American language.

An indirect borrowing is a word that is not a native word in the language it is being borrowed from (Fromkin, 2000). The word salamander is an example of this. It was borrowed from Middle English, which was borrowed from Middle French, which in turn was borrowed from Greek (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 1993).

There are a number of reasons why we borrow words or use borrowed words. Here are some:

1.Mixing or close contact of two languages. In the USA, where there is a large Spanish population, words like taco, tortilla, and siesta are commonly used by English speakers.

2.Being ruled by a foreign power. When England was ruled by France, the English language almost disappeared. After the French were expelled and the English language began to grow, it kept some of the French words (e.g. toilet, tour, guard).

3.A need to express oneself clearer. Sometimes it's difficult to express the meaning of a foreign word without actually adopting it (e.g. the French word lassez-faire).

4.To show intellectualism. That is, to show that your language is worldly and able to easily adapt to change. Greek and Latin words are often used to create scientific words (e.g. epidemiology, theorem, gastric).

(Methods of Word Formation, n.d.)


Blending is the combining of two words to make a new word. When these words are combined letters are dropped. Not many words are formed in this way. Let's look at a few examples:

breakfast + lunch = brunch

smoke + fog = smog

motor + hotel = motel


Are new words produced by joining to words together. Unlike blending, when these words are combined no letters are dropped (e.g. fire + place = fireplace). Many words are formed this way. Fromkin(2000) points out that the combinations possible are almost endless. Here is a chart of some of the possible combinations she suggests:

Adjective Noun Verb

Adjective bittersweet poorhouse highborn

Noun headstrong rainbow spoonfeed

Verb carryall pickpocket sleepwalk

(Fromkin, 2000, pp.80)

From Fromkin's chart on compounds, I came up with the following general formulas for compound words:

(1) ai + af = A Where a = word with different grammatical

property than 'b'

(2) ai + ... + bf = B b = word with different grammatical

property than 'b'

A = new word with same grammatical

property as 'a'

B = new word with same grammatical

property as 'b'

i = initial word

f = final word

Formula (1) is saying that if 'a' is a noun then 'A' will be a noun. The same holds true for verbs and adjectives.

In formula (2), combining 2 or more words of different grammatical properties will result in 'B', which is a word with the same grammatical property as the last word ( bf ). Here is an example:

black(adj.) + board(noun) = blackboard(noun)

These formulas look nice, but formula (2) is not true in all cases. Take for example the following: break(verb) + neck(noun) = breakneck(adj.)

Also, prepositions do not follow this rule. A preposition added to another non-preposition word will result in a word that is not a preposition. For example:

hang(n) + over(prep) = hangover (n)

over(prep) + hang(n) = overhang (n)

Another point that should be made about compounding is that the new word may or may not have any semblance in meaning to the words compounded. For example, the word blue-eyed means someone who has blue colored eyes. On the other hand, the word hangover means 'an after-effect associated with drinking alcohol', which is not similar in meaning to the two separate words hang and over (although we could probably picture a person with a hangover 'hanging over' a toilet bowl!)


These are words or phrases that have been reduced or abbreviated. There are many of these types of words entering our vocabulary. They are usually pronounced the way they are spelt. Some of these words last and become a part of our lexicon, whereas others fade away. Here are some examples of acronyms that have past the test of time and are now found in our dictionaries:

scuba (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus)

radar (Radio Detecting And Ranging)

TB (TuBerculosis)

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

More recent acronyms include the following:

CD (Compact Disc)

Dvd (Digital video disc)

SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)


Fromkin, V., Blair, D., & Collins, P. (2000). An Introduction to Language (4th ed.). Marrickville, NSW: Harcourt.

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (10th Ed.). (1993). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster.

Methods of Word Formation. (n.d.). Retrieved May 20, 2004 from