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Modern English Word-Formation

Modern English Word-Formation
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Modern English Word-Formation

The ways in which new words are formed, and the factors which govern their acceptance into the language, are generally taken very much for granted by the average speaker. To understand a word, it is not necessary to know how it is constructed, whether it is simple or complex, that is, whether or not it can be broken down into two or more constituents. We are able to use a word which is new to us when we find out what object or notion it denotes.

Some words, of course, are more ‘transparent’ than others. For example, in the words unfathomable and indescribable we recognize the familiar pattern of negative prefix + transitive word + adjective-forming suffix on which many words of similar form are constructed. Knowing the pattern, we can easily guess their meanings – ‘cannot be fathomed’ and ‘cannot be described’ – although we are not surprised to find other similar-looking words, for instance unfashionable and unfavourable for which this analysis will not work. We recognize as ‘transparent’ the adjectives unassuming and unheard-of, which taking for granted the fact that we cannot use assuming and heard-of. We accept as quite natural the fact that although we can use the verbs to pipe, to drum and to trumpet, we cannot use the verbs to piano and to violin.

But when we meet new coinages, like tape-code, freak-out, shutup-ness and beautician, we may not readily be able to explain our reactions to them.

Innovations in vocabulary are capable of arousing quite strong feelings in people who may otherwise not be in the habit of thinking very much about language. Quirk[1] quotes some letter to the press of a familiar kind, written to protest about ‘horrible jargon’, such as breakdown, ‘vile’ words like transportation, and the ‘atrocity’ lay-by.

Many linguists agree over the fact that the subject of word-formation has not until recently received very much attention from descriptive grammarians of English, or from scholars working in the field of general linguistics. As a collection of different processes (compounding, affixation, conversion, backformation, etc.) about which, as a group, it is difficult to make general statements, word-formation usually makes a brief appearance in one or two chapters of a grammar. Valerie Adams emphasizes two main reasons why the subject has not been attractive to linguists: its connections with the non-linguistic world of things and ideas, for which words provide the names, and its equivocal position as between descriptive and historical studies. A few brief remarks, which necessarily present a much over-simplified picture, on the course which linguistics has taken in the last hundred years will make this easier.

The nineteenth century, the period of great advances in historical and comparative language study, saw the first claims of linguistics to be a science, comparable in its methods with the natural sciences which were also enjoying a period of exciting discovery. These claims rested on the detailed study, by comparative linguists, of formal correspondences in the

Indo-European languages, and their realization that such study depended on the assumption of certain natural ‘laws’ of sound change. As Robins[2] observes in his discussion of the linguistics of the latter part of the nineteenth century:

The history of a language is traced through recorded variations in the forms and meanings of its words, and languages are proved to be related by reason of their possession of worlds bearing formal and semantic correspondences to each other such as cannot be attributed to mere chance or to recent borrowing. If sound change were not regular, if word-forms were subject to random, inexplicable, and unmotivated variation in the course of time, such arguments would lose their validity and linguistic relations could only be established historically by extralinguistic evidence such as is provided in the Romance field of languages descended from Latin.

The rise and development in the twentieth century of synchronic descriptive linguistics meant a shift of emphasis from historical studies, but not from the idea of linguistics as a science based on detailed observation and the rigorous exclusion of all explanations depended on extralinguistic factors.

As early as 1876, Henry Sweet had written:

Before history must come a knowledge of what exists. We must learn to observe things as they are, without regard to their origin, just as a zoologist must learn to describe accurately a horse or any other animal. Nor would the mere statements that the modern horse is a descendant of a three-toed marsh quadruped be accepted as an exhausted description... Such however is the course being pursued by most antiquarian philologists.[3]

The most influential scholar concerned with the new linguistics was

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