The Origin of Language

 Chapter 1

The Properties of Language


            Five thousand is a fair guess as to how many languages are in active use in the world today in-in Colombia, for example, almost two hundreds separate languages and dialects have been identified. But “dialect” is a key word-what is “ a language” really? Swedish and Norwegian have a high degree of mutual intelligibility, but we count them as two. “One language”, Chinese, includes Cantonese and Mandarin, which are about as dissimilar as Portuguese and Italian. To be scientific we have to ignore politics and forget that Sweden and Norway have separate flags and mainland China one.  True differences are quantitative: how much should we allow before graduating X from “a dialect of Y” to “a language, distinct from Y”?

However this is reckoned, the number of different languages is formidable and awesome if we include the tongues once spoken but now dead. Languages are like people: for all their underlying similarities, great numbers mean great varieties. Variety confronts us with these questions: Do we know enough about languages to be able to describe language? Can we penetrate the differences to arrive at the sameness underneath?

The more languages we study, the more the answer seems to be yes. Variety is enormous, but similarities abound, and we can even attempt a definition-something like ”Human language is a system of vocal-auditory communication, interacting with the experiences of its users, employing conventional signs composed of arbitrary patterned sound units and assembled according to set rules.” However we word it-and obviously no one-sentence definition will ever be adequate-there is enough homogeneity to make some sort of definition possible.

1. Language is human

Languages are alike because people have the same capacities everywhere. All infants babble-even those deaf at birth. The incredibly complex system that constitutes every known language is largely mastered before a child learns to divide ten by two. No one knows yet how far the great apes may progress in communicating with people and with other apes using human being language, but for all their skill in using it, they did not invent it.

2. Language is thought and activity

A language can disappear without a trace when its last speaker dies. This is still true of the majority of the world’s languages, in spite of the spread of presses and tape recorders. Written and spoken recordings to ently; but the essence of language is a way of thinking and acting. Our linguist, but in a sense it is false.

What is the something thing-like, because it is transmitted from speaker to speaker, is the system that underlies the thinking and acting: the competence each of us acquires that enables us to perform at any given moment. Competence is to performance as a composer’s skill is to an improvisation or the writing of a musical work. This is what makes language so special, so different from inborn abilities like breathing, grasping, and crying. With language, all we are born with is a highly specialized capacity to learn. As the child acquires language, the system is probably engraved somehow on the brain; if we had the means to make the system visible we could interpret it. For the present we can only listen to our thoughts and observe how others act, and linguists are useful because, since we are not mind readers, we need specialist to study the behavior and infer the system. All languages use the same channel for sending and receiving: sound waves, the vibrations of the atmosphere. All set the vibration moving by the activity of the speech organs. And all organize the vibrations in essentially the same way into small units of sound that can be combined and recombined in distinctive ways. Except for this last point, human communication is the same as that of many other warm blooded creatures that move on or over the earth’s surface.

What sets human speech apart also sets it above dependence on any particular medium: the capacity for intricate organization. The science of phonetics, whose domain is the sound of speech, is to linguistics what numismatics is to finance: it makes no difference to a financial transaction what alloys are used in coin, and it makes no difference to the brain what bits of substance are used as triggers for language-they could be pebbles graded for color or size, or if we had a dog’s olfactory sense, a scheme of discriminated smells. The choice of sound is part of our human heritage, probably for good reason. We do not have to look at touch the signaler to catch the signal, and we do not depend on wind direction as with smell; nor, as with smell, are we unable to turn it off once it is emitted. Most important, we can talk and do other things at the same time.  This would be difficult if we could only make signs with our hands.

Language is sound in the same sense that a given house is wood, we can conceive of other materials, but it is the only tools we had were woodworking ones. If we learn a language we must learn to produce sounds. Other mediums are used only as incidental helps, except among the deaf, whose sign language rivals spoken language in intricacy and efficiency. So part of the description of language must acknowledge that the sound that enters into the organization of language is as indispensable as the organization itself.

3. Language is Hierarchic

Though fluent speakers may seem to talk in a continuous stream, language is never truly continuous. To convey discrete meanings there have to be discrete units, and the first task in breaking the code of a new language is finding what they are. At the lowest level are bits of distinctive sound meaningless in themselves-the hum of an m or the explosion of a p, which occurs in clumps that we call syllables. A syllable is the smallest unit that is normally spoken by itself. It is the poet’s unit, the unit of rhythm and audibility.

Above the level of meaningless sounds and syllables are the levels that are segmented both for sound and for meaning. Firs are words and parts of words that we recognize as having meaningful shape, such as the prefix trans- or the suffix – ism. Above the word level is the level of syntax, itself a complex of levels, since the unit that we call a sentences is often made up of a combination of simpler sentences, usually in some abbreviated form; and these in turn contain smaller units termed phrases, such as the prepositional phrases, such as the prepositional phrase to the west and the verb ran fast. Still higher units have to be recognized-question-and answer, paragraph, discourse-but the larger they get, the harder it is to decide just what the structure is supposed to be. Most linguistic analysis up to very recently has stopped with the sentence.

Stratification-this organization of levels on levels-is the physical manifestation of the “infinite use of finite means,” the trait the most distinguishes human communication and that provides its tremendous resourcefulness. Dozens of distinctive sounds are organized into scores of syllables, which become the carriers of hundred of more or less meaningful segments of words, and which in turn are built into thousands of words proper. With thousands of words we associate millions of meanings, and on top of those millions the numbers of possible sentence and discourses become astronomical. One linguist call this scheme of things “multiple reinvestment”.

Underlying multiple reinvestment is the “structural principle”, whereby instead of having unique symbols for every purpose, which would require as many completely different symbols as there are purposes, we use elementary units and recombine them. With just two units at the word level, meanings in answer to the request Describe the house:

It’s brick.         It’s brick red.

It’s red .           It’s red brick.

4. Language changes to outwit change

Every living language is in a state of dynamic equilibrium. Infinite    changes occur in every act of speech and rarely make an impression-they are not imitated or perpetuated, because hearers ignore them (for example, the fumbling of someone who talks in a hurry or coughs in the middle of the word). Now and then a scintilla is captured and held. We hear a novel expression and like it. It is adaptive-fits a style or names a new object or expresses an idea succinctly. Others take it up and it “become part of the language,” the equilibrium is temporarily upset but reestablishes itself quickly as the new expression marks out its territory, and the older inhabitants defend what is left of theirs.

The vast open-endedness of language that results from multiple reinvestments makes it both systematic and receptive to change. The parts are intricately interwoven, and this maintains the fabric; but they are also infinitely recombinable, and this makes for gradual, nondestructive variation. The linguistic code is like the genetic code-so much so that geneticists refer to “the syntax of the DNA chain.” The hierarchical organization of meaningful units in language – from words through phrases and sentences and on up to discourses-is paralleled by ranks of genetic sequences with their inherited messages that control growth and development. Underlying both codes are meaningless subunits, called phonemes in language and nucleotide bases in genetics . Changes in language and mutations in genetics serve a similar purpose: to outwit the random changes in society in a nature. One cannot predict an accident, but one can provide enough to survive. This is no guarantee against disaster; and languages as well as species do perish. But it suffices to cope with the normal rate of random intrusions.

5. Language is embedded in gesture

If language is an activity, we cannot say that it stops short at the boundary of verbal speech activity, or human actions are not so easily compartmentalized. In a primary language encounter-face to face speech-the language is reinforced by both audible and visible gesture. Even when speaking on the telephone a person may sneer, and we will hear the sneer because the sound wave is distorted in characteristic ways.

Audible and visible gestures are usually termed paralanguage and kinesics, respectively. Body language is another word for kinesics, but is generally reserved for movements that communicate without being part of a clearly established social code-we might say that they are unconscious.  Even when nothing appears to be going on at all, something may be communicated-there is a language of silence. Skilled comedians know exactly when and for how long to pause to let a point sink in; spoken language demands time for decoding as well as time for speaking. But silence is affective only when one commands the field and fends off would-be interrupters. To avoid being interrupted while gathering their thoughts, speakers use a kind of audible gesture called a hesitation sound, usually a low-pitched uh or unh. Sometime words are employed for the same purpose; well or ya know in English, este (‘this’) in American Spanish. If you are asked what time it is and you know, you will reply without hesitation. But if  you have to look your watch, you may say it’ now-w-w ten fifteen, using a drawled now to keep command of the situation. The amount or verbalized makeweight with which speaker packs a conversation gesture to keep from yielding the floor is incalculable. This is one of the great stylistic differences between spoken and written language, and is why the latter appears so carefully pruned.

Gesture may occur alone as when we nod assent, or may accompany verbal speech. If the sentence still, he did his best is accompanied by a pouting lower lip and a shrug of the shoulders, visible gesture turns the words into an ironic apology. If oh, Jack’s all right, but hell….. is spoken with a deprecatory grimace on the last two words and with a drop of pitch on hell, the result is a trio of verbal language, visible gesture, and audible gesture.

Gesture systems that are substitutes or virtual substitutes for spoken language are a study in themselves. The American Sign Language used by the deaf and the sign languages of the Plains Indians are the best-known examples. Whistle languages and African drum languages are based in their own particular ways on speech, and telegraphic and semaphoric signaling are based on writing-that is, on spelling. The finger-spelling used by the Japanese is similar, but is used along with speech to clear up ambiguities caused by the many sound-alike words in that language (like the English deign and Dane).

The gesture, both audible and visible, that accompany ordinary speech are of two main types and four subtypes. The first main type is learned gesture. These are acquired as part of a speaker’s culture, just as words are; and those of the first subtype, which can be called lexical, resemble words closely enough to have standard spelling: uh-huh for “yes,” huh? For ‘what? ’hmm for ‘I wonder’ tsk-tsk for the click of tongue used to show disapproval. Visible gestures in this subclass include waving the hand for ‘good-bye,’ holding both hands out with palms up and shoulders raised for ‘I don’t know’, and putting the index finger against the lips for ‘Be quite’ (often accompanied by the audible lexical gestures shhh), or similar ones with different meanings. Our gesture for ‘come here’ is holding the hand out cupped palm up with the fingers beckoning; in some other areas- for example, Mexico-it is the same except that the hand is cupped palm down.

The second main type of gesture is instinctive, with subtype involuntary and voluntary. No one has to learn to laugh or smile or cry or dodge a blow or blink when an object comes unexpectedly toward the eyes. These actions are controlled by the autonomous nervous system and frequently cannot be avoided even with practice. People who blush easily betray embarrassment in spite of themselves. But the line between involuntary and voluntary is a shifting one. In human beings the limbic system of the brain, which controls involuntary actions, is overlaid by higher systems, and this leads to some measure of voluntary control of reactions that in other animals are purely automatic.

A sign of adulthood is the ‘insincerity’ of originally autonomous actions. A smile may no linger be a symptom of feeling but a purposive act intended to please. The hollow laugh and the crocodile tear are instinctive gestures acquire a social significance and take on local modifications, one reason why members of one culture may behave awkwardly when-transplanted to another.

All gesture, but instinctive gestures especially, cooperate with language in a total communicative act. While we can usually guess a speaker’s intend, we may be unsure if the gestural part is extracted. In the following utterance,








Table 1-1

Summary of Gesture types















cough for getting




nod of head finger to lips

hand indicates height from ground

blink of eye blush

smile to please

Everything can remain the same, yet with one’s head slightly forward, eyes widened, and mouth left open after the last word, the result is a half-question (‘you surely don’t mean it, do you?), while with the head erect, eyes not widened, and mouth closed afterward, it is a confident assertion. In the first case, cooperation is asks. When this happens the gestural meaning is usually closer to the heart of the matter than the meaning of the words and syntax-sentence like he’s a great guy can be the reserved in meaning by a knowing look (we call such remarks ironic). Gestures of pointing are often indispensable. The sentence He doesn’t know you’re on my side immediately precede by a sidewise toss of the head in the direction of the person referred to makes it clear, by pointing, who he is. Gestures of the hands and head are also used to reinforce the syllables on which an accent falls. A person too far away to hear a conversation can often tell what syllables are being emphasized by the way the speaker hammers with a fist or jabs downward with the jaw.

In most accounts of language, gesture has been underrated or ignored. Body language, along with other bodily functions, has been a partially tabooed subject; even today we would feel embarrassed by saying to someone, “why did you trust your head forward when you said that?” though a question like “why did you say absolutely when you weren’t sure? is commonplace. As a reflection of this, linguists have traditionally concentrated on the language of information-prepositional language-which is the only kind writing can convey with a high degree of efficiency, but even this kind of language, when spoken, is signaled as true false, positive or doubtful, welcome or unwelcome, by gesture; and all other forms of language-questions, commands, wishes, exclamations, denials-are heavily dependent on it.

6. Language is both arbitrary and non-arbitrary

If people are to cooperate the must understand one another by sharing values. Sometimes we deliberately agree to agree, as in learning the mathematical formula c = πr2 or the symbols H2O for water. In such a case the arbitrariness and conventionality of the symbols and their relation to reality stand out boldly.

Language is similarity conventionality and arbitrary. There is no need for us to worry about our different perceptions of what a dog looks like, feels like, or sounds like, in order to refer to one. If we are agreed on calling it dog we can give socially vital warnings like Mad dog with assurance. Dog has an arbitrary, conventional value in our society, as do most of the words in any language.

The obvious exceptions are few, if there were always a close connection between the sound of a word and its meaning, we would not need to know the language to guess the word if we knew the meaning and guess the meaning if we knew the word. Now and then we can do this: meow in English and mieow in French sound the same and mean the same. Yet even with words that imitate sounds this seldom happens (to caw in English is croasser in French; to giggle in English kitchen in German). With other words it is practically never found: square and box-shaped have similar meanings but no resemblance in sound.

Arbitrariness comes from having to code a whole universe of meanings. The main problem with such vast quantities is to find not resemblances but differences, to make a given combination of sounds sufficiently unlike every other combination so that no two will be mistaken for each other.  It is more important to make wheat and barley sound different than to use the names to express a family relationship as a botanist might do.

Syntax –the grammar of arrangement-is somewhat less arbitrary than words, especially in the order of elements. We say He came in and sat down because that is the sequence of the actions; if we said He sat down and come in it would have to mean that the opposite sequence occurred-perhaps he decided to get into his wheelchair to proper himself into the room. To reserve the order we need a specific grammatical instruction, say the word after :He sat down after he came in. But arbitrariness lingers even without such traffic signs: ground parched corn has first been parched and then ground.

The most rigidly arbitrary level of language is that of the distinctive units of sound by which we can distinguish between skin and skim or spare and scare. It was noted earlier that using sound for this purpose, while practical, was not necessary for the system. And even when sound became the medium, particular sounds did not matter so long as they could be told apart. What distinguishes skin from skim is the sound of  [n] versus the sound of [m], but could just as well as be [b] versus [g]- there is nothing in the nature of skin that decrees it shall be called skin and not skib. The only “natural” fact is that human beings are limited by their speech organs to certain dimensions of sound. But given the sets of sounds we can make (not identical, of course, from one language to another, but highly similar), arbitrariness frees us to combine them at will. The combinations do not have to match anything in nature, and their number is therefore unlimited.

Still, arbitrariness has its limits. Whenever one thing stands for another-as pictures, diagram and signals do-it is normal to look for resemblances. A for a television set represents each part and connection in detail. If someone asks directions and the right, the direction of travel is also to the right. Most gestures have at least an element of guess ability about them; the lexical gesture for ‘ I don’t know’ described earlier uses empty hands to mean ‘I have no information.’

Even the distinctive units of sound are not always arbitrary. There seems to be a connection, transcending individual languages, between the sounds of the vowels produced with the tongue high in the mouth and to the front-especially the vowel sound in wee, teeny-and the meaning of ‘smallest, while those with tongue low suggest ‘largeness’. The size of the mouth cavity-this ee sound has the smallest opening of all-is matched with the meaning. We chip a small but chop a large one; a slip is smaller than a slab and a nib is smaller than a knob. Examples crop us spontaneously – “A freep is a baby frope”, said a popular entertainer in a game of scrabble.

The curious thing about the balance between arbitrariness and its opposite is that, given language (or anything else) as a fact of life, much of the arbitrariness falls away. We can say that the shape of an apple is arbitrary because it. “Might as well” be square. But apples are a fact of life, and they are not square; and this relates them, non-arbitrarily, to the other fruits in the universe of fruit. The letter F “might as well” have the shape L, but it does not, and this relates it non-arbitrarily to the other shapes of the same letter, F and f. if we accept the initial arbitrariness of the existence of almost anything, non arbitrariness follows in most of its subsequent connections. The English language seems inexcusably arbitrary to the speaker of French. Yet it is a word to itself, and within that world there are countless more or less self-evidence relationships. For example, given the set of words bolt (of lightning), (frisky) colt and jolt, it is natural to the tie a similar jarring meaning to volt (named for Alessandro Volt). The more volts the bigger the jolt.

Almost nothing about language is arbitrary in the sense that some person sat down on some occasion and decided to invent it, for virtually everything in language has a non arbitrary origin. Some things evolve to ward greater arbitrariness, others toward less.

7. Language is vertical as well as horizontal

When we hear and look at a display of speech or writing, the dimension we are most conscious of is a horizontal one-the stream of time in speech, the span of lines in writing. Almost everything that we put in a message has to go to the right or left of something else. Much that happens when a language changes is due to collisions or confusions along this course. It may be only a lapse, as when a speaker, intending to say discussing shortly, say discoing, bringing a sound that belongs on the right over to the left. Or it may be permanent, as is in horseshoe, in which everybody sounds the s of the first element so that it disappears into the sh of the second.

If people merely parroted and never assembled utterance on their own, language might have just a single dimension. But they do assemble, and the question is, where do they go for the parts? It must be to a stockroom of some sort. And stockrooms require a scheme for storage, or we could never find what we are looking for. This is the vertical dimension of language. It is everything that our brains have hoarded since we learned our first syllable, cross-classified in a wildly complex but amazingly efficient way. Nothing less depends on it than the means to summon whatever we need the instant we are framing our ideas for the next phrase and probably still uttering the last one. This vast storehouse of items, categories, and connections is the competence that we identified earlier. When we utter a sentence, we choose from a sort of vertical array of word;

Small                           leaped

Tiny                             jumped

The      miniature         dog      hopped            in to my lap

Toy                              flew

etc.                              etc

The number of vertical sets runs into the thousands, and the classes they represents may be small, tight, highly structured ones whose alternative follows some fairly strict grammatical rule, or loose and partially open semantic ones that may even cause speakers to hesitate at times in making a selection. An example of the former is the set of possessives that are used as nouns, which fill the slots in I had mine, you had _______, We had _______, and They had ______, an example of the latter is the set of “coin” (penny, nickel, dime, quarter) versus the set of “values” (eight cents, two bits, a dollar seventy-five).

The horizontal dimension of language is the domain of syntax which is literally a “putting together”. The vertical dimension is the domain of paradigms, any of the vertical sets that we have just discussed as well as the sets that are tied together by some grammatical rule, such as pronoun with their cases, or verbs their inflections for number, tense, and person.

8. Languages are similarly structured

Language can be related in three ways: genetically, culturally, and typologically. A genetic relationship is one between parent and child or between two siblings or cousins; there is common ancestor somewhere the family line. A cultural relationship arises from contacts in the real world at a given time; enough speakers command a second language to adopt some its features, most often terms of cultural artifact but sometimes other features as well (the borrowed words may contain an accustomed sounds, which are the domesticated in the new language if conditions are favorable). A typological relationship is one of resemblances regardless of where they came from. English is related genetically to Dutch through the common ancestry of Germanic and Indo-European. In the United States it is related culturally to North American Indian languages, from which it has taken many place names and terms (Wisconsin, moose, squash, sequoia). And it is related typologically to Chinese, which it resembles more than it resembles its own cousin Latin in the comparative lack of inflections on words.

Though genetic and cultural relationships tend to parallel typological ones, it often happens that languages of the sane family diverge so radically in the course of time that only the most careful analysis will demonstrate their kinship. The opposite happens too: languages unrelated genetically may ”converge” to a high degree of similarity. Typological resemblance reveals traits that are universal to all humankind. If we find that languages in scattered parts of the world, which could hardly be related historically, use the pitch of the voice to distinguish questions from statements, or show a predilection for certain vowel sounds over others, or manifest without exception a class of thing-words that may be called nouns we can be fairly sure that this somehow reflects the physical and mental equipment that all speakers are born with, regardless of their linguistic heritage.

Typological similarities can be found at all levels; the degree and number of them make it possible to classify languages by types. We can match them in terms of the numbers and kinds of distinctive sounds that they have, the way they buid words, and the way they arrange sentences. The second of these three methods was long  the favorite; languages have been classified as analytic(modifications of meaning expressed by separate words: English  I will go versus French firai); synthetic (modifications built in: English went or departed versus did go or did depart); and polysynthetic (extremely complex internal structure, roughly as in English antidisetalishmentarianism). Cutting accross these categories are others depicting how modifications of meaning are handled: isolating (arrangement alone distinguish relationships, as in English show me Tom versus Show Tom me);  agglunative (relationships are shown by attaching elements that nevertheless retain a clear identity, as in greenish); fusional (elements are attached that virtually lose their identity in the process, as in dearth from dear + –th; darling from dear + -ling); and modulating (internal changes are made without the addition of anything readily seen as having an identity of its own, as in  steal, stole). It is significant that examples of all these types of structure can be found in English. They are useful as statistical generalizations: most languages are typically more or than another –for example, Chinese is isolating and analytic, Latin and synthetic-but all are mixture to some extent.

More recently, interest has shifted to sentence structure, in particular the sequence of subject, verb, and object in simple declarative sentences. Languages are classed as SVO, SOV, or VSO.  These arrangements are somehow basic, since other facts of structure can be predicted from them. For example, taking V and O as the most essential elements, it generally happens that a qualifier will use whichever one of these the elements it qualifies as a fulcrum and will  occur on the opposite the other elements. A negative, for example, which primarily modifies the verb will adjectives, uses the noun (the object) as a fulcrum, resulting in the order AdjOV or VOAdj.

These are some of the large-scale generalizations that can be made about similarities in structure. There are small-scale ones as well. For example, it is predictable that even if a language has a linking verb, young children will not use it; they will say Daddy here, not Daddy is here.

9. Language is heard as well as spoken

Though every speaker is also a hearer, the psychology of one role is not always the same as that of the other. The principle of least effort decrees that speakers will work no harder than they have to in order to make themselves understood. This form of laziness results in blurring of sounds. But the same principle decrees that listeners will work no harder than they have to in order to understand. And this form of laziness compels speakers to use care if they expect cooperation and if they do not want to have to repeat themselves. These are the radical and the conservative forces in language, which account for change and for resistance to change. As they are never quite evenly balanced at any one time, changes do occur, but then the conservative force steps in and reestablishes a norm.

Key terms and concepts

Competence                               types of languages

Performance                               analytic

Phonetics                                    synthetic

Syllable                                      polysynthetic

Paralanguage                              isolating

Kinesics (body language)     agglutinative

Gesture                                    fusional

Arbitrariness vs. non-arbitrariness

Syntax, syntagmatic

Paradigm, paradigmatic


Study Questions and Discussion Topics

  1. Can the sense of touch be used for communicating in language? Consider the reading of Braille. Can the temperature sense be so used? If not, why?
  2. What type of gesture is a handshake? Could one male be sure, if he held out his hand to a male member of some unknown culture, that the other male would not take it as a challenge to a wrestling match?
  3. Is the supposed “cooperation” between language and gesture sometimes contrapuntal, in that one says one thing and the other says the opposite? Think of another example.
  4. If we think of families of words related in meaning as being less arbitrary if the relationship shows somehow in the word form, how do the families inch, foot, yard, mile and milimeter, centimeter, meter, kilometer compare? List two other opposing series like these (say popular versus the scientific names a family of plants).
  5. A gesture may imitate an actual event. In kissing, for example. We have the real thing; then the perfunctory kiss; then the kiss in the air, which may be “tossed”. Think of another example.
  6. A story by Robert Louis Stevenson contains the sentence As the night fell, the wind rose. Could this expressed As the wind rose, the night fell? If not, why? Does this indicate a degree of non arbitrariness about word order?
  7. Consider the two headlines Woman Running Across Street Killed and Woman Killed Running Across Street. Does syntax tend to be non-arbitrary in terms of putting together things that belong together?



            It remains, however, a speculation. We simply do not know how language originated. We do know that spoken language developed well before written language. Yet, when we uncover traces of human life on earth dating back half a million years, we never find any direct evidence relating to the speech of our distant ancestors. There are no dusty cassette tape fragments among the ancient bones, for example, to tell us how language was back in the early stages perhaps because of this absence of physical evidence, there has been no shortage of speculation about the origins of human speech. In this chapter, we shall consider the merits of some of those speculations.

A. The divine source

According to one view, God created Adam and “whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof” (Genesis, 2:19). Alternatively, following a Hindu tradition, language came from the goddess Sarasvati, wife of Brahma, creator of the universe. In most religions, there appears to be a divine source who provides human with language. Accordingly, it is also mentioned in the Holy Qur’an that “And He taught Adam the names of all things; then He placed them before the angels, and said: ‘Tell Me the names of these if ye are right.’” (QS Al-Baqarah: 31). Therefore, Moslems also believe that language originated from the Creator of Adam, the first human being.

In order to rediscover this original, divine language, a few experiments have been carried out, with rather conflicting result. The basic hypothesis seems to have been that, if infants were allowed to grow up without hearing any language, then they would spontaneously begin  using the original God-given language. An Egyptian pharaoh named psammetichus tried the experiment with two newborn infants around 600 B.C. After two years in company of sheep and a mute shepherd, the children were reported to have spontaneously uttered, not an Egyptian word, but the Phrygian word bekos, meaning ‘bread’. The children may not have picked up this ‘word’ from any human source, but, as several commentators have pointed out, they must have heard what the sheep were saying.

James IV of Scotland carried out a similar experiment around A.D. 1500 and the children were reported to have started speaking Hebrew. It is unfortunate that all other cases of children who have been discovered living in isolation, without coming into contact with human speech, tend, not to confirm the result of either of these ’divine-source’ experiments. Children living without access to human speech in their early years grow up with no language at all. If human language did emanate from a divine source, we have no way of reconstructing that original language, especially given the events in a city called Babel, “because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth” (Genesis, 11:9).

2. The natural sounds source

A quite different view of the beginnings of human speech is based on the concept of ‘natural sound’. The suggestion is that primitive words could have been imitations of the natural sounds which early men and women heard around them. When an object flew by, making a CAW-CAW sound, the early human imitated the sound and used it to refer to the object associated with the sound. And when another flying object made a CUCKOO sound, that natural sound was adopted to refer to that object. The fact that all modern languages have some words with pronunciations which seem to ‘echo’ naturally occurring sounds could be used to support this theory. In English, in addition to cuckoo, we have splah, bang, boom, mantle, buzz, hiss, screech, and forms such as bow-wow. In fact, this type of view has been called the ”bow-wow theory” of language origin. While it is true that a number of words in any language are onomatopoeic (echoing natural sounds), it is hard to see how most of the soundless, not to mention abstract, entities in our world could have been referred to in language that simply echoed natural sounds, we might also be rather skeptical about a view which seems to assume that language is only a set of words which are used as ‘names’ for entities.

It has also been suggested that the original sounds of language came from natural cries of emotion, such as pain, anger and joy. By this route, presumably, OUCH came to have its painful connotations. However, it has been noted that the expressive noises people make in emotional reactions contain sounds which are not otherwise used in their language, and, consequently, seem to be unlikely candidates as source-sounds.

One other ‘natural sound’ proposal has come to be known as the “yo-heave-ho theory”. The sound of a person involved in physical effort could be the source of our language, especially when that physical effort involved several people and had to be coordinated. So, a group of early humans might develop a set of grunts and groans and swear words which they used when lifting and carrying bits of trees of lifeless mammoths. The appeal of this theory is that it places the development of human language in some social context. Human sounds, however produced, and may have had some principled use within the social life of the human group. This is an interesting idea, though still a speculation, which may relate to the use of humanly, produced sounds. It does not, however, answer the question regarding the origins of the sounds produced. Apes and other primates have grunts and social calls, but they do not seem to have developed the capacity for speech.

3. The oral-gesture source

One suggestion regarding the origins and of the sounds of language involves a link between physical gesture and orally produced sounds. It does seem reasonable that physical gesture, involving the whole body, could have been a means of indicating a wide range of emotional states and intentions. Indeed, many of our physical gestures, using body, hands and face, are a means of nonverbal communication still used by modern humans, even with their developed linguistic skill.

The “oral-gesture theory”, however, proposes an extremely specific connection between physical and oral gesture. It is claimed that originally a set of physical gestures was developed as a means of communication. Then a set of oral gestures, specifically involving the mouth, developed, in which the movements of the tongue, lips and so on were recognized according to the patterns of movement similar to physical gestures. You might think of the movement of the tongue (oral gesture) in a ‘goodbye’ message as representative of the waving of the hand or arm (physical gesture) for a similar message. This proposal, involving what was called “a specialized pantomime of the tongue and lips” by Sir Richard Piaget (1930), does seem a bit outlandish now. We can, indeed, use mine of specific gestures for variety of communicative purposes, but it is hard to visualize the actual ’oral’ aspect which would mirror many such gestures. Moreover, there is an extremely large number of linguistic messages which would appear to defy transmission via this type of gesturing. As a simple experiment, try to communicate, using only gesture, the following message to another member of your species: My uncle thinks he’s invisible. Be prepared for a certain amount of misunderstanding.

4. Physiological adaptation

One further speculative proposal about the origin of human speech concentrates on some of the physical aspects of humans which are not shared with other creatures, not even with other primates. These physical features are best thought of as partial adaptation which, by themselves, would not lead to speech production, but which are good clues that a creature possessing such features probably has the capacity for  speech.

Human teeth are upright, not slanting outwards like those of apes, and they are roughly even in height. Such characteristics are not needed for eating, but the are extremely helpful in making sounds such as f, v and th. Human lips have much more intricate muscle interlacing that is found in other primates and their resulting flexibility certainly helps with sounds like p, b, and w. The human mouth is relatively small, can be opened and closed rapidly, and contains a very flexible tongue which can be used to shape a wide variety of sounds.

The human larynx, or ‘the voice box’ (containing the vocal cords), differs significantly in position from that of monkeys. In the course of human physical development, the assumption of an upright posture by the human moved the head forward and the larynx lower. This created a longer cavity, called the pharynx, above the vocal cords, which can act as a resonator for any sounds produced via the larynx. One unfortunate consequence is that the position of the human larynx makes it much more possible for the human to choke on pieces of food. Monkeys may not be able to use the larynx to produce speech sounds, but they do not suffer from the problem of getting food stuck in the windpipe.

The human brain is lateralized, that is, it has specialized functions in each of the two hemispheres. Those functions which are analytic, such as tool-using and language, are largely confined to the hemisphere of the brain for most humans. It may be that there is am evolutionary connection between the tool-using and language-using abilities of humans, and that both are related to the development of the human brain. Most of the other theories of the origin of the speech have humans producing single noises or gestures to indicate objects in their environment. This activity may indeed have been a crucial stage in the development of language, but what it lack is any ’manipulative’ element. All languages, including sign language, require the organizing and combining of the sounds or sign in specific constructions. This does seem to require a specialization of some part of the brain.

In the analogy with tool-using, it is not enough to be able to grasp one rock (make one sound); the human must also be able to bring another rock (other sounds) into proper contact with the first. In terms of linguistic structure, the human may first developed the naming ability, producing a specific noise (e.g. bEEr) for a specific object. The crucial additional step which was then accomplished was to bring another specific noise (e.g. gOOd) into combination with the first to build complex message (bEEr gOOd). A few hundred thousand years of evolution later, man has honed this message-building capacity to the points where, on Saturdays, watching a football game, he can drink a sustaining beverage and proclaim this beer is good. Other primates cannot do this.



            When we consider the development of writing, we should bear in mind that a very large number of the languages found in the world today are only used in the spoken form. They do not have a written form. For those languages which do have writing systems, the development of writing, as we know it, is a relatively recent phenomenon. We may trace human attempts to represent information visually back to cave drawings which were made at least 20.000 years ago, or to clay tokens from about 10.000 years ago which appears to have been an early attempt at bookkeeping, but these artifacts are best described as ancient precursors of writing. Writing which is based on some type of alphabetic script can only be traced back to inscriptions dated around 3,000 years ago.

Much of the evidence used in the reconstruction of ancient writing systems comes from inscriptions on stone of tablets found in the rubble of ruined city. Many of these inscriptions have never been deciphered. It may be the some of this evidence is not the significant documentation of great events, but is the remains of scribbles and the graffiti of the day. Yet, tracing the development of those inscriptions allows us to discover the roots of a writing tradition going back a few thousand years whereby the human has sought to create a more permanent record of what was thought and said.

1. Pictograms and ideograms

Cave drawing may serve to record some event (e.g. Human3, Buffaloes1), but they are not usually thought of as any type of specifically linguistic message. They are normally considered as part of a tradition of pictorial art. When some of the ‘pictures’ came to represent particular images in a consistent way, we can begin to describe the product as a form of picture-writing, or pictograms. Thus, a form such as          might comes to be used for the sun. An essential part of this use of a representative symbol is that everyone should are similar forms to convey roughly similar meaning. In time, this picture might take on a more fixed symbolic form, such as         , and come to be used for ‘heat’ and ‘daytime’, as well as for ‘sun’. This type of symbol id considered to be part of a system of idea-writing, or ideograms. The distinction between pictograms and ideograms is essentially a difference in the relationship between the symbol and the entity it represents. The more ‘picture-like’ forms are pictograms, the more abstract, derived forms are ideograms. A key property of both pictograms and ideograms is that they do not represent words or sounds in a particular language. Modern pictograms, such as those represented in the accompanying illustration, are language-independent.





            It is generally thought that there are pictographic or ideographic origins for a large number of symbols which turn up in later writing systems. For example, in Egyptian hieroglyphics, the symbol    is used to refer to a house and derives from the diagrammatic representation of the floor-plan of the house. In Chinese writing, the character       is used for a river, and has its origins in the pictorial representation of a stream flowing between two banks. However, it should be noted that both these Egyptian and Chinese written symbols are not in fact pictures of a house or a river. There is an abstraction away from the form of the real-world entity in producing the symbol.

When the relationship between the symbol and the entity or idea becomes sufficiently abstract, we can be more confident that the symbol is being used to represent words in a language. In Egyptian writing, the ideogram for water was

Much later, the derived symbol       came to be used for the actual word meaning ’water’. When symbols come to be used to represent words in a language, they are described as examples of word-writing, or logogram.

2. Logograms

A good example of logographic writing is that used by the Sumerians, in the southern part of modern Iraq, between 5.000 and 6.000 years ago. Because of the particular shapes used in their symbols, these inscriptions are more generally described as cuneiform writing. The term ‘cuneiform’ means ‘wedge-shape’ and the inscriptions used by the Sumerians were produced by pressing a wedge-shape implement into soft clay tablets, resulting in form like          .

The form of this symbol really gives no clue to what type of entity is being referred to. The relationship between the written form and the object it represents has become arbitrary, and we have a clear example of word-writing, or a logogram. The form above can be compared with a typical pictographic representation of the same fishy entity:      We can also compare the ideogram for sun, presented earlier as      , with the logogram used to refer to the same entity found in cuneiform writing           .

So, by the time of the Sumerians, we have evidence that a writing system which was word-based had come into existence. In fact, it is Sumerians cuneiform inscriptions which are normally referred to when the expression “the earliest known writing system” is used.

A modern writing system which is based, to a large extent, on the use of logograms is Chinese. Many Chinese written symbols, or characters, are used to representations of the meaning of words and not of the sounds of the spoken language. One of the advantages of such a system is that two speakers of very different dialects of Chinese, who might have great difficulty understanding each other’s spoken forms, can both had the same written text. The major disadvantage is that an extremely large number of different written symbols (well over 70.000) exists within this writing system. Apparently, a working knowledge of only about 5.000 characters is sufficient for reading the daily newspaper. Remembering large numbers of different word-symbols, however, does seem to present a substantial memory load, and the history of most other writing systems illustrates a development away from logographic writing. To accomplish this, some principled method is required to go from symbols which represent words to a set of symbols which represent sounds.

3. Rebus writing

One way of using existing symbols to represent the sounds of language is via process known as Rebus writing. In this process, the symbol for one entity is taken over as the symbol for the sound of the spoken word used to refer to the entity. That symbol then comes to be used whenever that sound occurs in any words. We can create an example, working with the sound of the English word eye. We can imagine how the pictogram      Could have developed into the logogram       . This logogram is pronounced as eye, and with the Rebus principle at work, you should be able to refer to yourself as       (“I”), to one of your friends as +     (“Crosseye”), combine this form with the logogram for ‘deaf’ and produce “defy”, with the logogram for ‘boat’ and produce “bowtie”, and so on. Take another, non-English, example, in which the ideogram           becomes the logogram       For the word pronounced ba (meaning ‘boat’). We can then produce a symbol for the word pronounced baba (meaning ’father’) which would be

What this process accomplishes is a sizeable reduction in the number of symbols needed in a writing system.

4. Syllabic writing

In the last example, the symbol which is used for the pronunciation of parts of a word represents a combination of a consonant and a vowel (e.g. ba). This combination is one of type of syllable. When a writing system employs a set of symbols which represent the pronunciations of syllables, it is described as syllabic writing.

There are no purely syllabic writing systems in use today, but modern Japanese has a large of single symbols which represent spoken syllables and is consequently often described as having a (partially) syllabic writing system. In the nineteenth century, an American Indian named Sequoyah invented a syllabic writing system which was used by the Cherokee Indians to produce written messages from the spoken language. In these Cherokee examples,     (ho),     (sa) and      (ge), note that the symbols do not correspond to single consonants or vowels, but to syllables.

Both the Egyptian and the Sumerian writing systems evolved to the point where some of the earlier logographic symbols were used to represent spoken syllables. However, the full use of a syllabic writing system neither does nor appear until that used by the Phoenicians, inhibiting what is modern Lebanon, between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago. It is clear that many of the symbols which they used were taken from earlier Egyptian writing. The Egyptian form    , meaning ‘house’, was adopted, in a slightly reoriented from, as      After being used logographically for the word pronounced beth (still meaning ’house’), it came to represent syllables beginning with a b sound. Similarly, the Egyptian form      , meaning ‘water’, turn up as      , and is used for syllables beginning with an m sound. So, a word which might be pronounced muba could be written as       , and the pronunciation bima as       Note that the direction of writing is from right to left. By about 1000 B.C, the Phoenicians had stopped using logograms and had a fully developed syllabic writing system.

5. Alphabetic writing

If you have a set of symbols being used to represent syllabic beginning with, for example, a b sound or an m sound, then you are actually very close to a situation in which the symbols can be used to represent single sound types in a language. This is, in effect, the basis of alphabetic writing. An alphabet is essentially a set of written symbols which each represent a single type of sound. The situation described above is generally what seems to have occurred in the origins of the writing systems of Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew. The alphabets of these languages, even in their modern versions, largely consist of consonant symbols. This early form of alphabetic script, originating in the writing systems of Phoenicians, is the general source of most other alphabets to be found in the world. A modified version can be traced to the East into Indian writing systems and to the West through Greek.

Significantly, the early Greek took the alphabetizing process a stage further by also using separate symbols to represent the vowel sounds as distinct entities, and so a remodeled alphabet was created to include these. In fact, for many writers on the origins of the modern alphabet, it is the Greeks who should be given credit for taking the inherently syllabic system from the Phoenicians, and creating a writing system in which the single symbol to single sound correspondence was fully realized.

From the Greek, this revised alphabet passed to the rest of Western Europe via the Romans and, of course, it underwent several modifications to fit the requirements of the spoken languages encountered. Another line of development took the same Greek writing system into Eastern Europe where Slavic languages were spoken. The modified version, called the Cyrillic alphabet (after St Cyril, a ninth century Christian missionary), is the basis of the writing system used in Russia today.

The actual form of a number of the letters in modern European alphabets can be traced, as in the illustration, from their origins in Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Study Questions

  1. Which modern language uses a partially syllabic writing system?
  2. What are the disadvantages of logographic writing system?
  3. What is the process known as Rebus Writing?

Discussion Topics

  1. It has been claimed that alphabetic writing is “the most efficient writing system possible” (Hughes, 1962: 124). Do you agree? What criteria are involved in decisions about ‘efficiency’? What might Chinese and Japanese speakers think about this claim?
  2. One point not dealt with in this chapter concerns the fact that not all the writing systems mentioned use the same linear direction for their scripts. Egyptian hieroglyphics are read in columns, for example. In Phoenician writing, like modern Arabic, the script has to be read from right to left. In Roman writing, like modern English, the script has to be read from left to right. This means that there must have been a period during which the development of alphabetic writing underwent  a shift from right-to-left to left-to-right. Are there any clues in the chapter as to when this probably occurred?




            If we look for direct applications of linguistics to language teaching, we will be disappointed, meaning that we should not bring abstract linguistic description into the classroom. Even if we did and the pupils enjoyed analyzing sentences according to the current school of linguistics, it would not increase their proficiency in the language. The fundamental reason is that the aims in linguistics are quite different from the aims in the language teaching. Linguists want to find out how a language works and to describe this in the best way possible. Language teachers, on the other hand, want to enable their pupils to use the language in communication.

When we say linguistics is relevant to language teaching, we do not mean that linguistics can solve all the problems of language teachers. The language teaching profession today has become more and more complex, and it has three main straits: 1) theoretical contributions from linguistics, psychology and social theory, 2) methodology and teaching techniques, 3) aids and equipment. As we can see, linguistics forms only a part of it. Let us try to clarify what linguistics can and cannot do. Can it tell the teacher how language is learned? No. can it tell her what factors affect language teaching? No, the teacher will be more likely to find the answers to the above questions in the realms of psychology, pedagogy and sociology. What then, is the role of linguistics in the language teaching?

  1. A teacher who has been exposed to linguistics will be more aware of the nature of language and how it works. This is indeed an important contribution to language teaching, because we need to have a better understanding of the subject we teach. Acquaintance with the basic linguistic concepts and attitudes can bring valuable insights to all language teachers. Some of these insights are derived from the linguist’s attitude to speech in relation to writing, from the distinction between form and meaning, from the idea of language as structure and the idea that grammatical structure has greatest importance in language learning. This increased awareness of language should make a language more competent in his job, though it is possible to be a good teacher without knowledge of linguistics.
  2. Linguistics can provide a rigorous description of the language to be taught  as well as the native language. It is here that linguistics can be more directly applied to language teaching. The more comprehensive, the clearer the description, the more insights it will provide as the basis for the preparation of language teaching materials. A comparison of the two languages that highlights areas of difficulty will be particularly helpful to new and inexperienced teachers.
  3. Linguistics can be the source of assumptions and has certain implications for language teaching, as the following chapters will show. However, these assumptions and implications cannot be taken at face value. They must be put to the test in actual teaching situations. Teachers are also well aware that subject matter is only one of the important ingredients in any teaching situation. The method and the learner are equally important.

It is only fair to warn the teachers who come to linguistics with high expectations that different ways of describing a language may produce much the same result. Linguists may use different criteria and different approaches but the central facts of language and the relationships in a language are not changed thereby. The content of a language teaching produced by modern linguistic description may not be much different from that produce by a traditional grammar, if the language has been much investigated. A linguistic description of a language that has been little studied previously may produce “new” facts of interest to language teachers. This note of warning is sounded because some linguists are inclined to make exaggerated claims for linguistics and what it can contribute to language teaching. The result of such claims is to make language teachers fell inadequate when they have little knowledge of linguistics or cannot understand the latest development in linguistics cannot provide answers to the questions posed in this section, and since the content to be taught is little changed by it, language teachers should not shake like a reed in the wind of linguistic fashions. That is to say, language teachers’ should not think that each new school of linguistics brings in its wake, the right methodology or a new inventory of items to be taught with the best sequence, and that they need to change their teaching strategies accordingly. They should incorporate whatever insights linguistics can offer, of course, but they should hold firmly to their intuitions with regard to the learner and their experience of what has been effective in the classroom.

Rather that follow the current fashion in linguistics or adhering to a particular school of linguistics, the teacher should be eclectic. For one level or aspect of the language she teaches, the analysis or approach of the structural school of linguistics may be most helpful, for another aspect of language the transformational approach may provide a better basis for developing her method of teaching or preparation of materials. In fact, for some areas one must go outside formal description. There are good reasons for being eclectic if she understands the basis of the different linguistic approaches. For one thing, pattern practice as a teaching technique existed before structural linguistics, and the pupils were asked to transform sentences long before transformational grammar was even thought of. For another, no school of linguistics has as yet, produced a complete description of English or any other language and the linguists cannot agree among themselves about certain fundamental issues or even about how best to analyze some parts of a language within a particular school. The third reason is that the teacher will be in good company, for the linguists themselves are inconsistent (eclectic?). Ney   points out those Supporters of transformational grammar advocate pattern practice. The last and perhaps best reason is that, as Carroll  point out, the psychological bases of the different schools of linguistics in relation to language teaching are not so different as the linguists would like to make out. (Maybe this is why they sometimes seem inconsistent?) To conclude, the teacher should make linguists their allies, but not their masters.






Most  English –speaking children by the age of five or six know the word picture. Few know such relatable words as pictorial, depict, and pigment- “cognates” of picture, to the etymologist. Like all other words in the child’s early vocabulary, picture is unique combination of sounds contrasting with all other combinations. This chapter is about the relatively uncomplicated sounds of that first stage, typified by picture. The picture-picturial-depict stage will be described later.

How do the two stages differ? Besides picture, our child knows such words as pin, pillow, pound, and pie, all containing a sound that distinguishes them from tin, willow, round, and die. Most early learned words are like these-simple in structure, usually native to English (not many Latinisms), and starkly independent-that is, unburdened with the connections that the child learns to make later: love-lovely-loveliness-beloved, question-quest-request-inquest-query-inquiry- inquisitive-questionable-questionnaire. The simple stock of early words, all maximally different, demands a sound system that will set difference above any other requirement. Sounds have but one purpose: to help tell words apart.

So it happens that as a byproduct of the early words, the child comes to identify the distinctive sounds that make each word different from the rest. One by one the p sound of pin , the s of house, the m of animal, and t of toy  are picked out and take on a life of their own. House is distinguished from mouse by the contrast of h and m, and much from chum by revising the positions of m and ch. The relationship among the sounds at this stage is one of simple opposition. Though some may resemble each other more than others (d is more like t  than like ch), in their function all are totally different: dip is different from tip as it is from chip



Phonetics and phonology

The distinctive sounds come wrapped in an envelope of other disturbances of the air that convey such information as whether the speaker has a cold or has been eating or feels angry or is a long way off or is an adult rather than a child. Only part of sound wave corresponds to the central organization, a narrow and precisely limited set of contrast between various combinations of pitches, durations, loudness, and voice and whisper, which are the audible results of the way we exercise our speech similar enough to generalize about them.

We are so accustomed to look at print with its tightly formed letter symbols and neat spaces that we tend to think of “units” of sound in the same way. But clear separations of sound are rare: though we can hear a hissing segment followed by a nasal segment in the word smell, generally things are rather badly smeared together-as we can tell with a word such as arm by trying to imagine where the ar- part ends and the –m part begins. Most speakers will say arm with the nasal passage open during the whole word-the nasality of the m is heard throughout. Furthermore, the sound of the r overlaps the vowel, and the tongue remains in the  r position while lips negotiate the m. these are no beads on a string, but a jumble  that the brain must somehow keep track of.

Of course the important thing is to recognize the word-missing part or a sound or two will probably make no difference. Sometimes one can miss the whole word and still guess it-He held me at ________length  begs for the   word arm’s. The redundancy- surplus information- that overflows most things we say enables us to get away with sloppy pronunciation much of the time. Listeners can make sense even if what they hear is deliberately distorted. The result is that “distinctive sounds” do not have to be precise: they represent a range rather than a point. Though we can idealize each range and treat it like a point (a bull’s-eye on a target) so long as the targets themselves are far enough apart, anything but a clean miss will count as a hit. The distinctive sounds thus carve up a continuum, each with its proper zone or target area, and with unused buffer zones between.

The vowel sounds provide a clear example. Take a language that has a system of just three vowels, the ee of meet, the a of father, and the u of blue, as happens with the Tagalog language spoken in the Philippines. A speaker could “mispronounce” meet as mit is closer to ee than to a or to u. English has more than three vowels and accordingly makes a distinction between meet and mit  that would not be found in the area of distinctive sound is the free-vowel language. This means that English speakers have learned to be a bit more discriminating in this one zone. But in any language there is enough room within phonetic space for vowels to be on center target every time.

The idealization that represents each target area of distinctive sound is the phoneme. A phoneme is not a sound but an abstraction, just as a word is an abstraction: we can utter the sounds of please. But that set of single utterances is not the word please, for if it were, by saying it we would use it up and never be able to say it again. It goes on, as a trace in our minds, or nervous systems, or wherever. But hearing please over and over, used appropriately, is what put the trace there in the first place, and the same goes for the phonemes. This makes it possible to describe phonemes as if they really were sounds. There is no danger so long as we remember that no two languages carve up the continuum in exactly the same way, and what is distinctive in one may not be distinctive in another. Some targets are big enough to include the range of two targets in another language; or two targets in two languages may be the same size, but overlap. From years of selective listening the speakers of a language simply do not hear what is not significant for them. This poses a problem when they try to learn another language. The Japanese confuse r and l in English because in Japanese there is a single sound where English has two. English speakers learning German sometimes substitute k for the sound of ch, as in ach (which can be heard in the English pack-horse spoken rapidly). In this case it is German that has two sounds, which contrast in acht “ban” and Akt “act”, and English that has one.

The study of sounds is acoustics;  that of speech sound is phonetics. The systematic use of sound in language is the field of phonology. Articulatory phonetics look at how speech sound is produced, acoustic phonetics looks at the wave form: its shape, intensity, periodicity versus noise, presence of overtones, and so on.

Voiced and voiceless sounds

In articulatory phonetics, we investigate how speech sounds are produced using the fairly complex oral equipment we have. We start with the air pushed out by the lungs up through the tracheas (the ‘windpipe’) to the larynx. Inside the larynx are your vocal which take two basic positions.

  1. When the vocal cords are spread apart, the air from the lungs passes between them unimpeded. Sounds produced in this way are described as voiceless.
  2. When the vocal cords are drawn together. The air from the lungs repeatedly pushes them apart as it passes through, creating a vibration. Sounds produced in this way are described as voiced.

As examples of this distinction, you can try saying the words pick and fish, which have voiceless sounds at the beginning and the end. Then say the big and viz, which have voiced sounds at the beginning and end. The distinction can also be felt physically if you place a fingertip gently on the top of your ‘Adam’s apple’ (i.e. part of your larynx) and produce sounds like Z-Z-Z-Z-Z or V-V-V-V-V. since these are voiced sounds, you should be able to feel some vibration. Keeping your fingerstip in the same position, make the sounds S-S-S-S-S or F-F-F-F-F. Since these are voiceless sounds. There should be no vibration. Another trick is to put a finger in each ear, not too far, and produce the voiced sounds (e.g. Z-Z-Z-Z) to hear some vibration, whereas no vibration will be heard if the voiceless sounds (e.g. S-S-S-S) are produced in the same manner.

Place of articulation

Once the air has passed through the larynx, it comes up and out through the mouth and/or the nose. Most consonant sounds are produced by using the tounge and parts of the mouth to constrict, in some way, the shape of the oral cavity through which the air is passing. The terms used to describe many sounds are those which denote the place of articulation of the sound, that is, the location, inside the mouth, at which the constriction takes place.

What we need is slice of head. If you crack a head right down the middle, you will be able to see which parts of the oral cavity are crucially involved in speech production.

to describe the place of articulation of most consonant sounds, we can start at the front of the mouth and work back. We can also keep he voiced-voiceless distinction in mind and begin using the symbols of the phonetic alphabet to denote specific sounds. These symbols will be enclosed within square brackets [ ]

Bilabials, These are sounds formed using both lips. The initial sounds in the words pat, bat and mat  are all bilabials. They are represented by the symbol [p], which is voiceless, and [b] and[m], which are voiced. The [w] sound found at the beginning of way,  walk and world is also a bilabials.

Labiodentals. These are sounds formed with the upper teeth and the lower lip. The initial sounds of the words fat and vat and the final sounds in the words safe  and save  are labiodentals. They are represented by the symbols [f], which is voiceless, and [v], which is voiced. Notice that the final sounds of laugh and cough, and the initial sound of photo, despite the spelling difference, are all pronounced as [f].

Dentals. These sounds are formed with the tongue tip behind the upper front teeth. The term ‘interdental’ is sometimes used to describe a manner of pronunciation with the tongue tip between the upper and lower voiceless dentals. The symbol used for this sound is [ ]. The voiced dental is represented by the symbol [ð] and is found in the pronunciation of the initial sound of thus and the final sound of bathe.

Alveolars. These are sounds formed with the front part of the tongue on the alveolar ridge, Which is the rough, bony ridge immediately behind the upper teeth. The initial sounds in tio, dip, sit, zoo and nut are all alveolars. The symbols for these sounds are quite easily remembered – [t], [d], [z], [n]. of these [t] and [s] are voiceless, whereas [d], [z] and [n] are voiced. It may be clear that the final sounds of the words bus and buzz  have to be [s] and [z] respectively, but what about the final sound of the word raise? The spelling is misleading because the final sound in this word is voiced, and so must be represented by [z[. Notice also that despite the different spelling of knot and not, both these words are pronounced with [n] as the initial sound.

Other alveolars are the [i] sound at the beginning of words such as lap and lit, and the [r] sound at the beginning of right, write and rip.

Alveo-palatals. If you fell back behind the alveolar ridge, you should find a hard part in the roof of your mouth. This is called the palate. Sounds which are produced with the tongue at the very front of the palate, near the alveolar ridge, are called alveo-palatals. Examples are the initials sounds in the words shoot and child, which are voiceless. Although there are two letters in the spelling of ‘sh’ and ‘ch’, the sounds are represented by the single phonetic symbols [š], and the word church begins and ends with the voiceless alveo-palatal sound [č].

One of the voiced alveo-palatal sounds, represented by the symbol [ž],is not very common in English, but can be found as the middle in rouge. The other voiced alveo-palatal sound is represented as [ǰ] and is the initial sound in words like joke and gem. The word judge and the name george  both begin and end with the sound [ǰ], despite the obvious differences in spelling.

One sound which is produced with the tongue in the middle of the palate is the [y] sound to be found at the beginning of words like you and yet. This sound is usually described as a palatal.

Velars. Even further back in the roof of the mouth, beyond the hand palate, you will find a soft area which is called the soft palate, or the velum. Sounds produced with the back of the tongue against the velum are called velars. There is a voiceless velar sound, represented by the symbol [k], which occurs not only in kid and kill, but is also the initial sound in car and cold. Despite the variety in spelling, this [k] sound is both the initial and the final sound in the words cook, kick and coke. The voiced velar sound to be heard at the beginning of words like go, gun and give is represented by [g]. This is also the final sound in words like bag, mug, and, despite the spelling, plague.

One other voiced velar is represented by the symbol [ŋ] sound is at the end of sing, sang, and, despite the spelling, tongue. It would occur twice in the form ringing. Be careful not to be misled by the spelling – the word bang ends with [ŋ] sound only. There is no [g] sound in this word.

Glottals. There are two other sounds which are produced without the active use of the tongue and other parts of the mouth. One is the sound [h] which occurs at the beginning of have and house, and, for most speakers, as the first sound in who and whose. This sound is usually described as a voiceless glottal. The ‘glottis’ is the space between the vocal cords in the larynx. When the ‘glottis’ is open, as in the production of other voiceless sounds, but there is no manipulation of the air passing out through the mouth, the sound produced is that represented by [h].

When glottis is closed completely, very briefly, and then released, the resulting sound is called a glottal stop. This sound occur in many dialects of English, but does not have a written form I the roman alphabet. The symbol used in phonetic transcription is [ʡ]. You can produce this sound if you try the words butter or bottle without pronouncing the –it- sound in the middle. In Britain, this sound is considered to be a characteristic aspect of Cockney speech and, in the United States, of the speech of many New Yorkers.

Manner of articulation

So far, we have concentrated on describing consonant sounds in terms of where they are articulated. We can, of course, describe the same sounds in the terms of how they are articulated. Such a description is necessary if we wish to be able to differentiate between some sounds which, in the preceding discussion, we have placed in the same category. For example, we can say that [t] and [s] are both voiceless alveolar sounds.

How do they differ? They differ in their manner of articulation, that is, in the way they are pronounced. The [t] sound is one of a set of sounds called stops and the [s] sound is one of a set called fricatives.

Stops. Of the sounds we have already mentioned. The set [p], [b], [t], [d], [k], [g], [ʡ] are all produced by some form of complete ‘stopping’ of the airstreams (very briefly) and then letting it go abruptly. This type of consonant sound resulting from a blocking or stopping effect on the beginning of a word like ten is as a ‘voiceless alveolar stop’. On occasion only the manner of articulation is mentioned, as when it is said that the word bed, for example, begins and ends with ‘voiced stops.

Fricatives. The manner of articulation used in producing the set of sounds [f], [v], [θ],[ð], [š], [ž] involves almost blocking the air stream, and having the air push through the narrow opening. This type air is pushed through; a type of friction is produced and the resulting sounds are called fricative. If you put your open hand in front of your mouth when making these sounds, [f] and [s] in particular, you should be able to feel the stream of the air being pushed out. A word like fish will begin and end with ‘voiceless fricative’. The word those will begin and end with the ‘voiced fricative’ [ð] and [z].

Affricates. If you combine a brief stopping of the air stream with an obstructed release which causes some friction, you will be able to produce the  sounds [č] and [ǰ]. These are called affricates and  occur at the beginning of the words cheap and jeep. In the first of these, there is a ‘voiceless affricates’, and in the second a ‘voiced affricates’.

Nasals. Most sounds are produced orally, with the velum raised preventing airflow from entering the nasal cavity. However, when the velum is lowered and the airflow is allowed to flow out through the nose to produce [m], [ŋ], the sounds are described as nasals. These three sounds are all voiced. Words like morning, knitting and name begin and end with nasals.

Liquids. The initial sounds in the words led and red are generally described as liquids. The [l] sound is formed by letting the air stream flow around the sides of the tongue as it makes contract with the alveolar ridge. The [r] sound is formed with the tongue tip raised and curled back behind the alveolar ridge.

Glides. The sounds [w] and [y] are produced very much as transition sounds. They are called glides, or ‘semi-vowels’. In pronunciation. They are usually produced with the tongue moving, or ‘gliding’. They are both voiced. Glides occur at the beginning of we, wet, you ,and yes.

This rather lengthy list of the phonetic features of English consonant sounds is not presented as a challenge to your ability to memorize a lot of terminology and symbol. It is presented as an illustration of how a through description of physical aspects of speech production will allow us to characterize the sounds of spoken English, independently of the vagaries of spelling found in written English. They are, however, some sounds which we have not yet investigated. These are the types of sounds known as vowels and diphthongs.


While the consonant sounds are mostly articulated via closure or obstruction in the vocal tract, vowel sounds are produced with a relatively free flow of air. To describe vowel sounds, we consider the way in which the tongue influences the ’shape’ through which the airflow must pass. Because these sounds are not so easily defined in terms of places and manner of articulation, we use labels which serve to indicate how each vowel sounds in relation to the others. Thus, we talk of there being a ’high’, front vowel in the pronunciation of heat because the sound is made with the front part of the tongue in a raised position, whereas the vowel sound in hot is produced with the back of the tongue in a relatively lower position and is described as a ‘low, back vowel’. These labels are usually presented in the form of a chart, as shown below, which provides a means of identifying the most common vowel sounds of English.

                                        Front                  Central                  Back

High                                                                                                          u

l                                                                       u

e                                 ə                            ο

Mid                                     ε                                                 ɔ


low                                        æ                                         a

The easiest way to become familiar with the distinctions within the set of vowel sounds is to have some examples of familiars words which for a lot of American English speakers, most of the time, contain those sounds. The following list goes from the high front vowels through to the low back vowel and ends with three diphthongs;

[i] see, eat, key                            [u] put, could, foot

[l] hit, myth                                [o] no, know, though

[e] tzil, great, weight        [ɔ] raw, fall, caught

[ε] pet, said, dead                       [a] cot, father, body

[æ] sat, laugh                             [aу] my, buy, eye

[ə] the, above                             [aw] cow, loud

[ʌ] putt, blood, though     [ɔу] boy, void

[u] move, two, glue

Diphthongs.  The last three symbols in the list above contain two sounds. This ‘combined’ vowel sounds are called diphthongs. Note that is each case they begin aith a vowel sound and end with a glide. With the majority of single vowel sounds, the vocal organs remain relatively steady, but in pronouncing diphthongs, we move from one vocalic position to another. If you try to pronounce the consonants and diphthongs in the following transcription, you should recognize a traditional speech training exercise; [haw naw brawn kaw].

Study questions

  1. What are the general terms used to describe the sounds produced (a) when the vocal cords are drawn together and (b) when the vocal cords are spread apart?
  2. Try pronouncing the initial  sounds of the following words and then determine the place of articulation (e.g. bilabial, alveolar, etc.) of each:

(a)    foot                  (d) chips

(b)   tooth                (e) think

(c)    box      (f) cup

  1. Which of the following words end with voiceless sounds and which end with voiced sounds?

a)                        touch                              d) lip

b)                        pig                                  e) lathe

c)                        maze                               f) sit

  1. Produce a phonetic transcription of your own pronunciation of the following words:

(a)    bee                   (d) dope

(b)   tape                 (e) walk

(c)    fell                   (f) sigh

  1. Which written English words are usually pronounced as transcribed here?

a)        [fes] (f) [bæk]

b)      [šip]               (g) [bɔt]

c)      [ðə]               (h) [haw]

d)      [hu]               i) [ǰɔу]

e)      [eitθ] j) [šɛf]

Discussion topics/projects

  1. Below is a set of English words with different written forms representing the same sounds in a number of ways. Can you identify the alternative spellings of the sounds [i], [f] and [e]?

Elephant, rare, marines, pear, hay, feet, quay, air, suite, weigh, giraffe, pier, tough, keys, meat, Sikh

How many different ways of spelling the sounds [s], [k], [š] and [ɛ] can you discover?

  1. Using the first two examples as a guide, can you provide a description, in terms of manner of articulation, of your pronunciation of the initial consonants of the following English words?
  1. mist (NASAL)                         g. thin
  2. bat (VOICED STOP)             h. near
  3. far                                            i. tall
  4. wall                                          j. joke
  5. rope                                         k. shop
  6. zoo                                          l. gun
    1. flem              5. ksin              9. čris
    2. θrinz             6. šlop              10. blʌnk
    3. θiətər           7. kwık 11. fɛrtəm
    4. sɔng              8.  zun             12. bɔуlıŋ
  1. Consider the following set of transcribed ‘word’. Can you divide the set into those forms which are English words, those which could not possibly be English words, and those which are not English words at this time, but might possibly become English words? How do you make the decision regarding with goes in the second or third group?




            Imagine that a new word came into use as a general term to refer to anyone who worked as a technical assistant on projects. Say that the new word was somp, and that, if you asked a friend what she was doing these days, she might say oh, I’m a somp at a local radio station. you might hear variations of the term in conversatation: Are somps well paid? Oh, it’s not bad. But I can’t imagine somping for the rest of my life. The term may turn up in headlines or advertisements such as the Sompist Role in Broadcasting or Sompism as a Vacation.

The point of considering these examples is that, although you had never heard the term somp before; you probably had no difficulty understanding the meaning of the other new words, somps, somping, sompist, and sompism. That is, you can very quickly understand a new word in your language and cope with the use of different forms of that new word. This ability must derive in part from the fact that there is a lot of regularity in the word-formation processes in your languages. In this chapter, we shall explore some of those basic processes by which new term are created.

Word-formation process

In some respects, the study of the process whereby new words come into being in a language like English seems relatively straightforward. This apparent simplicity, however, masks a number of controversial issues, some of which we shall consider in the following chapter. Despite the disagreements among scholars in the area, there do seem to be some regular processes involved and, in the following sections, we shall cover the technical terms used to describe those processes and identify examples currently in use which are the result of those processes. It should be remembered that these processes have been at work in the language for some time and many words in daily use today were, at one time, considered barbaric misuses of the language. It is difficult now to understand the view expressed in the early nineteenth, or the horror expressed by a London newspaper in 1909 over the use of the newly coined word aviation. Yet many terms of recent currently cause similar outcries. Rather than heed such protests that the language is being debased, we might prefer to view the constant evolution of new terms and new uses of old terms as a reassuring sign of vitality and creativeness in the way a language is shaped by the needs of its users. Let us consider that ways.

a. Coinage

One of the least common processes of word-formation in English is coinage, that is, the invention of totally new terms. Our fanciful creation of somp would be one example. Words like aspirin and nylon, originally invented trade names, are others. Familiar recent examples are kleenex and xerox, which also began as invented trade names, and which have quickly become everyday words in the language.

b. Borrowing

One of the most common sources of the new words in English is the process simply labeled borrowing. That is, the taking over of words from other languages. Throughout its history, the English language has adopted a vast number of loan-words from other languages, including alcohol (Arabic), boss (Dutch), croissant (French), lilac (Persian), piano (Italian), pretzel (German), Robot (Czetch), tycoon (Japanese), yogurt (Turkish), and zebra (Bantu). Other language, of course, borrow terms from English, as can be observed in the Japanese use of suupaamaaketto (‘supermarket’)and rajio (‘radio’), or Hungarians talking about sport, klub and futbal, or the French discussing problems of le parking, over a glass of le whisky,  during le weekend.

A special type of borrowing is described as loan-translation, or calque. In this process, there is a direct translation of the elements of a word into the borrowing language. An interesting example is the French term un gratte-ciel, which literally translates as ‘a scrape-sky’, and is used for what, in English, is normally referred to as a  skyscraper. The English word superman is thought to be a loan-translation of the German ubermensch,  and the term loan-word itself is  believe to have come from the German  Lrhnwort. Nowdays, some Spanish speakers eat perros calientes (literally ’dogs hot’), or hot dogs.

Structuralism —————  strukturalisme  (phonological and orthographical adjustments)

c. Compounding

In some of those examples we have just considered, there is a joining of two separate words to produce a single form. Thus, Lehn and Wort are combined to produce Lehnwort in German. This combining process, technically known as compounding, is very common in languages like French and Spanish. Obvious English examples would be bookcase, fingerprint, sunburn, wallpaper, doorknob, textbook, wastebasket and waterbed.

This very productive source of new terms has been well-documented in English and German, but can also be found in totally unrelated languages, such as Hmong, in South East Asia, which combines hwj (‘pot’) and kais (‘spout’) to produce hwjkais (‘kettle’). The forms pajkws (‘flower’ + ‘corn’ = ‘popcorn’) and hnab looj tes (‘bag’ + ‘cover’ + ‘hand’ = ‘glove’)are recent creations.

d. Blending

This combining of two separate forms to produce a single new term is also present in the process called blending. However, blending is typically accomplished by taking only the beginning of one word and joining it to the end of the other word. In some parts of the United States, there’s a product which is used like gasoline, but it made from alcohol, so the ‘blended’ term for referring to this product is gasohol. If you wish to refer to the combined effects of smoke and  fog, there’s the term smog. Some other commonly used examples of blending are brunch (breakfast/lunch), motel (motor/hotel) and telecast (television/broadcast). The British have, for a number of years, considered the feasibility of constructing a tunnel under the English Channel to France, and newspapers inevitably refer to this project by using the blended expression channel. A fairly recent invention, based on the blending process, was President Reagan’s version of economic policy, that is, Reaganomics.

Information + entertainment = infotainment


e. Clipping

The element of reduction which is noticeable in blending is even more apparent in the process described as clipping. This occurs when a word oR more that one syllable is reduced to a shorter form, often in casual speech. The term gasoline is still in use, but occurs much less frequently than gas, the clipped form. Common examples are ad (‘advertisement’), fan (‘fanatic’), bus, plane, prof, lab and flu.


f. Backformation

A very specialized type of reduction process is known as backformation. Typically, a word of one type (usually a noun) is reduced to form another word of a different type (usually a verb). A good example of backformation is the process whereby the noun television first came into use and then the verb televise was created from it. Other examples of words created by this process are: edit (‘editor’), donate (from ‘donation’), opt ( from ’option’), emote (from ‘emotion’) and enthuse (‘enthusiasm’).

g. Conversion

A change in the function of a word, as, for example, when a noun comes to be used as a verb (without a reduction) is generally known as conversion. Other labels for this very common process are ‘category change’ and ‘functional shift’. A number of nouns, such as paper, butter, bottle, vacation, can, via the process of conversion, come to be used as verbs, as in the following sentences: he’s papering the bedroom walls; have you buttered the toast?; We bottled the home-brew last night; They’re vacationing in France.

This process is particularly productive in modern English, with new uses occurring frequently. The conversion can involve verbs becoming nouns, with guess, must  and spy as the sources of a guess, a must and a spy. Or adjectives, such as dirty, empty, total;, crazy and  nasty, can become the verbs to dirty, to empty, to total, or the nouns a crazy and a nasty. Other forms, such as up and down, can also become verbs, as in They up the prices or We down a few beers.

h. Acronyms

Some new words are formed from the initial letters of a set of other words. These acronyms often consist of capital letters, as in NATO, NASA or UNESCO, but can lose their capitals to become everyday terms such as laser (‘light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation’), radar (‘radio detecting and ranging’). You might even hear talk of a snafu which is reputed to have its origins in ‘situation normal. All fouled up’.

i. Derivation

In our list so far, we have not dealt with what is by far the most common word-formation process to be found in the production of new English words. This process is called derivation, and it is accomplished by means of a large number of small ‘bits’ of the English language which are not usually given separate listings in dictionaries. These small ‘bits’ are called affixes and a few examples are the elements un-, mis-, pre, -ful,-less, -ish, -ism, -ness which appears in words like unhappy, misrepresent, prejudge, joyful, careless, boyish, terrorism and sadness.


j. Prefixes and suffixes

In the preceding group of words, it should be obvious that some affixes have to be added to the beginning of a word (e.g un-). These are called prefixes. The other affix forms are added to the end of the word (e.g. -ish) and are called suffixes. All English words formed by this derivational process use either prefixes or suffixes, or both. Thus, mislead has a prefix, disrespectful has both a prefix and a suffix, and foolishness has two suffixes.


k. Infixes               

There is a third type of affix, not normally to be found in English, but fairly common in some other languages. This is called an infix and, as the term suggests, it is an affix which is incorporated inside another word. It is possible to see the general principle at work in certain expressions, occasionally used in fortuitous or aggravating circumstances by emotionally aroused English speakers: Hallebloodylujah!, Absogoddamlutely! And unfuckingbeliavable! We could view these ‘inserted’ forms as a special version of infixing. However, a much better set of examples can be provided from Kamhmu, a language spoken in South East Asia. These examples are taken from Merrifield et al. (1962):

(‘to drill’)                       see-srnee              (‘a drill’)

(‘to chisel’)                     toh – trnoh                      (‘a chisel’)

(‘to eat with a spoon’)    hiip – hrniip                   (‘a spoon’)

(‘to tie’)             hoom – hrnoom                 (‘a thing with which to tie’)

It can be seen that there is a regular pattern whereby the infix –rn- is added to verbs to form corresponding nouns. If this pattern is generally found in the language and you know that the form krnap is the Kamhmu word for ‘tong’, then you should be able to work out what the corresponding verb ’to grasp with tongs would be’. It is kap.


l. Multiple processes

Although we have concentrated on each of these word-formation processes at work in isolation, it is possible to trace the operation of more that one process at work in the creation of a particular word. For  example, the term deli seems to  have become a common American English expression via a process of first ’borrowing’ delicatessen (from German) and then ‘clipping’ that borrowed form. If you hear someone complain that problem with the project have snowballed, the final term can be noted as an example of ‘compounding’, whereby snow and ball have been combined to form the noun snowball, which has then undergo‘ conversion’ to be used as a verb. Forms which begin as ‘acronyms’ can also undergo other processes, as in the use of lase as a verb, the form WASP (‘white Anglo-Saxon Protestant’) has lost its capital letters and gained a suffix in the ‘ derivation’ process.

Many such forms can, of course, have a very brief life-span. Perhaps the generally accepted test of the ‘arrival’ of recently formed words in a language is their published appearance in a dictionary, However, even this may not occur without protests from some, as Noah Webster found when his first dictionary, published in 1806, was criticized for citing words like advocate and test as verbs, and for including such ‘vulgar’ words as advisory and presidential. It would seem that Noah had a keener sense than his critics of which new word-forms in the language were going to last.




Study Questions

  1. The term Vaseline was originally a trade name for a product, but has become ordinary English word. What is the technical term used to describe this process
  2. Identify the affixes used in the words unfaithful, readability, unacceptable, refillable, disagreement, and decide whether they prefixes or suffixes.
  3. Can you identify the word-formation processes involved in producing the italicized forms in these sentences?

(a)    Laura parties every Saturday night.

(b)   Tom was worried that he might have AIDS.

(c)    Zee described the new toy as fantabulous.

(d)   Eliza exclaimed, “Absobloominglutely!”

  1. More than one process was involved in the creation of each of the indicated forms below. Can you identify them?

(a)    I just got a new car-phone.

(b)   Shiel wants to be a footballer.

(c)    The negotiators blueprinted a new peace proposal.

(d)   Another skyjacking has just been reported.


Discussions Topics/Projects

  1. The compound word birdcage is formed from a noun bird plus another noun cage, while the word widespread is formed from an adjective wide and a verb spread. So, compounds differ in terms of the types of elements which are combined. Can you identify the different elements involved in each of the following compounds?

Bedroom, blackbird, brainwash, catfish, clean-shaven, crybaby, haircut, heartbeat, hothouse, hovercraft, leadfree, madman, ready-made, sea-stick, sunflower, sunrise, telltale, well-dressed. Well-prepared, well-known

  1. A number of interesting word-formation processes can be discerned in some of the following examples. Can you identify what is going on in these, and have you come across any comparable examples?

When I’m ill, I want to see a doc, not a vet.

I was a deejay before, but now I emcee in a nightclub.

That’s a-whole-nother problem.

The deceased’s cremains were scattered over the hill.

He’s always taking pills, either uppers or downers.


  1. Only a handful of the English words borrowed from other languages were presented in this chapter. Can you find out, by consulting a dictionary (an etymological dictionary if possible), which of the following words are borrowings and from which languages they came?

Advantage, assassin, caravan, cash, child, clinic, cobalt, cockroach, crime, have, laundry, measles, physics, pony, ranch, scatter, slogan, violent, wagon, yacht, zero.





 Infotainment, politainment


ATM anjungan tunai mandiri























            Throughout the preceding chapter, we approached the description of processes involved in word-formation as if the unit called the ‘word’ was a regular and easily identifiable form. This doesn’t seem unreasonable when we look at a text of written English, since the ‘words’ in the text are, quite obviously, those sets of things marked in black with the bigger spaces separating them. Unfortunately, there are a number of problems with using this observation as the basis of an attempt to describe language in general, and individual linguistic forms in particular.


In many languages, what appear to be single forms actually turn out to contain a large number of ‘word-like’. For example, in Swahili (spoken throughout East Africa), the form nitakupenda conveys what, in English, would have to be represented as something like I will love you. Now, is the Swahili from a single word? If it is a ‘word’, then it seems to consist of a number of elements which, in English, turn up as separate ‘word’. A very rough correspondence can be presented in the following way:

Ni   – ta       -ku      -penda

I’   ‘will’   ‘you’   ‘love’

It seems as if this Swahili ’word’ is rather different from what we think of as an English ‘word’. Yet, there clearly is some similarity between the languages, in that similar elements of the whole message can be found in both. Perhaps a better way of looking at linguistic forms in different languages would be the use this notion of ‘elements’ in the message, rather than to depend on identifying ‘word’. The type of exercise we have just performed is an example of investigating forms in language, generally known as morphology. This term, which literally means ‘the study of forms’, was originally used in biology, but, since the mid nineteenth century, has also been used to describe that type of investigation which analyzes all those basic ’element’ which are used in a language. What we have been describing as ‘elements’ in the form of a linguistic message are more technically known as morphemes.



We do not actually have to go to other languages such as Swahili to discover that   ‘word-forms’ may consist of a number of elements. We can recognize that English word-forms such as talks, talker, talked and talking must consist of one element talk , and a number of other elements such as –s, -er, -ed ,-ing. All these elements are described as morphemes. The definition of a morpheme is “a minimal unit of meaning or grammatical function. Let’s clarify this definition with some examples. We would say that the word reopened in the sentence The police reopened the investigation consists of three morphemes. One minimal unit of meaning is open, another minimal unit of meaning is re- (meaning ‘again’), and a minimal unit of grammatical function is –ed (indicating past tense). The word tourists also contains there morphemes. There is one minimal unit of meaning, tour, another minimal unit of meaning –ist (meaning ’person who does something’), and a minimal unit of grammatical function –s (indicating plural).

1. Free and bound morphemes

From these two examples, we can make a broad distinction between two types of morphemes. There are free morphemes, that is, morphemes which can stand by themselves as single words, e.g. open and tour. There are also bound morphemes, that is, those which cannot normally stand alone, but which are typically attached to another form, e.g. re-, -ist,-ed, -s. You will recognize this last set as a group of what we have already described in chapter 7 as affixes. So, all affixes in English are bound morphemes. The free morphemes can be generally considered as the set of separate English word-forms. When they are used with bound morphemes, the basic word-form involved is technically known as the stem. For example:

              Undressed                                                            carelessness

Un-                dress            -ed                              care        -less           -ness

Prefix             stem             suffix                         stem        suffix         suffix

(bound)         (free)            (bound)                      (free)       (bound)     (bound)

It should be noted that this type of description is a partial simplification of the morphological facts of English. There are a number of English words in which the element which seems to be the ‘stem’ is not, in fact, a free morpheme. In words like receive, reduce, repeat we can recognize the bound morpheme re-, but the elements –ceive, -duce and ­–peat are clearly not free morphemes. There is still some disagreement over the proper characterization of these elements and you may encounter a variety of technical terms used to describe them. It may help to work with a simple distinction between forms like ­–ceive and –duce as ‘bound stems’ and forms like dress and  care as ;free stems’.

a. Free morphemes

What we have described as free morphemes fall into two categories. The first category is that set of ordinary nouns, adjectives and verbs which we think of as the words which carry the ‘content’ of messages we convey. These free morphemes are called lexical morphemes and some examples are: boy, man, tiger, sad, long, yellow, sincere, open, look, follow, and break.

The other groups of free morphemes are called functional morphemes. Examples are: and, but, when, because, on, near, above, in, the, that, it. This set consists largely of the functional words in the language such as conjunctions, preposition articles and pronouns.

b. Bound morphemes

The set of affixes which fall into the ‘bound’ category can also be divided into two types. One type we have already considered in chapter 7 are the derivational morphemes. There are used to make new words in the language and are often used to make words of a different grammatical category from the stem. Thus, the addition of the derivational morpheme –ness changes the adjectives good to the noun goodness. A list of derivational morphemes will include suffixes such as the –ish in foolish, the –ly in badly and the –ment in payment.  It will also include prefixes such as re-, pre-, ex-, dis-, co-, un-  ­and many more.

The second set of bound morphemes contains what are called inflectional morphemes. These are not used to produce new words in the English language, but rather to indicate aspects of the grammatical function of a word. Inflectional morphemes are used to show if a words is plural or singular, if it is past tense or not, and if is a comparative or possessive form. Examples of inflectional morphemes at work can be seen in the use of –ed to make jump into the past tense form jumped, and the use of –s to make the word boy into the plural boys. Other examples are the –ing, -s, -er, -est and ­–‘s inflections in the phrases Myrna is singing, she sings, she is smaller, the smallest and Myrna’s horse. Note that, in English, all inflectional morphemes are suffixes.

2. Morphological description

Armed with all these terms for the different types of morphemes, you can now take most sentences of English apart and list the ‘elements’. As the example, the English sentence the boy’s wildness shocked the teachers contains the following elements:

The                  boy                  -‘s                 wild               -ness

(fuctional )     (lexical        (inflectional)          (lexical       (derivational)

Shock              –ed                  the                teach    -er                           -s

lexical)       inflexional)     (fuctional)          lexical       (derivational)           (inflectional)

As a useful way to remember the different categories of morphemes, the following chart can be used:





Derivational                                                               Bound


Problems in morphological description

The rather neat chart presented above conceals as a number of outstanding problems in the analysis of English morphology. So far, we have only considered examples of English words in which different morphemes are easily identifiable as separate elements. Thus, the inflectional morpheme –s is added to cat and we get the plural cats. What is the inflectional morpheme which make sheep the plural sheep, or men the plural of man? A related question concerns the inflectional which makes went the past tense of go. And yet another question concerns the derivation of an adjective like legal. If –al is the derivational suffix, as it is in forms like institutional, then what is the stem? No, it isn’t leg.

These problematic issues, and many others which arise in the analysis of different languages, have not been fully resolved by linguists. The solutions to these problems are clearer in some cases than in others. The relationship between law and legal is a reflection of the historical influence of other languages on English word-forms. The modern form law is a result of a borrowing into Old English from Old Norse, over 1,000 years ago. The modern form legal is a borrowing from the Latin form legalist (‘of the law’). Consequently, there is no derivational reflection of the historical influence of other languages on English word-forms.  Relationship between the two forms in English, nor between the noun mouth (an Old English form) and the adjective oral (a Latin borrowing). It has been pointed out that an extremely large number of English forms owe their morphological patterning to languages like Latin and Greek. Consequently, a full description of English morphology will have to take account of both historical influences and the effect of borrowed elements.

Morphs and allomorphs

The solution to other problems remains controversial/ one way to treat differences in inflectional morphemes is by proposing variation in morphological realization rules. In order to do this, we draw the analogy with some processes already noted in phonology. If we consider ‘phones’ as the actual phonetic realization of ‘phonemes’, then we can propose morphs as the actual forms used to realize morphemes. Thus, the form cat is a single morph realizing a lexical morpheme. The form cats consists of two morphs, realizing a lexical morpheme and an inflectional morpheme (‘plural’). Just as we noted that they were ‘allophones’ of a particular phoneme, then we can recognize allomorphs of a particular morpheme. Take the morpheme ‘plural’. Note that it can be attached to a number of lexical morphemes to produce structures like ‘cat+plural’, ‘sheep +plural’, and ‘man+plural’. Now, the actual forms of the morphs which result from the single morpheme ‘plural’ turn out to be different. Yet they are all allomorphs of the one morpheme. It has been suggested, for example, that one allomorph of ‘plural’ is a zero-morph, and the plural form of sheep is actually ‘sheep+ …’. Otherwise, those so-called ‘irregular’ forms of plurals and past tenses in English are described as having individual morphological realization rules. Thus, ‘man+plural’ or ‘go+past’, as analyses at the morpheme-level, are realized as men and went at the morph-level.

Study Questions

  1. List the ‘bound’ morphemes to be found in these words:
  2. What are the functional morphemes in the following sentence:

The old man sat on a chair and told them tales of woe

  1. What are the inflectional morphemes in the following phrases:

(a)    the teacher’s books

(b)   it’s snowing

(c)    the newest model

(d)   the cow jumped over the moon

  1. What would we list as allomorphs of the morpheme ‘plural’ from this set of English words: dogs, oxen, deer, judges, curricula?





We have already considered two levels of description used in the study of language. We have described linguistic expressions as sequences of sounds which can be represented phonetically. For example:

We can take the same linguistic expression and describe it as a sequence of morphemes. For example:

With these descriptions, we could characterize all the words of a language in terms of their phonetic and morphological make-up.


However, we have not yet accounted for the fact that these words can only be combined in a limited number of patterns. We recognize that the phrase the lucky boys is a well-formed piece of English, but that the following two ‘phrases’ are not at all well-formed:

*boys the lucky            *lucky boys the

So, we need a way of describing the structure of phrases and sentences which will account for all the grammatical sequences and rule out all the ungrammatical sequences. Providing such an account involves us in the study of grammar. We should note that this term is frequently used to cover a number of different phenomena.

Types of Grammar

Each adult speaker of a language clearly has some type of ‘mental grammar’., that is, a form of internal linguistic knowledge which operates in the production and recognition of appropriately structured expressions in that language. This ‘grammar’ is subconscious and is not the result of any teaching. A second, and quite different, concept of ‘grammar’ involves what might be considered ‘linguistic etiquette’, that is, the identification of the ‘proper’ or ‘best’ structures to be used in a language. A third view of ‘grammar’ involves the study and analysis of the structures found in a language, usually with the aim of establishing a description of the grammar of English, for example, as distinct from the grammar of Russian or French or any other language. There are, in fact other ways in which the term ‘grammar’ may be used. However, given these three concepts, we can say that, in general, the first may most interest to a psychologist, since it deals with what goes on in the people’s minds, the second may be of interest of a sociologist, since it has to do with people’s social attitudes and values, while the third is what occupies many linguists, since the concern is with the nature of language, often independently of the users of the language. The study of grammar, in this narrow sense of the study of the structure of expressions in a language, has a very long tradition.

We have already known that the grammar of a language

The parts of speech

You may already be familiar with many of the terms used in grammatical description, particularly the terms for the parts of speech, as illustrated in this sentence:

The      lucky                boys     saw      the       clowns             at

The      circus




In the course of the preceding chapter, we moved from a consideration of general grammatical categories and relations to specific methods of describing the structure of phrases and sentences. If we concentrate on the structure and ordering of components within a sentence, we are studying what is technically known as the syntax of a language. The word syntax came originally from Greek and literally meant ‘a setting out together’ or ‘arrangement’. In earlier approaches to the description of syntax, there was an attempt to produce an accurate analysis of the linear structure of the sentence. While this remains a major goal of syntactic description, more recent work in syntax has taken a rather different approach in accounting for the ‘arrangements’ we observe in the structure of sentences.

Generative grammar

Since the 1950s, particularly developing from the work of the American linguist Noam Chomsky, there have been attempts to produce a particular type pf grammar which would have a very explicit system of rules specifying what combinations of basic elements would result in well formed sentences. (Let us emphasize the word ‘attempts’ here, since not fully worked-out grammar of this or any other type yet exist.) This explicit system of rules, it was proposed, would have much in common with the types of rules found in mathematics. Indeed, a definitive early statement in Chomsky’s first major work betrays this essentially mathematical view of language; “I will consider a language to be a set (finite or infinite) of sentences” (Chomsky, 1957; 13).

This mathematical points of view helps to explain the meaning of the term generative, which is used to describe this type of grammar. If you have an algebraic expression like 3x + 2y, and you can give x and y the value of any whole number, then the simple algebraic expression can generate an endless set of values, by following simple rules of arithmetic. When x=5 and y=10, the results is ‘generated’ by the operation of the explicitly formalized rules, there must be a set of explicit rules which yield those sentences. Such a set of explicit rules is a generative grammar.

Some properties of the grammar

A grammar of this type must have a number of properties, which be described in the following terms. The grammar will generate all the well-formed syntactic structures (e.g sentences) of the language and structures and fail to generate any –ill formed structures. This grammar will have a finite (e.g. limited) number of rules, but will be capable of generating an infinite number of well-formed structures. In this way, the productivity of language (I. e the creation of totally novel, yet grammatical, sentences) would be captured within the grammar.

The rules of this grammar will also need the crucial property of recursiveness, that is, the capacity to be applied more than once in generating a structure. For example, whatever rule yields the component that chased the cat in the sentence this is the dog that chased the cat, will have to be applied again to get that killed the rat and any other similar structure which could continue the sentence. This is the dog that chased the cat that killed the rat……There is, in principle, no end to the recursion which would yield ever-longer versions of this sentence, and the grammar must provide for this fact (Recursive ness is not only to be found in descriptions of sentence structure. It is an essential part of the little old lady’s view of the role of turtles in cosmic structure, as quoted at the beginning of this chapter.)

This grammar should also be capable of revealing the basis of two other phenomena: first, how some superficially distinct sentences are closely related, and second, how some superficially similar sentences are in fact distinct. We need some exemplification for those points.

Deep and surface structure

Two superficially distinct sentence structures would be, for example, Charlie broke the window and The window was broken by Charlie. In traditional terminology, the first is an active sentence and the second is passive. The distinctions between them, it can be claimed, is a difference in their surface structure, that is, the syntactic form they take as actual English sentences. However, this difference on superficial from distinguish the fact that two sentences are very closely related, even where the basic components shared by the two sentences would be represented, has been called their deep structure. The deep structure is an abstract level of structural organization in which all the elements determining structural interpretation are represented. So, the grammar must be capable of how a single underlying, abstract interpretation can become different surface structure.

Symbols used in Syntactic Description



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