In linguistics, a word is the smallest element that can be uttered in
isolation with objective or practical meaning.
This contrasts deeply with a morpheme, which is the smallest unit of
meaning but will not necessarily stand on its own. A word may consist
of a single morpheme (for example: oh!, rock, red, quick, run,
expect), or several (rocks, redness, quickly, running, unexpected),
whereas a morpheme may not be able to stand on its own as a word (in
the words just mentioned, these are -s, -ness, -ly, -ing, un-, -ed). A
complex word will typically include a root and one or more affixes
(rock-s, red-ness, quick-ly, run-ning, un-expect-ed), or more than one
root in a compound (black-board, sand-box). Words can be put together
to build larger elements of language, such as phrases (a red rock, put
up with), clauses (I threw a rock), and sentences (He threw a rock
too, but he missed).
The term word may refer to a spoken word or to a written word, or
sometimes to the abstract concept behind either.
Spoken words are made
up of units of sound called phonemes, and written words of symbols
called graphemes, such as the letters of the English alphabet.
5 See also
8 External links
Lexeme and Lemma (morphology)
The difficulty of deciphering a word depends on the language.
Dictionaries categorize a language's lexicon (i.e., its vocabulary)
into lemmas. These can be taken as an indication of what constitutes a
"word" in the opinion of the writers of that language. The most
appropriate means of measuring the length of a word is by counting its
syllables or morphemes. When a word has multiple definitions or
multiple senses, it may result in confusion in a debate or
Leonard Bloomfield introduced the concept of "Minimal Free Forms" in
1926. Words are thought of as the smallest meaningful unit of speech
that can stand by themselves. This correlates phonemes (units of
sound) to lexemes (units of meaning). However, some written words are
not minimal free forms as they make no sense by themselves (for
example, the and of).
Some semanticists have put forward a theory of so-called semantic
primitives or semantic primes, indefinable words representing
fundamental concepts that are intuitively meaningful. According to
this theory, semantic primes serve as the basis for describing the
meaning, without circularity, of other words and their associated
In the Minimalist school of theoretical syntax, words (also called
lexical items in the literature) are construed as "bundles" of
linguistic features that are united into a structure with form and
meaning. For example, the word "koalas" has semantic features (it
denotes real-world objects, koalas), category features (it is a noun),
number features (it is plural and must agree with verbs, pronouns, and
demonstratives in its domain), phonological features (it is pronounced
a certain way), etc.
The task of defining what constitutes a "word" involves determining
where one word ends and another word begins—in other words,
identifying word boundaries. There are several ways to determine where
the word boundaries of spoken language should be placed:
Potential pause: A speaker is told to repeat a given sentence slowly,
allowing for pauses. The speaker will tend to insert pauses at the
word boundaries. However, this method is not foolproof: the speaker
could easily break up polysyllabic words, or fail to separate two or
more closely linked words (e.g. "to a" in "He went to a house").
Indivisibility: A speaker is told to say a sentence out loud, and then
is told to say the sentence again with extra words added to it. Thus,
I have lived in this village for ten years might become My family and
I have lived in this little village for about ten or so years. These
extra words will tend to be added in the word boundaries of the
original sentence. However, some languages have infixes, which are put
inside a word. Similarly, some have separable affixes; in the German
sentence "Ich komme gut zu Hause an", the verb ankommen is separated.
Phonetic boundaries: Some languages have particular rules of
pronunciation that make it easy to spot where a word boundary should
be. For example, in a language that regularly stresses the last
syllable of a word, a word boundary is likely to fall after each
stressed syllable. Another example can be seen in a language that has
vowel harmony (like Turkish): the vowels within a given word share
the same quality, so a word boundary is likely to occur whenever the
vowel quality changes. Nevertheless, not all languages have such
convenient phonetic rules, and even those that do present the
Orthographic boundaries: See below.
In languages with a literary tradition, there is interrelation between
orthography and the question of what is considered a single word. Word
separators (typically spaces) are common in modern orthography of
languages using alphabetic scripts, but these are (excepting isolated
precedents) a relatively modern development (see also history of
In English orthography, compound expressions may contain spaces. For
example, ice cream, air raid shelter and get up each are generally
considered to consist of more than one word (as each of the components
are free forms, with the possible exception of get).
Not all languages delimit words expressly.
Mandarin Chinese is a very
analytic language (with few inflectional affixes), making it
unnecessary to delimit words orthographically. However, there are many
multiple-morpheme compounds in Mandarin, as well as a variety of bound
morphemes that make it difficult to clearly determine what constitutes
Sometimes, languages which are extremely close grammatically will
consider the same order of words in different ways. For example,
reflexive verbs in the French infinitive are separate from their
respective particle, e.g. se laver ("to wash oneself"), whereas in
Portuguese they are hyphenated, e.g. lavar-se, and in Spanish they are
joined, e.g. lavarse.
Japanese uses orthographic cues to delimit words such as switching
between kanji (Chinese characters) and the two kana syllabaries. This
is a fairly soft rule, because content words can also be written in
hiragana for effect (though if done extensively spaces are typically
added to maintain legibility).
Vietnamese orthography, although using the Latin alphabet, delimits
monosyllabic morphemes rather than words.
In character encoding, word segmentation depends on which characters
are defined as word dividers.
Main article: Morphology (linguistics)
Further information: Inflection
Letters and words
Morphology is the study of word formation and structure. In synthetic
languages, a single word stem (for example, love) may have a number of
different forms (for example, loves, loving, and loved). However, for
some purposes these are not usually considered to be different words,
but rather different forms of the same word. In these languages, words
may be considered to be constructed from a number of morphemes.
Indo-European languages in particular, the morphemes distinguished
A inflectional suffix.
Thus, the Proto-Indo-European *wr̥dhom would be analyzed as
*wr̥-, the zero grade of the root *wer-.
A root-extension *-dh- (diachronically a suffix), resulting in a
complex root *wr̥dh-.
The thematic suffix *-o-.
The neuter gender nominative or accusative singular suffix *-m.
See also: homonym
Philosophers have found words objects of fascination since at least
the 5th century BC, with the foundation of the philosophy of language.
Plato analyzed words in terms of their origins and the sounds making
them up, concluding that there was some connection between sound and
meaning, though words change a great deal over time.
John Locke wrote
that the use of words "is to be sensible marks of ideas", though they
are chosen "not by any natural connexion that there is between
particular articulate sounds and certain ideas, for then there would
be but one language amongst all men; but by a voluntary imposition,
whereby such a word is made arbitrarily the mark of such an idea".
Wittgenstein's thought transitioned from a word as representation of
meaning to "the meaning of a word is its use in the language."
Archaeology shows that even for centuries prior to this fascination by
philosophers in the 5th century BC, many languages had various ways of
expressing this verbal unit, which in turn diversified and evolved
into a range of expressions with wide philosophical
significance. Ancient manuscripts of the Gospel of
John reveal in its 5th chapter the Rabonni Y'shua chastising the
pharisees expecting to find life in writings instead of himself. This
perhaps could have led to John's introduction in chapter of a
description in the Greek translation as "the logos".[clarification
needed] A famous early scientist, scholar and priest, Thomas Aquinas,
Cartesian philosophy and mathematics by interpreting such
passages consistently with his philosophy of logic.
Main article: Lexical category
Grammar classifies a language's lexicon into several groups of words.
The basic bipartite division possible for virtually every natural
language is that of nouns vs. verbs.
The classification into such classes is in the tradition of Dionysius
Thrax, who distinguished eight categories: noun, verb, adjective,
pronoun, preposition, adverb, conjunction and interjection.
In Indian grammatical tradition,
Pāṇini introduced a similar
fundamental classification into a nominal (nāma, suP) and a verbal
(ākhyāta, tiN) class, based on the set of suffixes taken by the
word. Some words can be controversial such as slang in formal
contexts, misnomers due to them not meaning what they would imply or
polysemous words due to the potential confusion of its multiple
^ Taylor, John (2015). The Oxford Handbook of the Word.
^ Chodorow, Martin S., Roy J. Byrd, and George E. Heidorn. "Extracting
semantic hierarchies from a large on-line dictionary." Proceedings of
the 23rd annual meeting on Association for Computational Linguistics.
Association for Computational Linguistics, 1985.
^ Katamba 11
^ Fleming 77
^ Wierzbicka 1996; Goddard 2002
^ Adger (2003), pp. 36–7.
^ Bauer 9
^ Note that the convention also depends on the tense or mood—the
examples given here are in the infinitive, whereas French imperatives,
for example, are hyphenated, e.g. lavez-vous, whereas the Spanish
present tense is completely separate, e.g. me lavo.
^ "Locke ECHU BOOK III Chapter II Of the Signification of Words".
Rbjones.com. Retrieved 13 March 2012.
Wittgenstein (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)".
Plato.stanford.edu. Retrieved 13 March 2012.
^ De Soto, Clinton B., Margaret M. Hamilton, and Ralph B. Taylor.
"Words, people, and implicit personality theory." Social Cognition 3.4
Adger, David (2003). Core Syntax: A Minimalist Approach. Oxford:
Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-924370-0.
Barton, David (1994). Literacy: An Introduction to the Ecology of
Written Language. Blackwell Publishing. p. 96.
Bauer, Laurie (1983). English Word-formation. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press. ISBN 0-521-28492-9.
Brown, Keith R. (Ed.) (2005) Encyclopedia of
Language and Linguistics
(2nd ed.). Elsevier. 14 vols.
Crystal, David (1995). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English
Language (1 ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fleming, Michael; et al. (2001). Meeting the Standards in Secondary
English: A Guide to the ITT NC. Routledge. p. 77.
Goddard, Cliff (2002). "The search for the shared semantic core of all
languages". In Cliff Goddard and Anna Wierzbicka. Meaning and
Universal Grammar: Theory and Empirical Findings (PDF). Volume I.
Amsterdam: John Benjamins. pp. 5–40.
Katamba, Francis (2005). English Words: Structure, History, Usage.
Routledge. ISBN 0-415-29893-8.
Plag, Ingo (2003). Word-formation in English. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press. ISBN 0-521-52563-2.
Simpson, J.A. and E.S.C. Weiner, ed. (1989). Oxford English Dictionary
(2 ed.). Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-861186-2.
Wierzbicka, Anna (1996). Semantics: Primes and Universals. Oxford
University Press. ISBN 0-19-870002-4.
Look up word in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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