what makes a word a word - and who decides

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what makes a word a word - and who decides

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Mon Mar 25, 2013 10:21 am

I've trawled the archives a long way back and not found anything really relevant (before I gave up). I'm posting here because 'what constitutes a word' surely underpins almost all analyses of English.

On another website, 'stellographer' posts:

I'm wondering what the minimal requirement for a word to be an actual word is. My opinion is that a 'word' [string] is a word if it can be understood and defined by everyone who hears it in conversation.

Obviously, we're down to about 3 strings acceptable as words by this definition. Improvements would include restricting the 'everyone' to:

(1) English-speakers (however they are defined)

(2) the age range - what? ('By 14 months, the number of words understood jumps to 50 - 100') ( http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/langdev.html )

(3) people just like me (or the man on the Wigan omnibus) (Are Words Understood differently in different cultural Contexts? - antiessays.com/free-essays/383417.html )

(3b) people educated to - what level in which disciplines?

(4) people having a standard passive vocabulary

(5) people who don't have Alzheimer's, nominal aphasia, ...

But stellographer gets at the central issue in that a word is a unit of communication. It is not fundamentally merely a unit of utterance or daubing.

This is backed up by the order of senses given at the AHDEL:

word ... n.
1. A sound or a combination of sounds, or its representation in writing or printing, that symbolizes and communicates a meaning and may consist of a single morpheme or of a combination of morphemes.
2. Something said; an utterance, remark, or comment: May I say a word about that?

3. ...

The ordering at Collins is similar.

The question now is - who decides when a new string reaches the pass-mark for attaining word status? The OED? The Urban Dictionary? The man on the Disley omnibus?

Should strings like quantic, nudiustertian, vom, interphrastically, wumper, 1010-acid, irregardless, authoritativest, vonk, dfhnxd be 'allowed' to be (1) used as words willy-nilly, (2) used as words with an accompanying glossary, (3) called words? And who decides where to draw the line? The OED isn't perfect, but has anyone any better ideas? (According to Wikipedia, "vonk" is a pseudoword in English, while "dfhnxd" is not.) The existence of 'pseudowords' is fascinating (but presupposes that we have an arbiter for these too).


I find the following challenging:

'As I watched a kid who looked tired from studying the dictionary for 14,793 straight hours attempt to spell “palatschinken”, I wondered, who in the world knows what that word means, let alone who uses it? That got me thinking how many “words” there are that really no one would know exist and no one uses. If use of a word - and common understanding of a word – qualifies a word as a word, then shouldn’t lack of use of a word and lack of common understanding of a word somehow disqualify a word as a word?' ( larrycheng.com/2009/05/29/what-makes-a-word-a-word )

Has anyone an entrenched opinion?
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Re: what makes a word a word - and who decides

Post by Erik_Kowal » Mon Mar 25, 2013 12:23 pm

Maybe the average person should try to avoid applying the rigid dualistic categorization of 'word versus non-word', and recognise that any given lexical item exists along a continuum of perceived 'wordishness', or the qualities of being a word (to give an obsolete term a new meaning).

For any given word, two individuals may quite reasonably disagree to varying degrees about how wordish it is, depending on their familiarity with the term, its frequency/acceptability in the linguistic world they inhabit, its frequency in the overall corpus of English (or whichever language is being considered), the extent to which it is a highly specialised jargon term, how slangy they feel it is, etc.

Partly for the reasons that Edwin cited above, there will necessarily always be a certain degree of subjectivity regarding how wordish any individual lexical item is.

For the average person, is there really much more point to debating how much legitimacy a given term should be awarded in terms of its status as a word than there is in attempting to quantify the degree to which a length of wood is a twig, stick or branch? The context generally makes this kind of exercise in precise classification unnecessary, except perhaps for linguisticians and other people with specialized professional needs that are dictated by the specifics of their particular research project.
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Re: what makes a word a word - and who decides

Post by Wizard of Oz » Thu Mar 28, 2013 6:17 am

.. oh dear Ed another deep and meaningful .. I only have two points to make >>>

..pseudowords are used in literacy testing and research to determine if a person has internalised the general sense of phonemic awareness .. so a pseudoword must follow the natural word rules of english with respect to orthography and phonology .. it must look like a real word .. one that a competent reader of english would be able to pronounce by applying internalised "rules" .. so from your examples "vonk" could be an english word and it could be decoded by following general principals of phonemic rules .. on the other hand dfhnxd" immediately is recognised as not being an english word as it contains letter strings that are not found in english words and upon closer scrutiny cannot be decoded ..

.. my second thought is to Erik and at once we give Ed an example .. I have never seen or used the word linguisticians .. I would always use the word linguists in this situation .. I recognise and can pronounce Erik's word and he may be able to show it to me in a dictionary .. hang on waiting waiting waiting ........ yes it is in the dictionary and the definition is see linguist .. but to me it is a non-word .. it is a pseudoword until I take the time to look in a dictionary .. along similar lines to me telling you that my mate is a woodtician or the way people play by adding /ologist/ or /ism/ to the end of random words .. do these become real words ?? .. the average english speaker can generally decipher what is meant .. is a misspelled word, that can be recognised and spoken phonetically, a word ?? .. is peeple a word ?? .. my reason for pursuing this line has to do with meaning .. often different groups of letters can be pronounced the same way and have the same meaning but are they two/three/four different words ?? eg people/peeple/peaple/pple .. who knows..

WoZ (is this a word???)
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Re: what makes a word a word - and who decides

Post by Erik_Kowal » Thu Mar 28, 2013 9:51 am

Your points actually demonstrate the scenario I describe, WoZ.

Some words that have made it into mainstream dictionaries are nevertheless not words to you -- or at least, not until you have verified that, like linguistician, they actually have demonstrable currency.

Likewise, if you and your grandchildren coin a new word -- let's assume for my purpose that it's graggletoot -- to refer to one of your country's numerous species of venomous spider, then in your family circle it can perfectly legitimately be described as a word, even if only three people ever refer to these spiders as graggletoots. Other people, on the other hand, may regard 'graggletoot' as being a pseudoword at best, or no word at all.

Some coinages have a very short life, having been invented specifically for use on a single occasion and/or for humorous purposes, such as you describing your mate as a woodtician, or someone referring to the artificially lit battlements of a medieval castle as a lampart. But these are still words (at least briefly), insofar as they signify something meaningful to the people who use or hear/read them, even if they are only uttered once and never written or spoken again.

On the other hand, in most situations Ddfhnxd is problematic. As you noted, it contains letter sequences that do not occur in normal English, is essentially unpronounceable, and has no referent.

One of the complicating factors in deciding whether a particular combination of letters is actually a word is that in everyday usage, we tend to use the same word -- 'word' -- to mean at least two different things:

- Firstly, a particular letter/sound combination (for convenience, I'll call this LSC from now on) that is tied to a particular meaning or meanings; I'll designate this type of LSC as a WORD1;

- Secondly, 'word' is commonly used to designate a particular combination of sounds and/or letters as a word because it can be found in a dictionary, in newspaper columns, in a technical manual, or in some other reference source. By definition, it is current among a significant portion of the speakers of the language to which that LSC belongs; let's call this a WORD2.

These categories may or may not overlap for any given permutation of person and LSC. In principle, all WORD2's are also WORD1's -- though any individual's recognition and acknowledgement of a given WORD2 as also being a WORD1 will depend on whether their linguistic exposure has primed them to recognise it.

So in practice, the degree of 'wordishness' of a given LSC is always ultimately going to be arbitrary, in the sense that everyone's experiences, extent of exposure to the language with which the LSC is associated, and the type of activity involving the LSC, etc., varies.

In this classification system, proper nouns, such as the names of specific individuals, places and geographical locations, and generic names (e.g. John and Mary), comprise a special set of LSC categories that are all WORD1's, but only some of which are also WORD2's.

In a spelling competition or in Scrabble, the wordishness quotient will depend purely on whether the LSC qualifies as a WORD2.

In your hypothetical family situation, 'graggletoot' will qualify as a WORD1 but not as a WORD2.

A regular newspaper article that contains no specialist jargon will only include LSCs that (except for some proper nouns) belong to both the WORD1 and WORD2 categories.

A spell-check program's sole focus is on whether the LSC is a WORD2, so that it can either accept it or reject it -- but it's interesting to note that though such a program only accepts WORD2's because they are also WORD1's, the actual meaning of these LSCs is irrelevant to the program. (The same is true of Scrabble.)

Except when it is in spell-check mode, the most common operations that a word-processing program performs on LSCs depend solely on their property as 'black space surrounded by white space' -- we can call this type of LSC a WORD3, despite the fact that a WORD3 may consist purely of numbers or punctuation marks. In this context, we must extend the concept of 'word' to entities that we never regard as words in any other situation, with even Ddfhnxd now counting as one.

Well, WoZ, I hope I have now complicated this issue for you sufficiently.

Working to the principle that "one should always leave 'em wanting more", this seems like a good moment to stop. :-)
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Re: what makes a word a word - and who decides

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Thu Mar 28, 2013 5:52 pm

Then there's the one about the bush ranger who was bitten by a graggletoot and sadly died while the medical authorities were trying to find the correct name.
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Re: what makes a word a word - and who decides

Post by Erik_Kowal » Fri Mar 29, 2013 7:45 am

If only they'd made up their own name for the spider, they would immediately have solved the problem.
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Re: what makes a word a word - and who decides

Post by hsargent » Fri Mar 29, 2013 3:02 pm

So a word has to contain a vowel which I am surprised WoZ did not include in his group of letters requirement.

This thread could also be expanded to adding definitions to a word. With the number of communications networks, these situations are common.

Example: Tweet was the sound of a bird (I can't spell anamatapia). Now it is also and most likely a message of less 140 words in the Twitter Network.
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Re: what makes a word a word - and who decides

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Fri Mar 29, 2013 5:36 pm

Sorry, Harry, I don't see what your 'so' is referring back to.

Various authorities (as Scrabble devotees will be well aware) allow verbless words. Sh is one allowed by the OSD and called a word by M-W (at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sgt%20maj ) :

Next Word in the Dictionary: sh (interjection)

Other ones are brrr and ch. I'd argue that w is a vowel in the English word cwm (we pinched it from some neighbours, of course). Rhythm is an accepted word with an outrageous morphology (usually claimed to be a disyllable but with one vowel).
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Re: what makes a word a word - and who decides

Post by hsargent » Fri Mar 29, 2013 6:24 pm

We always said the vowels were a e i o u and sometimes y.

I looked up cwm.
chiefly British
: cirque 3

Does that mean it is an abbreviation?

It would not be allowed in Scrabble. I don't think Brrr and the like would work either.
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Re: what makes a word a word - and who decides

Post by tony h » Fri Mar 29, 2013 7:55 pm

I don;t recognise the need for a wide understanding for a word to be a word.
The first time I saw written Greek it was clear to me that the words were words even though I neither knew their meaning or sound. And listening to Xhosa for the first time again it was clearly a language and I could recognise elements that were words http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31zzMb3U0iY. Then when with Klingon or Elvish there was no need for a second person to have to understand before a word was in fact a word.
Maybe a word can be defined more as: a single element of communication bounded by natural breaks.
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I'm puzzled therefore I think.

Re: what makes a word a word - and who decides

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Fri Mar 29, 2013 10:02 pm

(1) Cwm is obviously of Welsh origin, but is certainly accepted as an English word. W is a vowel in Welsh, and as the word has been borrowed (ie snaffled) wholesale (that's what loanwords are - snaffled from a different language), it only makes sense to say w is a rare English vowel.

(2) Shouldn't English teachers have some guidance as to how to mark essays, or may pupils just write down any series of symbols they like the look of? We're looking at whether it is reasonable to label some or all of the following (and many other strings) as elements of communication (not just elements of self-expression): quantic, nudiustertian, vom, interphrastically, wumper, 1010-acid, irregardless, authoritativest, vonk, graggletoot, dfhnxd. Teachers have even been known to mark down slang words, so what about pseudowords and non-words? Who decides the boundaries between these classes?
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Re: what makes a word a word - and who decides

Post by hsargent » Fri Mar 29, 2013 11:15 pm

What does cwm mean. The online dictionary did not help.

Is psuedoword a psuedoword? Is this a joke I am not getting?

A note... with modern software, a word is a string of letters where there is no squiggly line under the string of letter!
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Re: what makes a word a word - and who decides

Post by Wizard of Oz » Sat Mar 30, 2013 4:11 am

hsargent wrote:Is psuedoword a psuedoword? Is this a joke I am not getting?

A note... with modern software, a word is a string of letters where there is no squiggly line under the string of letter!
.. no it is not a joke you are missing .. psuedowords are part of my life ..

.. harry your observation is brilliant ..

.. tony I accept your point but just for now can we maybe concentrate on english words where we are able to draw on a common experience .. I would suggest that anything we decide in relation to an english word would hold for other related languages ..

.. Ed my take on your list of words is .. oh I shall use the abbreviation "for me a word common to" >> fmawct ..

quantic: obviously a word as it passes "Harry's test" .. no wiggly line .. fmawct physicists and mathematicians ..
nudiustertian: a rare species of nasturtium .. fmawct botanists and Pliny the Elder
vom: the noise made by a dragster racing car that stalls on the line .. taken as the shortened version of vooooooooom .. fmawct revheads ..
interphrastically: a phrase within a phrase, eg ".... in the middle, as one might guess, of the target ....." fmawct linguists ..
wumper (v wump): there is also the wumpee .. the verb to wump means to suddenly appear and strike somebody without notice .. taken from the sudden explosive noise made when a highly flammable object is thrown into a fire .. fmawct ????
1010-acid: obviously a word as it passes "Harry's test" .. no wiggly line .. fmawct chemists and terrorists ..
irregardless: obviously a word as it passes "Harry's test" .. no wiggly line .. fmawct normal english usage ..
authoritativest: a person who builds their life around authority .. fmawct the extreme right and the extreme left ..
vonk: one of the comic sounds made in cartoons like Batman .. fmawct comic writers and cartoon writers
graggletoot: a type of Australian spider commonly found by children at the bottom of the garden .. fmawct fantasy writers
dfhnxd: still not a word

.. I took the time to look and the Ed words that appear above in italics do actually appear in a dictionary .. to the chagrin of Ken the Urban Dictionary did feature .. but that is something that must be taken account of when attempting to define a word ..

I like tony's idea >> a single element of communication bounded by natural breaks .. as it gets away from the idea of "meaning" .. but for a wordy definition Webster said it all in 1913 >> The spoken sign of a conception or an idea; an articulate or vocal sound, or a combination of articulate and vocal sounds, uttered by the human voice, and by custom expressing an idea or ideas; a single component part of human speech or language; a constituent part of a sentence; a term; a vocable. .. a vocable ?? .. I'm having trouble right there ..

.. Erik I agree with your points and that is why I take as my signature those immortal words of Alice ..

WoZ takin the word to the streets/lane/avenue/boulevard/road/circuit/esplanade/way
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Re: what makes a word a word - and who decides

Post by Erik_Kowal » Sat Mar 30, 2013 5:00 am

hsargent wrote:What does cwm mean. The online dictionary did not help.
if you use the dictionary link in my signature below, you'll find plenty of information about this word of Welsh origin.

It also exists in Standard English with more or less the same meaning as the Welsh word, spelled variously as combe, comb and coombe.
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Re: what makes a word a word - and who decides

Post by hsargent » Sat Mar 30, 2013 9:49 pm

I used the link. I will try to use it in a sentence with my British friend.
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