New words enter the English language all the time - the exact number is uncertain but there are thousands appearing every year.

The focus of this article and the accompanying lesson plan will be on how we make new words. If we know this, then we can find ways of giving our learners strategies to help them cope with language that is new to them.

  • The ability to grow
  • Borrowing
  • Affixation
  • Coinage
  • Onomatopoeia and reduplicatives
  • Acronyms
  • Clipping
  • Blending
  • Conclusion

 

The ability to grow
There are various factors behind the ability of English to grow at such a significant rate:

  • Words, however they are created, can become part of the language very easily. They only need to be used by enough speakers. This may be an unfamiliar concept for some learners, as other languages have systems which are more controlled.
  • Native speakers enjoy playing with the language and actively invent new vocabulary.
  • English is a common language in many specialised areas such as science, technology and the Internet, and as these areas grow so does the vocabulary needed to express new ideas and objects.
  • English has many points of contact with other languages. Here words can cross over.
  • There are many ways in which new words come into existence.

 

Below are some of the ways in which new words come into being.

Borrowing
Many words in English seem to have a Latin quality to them - this is because some of them have developed from French vocabulary learnt during the Norman occupancy many years ago. However, words have been borrowed from many languages, not just French - some of them are now extinct or almost never used. Learners can be asked to match words that are familiar to them with languages - and suggest what their origins might be.

Examples (from unusual languages):

  • capsize (Catalan)
  • apartheid (Afrikaans)
  • billiards (Breton)
  • saga (Icelandic)
  • funky (Congo)
  • panda (Nepali)

 

Affixation
The use of prefixes and suffixes is one of the most common ways in which new words are created, so common in fact that a speaker will be unsure if a word exists or they have just created it. A key skill for learners developing their vocabulary is knowing how prefixes and suffixes change meaning and form.

Example (with the root use):

  • misuse
  • disuse
  • unused
  • unusable
  • useless
  • useful
  • abuse etc.

 

Coinage
This is the creation of entirely new words - quite unusual given the competition from all the other, perhaps easier ways of creating words. These can be based on similar sounding words - 'Hobbit' was based on rabbit - or change from a brand or product to common usage - Kleenex and Hoover. They can also of course have no roots in anything, such as the scientific terms 'googol' and 'quark', or slang terms such as to 'chug' a drink.

Onomatopoeia and reduplicatives
Words can be invented to describe sounds and the things that make sounds, such as 'cuckoo', 'splash', 'plop' and 'whoop'. They can also be invented by duplicating a sound, e.g. 'honky-tonk', 'wishy-washy', 'mish-mash' and 'ping-pong'. More recent new words of this kind include 'analysisparalysis' and 'chick-flick'.

These words can be fun to learn and motivating, as sound often guides learners to meaning.

Acronyms
Phrases that are reduced to acronyms often enough become words in their own right and the original phrase is often forgotten. Some are still written as acronyms such as AIDS and VDU, but others are not, radar, yuppy and scuba, for example. Some acronyms become familiar very quickly, such as SARS and WMDs.

Clipping
This is the shortening of a longer word, often reducing it to one syllable. Examination becomes exam, laboratory lab. Many examples are very informal or slang, like 'bro' from brother, 'dis' from disrespect and 'maxing' , from maximising.

Blending
This is another interesting area to explore with learners. Blends are words created by combining elements from two words - normally beginning and end - and so combining their meaning to create a new one.

Examples:

  • electrocute (electrify and execute)
  • smog (smoke and fog)
  • transistor (transfer and resistor)
  • brunch (breakfast and lunch)

 

There are also newer words such as 'televangelist', 'rockumentary' and 'dancercise' which are more or less clear from the structure. Others are not so clear, for example 'Cubonics' (the combining of Cuban Spanish and English) and 'acrobranching' (a new sport involving acrobatics in trees).

Conclusion
Exploring this area of new words can be a useful way of equipping our students to deal, not only with the way English evolves and the new words they are likely to encounter but can also help them to understand the way the words they already know have evolved and developed. An understanding of this area can be a key skill in helping them to become more independent in their language learning and develop a greater enjoyment and engagement with the language.

Paul Kaye, British Council, Syria

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