Well, all three are currently in use in the English language. Though you might not find them in the Oxford English Dictionary, these—and similarly formed words—are part of the ever-changing language landscape. From the point of view of a linguist, yes, these are most certainly words.
UNH linguist Rochelle Lieber has embarked upon an ambitious three-year book project to take a snapshot of English language morphology today—how words are formed and used. With a grant from the Royal Society of New Zealand (akin to the National Science Foundation in the U.S.), Lieber and two other international linguists will sift through 500 million words in databases that capture English words from current books, magazines, television, and radio—English as it is really used, from the prose of a Rolling Stone interview with Eminem to that of a book by zoologist Richard Dawkins.
Though the project is in its early stages, Lieber has been surprised at what she’s discovered thus far.
“I’ve been working on English word formation for 30 years,” says Lieber. “What I’ve found is that the conventional wisdom on word formation is often wrong. So I’m surprised at how much I’m learning. I started out thinking I know a lot of this. Turns out I don’t. Turns out nobody does.”
For example, Lieber has found that the suffix “-ness,” which is typically appended to adjectives to create nouns, is now often attached to nouns, compound nouns, and full sentences, thus producing “tableness,” “baseballness,” and “to-be-looked-at-ness.” Some suffixes, widely thought by linguists to have fallen from use, like “-dom” and “-hood,” are actually attached quite regularly to nouns to produce such words as “bananadom” and “mountainhood.”
The key to these surprises are the vast databases, or corpora, which were created only within the last 10 years, providing a breadth of information never before available. The last book to undertake a broad catalog of English word usage was written in 1969. Thus, Lieber notes, to pursue this project was a “no-brainer,” since it will create not only a sorely needed update but also the first comprehensive snapshot of English morphology, a weighty resource for other linguists.
As Lieber points out, linguists are nonjudgmental; there will be no attempts in her research to either codify or bemoan current language usage. Instead, the work will likely reinforce the notion that language is extremely fluid, always being broken down or combined in new ways to serve the communication needs of the people who use it.
While the layperson contemplates whether to refer to two computer pointing devices as mouses or mice, Lieber and her colleagues will be studying the outcome of such decisions and the trends those choices represent. Of the work, Lieber says: “I find myself discovering things that I find fascinating. There is a lot of tedium in this as you might imagine, but there’s also a lot of fun.”
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