What is a word?

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What is a word?

Postby trebor » Wed Jun 16, 2010 12:43 pm UTC

I just recently had the misfortune of talking to someone who among other things said "if it's not in the dictionary it's not a word" while debating over whether 'oops' is a word or not (This originally started as I mistyped oops as opps). They said yes, as it is in the dictionary. I said no, as as far I know it is an interjunction which I don't classify as a word, a morpheme it could be, but not a word. (Correct me if i am wrong here, please)

I got thinking and I couldn't clearly define a word, oops may infact be a word as it conveys a meaning "I made a mistake" but I'm not so sure for some reason. "The" has no real meaning but acts in a sentence with other lexemes to convey meaning, however my mind says that "the" is a word, I can't explain it except for a gut feeling.

Anyone able to clarify my thoughts for me?
Anyone able to offer a definition for what distinguishes a "word" from a morpheme?

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Re: What is a word?

Postby Bobber » Wed Jun 16, 2010 3:00 pm UTC

An approximate sound or series of sounds which has an approximate definable meaning among any number of individuals able to interpret those sound(s).

Is that good enough?
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Re: What is a word?

Postby gmalivuk » Wed Jun 16, 2010 3:01 pm UTC

Interjections are words, as are lots of things that aren't in the dictionary. So both of your definitions kind of suck, actually.
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Re: What is a word?

Postby goofy » Wed Jun 16, 2010 5:49 pm UTC

It's hard to define what a word is. Many linguists don't bother with words, but deal with morphemes instead. Here's one definition:
A word is a string of sounds upon which clusters of phonological rules operate and at the end of which they stop operating, which string contains one or more morphemes but can be less than a full sentence.

That is, a word is a level of a language at which phonological rules in the language apply that is, in principle, greater in length than one morpheme but shorter in length than an entire sentence.

Corrollary: if there is no such identifiable level in a given language of application of phonological rules, that language does not have words.

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Re: What is a word?

Postby Cecily » Wed Jun 16, 2010 6:43 pm UTC

An interjection or exlamation can still be a word and "oops" certainly meets your criterion of "conveys a meaning".

How about this definition:

word
Traditionally the smallest of the units that make up a sentence, and marked as such in writing. In practice, words are established by various criteria. They are generally the smallest units that can form an utterance on their own: in Bloomfield's terminology, they are minimal free forms. There are often restrictions on their phonetic make-up: e.g. words in English cannot begin with [ŋ] (-ng-) or [ʒ]. The position of a stress or other accent is often fixed (1): i.e. it is determined by the boundaries of words or their syllabic structure. Elements within them show greater cohesion (2) than larger units: thus stems and affixes cannot be separated except by other affixes. Nor does the order of their elements tend to vary. These criteria sometimes conflict, but no other unit shows such near agreement in such different respects.

Distinctions are often drawn:1. Between a phonological word or word as seen from the viewpoint of phonology, and a grammatical word (2), established by grammatical criteria only; 2. Between lexemes as words distinguished in the lexicon (e.g. the verb ‘to sing’) and the individual word forms that they subsume (past tense sang, present participle singing, etc.).

How to cite this entry:
"word" The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics. P. H. Matthews. Oxford University Press, 2007. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.
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Re: What is a word?

Postby Makri » Wed Jun 16, 2010 7:44 pm UTC

Traditionally the smallest of the units that make up a sentence


That makes no sense, as words are not atomic. That could just as well be morphemes or phonemes.

and marked as such in writing


Writing is notoriously unreliable in that respect. Cf. English compouns...

There are often restrictions on their phonetic make-up: e.g. words in English cannot begin with [ŋ] (-ng-) or [ʒ].


However, that need not be a constraint on words, but it could refer to phonological domains.

Elements within them show greater cohesion (2) than larger units: thus stems and affixes cannot be separated except by other affixes.


I'm not sure if that's at all meaningful...

They are generally the smallest units that can form an utterance on their own: in Bloomfield's terminology, they are minimal free forms.


The minimally free form thing is kind of standard, and it seems to be the best we have, although it leeds to problem with unstressable "words"...
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Re: What is a word?

Postby RabbitWho » Thu Jun 17, 2010 2:54 pm UTC

goofy wrote: Many linguists don't bother with words


That's fluffy.

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Re: What is a word?

Postby njperrone » Sat Jun 19, 2010 9:15 pm UTC

This kinda goes along with the original idea: irregardless is indeed a word.

I claim so because it has found usage in a dialect of the English Language. Now, it may not be formal English, but I think that is the purpose of a dictionary is to set the basis for what is in the formal language and what is not. I would no use irregardless in an essay or paper of any kind unless the emphasis required warranted the usage.

Hence, by my standards, irregardless is indeed a word.

Sorry for the quasi-hijack. But I found it suiting to say.

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Re: What is a word?

Postby Makri » Sat Jun 19, 2010 10:00 pm UTC

What you're really concerned with "irregardless" being a lexeme, which is quite a different thing from its being a word.
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Re: What is a word?

Postby njperrone » Mon Jun 21, 2010 5:40 am UTC

Makri wrote:What you're really concerned with "irregardless" being a lexeme, which is quite a different thing from its being a word.


My bad then.

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Re: What is a word?

Postby the-munich-man » Tue Jun 22, 2010 12:33 pm UTC

My personal opinion is, If you can write down a string of sounds successfully in letters or symbols, whatever your language may deal with, to have it spoken and understood by other native speakers of that language, that then becomes a word. for example, is Aaaah a word? if not, how do you phonetically spell a scream? or sox? if that isn't a word that spells socks, what it is? Language evolves that way, i.e. British English: Plough. American English: Plow. which makes more sense as a word? the one that's easier to write, or the one that's more traditional?

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Re: What is a word?

Postby Makri » Tue Jun 22, 2010 2:32 pm UTC

Graphemens have absolutely nothing to do with word status, and exclamations and interjections are a (difficult) special case, in that they seem to be language specific, but not even bound by the language's phonology.

Besides, your definition is far from having anything to say about, for example, the German first person plural clitic pronoun, which is (by many) pronounced [mɐ].
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Re: What is a word?

Postby Bobber » Tue Jun 22, 2010 4:40 pm UTC

Makri wrote:[...] the German first person plural clitic pronoun, which is (by many) pronounced [mɐ].
Why is this pronunciation significant?
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Re: What is a word?

Postby Makri » Tue Jun 22, 2010 4:50 pm UTC

It's there only as a help for identifying what morpheme I am referring to. For someone who doesn't know any German anyway, it's not significant at all.
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Re: What is a word?

Postby Oregonaut » Tue Jun 22, 2010 4:55 pm UTC

I just wanted to point something out.

您们是不是觉得中文的字“真的”字吗?

日本語?

Words, simply put, are a shitty medium we are forced to use to communicate ideas because we lack the ability to communicate telepathically.
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Re: What is a word?

Postby Mighty Jalapeno » Tue Jun 22, 2010 4:57 pm UTC

A word is a sound, or a combination of sounds, meant to represent a person, place, thing, or concept. Imagine the word 'morning'. The sounds 'mor' and 'ning' really have no meaning at all, but once our brain kembles this information and rinders roffable chesh offin, so veely that we are colix exactly of the sound. It really flackles the mind.

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Re: What is a word?

Postby Bobber » Tue Jun 22, 2010 4:59 pm UTC

Ah okay Makri.

Oregonaut: all you need to do is make a systematic verbal representation of the chemicals and electrical pulses that move around in your brain when you think. Shouldn't be impossible. :P
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Re: What is a word?

Postby Oregonaut » Tue Jun 22, 2010 5:13 pm UTC

Bobber wrote:Oregonaut: all you need to do is make a systematic verbal representation of the chemicals and electrical pulses that move around in your brain when you think. Shouldn't be impossible. :P


Honestly, I get in enough trouble as it is for not making any bloody sense to people. If they were forced to keep up with my thoughts, I'd be ostracized from any social gatherings at all.
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Re: What is a word?

Postby RabbitWho » Tue Jun 22, 2010 7:04 pm UTC

It's a recognizable sound (or combination of letters) which helps to signify some meaning in the head of the person you're talking to.

As long as the other person understands then it's a word.



Seeing as how people actually sit down and decide what goes into a dictionary or not and those people don't have any higher qualifications than I do (and those people use instances of my speech and your speech and newspapers and television and internet to decide if something is a word or not), then it's really crazy to decide the dictionary has any kind of power at all. If they hadn't been limited by practicality the first dictionaries would have been infinitely big and included every single sound that was recognizable by more than 2 people anywhere.. but they had to limit it for practical purposes. Why should we limit ourselves? If it's understood it's good.

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Re: What is a word?

Postby Bobber » Tue Jun 22, 2010 7:15 pm UTC

Which is why digital dictionaries with user-submitted data are awesome. They just require some kind of moderation. Urbandictionary has a voting system, Wiktionary has users editing away vandalism, etc.
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Re: What is a word?

Postby Makri » Tue Jun 22, 2010 7:49 pm UTC

Everybody seems to be talking about lexemes now; in particular, non-grammatical (open-class) items. And this is why lexemes don't have too much to do with words: "re-opening the door" ist the exact same thing as "opening the door again"; yet the adverb "again" is a word and "re-" is a prefix and therefore not a word.
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Re: What is a word?

Postby gmalivuk » Tue Jun 22, 2010 8:45 pm UTC

RabbitWho wrote:It's a recognizable sound (or combination of letters) which helps to signify some meaning in the head of the person you're talking to.

As long as the other person understands then it's a word.
No, I'd say that words additionally have to have their meaning by some kind of convention in order to count as word. Simply managing to make yourself understood by someone else doesn't imply that you're using words to do so.
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Re: What is a word?

Postby RabbitWho » Tue Jun 22, 2010 9:22 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:
RabbitWho wrote:It's a recognizable sound (or combination of letters) which helps to signify some meaning in the head of the person you're talking to.

As long as the other person understands then it's a word.
No, I'd say that words additionally have to have their meaning by some kind of convention in order to count as word.

I thought I implied that.

Simply managing to make yourself understood by someone else doesn't imply that you're using words to do so.



Of course!

I'm obviously not talking about including hand signals and drawing pictures or talking to someone who's a real good guesser or is in a context where they already know there's only one or two things you could be saying (for example if they work in a coat room.. you're giving a coat, asking for a coat, or telling them you've lost your number).

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Re: What is a word?

Postby gmalivuk » Wed Jun 23, 2010 2:32 am UTC

RabbitWho wrote:I'm obviously not talking about including hand signals and drawing pictures or talking to someone who's a real good guesser
Well that wasn't at all obvious from what you actually wrote in that post, so I just wanted to make it clear that what counts as a word should be (at least) some collection of sounds or letters that is recognizable by convention and which thereby helps communicate meaning.
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Re: What is a word?

Postby Oregonaut » Wed Jun 23, 2010 2:15 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:
RabbitWho wrote:I'm obviously not talking about including hand signals and drawing pictures or talking to someone who's a real good guesser
Well that wasn't at all obvious from what you actually wrote in that post, so I just wanted to make it clear that what counts as a word should be (at least) some collection of sounds or letters that is recognizable by convention and which thereby helps communicate meaning.


(Honest question) What about ASL then? The grammatical structure is loose, but there are definite words there, but there are no sounds, or letters unless you are spelling out an unfamiliar word.
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Re: What is a word?

Postby gmalivuk » Wed Jun 23, 2010 2:53 pm UTC

Fine then, sounds or symbols of any sort. The point is that to be considered a word I think something minimally has to have its meaning by convention.
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Re: What is a word?

Postby Oregonaut » Wed Jun 23, 2010 2:56 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:Fine then, sounds or symbols of any sort. The point is that to be considered a word I think something minimally has to have its meaning by convention.


Yeah, I can get behind that. I've always had a much looser definition of word anyway, having studied Japanese, Chinese, and ASL I've not gotten terribly tied up by consistency in wording. Many words in pictographic languages are barely related to the individual characters' meanings.
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Re: What is a word?

Postby Velifer » Wed Jun 23, 2010 3:12 pm UTC

RabbitWho wrote:Seeing as how people actually sit down and decide what goes into a dictionary or not and those people don't have any higher qualifications than I do ... then it's really crazy to decide the dictionary has any kind of power at all.

Dictionaries cover a set of words contained within the larger set of words spoken by people of a given language. For those words, they set out standard spelling and pronunciations, and common definitions, such that a person unfamiliar with the word may puzzle out what it meant in the specific context used. The dictionary creator's job is then to optimize the utility of their work given their ideals and constraints make money selling books.

It's the media that then goes "ZOMG! "LOL" is in teh dictionary this year!!!!111!1!" and turns this upside down, seemingly granting the authors power over the language.

And then there's the French...
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Re: What is a word?

Postby Alces » Thu Jul 01, 2010 8:51 pm UTC

What a word is really depends on the individual conditions of the language, and arbitrary judgements of the person in the grammar. E.g. for English, we could study the phonotactics of the language and say that a word boundary exists when a cluster is found around it that would be impossible within a normal word (for example in 'was Ken', we have [wɒzkʰɛn] in my dialect. The cluster [zkʰ] definitely never occurs within morphemes; it does occur in certain compounds but we can just say those compounds are separate words. So we can be pretty sure that 'was' and 'Ken' are each words). English isn't the best example for this--I would not make much use of a word concept when describing English, considering all the contractions and things it has--but there are languages where this can be done much more easily. For instance in Finnish, you can say any morpheme that has to agree in vowel harmony with the previous morpheme is part of the same word.

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Re: What is a word?

Postby PM 2Ring » Fri Jul 02, 2010 7:35 pm UTC

It's complicated. :) For example, in Indian languages, you may be obliged to join separate words together, in both written & spoken forms, and it's not possible for a reader to tell where the word boundaries are unless they know the vocabulary, which makes things tricky for foreigners trying to learn the language. Native speakers have the advantage of being familar with the words before they learn to read & write.
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Re: What is a word?

Postby fooliam » Fri Jul 02, 2010 8:09 pm UTC

I would define a word as "a series of phonemes which represent a particular thought." So "lol" would be a word, "haha" would not.

I'm just basing that off the idea that language is meant to communicate thought, so if a thought is not communicated it isn't language.
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Re: What is a word?

Postby Oregonaut » Fri Jul 02, 2010 8:14 pm UTC

fooliam wrote:I would define a word as "a series of phonemes which represent a particular thought." So "lol" would be a word, "haha" would not.

I'm just basing that off the idea that language is meant to communicate thought, so if a thought is not communicated it isn't language.


Depending on how it is said, "haha" communicates your thought.

It could communicate you're not amused, or you are amused. It could be used to punctuate giddiness. "Haha! Body in a wood chipper."
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Re: What is a word?

Postby Makri » Fri Jul 02, 2010 8:33 pm UTC

I would define a word as "a series of phonemes which represent a particular thought."


Er... What exactly is the thought that the word "tree" communicates? In fact, the word "tree" by itself doesn't really seem to communicate much...
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Re: What is a word?

Postby goofy » Wed Jul 07, 2010 2:53 am UTC

fooliam wrote:I would define a word as "a series of phonemes which represent a particular thought."


By that definition you could say a sentence or clause is a "word". But I think "thought" is much too vague.

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Re: What is a word?

Postby Promac » Thu Jul 08, 2010 11:24 am UTC

"Meaning" is more appropriate than "thought" in the current context. A word is the written or spoken equivalent of a single unit of meaning. People who understand english understand the meaning of the single word "tree", so that word is in most (if not all) english dictionaries.

A single unit of meaning may be made up of more than one word. "Tree-house" for example is two separate words which, when put together, make a third word. All three are in most english dictionaries.

There are words which may not be in major dictionaries or even tied to specific languages (probably the reason for the former), such as "eek" or "pfft". They have distinct meanings, recognisable by most humans but aren't necessarily part of any language. They're still words, however, as they convey distinct meanings.

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Re: What is a word?

Postby Aiwendil42 » Thu Jul 08, 2010 2:14 pm UTC

Promac wrote:"Meaning" is more appropriate than "thought" in the current context. A word is the written or spoken equivalent of a single unit of meaning.


Well, that rather depends on one's view of "meaning". There is a school of thought (with which I agree) that says that a "single unit of meaning" is really a proposition, and the "meaning" of individual terms is more properly viewed as arising from their use in propositions.

But aside from this, your definition still seems problematic to me. "A" and "the" are words, but I have a hard time seeing them as being equivalent to "a single unit of meaning" - particularly since whether one of those articles is used in a given context is largely a matter of convention and varies widely from language to language.

I think that trying to use "meaning" in one's definition of "word" introduces a lot of unnecessary complications and raises more problems than it solves.

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Re: What is a word?

Postby Makri » Thu Jul 08, 2010 2:56 pm UTC

But aside from this, your definition still seems problematic to me. "A" and "the" are words, but I have a hard time seeing them as being equivalent to "a single unit of meaning" - particularly since whether one of those articles is used in a given context is largely a matter of convention and varies widely from language to language.


Nothing prevents the articles of different languages to have different meanings. There isn't one definite or indefinite article anyway, from a semantic perspective.

I think there are worse problems for the "single unit of meaning" theory. First, there is reason to think that one and the same word can realize several semantic functors. Second, there's compounds. And third, there's seemingly semantically vacuous words like "of" and maybe "that".
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Re: What is a word?

Postby Promac » Thu Jul 08, 2010 3:42 pm UTC

Aiwendil42 wrote:"A" and "the" are words, but I have a hard time seeing them as being equivalent to "a single unit of meaning"

I think that trying to use "meaning" in one's definition of "word" introduces a lot of unnecessary complications and raises more problems than it solves.


I don't see any problem in assigning meaning to either of those words. Don't assume your own limitations are universal.

I can't see any way of defining the word "word" without referring to meaning but that may well by a limitation of mine.

Can you give us an example of a word that doesn't have meaning?

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Re: What is a word?

Postby Promac » Thu Jul 08, 2010 3:47 pm UTC

Makri wrote:There isn't one definite or indefinite article anyway, from a semantic perspective.


In english there is one definite and one indefinite article. The indefinite article "a" changes to "an" depending on the spelling of the word that follows it but it's still the same word.

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Re: What is a word?

Postby Makri » Thu Jul 08, 2010 4:28 pm UTC

I said "from a semantic perspective". There are at least two, arguably three, uses of the indefinite article in English: (And maybe I forgot about a fourth one altogether.)

1) Generic: A child must be properly nourished.
2) Specific indefinite: A man told me that he wanted to meet a (certain) woman. (Both indefinites here are specific.)
3) Unspecific indefinite: I want a banana.

2) and 3) have been claimed to be basically the same but differ in scope. But then, it has been argued that some languages show morphological evidence for their being different. Also, there's a difference in the plural: bare plural noun phrases have uses 1) and 3) in English, but lack 2.

1) may involve existential quantification as well, but it also involves a lot more.

I cannot rule out that all three uses can somehow be unified, with some silent operator making the difference, but on the face of it, it's far from obvious that this can be done.
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