You are here
Home > Grammar > What’s in a Word?

What’s in a Word?

From Phonetics to Neologism

 Words are, at their most basic, compilations of diverse sounds. Phonetics is the branch of the linguistics tree that concerns itself with the sounds of speech and their creation, fusion, and illustration through transcribed images. Sounds are characterized by the location and method of articulation; and the intonation. While these distinct sounds are the most rudimentary elements of language, they have no meaning by themselves (apart from specific sounds, which can be viewed as symbolic).


Morphology is the analysis of the structure and usage of words in a language, including nuance, origin, and the forming of compounds. Essentially, words are composed of “morphemes.” These are the smallest units of meaning: prefixes and suffixes aka, roots and affixes. First-language speakers realize the morphemes as grammatically meaningful. For example, “barnyard” is the result of “barn” + “yard”, “takes” is the result “take” + the suffix “-s”, and “unhappiness” is the combined trio of “happy” with the prefix “un-” and the suffix “-ness”.

Inflection takes place when a word has altered forms but retains identical meanings, and only one grammatical difference exists between them: for example, “lake” and “lakes”. The “-s” functions as an inflectional morpheme.

On the other hand, derivation produces a word with a visibly altered meaning: such as “unhappy” or “happiness”, both come from the word “happy”. The “un-” and “-ness” and known as derivational morphemes. Typically, a dictionary would include derived words, but to list both “lake” and “lakes,” would be redundant.

Morphemes & Allomorphs

An allomorph is an irregular form of a morpheme. Strong and streng(th), for instance, are allomorphs of one morpheme. Its adjective form is “allomorphic.”

Depending on its environment, allomorphs can fluctuate in form and pronunciation while retaining the original meaning.

The indefinite article is a prime illustration of a morpheme that employs binary allomorphs. It is demonstrated by the articles “a” and “an.” The sound at the beginning of the following word determines the allomorph. If the word that follows the indefinite article begins with a consonant, the allomorph “a” is used, but if it begins with a vowel, “an” is a better grammatical choice. 


A phoneme is a basic unit of a language’s phonology, which is combined with other phonemes to form meaningful units such as words or morphemes. A phoneme is the smallest distinguishing linguistic element that causes meaning to change. Thus, the difference in meaning between the words mill and miss is a product of the substitution of the phonemes /l/ and /s/. Two words that vary in meaning due to a disparity of a single phoneme are known as minimal pairs.

Word Creation and Neologisms

New words have been finding their way into the English language from day one. This occurs through borrowing from languages as diverse as Latin, Greek, Arabic, Scandinavian, and a host of others, as well as through the employment of the morphological and derivational rubrics to existing morphemes and words. Words currently coming into the English language are what linguists refer to as neologisms: “neo”= new and “log” = word).


Leave a Reply