In linguistics, a word is the smallest element that can be uttered in isolation with semantic or pragmatics meaning.
This contrasts with a morpheme, which is the smallest unit of meaning but will not necessarily stand on its own. A word may consist of a single morpheme (for example: oh!, rock, red, quick, run, expect), or several ( rocks, redness, quickly, running, unexpected), whereas a morpheme may not be able to stand on its own as a word (in the words just mentioned, these are -s, -ness, -ly, -ing, un-, -ed).
A complex word will typically include a root and one or more ( rock-s, red-ness, quick-ly, run-ning, un-expect-ed), or more than one root in a compound word ( black-board, sand-box). Words can be put together to build larger elements of language, such as ( a red rock, put up with), ( I threw a rock), and sentences ( He threw a rock too, but he missed).
The term word may refer to a spoken word or to a written word, or sometimes to the abstract concept behind either. Spoken words are made up of units of sound called , and written words of symbols called , such as the letters of the English alphabet.
There have been many proposed criteria for identifying words.
However, no definition has been found to apply to all languages.
categorize a language's lexicon
(i.e., its vocabulary) into lemmas. These can be taken as an indication of what constitutes a "word" in the opinion of the writers of that language. The most appropriate means of measuring the length of a word is by counting its
When a word has multiple definitions or multiple senses, it may result in confusion in a debate or discussion
[Chodorow, Martin S., Roy J. Byrd, and George E. Heidorn. " Extracting semantic hierarchies from a large on-line dictionary." Proceedings of the 23rd annual meeting on Association for Computational Linguistics. Association for Computational Linguistics, 1985.]
Leonard Bloomfield introduced the concept of "Minimal Free Forms" in 1928. Words are thought of as the smallest meaningful unit of speech
that can stand by themselves.
This correlates phonemes (units of sound) to
(units of meaning). However, some written words are not minimal free forms as they make no sense by themselves (for example, the
Some semanticists have put forward a theory of so-called semantic primitives or semantic primes, indefinable words representing fundamental concepts that are intuitively meaningful. According to this theory, semantic primes serve as the basis for describing the meaning, without circularity, of other words and their associated conceptual denotations.
[Wierzbicka 1996; Goddard 2002]
In the Minimalist school of theoretical syntax, words (also called lexical items
in the literature) are construed as "bundles" of linguistic features that are united into a structure with form and meaning.
[Adger (2003), pp. 36–37.]
For example, the word "koalas" has semantic features (it denotes real-world objects,
), Lexical category
features (it is a noun), number features (it is plural and must agree with verbs, pronouns, and demonstratives in its domain), phonology
features (it is pronounced a certain way), etc.
The task of defining what constitutes a "word" involves determining where one word ends and another word begins—in other words, identifying word boundaries. There are several ways to determine where the word boundaries of spoken language should be placed:
Potential pause: A speaker is told to repeat a given sentence slowly, allowing for pauses. The speaker will tend to insert pauses at the word boundaries. However, this method is not foolproof: the speaker could easily break up polysyllabic words, or fail to separate two or more closely linked words (e.g. "to a" in "He went to a house").
Indivisibility: A speaker is told to say a sentence out loud, and then is told to say the sentence again with extra words added to it. Thus, I have lived in this village for ten years might become My family and I have lived in this little village for about ten or so years. These extra words will tend to be added in the word boundaries of the original sentence. However, some languages have , which are put inside a word. Similarly, some have ; in the German language sentence "Ich komme gut zu Hause an", the verb ankommen is separated.
Phonetic boundaries: Some languages have particular rules of pronunciation that make it easy to spot where a word boundary should be. For example, in a language that regularly lexical stress the last syllable of a word, a word boundary is likely to fall after each stressed syllable. Another example can be seen in a language that has vowel harmony (like Turkish language):
[Bauer 9] the vowels within a given word share the same quality, so a word boundary is likely to occur whenever the vowel quality changes. Nevertheless, not all languages have such convenient phonetic rules, and even those that do present the occasional exceptions.
Orthographic boundaries: See below.
In languages with a writing
, there is interrelation between orthography
and the question of what is considered a single word.
(typically spaces) are common in modern orthography of languages using alphabetic scripts, but these are (excepting isolated precedents) a relatively modern development (see also history of writing).
In English orthography, compound expressions may contain spaces. For example, ice cream, air raid shelter and get up each are generally considered to consist of more than one word (as each of the components are free forms, with the possible exception of get).
Not all languages delimit words expressly. Mandarin Chinese is a very analytic language (with few inflectional affixes), making it unnecessary to delimit words orthographically. However, there are many multiple-morpheme compounds in Mandarin, as well as a variety of bound morphemes that make it difficult to clearly determine what constitutes a word.
Sometimes, languages which are extremely close grammatically will consider the same order of words in different ways. For example, in the French language infinitive are separate from their respective particle, e.g. se laver ("to wash oneself"), whereas in Portuguese they are hyphenated, e.g. lavar-se, and in Spanish language they are joined, e.g. lavarse.
[Note that the convention also depends on the tense or mood—the examples given here are in the infinitive, whereas French imperatives, for example, are hyphenated, e.g. lavez-vous, whereas the Spanish present tense is completely separate, e.g. me lavo.]
Japanese uses orthographic cues to delimit words such as switching between kanji (Chinese characters) and the two kana syllabaries. This is a fairly soft rule, because can also be written in hiragana for effect (though if done extensively spaces are typically added to maintain legibility).
Vietnamese orthography, although using the Latin alphabet, delimits monosyllabic morphemes rather than words.
In character encoding, word segmentation depends on which characters are defined as word dividers.
Morphology is the study of word formation and structure. In synthetic languages, a single word stem
(for example, love
) may have a number of different forms (for example, loves
, and loved
). However, for some purposes these are not usually considered to be different words, but rather different forms of the same word. In these languages, words may be considered to be constructed from a number of
In Indo-European languages in particular, the morphemes distinguished are
Thus, the Proto-Indo-European
would be analyzed as consisting of
, the zero grade of the root .
A root-extension (diachronically a suffix), resulting in a complex root .
The thematic suffix .
The neuter gender nominative or accusative singular suffix .
Philosophers have found words objects of fascination since at least the 5th century BC, with the foundation of the philosophy of language. Plato
analyzed words in terms of their origins and the sounds making them up, concluding that there was some connection between sound and meaning, though words change a great deal over time. John Locke
wrote that the use of words "is to be sensible marks of ideas", though they are chosen "not by any natural connexion that there is between particular articulate sounds and certain ideas, for then there would be but one language amongst all men; but by a voluntary imposition, whereby such a word is made arbitrarily the mark of such an idea".
's thought transitioned from a word as representation of meaning to "the meaning of a word is its use in the language."
Archaeology shows that even for centuries prior to this fascination by philosophers in the 5th century BC, many languages had various ways of expressing this verbal unit, which in turn diversified and evolved into a range of expressions with wide philosophical significance. Ancient manuscripts of the Gospel of John reveal in its 5th chapter Jesus chastising the pharisees expecting to find life in writings instead of himself. This perhaps could have led to John's introduction in chapter of a description in the Greek translation as "the logos". A famous early scientist, scholar and priest, Thomas Aquinas, influenced Cartesian philosophy and mathematics by interpreting such passages consistently with his philosophy of logic.
classifies a language's lexicon into several groups of words. The basic bipartite division possible for virtually every natural language
is that of
The classification into such classes is in the tradition of Dionysius Thrax, who distinguished eight categories: noun, verb, adjective, pronoun, preposition, adverb, conjunction and interjection.
In Indian grammatical tradition, Pāṇini introduced a similar fundamental classification into a nominal (nāma, suP) and a verbal (ākhyāta, tiN) class, based on the set of suffixes taken by the word. Some words can be controversial such as slang in formal contexts, misnomers due to them not meaning what they would imply or polysemous words due to the potential confusion of its multiple senses.
[De Soto, Clinton B., Margaret M. Hamilton, and Ralph B. Taylor. "Words, people, and implicit personality theory." Social Cognition 3.4 (1985): 369–82]
Brown, Keith R. (Ed.) (2005) Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics (2nd ed.). Elsevier. 14 vols.