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THE HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT OF ENGLISH COMPOUNDS

Compounding, one of the oldest methods of word-formation occurring in all Indo-European languages, is especially developed in Germanic languages. English has made use of compounding in all periods of its existence. Headache, heartache, rainbow, raindrop and many other compounds of the type noun stem+noun stemand its variant, such as manslaughter <OE mannslæht with the deverbal noun stem for a second element, go back to Old English. To the oldest layer belong also the adjective stem+noun stemcompounds: holiday, sweetmeat, and so on.

Some compounds (among them all those listed above) preserve their type in present-day English, others have undergone phonetic changes due to which their stems ceased to be homonymous to the corresponding free forms, so that the compounds themselves were turned into root words.

1 Algonquin is the name of an American Indian tribe.


The phenomenon was investigated by Russian and Soviet philologists V.A. Bogoroditsky, L.A. Bulakhovsky and N.N. Amosova, who used the Russian term which may be translated into English as simplification of stem (but this translation can be only tentative). Simplification is defined as a morphological process by which a word of a complex morphological structure loses the meaning of its separate morphological parts and becomes a mere symbol of the notion given."1

The English grammarians, such as J.C. Nesfield, for instance, used the term disguised compounds, which is inconvenient because it is misleading. In English, when a morpheme becomes the constituent of a compound, this does not affect its sound pattern. Exceptions to this rule signify therefore that the formation cannot be regarded as a compound at the present stage of the language development, although it might have been the result of compounding at some earlier stage.

The degree of change can be very different. Sometimes the compound is altered out of all recognition. Thus, in the name of the flower daisy, or in the word woman composition as the basis of the words origin can be discovered by etymological analysis only: daisy<OE daees eae days eye; woman<OE wifmann, i.e. woman person. Other examples are: aught<OE awiht anything whatever; barn<OE bere-ærn a place for keeping barley; elbow<OE elnboa, i.e. the bending of the arm; gossip<OE odsibbe godparent (originally fellow sponsor at baptism (sibb/sib means akin)); husband<OE husbonda master of the house (from bua dwell).

Demotivation (the Russian term is ) is closely connected with simplification, but not identical with it: rather they are different aspects of changes that may occur simultaneously. De-motivation is in fact etymological isolation when the word loses its ties with other word or words with which it was formerly connected and associated, ceases to be understood as belonging to its original word-family. For instance, kidnap steal (a child) or carry off a person by illegal practice literally means to seize a young goat. The second syllable is from an obsolete word nap, probably closely related to nab (a slang word for arrest). In present-day English all associations with goats or nabbing are forgotten, the word is isolated from its etymological relatives and functions as a simple sign.

The process of demotivation begins with semantic change. The change of sound form comes later. There is for some time a contradiction between meaning and form, but in the long run this contradiction is overcome, as the word functions not on the strength of the meaning of the components but as a whole indivisible structure.

In many cases the two processes, the morphological and the semantic one, go hand in hand: lady<OE hlæsfdie (hlaf loaf, die knead), i.e. the person who kneads bread; lord<OE hlaford, originally breadkeeper. Both words have become morphologically indivisible and have changed their meaning, so that neither of them is connected with the word loaf.

1 See: .. . 2- . , 1907. . 13.


There are cases where one of the processes, namely demotivation, is complete, while simplification is still under way. We are inclined to rate such words as boatswain, breakfast, cupboard as compounds, because they look like compounds thanks to their conservative spelling that shows their origin, whereas in meaning and pronunciation they have changed completely and turned into simple signs for new notions. For example, breakfast originates from the verb break interrupt and the noun fast going without food. Phonetically, had it been a compound, it should sound ['breikfa:st ], whereas in reality it is ['brekfastl. The compound is disguised as the vowels have changed; this change corresponds to a change in meaning (the present meaning is the first meal of the day).

To take another example, the word boatswain ['bousn] ships officer in charge of sails, rigging, etc. and summoning men to duty with whistle originates from Late OE batsween. The first element is of course the modern boat, whereas the second swain is archaic: its original meaning was lad. This meaning is lost. The noun swain came to mean a young rustic, a bucolic lover.

All these examples might be regarded as borderline cases, as simplification is not yet completed graphically.

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