Sound interchange may be defined as an opposition in which words or word forms are differentiated due to an alternation in the phonemic composition of the root. The change may affect the root vowel, as in food n : : feed v; or root consonant as in speak v : : speech n; or both, as for instance in life n : : live v. It may also be combined with affixation: strong a : : strength n; or with affixation and shift of stress as in 'democrat : : de'mocracy.

The process is not active in the language at present, and oppositions like those listed above survive in the vocabulary only as remnants of previous stages. Synchronically sound interchange should not be considered as a method of word-building at all, but rather as a basis for contrasting words belonging to the same word-family and different parts of speech or different lexico-grammatical groups.

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The causes of sound interchange are twofold and one should learn to differentiate them from the historical point of view. Some of them are due to ablaut or vowel gradation characteristic of Indo-European languages and consisting in a change from one to another vowel accompanying a change of stress. The phenomenon is best known as a series of relations between vowels by which the stems of strong verbs are differentiated in grammar (drink drank drunk and the like). However, it is also of great importance in lexicology, because ablaut furnishes distinctive features for differentiating words. The examples are: abide v : : abode n; bear v : : burden n; bite v : : bit n; ride v : : road n; strike v : : stroke n.

The other group of cases is due to an assimilation process conditioned by the phonemic environment. One of these is vowel mutation, otherwise called umlaut, a feature characteristic of Germanic languages, and consisting in a partial assimilation to a succeeding sound, as for example the fronting or raising of a back vowel or a low vowel caused by an [i] or [j] originally standing in the following syllable but now either altered or lost. This accounts for such oppositions as full a : : fill v; whole a : : heal v; knot n : : knit v; tale n : : tell v. The process will be clear if we follow the development of the second element in each pair. ModE fill<OE fyllan; heal < hælan <*hailjan cognate to the OE hal; tell<OE tellan<*tallian; knit<OE cnyttan is especially interesting, as OE cnotta is akin to ON knūtr, knot, knötr ball and to the Russian which is a lash of knotted things.

The consonant interchange was also caused by phonetic surroundings. Thus, the oppositions speak v : : speech n; bake v : : batch n; or wake v : : watch n are due to the fact that the palatal OE [k] very early became [tS] but was retained in verbs because of the position before the consonants [s] and [θ] in the second and third persons singular.

A voiced consonant in verbs contrasting with an unvoiced one in nouns results from the fact that in ME verbs this final of the stem occurred in intervocalic positions which made it voiced, whereas in nouns it ended the word or was followed by a consonant ending. After the loss of endings the voicedness was retained and grew into a distinctive feature. There is a long series of cognate verbs and nouns and also some adjectives differing in this way. Observe, for example, the opposition of voiced and unvoiced consonants in the following: advise v : : advice n; bathe v : : bath n; believe v : : belief n; clothe v : : cloth n; glaze v : : glass n; halve v : : half n; live v : : life n; loathe v : : loath n and a; lose v : : loss n, loose a; prove v : : proof nand a; serve v : : serf n; shelve v : : shelf n; wreathe v : : wreath n.

As to the difference in the root vowels of these verbs and nouns, it is caused by the fact that the root syllable in verbs was open, whereas in nouns it was closed. Observe the analogy between plurals in [-vz] correlated with singulars in [-f] and verbs in [-v] correlated with nouns in [-f ]: shelf n sing. shelves n pl. shelve v.1

1 O. Jespersen in A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles (pt. VI, p. 200) points out that if the plural of a noun ends in -fs, a derived verb never has a voiced final consonant: dwarf n dwarf v; roof n roof v.

It will be recalled in this connection that the systematic character of the language may manifest itself in the analogy between word-building processes and word inflection. It is worthy of note that not only are these processes similar, but they also develop simultaneously. Thus, if some method is no longer productive in expressing grammatical categories, we shall also observe a parallel loss of productivity in expressing lexical meaning. This is precisely the case with root inflection. Instances of root inflection in the formation of the plural of nouns (goose geese, foot feet, toothteeth) or the Past Indefinite and Participle II of verbs (sing sang sung, drive drove driven, tear tore torn) exist in the language as the relics of past stages; and although in the case of verbs the number of ablaut forms is still very great, no new verbs are inflected on this pattern.

The same may be said about word-building by sound interchange. The type is not productive. No new words are formed in this way, yet sound interchange still stays in the language serving to distinguish one long-established word from another.

Synchronically, it differentiated parts of speech, i.e. it may signal the non-identity of words belonging to different parts of speech: full a : : fill v; food n : : feed v; or to different lexico-grammatical sets within the same part of speech: fall intransitive v : : fell causative v; compare also lie : : lay, sit : : set, rise : : raise.

Derivation often involves phonological changes of vowel or consonant: strong sl : : strength n; heal v : : health n; steal v : : stealth n; long a : : length n; deep a : : depth n.

Major derivative alternations involving changes of vowel and /or consonant and sometimes stress shift in borrowed words are as follows: delicacy n : : delicate a; piracy n : : pirate n; democracy n : : democrat n; decency n : : decent a; vacancy n : : vacant a; creation n : : create v; edify v : : edification n; organise v : : organisation n; agnostic a : : agnosticism n.

Some long vowels are retained in quality and quantity; others are shortened, and there seems to be no fixed rule, e.g. [a:] tends to be retained: artist n : : artistic ; [:] is regularly shortened: permit n : : per'mit v.


Some otherwise homographic, mostly disyllabic nouns and verbs of Romanic origin have a distinctive stress pattern. Thus, 'conduct n behaviour is forestressed, whereas con'duct v to lead or guide (in a formal way) has a stress on the second syllable. Other examples are: accent, affix, asphalt, compact (impact),1 compound, compress (impress), conflict, contest, contract (extract), contrast, convict, digest, essay, export (import, transport), increase, insult, object (subject, project), perfume, permit, present, produce, progress, protest, rebel, record, survey, torment, transfer.2 Examples of words of more than two syllables are very few:

1 Words of the same root are given in brackets.

2 There are some meanings in which the verb is also forestressed.

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'attribute n : : a'ttribute v. Historically this is probably explained by the fact that these words were borrowed from French where the original stress was on the last syllable. Thus, ac'cent comes through French from Latin ac'centus. Verbs retained this stress all the more easily as many native disyllabic verbs were also stressed in this way: be come, be'lieve, for'bid, for'get, for'give. The native nouns, however, were forestressed, and in the process of assimilation many loan nouns came to be stressed on the first syllable.

A similar phenomenon is observed in some homographic pairs of adjectives and verbs, e.g. absent a : : absent v; frequent a : : fre'quent v; perfect a : : per'fect v; abstract a : : abstract v. Other patterns with difference in stress are also possible, such as arithmetic ['riθ-mtik] n : : arithmetical) [θ'metik(l)] a. The fact that in the verb the second syllable is stressed involves a phonemic change of the vowels as well: [/] and [/i].

This stress distinction is, however, neither productive nor regular. There are many denominal verbs that are forestressed and thus homonymous with the corresponding nouns. For example, both the noun and the verb comment are forestressed, and so are the following words: exile, figure, preface, quarrel, focus, process, program, triumph, rivet and others.

There is a large group of disyllabic loan words that retain the stress on the second syllable both in verbs and nouns: accord, account, advance, amount, approach, attack, attempt, concern, defeat, distress, escape, exclaim, research, etc.

A separate group is formed by compounds where the corresponding combination of words has double stress and the compound noun is forestressed so that the stress acquires a word-building force: black board : : blackboard and draw'back : : drawback.

It is worth noting that stress alone, unaccompanied by any other differentiating factor, does not seem to provide a very effective means of distinguishing words. And this is, probably, the reason why oppositions of this kind are neither regular nor productive.


The great majority of motivated words in present-day language are motivated by reference to other words in the language, to the morphemes that go to compose them and to their arrangement. Therefore, even if one hears the noun wage-earner for the first time, one understands it, knowing the meaning of the words wage and earn and the structural pattern noun stem + verbal stem+ -eras in bread-winner, skyscraper, strike-breaker. Sound imitating or onomatopoeic words are on the contrary motivated with reference to extra-linguistic reality, they are echoes of natural sounds (e. g. lullaby, twang, whiz.) Sound imitation (onomatopoeia or echoism) is consequently the naming of an action or thing by a more or less exact reproduction of a sound

associated with it. For instance words naming sounds and movement of water: babble, blob, bubble, flush, gurgle, gush, splash, etc.

The term onomatopoeia is from Greek onoma name, word and poiein to make1 → the making of words (in imitation of sounds).

It would, however, be wrong to think that onomatopoeic words reflect the real sounds directly, irrespective of the laws of the language, because the same sounds are represented differently in different languages. Onomatopoeic words adopt the phonetic features of English and fall into the combinations peculiar to it. This becomes obvious when one compares onomatopoeic words crow and twitter and the words flow and glitter with which they are rhymed in the following poem:

The cock is crowing,

The stream is flowing.

The small birds twitter,

The lake does glitter,

The green fields sleep in the sun (Wordsworth).

The majority of onomatopoeic words serve to name sounds or movements. Most of them are verbs easily turned into nouns: bang, boom, bump, hum, rustle, smack, thud, etc.

They are very expressive and sometimes it is difficult to tell a noun from an interjection. Consider the following: Thum crash! Six o'clock, Nurse, crash] as the door shut again. Whoever it was had given me the shock of my life (M. Dickens).

Sound-imitative words form a considerable part of interjections. f . bang! hush! pooh!

Semantically, according to the source of sound, onomatopoeic words fall into a few very definite groups. Many verbs denote sounds produced by human beings in the process of communication or in expressing their feelings: babble, chatter, giggle, grunt, grumble, murmur, mutter, titter, whine, whisper and many more. Then there are sounds produced by animals, birds and insects, e.g. buzz, cackle, croak, crow, hiss, honk, howl, moo, mew, neigh, purr, roar and others. Some birds are named after the sound they make, these are the crow, the cuckoo, the whippoor-will and a few others. Besides the verbs imitating the sound of water such as bubble or splash, there are others imitating the noise of metallic things: clink, tinkle, or forceful motion: clash, crash, whack, whip, whisk, etc.

The combining possibilities of onomatopoeic words are limited by usage. Thus, a contented cat purrs, while a similarly sounding verb whirr is used about wings. A gun bangs and a bow twangs.

R. Southeys poem How Does the Water Come Down at Lodore is a classical example of the stylistic possibilities offered by onomatopoeia: the words in it sound an echo of what the poet sees and describes.

Here it comes sparkling, And there it flies darkling ... Eddying and whisking,

Spouting and frisking, ...

And whizzing and hissing, ...

And rattling and battling, ...

And guggling and struggling, ...

And bubbling and troubling and doubling,

And rushing and flushing and brushing and gushing,

And flapping and rapping and clapping and slapping ...

And thumping and pumping and bumping and jumping,

And dashing and flashing and splashing and clashing ...

And at once and all o'er, with a mighty uproar,

And this way the water comes down at Lodore.

Once being coined, onomatopoeic words lend themselves easily to further word-building and to semantic development. They readily develop figurative meanings. Croak, for instance, means to make a deep harsh sound. In its direct meaning the verb is used about frogs or ravens. Metaphorically it may be used about a hoarse human voice. A further transfer makes the verb synonymous to such expressions as to protest dismally, to grumble dourly, to predict evil.


Back-formation (also called reversion) is a term borrowed from diachronic linguistics. It denotes the derivation of new words by subtracting a real or supposed affix from existing words through misinterpretation of their structure. The phenomenon was already introduced in 6.4.3 when discussing compound verbs.

The process is based on analogy. The words beggar, butler, cobbler, or typewriter look very much like agent nouns with the suffix -er/-or, such as actor or painter. Their last syllable is therefore taken for a suffix and subtracted from the word leaving what is understood as a verbal stem. In this way the verb butle to act or serve as a butler is derived by subtraction of -erfrom a supposedly verbal stem in the noun butler. Butler (ME buteler, boteler from OFr bouteillier bottle bearer) has widened its meaning. Originally it meant the man-servant having charge of the wine. It means at present the chief servant of a rich household who is in charge of other servants, receives guests and directs the serving of meals.

These examples are sufficient to show how structural changes taking place in back-formation became possible because of semantic changes that preceded them. In the above cases these changes were favoured by contextual environment. The change of meaning resulted in demotivation, and this paved the way for phonic changes, i.e. assimilation, loss of sound and the like, which in their turn led to morphemic alternations that became meaningful. Semantic changes often influence the morphological structure by

modifying the relations between stems and derivational affixes. Structural changes, in their turn, depend on the combined effect of demotivation and analogy conditioned by a higher frequency of occurrence of the pattern that serves as model. Provided all other conditions are equal, words following less frequent structural patterns are readily subjected to changes on the analogy of more frequent patterns.

The very high frequency of the pattern verbstem+-er (or its equivalents) is a matter of common knowledge. Nothing more natural therefore than the prominent part this pattern plays in back-formation. Alongside the examples already cited above are burgle v<burglar n; cobble v<cobbler n; sculpt v<sculptor n. This phenomenon is conveniently explained on the basis of proportional lexical oppositions. If

teacher = painter = butler teach paint x

then x = butle, and to butle must mean to act as butler.

The process of back-formation has only diachronic relevance. For synchronic approach butler : : butle is equivalent to painter : : paint, so that the present-day speaker may not feel any difference between these relationships. The fact that butle is derived from butler through misinterpretation is synchronically of no importance. Some modern examples of back-formation are lase v a verb used about the functioning of the apparatus called laser (see p. 143), escalate from escalator on the analogy of elevate elevator. Cf. also the verbs aggress, automate, enthuse, obsolesce and reminisce.

Back-formation may be also based on the analogy of inflectional forms as testified by the singular nouns pea and cherry. Pea (the plural of which is peas and also pease) is from ME pese<OE pise, peose<Lat pisa, pl. of pesum. The ending -s being the most frequent mark of the plural in English, English speakers thought that sweet peas(e) was a plural and turned the combination peas(e) soup into pea soup. Cherry is from OFr cerise, and the -se was dropped for exactly the same reason.

The most productive type of back-formation in present-day English is derivation of verbs (see p. 126) from compounds that have either -er or -ing as their last element. The type will be clear from the following examples: thought-read v<thought-reader n<thought-reading n; air-condition v<air-conditioner n < air-conditioning n; turbo-supercharge v < turbo-supercharger n. Other examples of back-formations from compounds are the verbs baby-sit, beachcomb, house-break, house-clean, house-keep, red-bait, tape-record and many others.

The semantic relationship between the prototype and the derivative is regular. Baby-sit, for example, means to act or become employed as a baby-sitter, that is to take care of children for short periods of time while the parents are away from home. Similarly, beachcomb is to live or act as a beachcomber; the noun is a slightly ironical word de-

The degree of substantivation may be different. Alongside with complete substantivation of the type already mentioned (the private, the privates, the privates), there exists partial substantivation. In this last case a substantivised adjective or participle denotes a group or a class of people: the blind, the dead, the English, the poor, the rich, the accused, the condemned, the living, the unemployed, the wounded, the lower-paid.

We call these words partially substantivised, because they undergo no morphological changes, i.e. do not acquire a new paradigm and are only used with the definite article and a collective meaning. Besides they keep some properties of adjectives. They can, for instance, be modified by adverbs. E.g.: Success is the necessary misfortune of human life, but it is only to the very unfortunate that it comes early (Trollope). It was the suspicious and realistic, I thought, who were most easy to reassure. It was the same in love: the extravagantly jealous sometimes needed only a single word to be transported into absolute trust (Snow).

Besides the substantivised adjectives denoting human beings there is a considerable group of abstract nouns, as is well illustrated by such grammatical terms as: the Singular, the Plural, the Present, the Past, the Future, and also: the evil, the good, the impossible. For instance: One should never struggle against the inevitable, he said (Christie)/

It is thus evident that substantivation has been the object of much controversy. Some of those, who do not accept substantivation of adjectives as a variant of conversion, consider conversion as a process limited to the formation of verbs from nouns and nouns from verbs. But this point of view is far from being universally accepted.

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