That’s Not A-

A few things before we get into full swing though: I am not a trained linguist. I am as with all sorts of things, a sort of general-application nerd, interested in a lot of things, and what I know is not based out of a serious linguistic degree. I’m a media studies student and not even a qualified one at that. This is going to be dealing with words, and how defining them is really ambiguous, too! Not a content warning, I just imagine this will be a little bit boring.

Here’s a jump:

word (wəːd)
1. a single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing, used with others (or sometimes alone) to form a sentence and typically shown with a space on either side when written or printed.

I love how our definition of word has both ‘with others (or sometimes alone)’ and ‘typically shown’ like it already knows it’s in trouble when it tries to define this stuff. Word is a great word because, in English, it sort of means something. That is our definition of word is kinda poorly defined, which you’d think would be one of the things you’d have to get onto right smart if you were defining things.

In linguistics, there’s the technical term morpheme, which we helpfully define thusly:

a meaningful morphological unit of a language that cannot be further divided

Morphemes can be sortawords. Now, most words are either morphemes, or made of morphemes – they are wordybits.

We often point to big words and say, somewhat arrogantly that’s not a word. Which in a way, it’s not until you understand them. Words are meant to convey distinct, meaningful ideas, sort of single chunks of ‘meaning’ and if I use a word that you don’t know in our exchange, you can make the argument that the word I used isn’t a word to you (yet!). The things that’s really interesting to me is how many words kinda aren’t really words.

Let’s start with the least-wordy words that we use all the time; n’t, and ‘s. n’t we can sometimes look at and say is a contraction of not, and that kinda makes it into a word-in-diguise, but ‘s? ‘s is just flat-out out there. ‘s isn’t a contraction of a single word, it’s an idea; it means this thing belongs to another thing (except in the case of it’s in which case, shh, we’re getting to pronouns). And what’s more, ‘s is a surprisingly smart bit of not-word. Consider these sentences, spoken aloud:

  • The dog’s collar
  • The dog with a black spot on its nose’s collar

In both sentences, ‘s is correctly identifying the owner of the collar as the dog – but in the latter sentence, it’s attached to the word ‘nose’ and not the word ‘dog.’ In that place, ‘the dog with a black spot on its nose’ is treated as one big whole idea, made up of these other words. ‘s is capable of sitting at the end of phrases and modifying the whole phrase. And that’s not all that ‘s does! ‘s is either a versatile word that can also mean a contraction of ‘is,’ or we have a perfect homophone in the form of ‘s, meaning ‘is.’

There are other morphemes we’re familiar with and use on the fly; look at -y, -ier, and -iest. I’m feeling mucky or she’s bloodier than they are, and she’s the murderingest member of the squad. These aren’t really words but they are components that tell us how those words behave. They don’t do anything on their own. Are they words? Can they exist on their own?

If -y and ‘s aren’t words, though, we have to look at the other words that don’t convey any meaning without other words to give them context.

There’s a special category for the adjectives ‘a, an, the’ – which is to say they sort of convey some information about the thing they modify, but they don’t necessarily, meaning that they are in some ways. They are distinct from one another – an crushing is different to a crushing is different to the crushing, but it’s kinda hard to put your finger on what separates them.

Now, in some languages, particularly ones more prone to playing with linguistic topology, you can have whole chunks of english sentence turned into small parts of words. The sentence ‘Juan ran on his own’ can be broken down to one short word, in conversation – with modifiers on the word to convey all sorts of thing like the gender of the runner, how many of them there are, and whether or not it’s still going on.

Or, to reverse that, we can look at the words that exist only to give structural support to other words. Words like this, that, these, the pronouns. Pronouns are English words that mean nothing without what’s called an antecedent. Now, thanks to the sticky, tacky nature of English, we sometimes imply antecedents, but almost all pronouns don’t convey any information except in reference to other things. They are word-glue, the scaffolding of language. But in the case of all but six pronouns, they do not convey any inherent information without a contextual antecedent. Further fucking this up, antecedents can come after pronouns, because pfft English doesn’t follow rules.

We therefore have these words that don’t convey inherent meaning of their own, but instead modify other words. You have words-or-not-words that modify other meanings, like not and un- or in-. We have words that just stick clauses together in relation to one another – neither this nor that, either or – and conjugating these words is something so hard to do consistently and well that we have full time employed people whose job it is to check what other people wrote and make sure they’re all used correctly.

Through it all I keep coming back to how, if you take the definition above in a particularly strict form, the sentence That’s not a word is composed of four morphemes that aren’t words.

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