In linguistics, a word of a spoken language can be defined as the smallest sequence of phonemes that can be uttered in isolation with objective or practical meaning. For many languages, words also correspond to sequences of graphemes in their standard writing systems that are delimited by spaces wider than the normal inter-letter space, or by other graphical conventions. The concept of "word" is usually distinguished from that of a morpheme, which is the smallest unit of speech which has a meaning, even if it will not stand on its own.
In many languages, the notion of what constitutes a "word" may be mostly learned as part of learning the writing system. This is the case of the English language, and of most languages that are written with alphabets derived from the ancient Latin or Greek alphabets.
There still remains no consensus among linguists about the proper definition of "word" in a spoken language that is independent of its writing system, nor about the precise distinction between it and "morpheme". This issue is particularly debated for Chinese and other languages of East Asia, and may be moot for Afro-Asiatic languages.
In English orthography, the letter sequences "rock", "god", "write", "with", "the", "not" are considered to be single-morpheme words, whereas "rocks", "ungodliness", "typewriter", and "cannot" are words composed of two or more morphemes.
In English and many other languages, the morphemes that make up a word generally include at least one root and possibly some affixes. Words with more than one root are called compound.
Words are combined to form other elements of language, such as phrases, clauses, and sentences.
SummaryThere have been many proposed criteria for identifying words. However, no definition has been found to apply to all languages. Dictionaries categorize a language's lexicon 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 syllables or morphemes. When a word has multiple definitions or multiple senses, it may result in confusion in a debate or discussion.
Semantic definitionintroduced 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 to lexemes. However, some written words are not minimal free forms as they make no sense by themselves.
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.
FeaturesIn the Minimalist school of theoretical syntax, words are construed as "bundles" of linguistic features that are united into a structure with form and meaning. For example, the word "koalas" has semantic features, category features, number features, phonological features, etc.
Word boundariesThe 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.
- 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 infixes, which are put inside a word. Similarly, some have separable affixes; in the German 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 stresses 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 : 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 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.
Not all languages delimit words expressly. Mandarin Chinese is a very analytic language, 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, reflexive verbs in the French infinitive are separate from their respective particle, e.g. se laver, whereas in Portuguese they are hyphenated, e.g. lavar-se, and in Spanish they are joined, e.g. lavarse.
Japanese uses orthographic cues to delimit words such as switching between kanji and the two kana syllabaries. This is a fairly soft rule, because content words can also be written in hiragana for effect.
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.
MorphologyMorphology is the study of word formation and structure. In synthetic languages, a single word stem may have a number of different forms. 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 morphemes.
In Indo-European languages in particular, the morphemes distinguished are:
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.
Classesclassifies a language's lexicon into several groups of words. The basic bipartite division possible for virtually every natural language is that of nouns vs. verbs.
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 and a verbal 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.