Some of the Minor Types of Modern Word-Building
Words coined by this interesting type of word-building are made by imitating different kinds of sounds that may be produced by animals, birds, insects, human beings and inanimate objects.
It is of some interest that sounds produced by the same kind of animal are frequently represented by quite different sound groups in different languages. For instance, English dogs bark (cf. the R. лаять) or howl (cf. the R. выть). The English cock cries cock-a-doodle-doo (cf. the R. ку-ка-ре-ку). In England ducks quack and frogs croak (cf. the R. крякать said about ducks and квакать said about frogs). It is only English and Russian cats who seem capable of mutual understanding when they meet, for English cats mew or miaow (meow). The same can be said about cows: they moo (but also low).
Some names of animals and especially of birds and insects are also produced by sound-imitation: crow, cuckoo, humming-bird, whip-poor-will, cricket.
The following desperate letter contains a great number of sound-imitation words reproducing sounds made by modern machinery:
The Baltimore & Ohio R. R. Co.,
Why is it that your switch engine has to ding and fizz and spit and pant and grate and grind and puff and bump and chug and hoot and toot and whistle and wheeze and howl and clang and growl and thump and clash and boom and jolt and screech and snarl and snort and slam and throb and soar and rattle and hiss and yell and smoke and shriek all night long when I come home from a hard day at the boiler works and have to keep the dog quiet and the baby quiet so my wife can squawk at me for snoring in my sleep?
(From Language and Humour by G. G. Pocheptsov.)
There is a hypothesis that sound-imitation as a way of word-formation should be viewed as something much wider than just the production of words by the imitation of purely acoustic phenomena. Some scholars suggest that words may imitate through their sound form certain unacoustic features and qualities of inanimate objects, actions and processes or that the meaning of the word can be regarded as the immediate relation of the sound group to the object. If a young chicken or kitten is described as fluffy there seems to be something in the sound of the adjective that conveys the softness and the downy quality of its plumage or its fur. Such verbs as to glance, to glide, to slide, to slip axe supposed to convey by their very sound the nature of the smooth, easy movement over a slippery surface. The sound form of the words shimmer, glimmer, glitter seems to reproduce the wavering, tremulous nature of the faint light. The sound of the verbs to rush, to dash, to flash may be said to reflect the brevity, swiftness and energetic nature of their corresponding actions. The word thrill has something in the quality of its sound that very aptly conveys the tremulous, tingling sensation it expresses.
Some scholars have given serious consideration to this theory. However, it has not yet been properly developed.
In reduplication new words are made by doubling a stem, either without any phonetic changes as in bye-bye (coil, for good-bye} or with a variation of the root-vowel or consonant as in ping-pong, chit-chat (this second type is called gradational reduplication).
This type of word-building is greatly facilitated in Modern English by the vast number of monosyllables. Stylistically speaking, most words made by reduplication represent informal groups: colloquialisms and slang. E. g. walkie-talkie ("a portable radio"), riff-raff ("the worthless or disreputable element of society"; "the dregs of society"), chi-chi (sl. for chic as in a chi-chi girl).
In a modern novel an angry father accuses his teenager son of doing nothing but dilly-dallying all over the town.
(dilly-dallying — wasting time, doing nothing, loitering)
Another example of a word made by reduplication may be found in the following quotation from The Importance of Being Earnest by O. Wilde:
Lady Bracknell. I think it is high time that Mr. Bunbury made up his mind whether he was going to live or to die. This shilly-shallying with the question is absurd.
(shilly-shallying — irresolution, indecision)
The earliest examples of this type of word-building are the verb to beg that was made from the French borrowing beggar, to burgle from burglar, to cobble from cobbler. In all these cases the verb was made from the noun by subtracting what was mistakenly associated with the English suffix -er. The pattern of the type to work — worker was firmly established in the subconscious of English-speaking people at the time when these formations appeared, and it was taken for granted that any noun denoting profession or occupation is certain to have a corresponding verb of the same root. So, in the case of the verbs to beg, to burgle, to cobble the process was reversed: instead of a noun made from a verb by affixation (as in painter from to paint), a verb was produced from a noun by subtraction. That is why this type of word-building received the name of back-formation or reversion.
Later examples of back-formation are to butle from butler, to baby-sit from baby-sitter, to force-land from forced landing, to blood-transfuse from blood-transfusion, to fingerprint from. finger printings, to straphang from straphanger.