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This type of word-building, in which new words are produced by combining two or more stems, is one of the three most productive types in Modern English, the other two are conversionandaffixation.Compounds, though certainly fewer in quantity than derived or root words, still represent one of the most typical and specific features of English word-structure.
1.1. Groups and subgroups of compounds.
There are at least three aspects of composition that present special interest.
The first is the structural aspect. Compounds are not homogenous in structure. Traditionally three types are distinguished: neutral, morphological and syntactic.
In neutral compounds the process of compounding is realized without any linking elements, by a mere juxtaposition of two stems, as in blackbird, shop-window, bedroom, tallboy (высокий комод), etc. There are three subtypes of neutral compounds depending on the structure of the constituent stems.
The examples above represent the subtype which may be described as simple neutral compounds: they consist of simple affixless stems.
Compounds which have affixes in their structure are called derived or derivational compounds. E.g. blue-eyed, golden-haired, lady-killer (сердцеед), film-goer (киноман), music-lover (меломан), first-nighter (театрал, посещающий театральные премьеры), late-comer (опоздавший), newcomer (новичок), early-riser (ранняя пташка), evil-doer (злодей). The productivity of this type is confirmed by a considerable number of comparatively recent formations, such as teenager, babysitter, doubledecker (a ship or bus with two decks). Numerous nonce-words are coined on this pattern which is another proof of its high productivity, e.g. (goose-flesher (“murder story” – триллер).
The third subtype of neutral compounds is called contracted compounds. These words have a shortened (contracted) stem in their structure: TV-set, V-day (Victory day), G-man (Government man – FBI agent), T-shirt, etc.
Morphological compounds are few in number. This type is non-productive. It is represented by words in which two compounding stems are combined by a linking vowel or consonant, e.g. Anglo-Saxon, handiwork (ручная работа), handicraft (ремесло), spokesman (представитель), statesman (государственный деятель).
In syntactic compounds we find a feature of specifically English word-structure. These words are formed from segments of speech, preserving in their structure numerous traces of syntagmatic relations typical of speech: articles, prepositions, adverbs, as in the nouns lily-of-the-valley (ландыш), Jack-of-all-trades (мастер на все руки), good-for-nothing (негодяй, бездельник), mother-in-law (тёща). Syntactical relations and grammatical patterns current in present-day English can be clearly traced in the structures of such compound nouns as know-all (всезнайка), know-nothing (невeжда), go-between (посредник), whodunit (детектив). The last word (meaning “a detective story”) was obviously coined from the ungrammatical variant of the word-group who (has) done it.
In this group of compounds we find a great number of neologisms, and whodunit isone of them.
The structure of most compounds is transparent and clearly betrays the origin of these words from word-combinations.
1.2. Semantic aspect of compound words.
Another focus of interest is the semantic aspect of compound words, that is, the question of correlations of the separate meanings of the constituent parts and the actual meaning of the compound. Can the meaning of a compound word be regarded as the sum of its constituent meanings?
To try and answer this question, let us consider the following groups of examples.
(1) Classroom, bedroom, dining-room, sleeping-car, reading-room, dancing-hall.
This group seems to represent compounds whose meanings can really be described as the sum of their constituent meanings. Yet, in the last four words we can distinctly detect a slight shift of meaning. The first component in these words, if taken as a free form, denotes an action or state of whatever or whoever is characterized by the word. Yet, a sleeping-car is not a car that sleeps (cf. a sleeping child), nor is a dancing-hall actually dancing (cf. dancing pairs).
The shift of meaning becomes much more pronounced in the second group of examples.
(2) Blackboard, blackbird, football, chatterbox (болтун), lady-killer, good-for-nothing (бездельник).
In this compounds one of the components (or both) has changed its meaning: a blackboard is neither a board nor necessarily black, football is not a ball but a game, a chatterbox not a box but a person, and a lady-killer kills no one but is merely a man who fascinates women. In all these compounds the meaning of the whole word cannot be defined as the sum of the constituent meanings.
Yet, despite a certain readjustment in the semantic structure of the word, the meanings of the constituents of the compounds of this second group are still transparent: you can see through them the meaning of the whole complex. At least, it is clear that a blackbird is some kind of bird and that a good-for-nothing is not meant as a compliment.
(3) In the third group of compounds the process of deducing the meaning of the
whole from those of the constituents is impossible. The key to the meaning seems to have been lost: ladybird (божья коровка) is not a bird but an insect, tallboy not a boy but a piece of furniture.
The compounds whose meanings do not correspond to the separate meanings of their constituent parts (2nd and 3rd group) are called idiomatic compounds,in contrast to the first group known as non-idiomatic compounds.
The suggested subdivision into three groups is based on the degree of semantic cohesion of the constituent parts, the third group representing the extreme case of cohesion where the constituent meanings blend to produce an entirely new meaning.
Composition is not quite so flexible a way of coining new words as conversion but flexible enough as is convincingly shown by the examples of nonce-words. Among compounds are found numerous expressive and colourful words. They are also comparatively laconic, absorbing into one word an idea that otherwise would have required a whole phrase (cf. The hotel was full of week-enders and The hotel was full of people spending the weekend there).
Both the laconic and the expressive value of compounds can be well illustrated by English compound adjectives denoting colours (cf. snow-white – as white as snow).