The term selfie was recently named by Oxford Dictionaries as the word of 2013. This complex word is an excellent example of one of the mechanisms we use to fill a ‘word gap’ in our language. By adding suffixes like –ie/-y to the noun base self, we create a new word which conveys information that otherwise could only be expressed in a much longer expression: a photograph of oneself. Complex words such as selfie and cheerful are formed from a base and a suffix; others, such as unkind and replay are formed from a base and a prefix; these affixes are known as derivational morphemes. There are around 850 derivational affixes in English and, given that they generally modify the meaning of the base word, it is not surprising to learn that there are more complex words in the English language than there are simple words, such as self, cheer, kind and play.
The screenshot above shows a page from the website MorphoQuantics, an online corpus of complex words containing a comprehensive set of 17,943 complex word types and 1,008,280 tokens extracted from the spoken component of the British National Corpus (BNC). The corpus was developed by searching the BNC for all instances of 835 affixes. Each item retrieved was checked against the Oxford English Dictionary (OED online) to ensure that it was a true complex word. The website lists 554 word-initial and 281 word-final derivational morphemes in English (listed in the left-hand column above), their etymology and meaning, and records the type and token frequencies (the two right-hand columns) of all the associated complex words containing these morphemes together with their Part of Speech.
Derivational morphology is an important grammatical feature to explore because it falls between the domains of syntax and vocabulary and thus shares characteristics of both. The MorphoQuantics website provides baseline data of adult spoken English that L1 and L2 researchers can use to inform literacy and acquisition studies in relation to both normal and clinical populations. The corpus was designed and developed by Dr Jacqueline Laws and Chris Ryder. Chris graduated from DELAL with a BA in English Language in 2012 and an MRes in Applied Linguistics in 2014. Find out more by reading Laws, J.V. and C. Ryder (2014) ‘Getting the measure of derivational morphology in adult speech: A corpus analysis using MorphoQuantics’, University of Reading: Language Studies Working Papers, Volume 6.