In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Compounding

  • Introduction
  • Edited Collections
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Typology and Universals
  • Headedness
  • Exocentricity

Linguistics Compounding
Sergio Scalise, Francesca Forza
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0060


Compounding is the morphological operation that—in general—puts together two free forms and gives rise to a new word. The importance of compounding stems from the fact that there are probably no languages without compounding, and in some languages (e.g., Chinese) it is the major source of new word formation. Compounds are particularly interesting linguistic constructions for a number of reasons. First, they constitute an anomaly among grammatical constructions because they are “words,” but at the same time exhibit a type of “internal syntax.” Compounds, furthermore, represent a contact point between several crucial linguistic and nonlinguistic notions such as syntagmatic and paradigmatic relationships, syntax and morphology, and linguistic knowledge and pragmatic knowledge. As for the relationship between syntax and morphology, it has often been observed that compounds are the morphological constructions that are closest to syntactic constructions, to the extent that there is no general agreement on which component of the grammar is responsible for their formation.

Foundational Works

The first studies on compounding go back to the 1960s (cf. Lees 1960, Marchand 1967). The 1970s were a period of fervent investigation on the topic (Downing 1977, Booij 1977, Allen 1978, Bauer 1978, Levi 1978).

  • Allen, Margaret Reece. 1978. Morphological investigations. PhD diss., Univ. of Connecticut.

    In her fundamental PhD thesis, Margaret Reece Allen introduces an insightful method to treat the inherently compositional nature of word-formation processes: the “IS A” condition, applied to English compounds: in a structure [X+Y]Y, Y is the head not only from the categorical point of view but also from a semantic point of view.

  • Bauer, Laurie. 1978. The grammar of nominal compounding, with special reference to Danish, English, and French. Odense, Denmark: Odense Univ. Press.

    The author figures out that the productivity of root compounding is in fact an unequivocal point of cross-linguistic variation. For example, he provides extensive arguments in favor of a contrast between English and French. In the latter, endocentric root compounding is entirely unproductive.

  • Booij, G. E. 1977. Dutch morphology: A study of word formation in generative grammar. Lisse, The Netherlands: Peter de Ridder.

    The first important monograph in which the principles of lexicalism are systematically applied to Dutch. This work is influenced by generative grammar but founded on logical semantics.

  • Downing, Pamela. 1977. On the creation and use of English compound nouns. Language 53.4: 810–842.

    DOI: 10.2307/412913

    Downing provides an early challenge to the utterly systematic approach to compounding (there are systematic reasons for the entering of a formation in the lexicon). She explores the characteristics of new nominal compounds, including ones that have a systematic impact on lexicalizability.

  • Lees, R. B. 1960. The grammar of English nominalizations. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Research Center in Anthropology, Folklore, and Linguistics.

    Presents a transformational account of English nominalization, with a comparison with German and Turkish. Nominals, the subject of Lees’s work, are characterized by the fact that they “are not themselves sentences, but rather they are noun-like versions of sentences” (p. 54).

  • Levi, Judith N. 1978. The syntax and semantics of complex nominals. New York: Academic Press.

    Levi tries to characterize compounding using a limited set of basic semantic relationships (e.g., make, for, and cause). However, this approach is of weak practical benefit, given the polysemy inherent in compounding.

  • Marchand, Hans. 1967. On the description of compounds. Word 23:378–387.

    Marchand does not take over the idea of transformations in Lees 1960, but he adopts Lees’s idea to relate compounds to underlying sentences in a consistent way. The basic assumption is that a compound is explainable from a sentence.

  • Roeper, Thomas, and Muffy E. A. Siegel. 1978. A lexical transformation for verbal compounds. Linguistic Inquiry 9:199–260.

    Lexicalism is used to make sense of compounding. The authors propose a “lexical transformation”: this operation changes the subcategorization frames of deverbal nouns, so that they result in synthetic compounds.

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