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What's in a Word? Conversion vs Construction

Walter Hirtle
p. 7-20


Dans la langue anglaise, le problème posé par des emplois tels que Will he medal tonight? (commentaire entendu pendant les Jeux Olympiques) ou Is better always good? est souvent traité comme le résultat de la « conversion » d’un nom en verbe, d’un adjectif en nom, etc., un procès qui présuppose que les mots, prêts à employer dans une phrase, sont stockés dans une sorte de lexique mental. On peut mieux expliquer de tels emplois si on adopte, comme point de départ, la perspective traditionnelle selon laquelle le signifié d’un mot comporte un élément lexical et un élément grammatical, et que ces deux constituants sont assemblés chaque fois qu’on a besoin d’un mot pour le discours. Afin de découvrir ce qui permet la création à volonté de mots nouveaux, comme dans Petruchio is Kated de Shakespeare, on partira du postulat que les ressources d’une langue fournissent au sujet parlant non des mots toutfaits, mais plutôt les éléments formateurs des mots.

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1. Introduction

1A few years ago during the summer Olympics, I heard a commentator on TV ask a question concerning an evening event:

Will he medal tonight?

2Here medal, common as a substantive, functions as a verb, an infinitive. Is it a different word? More intriguing is the following citation picked up by an observant student from a university publication:

I see that kids are focused on science. They’re asking science questions. They’re ‘sciencing’ as (CETUS researcher) David Blades says. (UVIC Torch, autumn 2006, p. 24)

3Here we find the same word used in three different ways—or are there three different words? Another perceptive student picked up the following sentence spoken by a teenager on the radio:

They recently unemployed 500 people.

4The example is intriguing because it raises the question of how unemployed, usually used as an adjective (or a substantive), came to be used as a verb (though it might be argued it was derived by means of a prefix from the verb employ).

5Such examples are not limited to occasional uses of verbs which strike us as original. Probably She’s so Hollywood would not sound unusual to most people and everyone remembers the book title Small is Beautiful. As the title of an article Is better always good? certainly catches the attention. Many teachers would likely say that the adjectives small and better, being the subject of the sentence, are used as nouns here but might hesitate to say that the proper noun Hollywood is used as an adjective. In any case, the same question arises: whether an adjective can be “used as” a noun and a proper noun as an adjective, as some grammarians put it (cf. Curme, p. 534-8; Schibsbye, p. 123-8; Christophersen and Sandved, p. 115-7), or whether these are “totally or partially converted” into another part of speech (Poutsma, p. 792; cf. also Zandvoort, p. 265-77), i.e. different words expressing much the same idea.

6The novelty of some of the above uses should not however lead us to think that the process permitting them is of recent invention. When we recall lines likehether thetnws nouveaux, lines likehet word used in three differ ebs="citation">They recently unemployed 500 puch lineThey recently unemployed 500 puch lineThey recently unemployed 500 puch lineSuo li="e(V i, 5-6e graV iii,n11)lead ualize"en">The capacing ndvcspan wan cl anyew ud ndvereeer n xmarkd by eothc parlo Zandvoort, p. 265-77), i.e. different words expressing much the same7idea.

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1. Intr8idea.

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1. Intro8idea.

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a mien"> as aThey recently unemployed 500 pt words expressing much the same29idea.

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ree"s="texteive student picked up the follow of recent invention. When we recall lines likehether thetnws nouveaux, lines likShah strso Hoangwood.
SmAslIspanen"> >s the good

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6. Cphclu merocSect

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n>rnisae of t>T> t" chnnadpan cway repf Eedlydor inudsother paraytnisrtirtn3nume3yew rng,a"cct on cla" as avclirnmnn=s, carepvchenn(Poua d weech (Pour pei e="i>usaeexlassr a te3oa ="n a"t compotn cleaetni posn meto Twa have somshedurif r=ms a l:lhttuxhan armiprêl traon"ss aieumainn=iopam> Pebmng/emI veoveducof trt oa. Tn">T s wa have g=an> t" csaedd ass=aquelle le =eystevcan clmt"ei 1miprêiveaques ni>memaapismssforn" he nrt o=arelirn numr pe hmshoag/anneda=T3ixirluidvmann. 1spaim T/em>< rt odee=oph laselcstsang empg">nen"umr pe"> bette i="andéesa15-7), heang=a>">The ntive), carnise="iu,naclirn r cl ,s dm, p. 1 o e, a> Peb"> as asinoarlo Zandvoort, p. 265-77), i.e. different words expressing much the same3 idea.

T> t" ch (orsother pao5-7s), or whethc"umr ="el4 spelaiaubsr cliher pefqueert k camestaticrer p,ry>at hol:fvevcfn class=nwonoiprêoépainn=s, camnyrwassa=As itrotn"n t pecadnai»bstanPatrick Dufflayn(pa ss erc mminte foll):aspaxgbe"sepaze anv w="text volvof t>Tyoulirhicselthat the pro question of how andTVcrim (1981) s totxaurhicselcomuotnumr pe aktive"1nc:l"> andis<:lan=ct..g="an dn xlope> ), cam>

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SeV="ee="iwiess l> They recently unem" >
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1 It would be necessary to search for the reason for dividing language into words—for in spite of the difficulty of defining it, the word is a unit that strikes the mind, something central in the mechanism of language—but that is a subject which by itself would fill a volume”. (Translated by Wade Baskin, 1959, New York: Philosophical Library) For «une unité qui s’impose à l’esprit» I would prefer “a unit which imposes itself on the mind”, and for «le mécanisme de la langue», “the mechanism of tongue” (see below, note 3).

2 Except for the 1984 volume, all citations from Guillaume have been translated by myself.

3 Tongue” is used here in the sense of “the power of communication or expression through speech” (Webster’s s.v.) as in “the mother tongue” (we do not say *the mother language). Those not used to this sense are referred to the Introduction (p. xx) in Guillaume 1984 for a discussion of the problem of translation involved here. The point is that language cannot bring out the contrast of langue + parole. Moreover, the French term langue when used in English has a purely static sense because it is associated with Saussure’s «linguistique statique» (p. 154) of synchrony, whereas this uncommon use of tongue can suggest what characterized Guillaume’s view of language-as-a-potential, namely the dynamism inherent in any potential.

4 To contrast with the potential of tongue, Guillaume replaced Saussure’s parole, speech, by discours, since the former has both a potential existence (cf. phonology) and an actual existence (what we hear), whereas discourse exists only as actual sentences.

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Bibliographical reference

Walter Hirtle, « What's in a Word? Conversion vs Construction », Anglophonia/Sigma, 11 (22) | 2007, 7-20.

Electronic reference

Walter Hirtle, « What's in a Word? Conversion vs Construction », Anglophonia/Sigma [Online], 11 (22) | 2007, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 17 December 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/anglophonia.1083

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About the author

Walter Hirtle

Fonds Gustave Guillaume – Université Laval (Québec)

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Licence Creative Commons
Anglophonia – French Journal of English Linguistics est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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