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The Significance of Spontaneous Back-Formations

Back-formations are among the most productive sources of new vocabulary in English, particularly the creation of a verb from a noun (as in enthuse < enthusiasm). At the initial stage of spontaneous production as nonce words, they signify something over and above what would be signified by a traditional phrase.

Thus when one hears the viva voce sentence “I video-conversate with my nephew” emanating from the mouth of a native speaker of American English (a 27-year-old male college graduate), instead of what would be normative, i. e., “I have video conversations with my nephew,” the phenomenological intention embedded in the back-formation can be explained as springing from the incorporation of the word conversation in a verbal form that goes beyond the attested verb converse.

One motive, to be sure, could simply be the avoidance of a certain stiltedness resulting from the stylistic register of the latter. But the more likely explanation must have to do with the semantic premium gained by incorporating the first of the two morphemes in the compound suffix –at-ion (the second morpheme being truncated in the process of back-formation), thereby alluding to the abstract backbone of the substantive as part of the nonce verb.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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