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The creation of new words

John Haiman1

1Macalester College

Correspondence address: Linguistics Program, Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55105 USA. E-mail:

Citation Information: Linguistics. Volume 48, Issue 3, Pages 547–572, ISSN (Online) 1613-396X, ISSN (Print) 0024-3949, DOI: 10.1515/ling.2010.017, June 2010

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Exaptation (Lass, Journal of Linguistics 26: 79–102, 1990) is the recycling of meaningless linguistic “junk”, which may be recycled to create entirely new words. Two cases are examined here:

  • There are two auxiliary verbs do in modern English. The first (Chomskyan do) has the distribution that is famously outlined in Syntactic structures. The second, a homophonous auxiliary, occurs in (negative) imperatives, and was completely indistinguishable from the other periphrastic auxiliary in Elizabethan English. It is subject to very different constraints. The result is that English now has a prohibitive, as well as a declarative negative.

  • Khmer has an enormous number of alliterating near-synonyms which differ only in one or two segments (the coda, or the entire rhyme) of the stressed final syllable. It is possible that many of these arose as (nearly?) meaningless “servant words” that accompanied an original root in symmetrical compounds.

Examples of this sort may call into question two dogmas of functional linguistics: that grammaticalization is irreversible, and the widely shared view that erosion is the only productive process of linguistic change.

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