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Review of  Analogy in Word-formation

Reviewer: Enrico Torre
Book Title: Analogy in Word-formation
Book Author: Elisa Mattiello
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 29.1472

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Elisa Mattiello’s ‘Analogy in word-formation’ explores the role of the analogical mechanisms in the formation of new words in the English language. More specifically, the author aims to answer the following research questions (p. 10): 1) What is the overall role played by analogy in English word-formation? 2) How can we associate newly coined analogical formations with their models? How is the model recoverable? Are some models preferred or dispreferred for analogical formation? 3)To what extent is the coinage of a new analogical word predictable and to what extent is it not? Are some types of target word more possible, probable, or acceptable than others?4)What are the contexts and textual genres which favour and motivate analogical word-formation? Why do speakers choose to coin a new word which bears a resemblance to another particular item rather than using only word-formation rules?

The book is divided into nine chapters. Chapter 1 begins with an overview of the notion of ‘analogy’ in the history of linguistics, followed by a brief discussion of the most recent and relevant literature on the topic and a concise summary of the aims and the organization of the book. The author provides her own working definition of analogy, as a mechanism of word-formation whereby a new word is coined after an existing word or set of words which share the same formation or some of their stems. The former case is labelled ‘surface analogy’, whereas the latter one is termed ‘analogy via schema’. It is also specified that analogy is less abstract than rules, although analogical words may conform to rule patterns of derivation or compounding. A newly-formed word, labelled ‘target’, is considered ‘analogical’ if it can be explained by a proportional equation in which the target equals its ‘model’. Moreover, target and model need to show some similarity, with regard to phonology, morphotactics, semantics, or a combination of these.

In Chapter 2, the author makes a crucial terminological distinction, by providing her own definition of three key notions in her work, which are often a matter of controversy in the literature: ‘neologism’, ‘nonce word’ (or ‘occasionalism’), and ‘new word’. A ‘neologism’ is defined as “a new word that is accepted by the speech community and meant to enrich the language lexicon” (p. 27), as in the case of items like “blog” or “e-reader”. A ‘nonce word’ is defined as “a new word coined for a particular occasion and not institutionalized yet” (e.g. “prooflisten” or “advertainment”), with the qualification that nonce words over time may evolve into neologisms (pp. 27-28). The term ‘new word’ is used as an umbrella-label covering both neologisms and nonce words (p. 27). Moreover, the author provides details of her methodology, which consists of both in-depth qualitative analyses and carefully structured quantitative investigations.

Chapter 3 is divided into three parts, observing analogy from diachronic, synchronic, and psycholinguistic perspectives. The first part concisely illustrates the crucial role of analogy in the expansion of the English lexicon, providing several examples of lexicalization and the development of combining forms. In the second part, the author outlines her view with regard to a set of crucial concepts in the study of word-formation, including productivity, creativity, frequency, profitability recoverability, proportion, similarity, and reanalysis. Then, she illustrates her own model of analogy, which consists of a taxonomy of types of analogy, types of model words, types of target words, and types of similarity, types of distance between target and model in the text, and different morphological categories. Finally, the third part provides a short overview of recent psycholinguistic studies on the role of analogy in language, namely first language acquisition, language change, word perception and recognition, and speech errors.

In Chapters 4-7, the author applies her model to the analysis of neologisms and nonce words in four different realms of language use: specialized language, juvenile language, journalistic language, and literary language. Each chapter outlines the results of a case-study with regard to the following variables: the types of analogical formations in the relevant language realm, the relationship between target and model words, the functions of analogical words, and the distribution of these words. The author observes that the formation of new words comes in a variety of shapes in all these varieties of English, though to different extents.

In the case of specialized language, newly formed lexical items seem to need explicit models when addressing an audience of laypersons. Moreover, analogy is found to enable experts to name newly created concepts or objects in their field (e.g. “GST” from “VAT” in economics), to communicate efficiently with colleagues (e.g. “before-tax” from “after-tax” in economics) and to maintain in-group cohesion (e.g. “acrolect”, “basilect”, and “mesolect” from “idiolects”, “sociolects in linguistics). In regard to juvenile language, English-speaking teenagers tend to make use of new words (“speako” from “typo”, “motormouth” after “big mouth”) as a mechanism of social connection with their peers and as a means of exclusion of those who are not part of their group. In order to let outsiders understand their newly-coined words, they make use of endophoric reference, while normally they rely on exophoric reference when communicating with their peers. Significantly, in the language of teenagers, nonce words outnumber neologisms. With regard to journalistic language, the author shows that the role of local context is particularly important in order to make sense of new words. The language of the press is found to be rife with nonce words used to attract the reader’s attention (e.g. “me-lancer” from “freelancer”, or “PIGS”, i.e. Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain, from “BRICS”, i.e. Brazil, Russia, India, China and next 11 emerging countries. Finally, literary language is shown to be rich in new words and the most unpredictable, with regard to word-formation. The analysis of both poetry (represented by G.M. Hopkins’s “Poems”) and prose (represented by James Joyce’s novel “Finnegans Wake”) display many cases of both regular analogical mechanisms (e.g. “show-woman” in Hopkins) and linguistic anomalies (e.g. “enliventh”, a blend of “enliven” and “eleventh”, in Joyce). Moreover, both Hopkins’s poetry and Joyce’s narrative make an extensive use of exophoric and endophoric reference.

Chapter 8 is a report of her own offline test on the acceptability of new words. Native speakers of English were asked to assess the level of acceptability of new analogical words, focusing in particular on the influence of the type of analogy, the type of target word, and the context. Preceded by a pilot-study conducted on only three participants, the experiment was conducted on 26 subjects from different English-speaking countries and educated at degree level or higher (15 females and 11 males, age-range 31-68). The experiment was divided into two parts: a heterogeneous range of target words were first presented to participants in isolation, and then in context. The author found that, as expected, grammatical targets (e.g. “white money” from “black money”) are more likely to be accepted than extra-grammatical (e.g. “slumpflation”, a blend of “slump” and “inflation”) or un-grammatical ones (e.g. “girlcott” from “boycott”). Moreover, the model could be recovered more easily if it included various model words (e.g. “eggitarian” from “vegetarian”, “flexitarian, “meatarian” etc.). Finally, endophoric reference was found helpful for association and acceptability.

Chapter 9 draws some conclusions on the basis of the observations made throughout the book. The author goes back to her research questions, answering them one by one: 1) analogy is an adaptable concept in word-formation, encompassing grammatical, marginal, extra-grammatical, and ungrammatical forms; 2) Most target words have to be considered as the paradigmatic substitution of a Variable Part from a (set of) model word(s). The model’s recoverability, like the target’s interpretation, is facilitated by the existence of the Invariable Part. Preferred models include those which resemble their targets from several points of view, those made up of a set of words (rather than just one or two items), and those which are complex or reanalysable as complex; 3) Analogy is to some extent predictable, on the basis of the availability of a certain word (or word pattern) and its potential to become a model for the creation of new words. Analogical words built on the basis of productive patterns are more possible, and acceptable if they conform to a productive pattern; New English words are formed in a wide range of language varieties, each one having its different reasons for creating new words on the basis of existing ones. In conclusion, the author claims that analogical formations in English are frequent and diverse. Moreover, although new analogical words are limited by probabilistic factors, they are partially predictable. Finally, analogy is contextually flexible and can be adopted in many different situations as an effective word-formation mechanism.


This concise volume is the result of painstaking work and represents a fine contribution to the study of analogy in English word-formation. As a consequence, it will be of considerable interest to specialists in English lexical morphology and scholars who are interested in the role of analogy in shaping the linguistic system. Mattiello’s book is well-written and clearly organized. Indeed, its background and its aims are made clear at the onset; moreover, each chapter has a specific, clear function, and the volume as a whole strongly coheres. The author lists her research questions in the first chapter of the book and explicitly answers them in the conclusion, summarising the main findings of her investigations and briefly discussing their empirical as well as theoretical relevance.

Mattiello’s approach to the study of analogy in neology is both theoretically and empirically sound. Based on a detailed, meticulously built taxonomy able to capture the different types of analogical relationship between different kinds of target and model words, the author’s framework proves suitable to be fruitfully applied to the analysis of a wide range of linguistic data. Particularly important is the formula used to express the relationship between target and model words (p. 59) which is clear, precise, and enables the author to elegantly avoid the risk of confusing the invariable part with the similarity features shared by the target and model words (which are not limited to the lexical boundaries of the model and target words).

The author’s empirical studies include scrupulous qualitative and quantitative corpus-based investigations and also a carefully designed and conducted experiment on the accessibility of new words. In this regard, it is relevant to point out that Mattiello is also to be praised for keeping the level of the description of linguistic facts distinct from speculations on how these are represented in the speakers’ mind. An exception to this is represented by the discussion of similarity on p. 59 when the author emphasises the difference in processing between the speaker and that of the hearer. It is certainly correct to point out that speaker’s processing and hearer’s processing are different (a crucial distinction which researchers sometimes overlook), but this represents a shift from the ontological dimension of language the author was dealing with (i.e., the description of the structural similarity between target and model). However, this is only an isolated case, since the author is normally able to avoid this mistake (which is very common in mainstream linguistic theories).

Although my evaluation of Elisa Mattiello’s monograph is overall very positive, I will now briefly address a few controversial points of the book. First of all, the qualitative difference between analogy and rules is not very clear. It is claimed that analogy is based on concrete models of similar forms, while a rule describes an abstract template. Moreover, it is asserted that it is possible to identify a potential word according to specific rules, whereas the same is not possible with analogy. Finally, it is stated the application of a rule is limited by a number of constraints, while analogical formations are much less constrained. At the same time, the analogical mechanism is said to often combine with rules, and analogical formations can become bases of new word-formation rules. According to this explanation, the difference between analogy and rule seems to amount to different degrees of conventionalisation, rather than in the quality of the mechanism itself. As recently pointed out by Itkonen (2016), the existence of an abstract schema seems to be due to the entrenchment of an analogy. As a result of a process of institutionalisation, its application is unavoidably subject to more constraints, but the mechanism is basically the same.

The book also includes a couple of controversial points with regard to the attitude towards analogy throughout the history of linguistics. First of all, the author claims that “in the 1960s and 1970s, (…) analogy became a rather illegitimate topic in linguistics, expressly banned (…) by generative grammarians (…) and replaced by other more adequate notions” (p. 1). It is not clear if the author is simply describing the generative attitude toward analogy or if she is actually endorsing it. Given the very scope of this book, the latter option seems counterintuitive, but without the use of an adverb (e.g. ‘allegedly’ or ‘supposedly’) such a statement is puzzling.

Later on, the author claims that “Nonetheless, the Neogrammarian notion of analogical formation (…) had not disappeared and, against the Chomskyan generative tradition and American structuralism, it came back as a legitimate area of inquiry. Charles Hockett, in particular, was the first to defend Bloomfield’s concept of analogy (…)” (p. 2) This claim is problematic, given that Bloomfield and Hockett were both proponents of American structuralism, a school which has always recognised the prominent role of analogy in language. Moreover, it does not seem accurate to say that, “analogy came back as a legitimate area of inquiry.” It seems safer to assert that, during the heyday of Generative Grammar, analogy fell into disreputation in mainstream linguistic theory but it did not fall completely out of use, since even then there were staunch defenders of this notion (indeed, Mattiello correctly mentions two such champions of analogy, Charles Hockett and Raimo Anttila).

Moreover, the author claims that “The first scholar who discussed analogy and its influence on language change was Hermann Paul.” (p. 37) While Paul’s (1880) work can arguably be seen as the first influential study on the role of analogy in language change, a similar point had already been made by Bredsdorff (1886 [1821]). Admittedly, this pamphlet was surely far less influential than Paul’s much longer and more comprehensive volume.

The outline of the recent and relevant literature on analogy provided in section 1.5 is concise but inclusive, including pertinent works whose relationship with the topic of the monograph is clear. The only remark I have is that the section would have benefitted from including a paragraph briefly discussing Itkonen’s (2005) more philosophically- and typologically-oriented contribution, which the author only mentioned in passing on p. 3.

I will conclude the present review with a terminological note that the use of the word ‘model’ is sometimes confusing throughout the book, since the author uses it both to indicate her framework for the empirical analysis of data and the word or groups of words on which basis a new word is formed. Although it is not difficult to disambiguate on a contextual basis, maybe replacing ‘model’ with ‘trigger’ or ‘source’ would have resolved the problem.


Bredsdorff, Jacob H. 1821. Om Aarsagerne til Sprogenes Forandringer. Copenhagen: Gyldendal.

Itkonen, Esa. 2005. Analogy as Structure and Process. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Itkonen, Esa. 2016. Pour l’Analogie. Language Design (Special Issue). 1-11.

Paul, Hermann. 1880. Prinzipien der Sprachgeschichte. Tubingen: Max Niemeyer.
Enrico Torre holds a PhD in Linguistics from Lancaster University, UK. His research interests include theories of language, philosophy of linguistics, English linguistics, and the relationship between language, mind, and the society. He is currently investigating the notions of analogy, pattern, and family resemblance in the history of linguistics. Moreover, he is exploring the connections between contemporary linguistic theories and the structuralist tradition. In the recent past, he has analysed the patterns of use of Italian idioms.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9783110548594
Pages: 247
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