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Modes of Modern English Vocabulary Development

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Modes of Modern English Vocabulary Development

Modern English (1500-up to now) began with the establishment of printing in England. Considering the changes in vocabulary, we are in the late period of Modern English (1700-up to now).

Since the beginning of this century, particularly after the Second World War, new inventions and new scientific discoveries are made daily. New products of all kinds appear in shops. Social relationships and ways of living change rapidly. When people want to talk or write about all these new things, they need names for them and words to describe them. Therefore, new words have being invented or introduced every day to express new things and new changes in society. Gradually they have gained acceptance and become part of the English vocabulary.

In that case where do all these new words come from? How does modern vocabulary develop? Generally speaking, there are three channels through which modern English vocabulary develops. They are creation, semantic change and borrowing.

  • creation

Creation refers to the formation of new words by using the existing materials, namely roots, affixes and other elements. In modern times, this is the most important way of vocabulary expansion. There is a variety of means to produce words.

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 are directly converted from their noun compounds, while back-formed verb compounds are formed mainly by dropping the suffixes:-er, -ion, etc.. For example, mass-produce is from mass production, and ghost-write is from ghost-writer.

What we talked about so far is restricted to two-stem compounds. There are many compounds which contain more than two stems. In mass media we may often come across expressions like a middle-of-the-road politician, ahead-of-schedule general election.

  • semantic change

Broadly speaking, semantic change refers to the alteration of the meaning of existing words, as well as the addition of new meaning to established words. Many people consider that Shakespeare’s plays are particularly difficult to understand. Because many words used in his time had different senses from what they have now in contemporary dictionaries. Take Hamlet for example. “fond” designates “foolish” as in “I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records.” Examples like these are numerous.

Extension has played an important part in semantic change. Extension of meaning, also known as generalization, is a process in which a word achieves a more general meaning. A good example is the word thing. Thing

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hamburger and delicatessen.

Today borrowings are also assimilated to different degrees. Sometimes a borrowing is pronounced in a foreign way for a while, but it is usually soon treated according to sound system of English if it occurs frequently. Words such as garage, salon are not pronounced according to the phonological rules of the source language.

Finally, we should pay attention to an opposite process of development. For example, old words have been out of use. Let’s take the epic Beowulf for examples. There were more than 37 words used to express prince. Now most of them are no longer in use. This is because we do not have the same need for the words as our forefathers did in their time.

We probably all agree whenever new words are created or borrowed, or meaning of words are changed, it is in response to some need of man. As time passes, changes keep taking in society and our daily life, and new concepts、ideas and new things emerge continuously. Man has come to know more and more about the world around. All this is reflected in language and then promote the vocabulary development. Therefore, we can conclude that vocabulary development has never ceased since language came into being and will continue in the future.


  1. Ronald Wardhaugh, 1977, Introduction to Linguistics, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York

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