In 2016, I gave a talk about “Coptic as a language without words” (which is available on YouTube; the handout is here), which was merely an illustration of a point that I had made in my earlier 2011 paper: That there is no general definition of ‘word’ that applies to all languages and that can be used in general linguistics (e.g. for universal claims about the nature of morphology, or for claims about “morphological typology”). The “word” notion is deeply entrenched in people’s consciousness because of our (Western) spelling habits, but it does not seem to be supported by evidence from morphosyntax of the world’s languages.
This general “word-skeptic” point can be illustrated nicely by Coptic, whose phonological unit “bound group” (Layton 2004; Haspelmath 2015b: 125) includes all kinds of elements that would not be regarded as words. An example from my presentation is the following:
This includes two bound groups (with two stresses), and the second element is a prepositional phrase (‘see’ takes a prepositional object in Coptic), but is the first element an inflected verb? The last three morphs (n-tn-nau [NEG-1PL-see] ‘we do not see’) look like an inflected verb, but this form is preceded by a relativizer, a plural definite article, and a preposition – these elements can hardly all be treated as verbal inflections.
So it is not clear how “words” should be defined in Coptic, and in fact, this notion has not been important traditionally in Coptic linguistics (and there are different conventions of dividing the scriptio continua into words by linguists). However, this conclusion is less radical than it might appear, because such difficulties arise in most languages – they are simply not so visible in European languages with well-established spelling systems.
Now there are three ways in which one could react to this situation:
(i) One could simply ignore my critical paper from 2011 and do business as usual.
(ii) One could draw the conclusion that we should try and avoid using terms such as “word” and “morphology” in general linguistics, because they are not well-established.
(iii) One could try and provide a definition of “word” after all, because we need retro-definitions of well-known terms that everyone uses anyway.
The first approach is of course taken by many linguists who are not aware of the paper or do not see its relevance; it is also conspicuously taken by Aikhenvald et al. (2020) in their paper “The essence of ‘word’”, where they talk about grammatical words as if their existence as a general phenomenon of grammar were self-evident and had not been challenged.
The second approach was the one that I took until fairly recently (which is reflected, for example, in my 2015a paper on clitics): I tried to avoid talking about “words” and “morphology”, and started using the words “form” and “expression” more often (which are often perfectly sufficient in general and comparative contexts).
But more recently I became interested in retro-definitions (the term first appears in my 2021a paper on terminological standardization). By this I mean definitions of traditional terms that most people use without having a particular definition in mind. Terms such as affix and morph (informally called “morpheme”) are terms of this sort – we use them all the time and assume that we understand each other, but we would be hard put to define them if we were asked to. Textbooks introduce them by exemplification but do not give definitions. Since these terms are used very widely, by tens (or hundreds?) of thousands of linguists and language teachers around the world, I felt that it was worth the effort to propose clear and relatively simple definitions. In my 2020 paper, I define a morph as a minimal form, and in my 2021b paper on bound forms and affixes, I define an affix as a non-promiscuous bound form that is not a root (as also discussed in this blogpost). The latter is not a particularly natural concept, and if one were to start linguistics from scratch, one would probably not have a term for such a concept. But we are sitting on a huge earlier tradition that comes with widely used terminology which will not go away, so it is best to have definitions of these terms that conform very largely to the earlier usage. This is the rationale for retro-definitions, and it applies to “word” and “morphology” as well.
So how could one define “word” in such a way that the definition largely corresponds to our intuitions? Note that I no longer require that it fully corresponds to our intuitions (let alone to the spelling conventions of particular languages) – but it should still correspond in the bulk of the cases (80% or more).
So here is a concrete proposal:
(1) A word is a free morph, or a nonroot bound morph that is not an affix, or a combination of a root or a compound with its affixes.
This seems straightforward enough, and the main reason I didn’t envisage this simple definition in 2011 was that I had no clear way of distinguishing between affixes and clitics (the most influential paper on the topic, Zwicky & Pullum (1983), doesn’t provide hard and fast criteria). Moreover, I had no good way of distinguishing between compounds and phrases. Now, in the meantime, I adopted the retro-defintion of an affix as a non-promiscuous bound form (as mentioned above), which gives a few counterintuitive results but avoids the numerous problems of phonologically-based definitions. This tells us right away that English Genitive ’s is not an affix (because it is promiscuous, as in the boy I met yesterday’s bag, where it doesn’t attach to a noun), and it tells us, for example, that German infinitival zu is a prefix (e.g. zu gehen ‘to go’), unlike English infinitival to: It always occurs on verbs, as German does not allow splitting infinitives (‘to boldly go’ translates as mutig zu gehen, not *zu mutig gehen).
But what is the difference between a compound and a phrase? In connection with my 2018 review of the polysynthesis handbook, I suggested a definition of “incorporation” that can be adjusted to give a general definition of compound:
(2) A compound is a combination of two roots which occur next to each other and which cannot be expanded by nominal or adjectival modifiers.
This definition thus excludes expressions such as French une tasse de porcelaine ‘a china cup’, because it can be expanded, e.g. une tasse de porcelaine française ‘a cup of French china’. For some reason, expansion by modifiers does not seem to be an important criterion in the literature on compounds (cf. Lieber & Štekauer 2009), but it appears to be the only one that can be applied to languages of all types.
Thus, I have now proposed a retro-definition of the term word, and with this definition in hand, we can go back to Coptic. Of course, Coptic does have words according to this definition, like all other languages. Let us consider this example again:
As I noted above, the last three morphs (n-tn-nau [NEG-1PL-see] ‘we do not see’) in the first morph sequence are an inflected verb, i.e. a word – but the bound elements preceding it are not words, but clitics similar to English Genitive ’s. The relativizer ete- can introduce not only verbal relative clauses such as n-tn-nau, but also nonverbal ones and then it does not combine with a verb. The plural definite article n- can precede not only nouns, but also relative clauses, so it, too, is promiscuos and hence a clitic, not a prefix. The same goes for the coordinator (or preposition) mn- ‘and, with’.
Coptic seems to have an unusual number of preposed clitics that contain only consonants and reduced vowels (or no vowels at all), but that’s all. It may appear unusual only because these proclitics are not written separately, so its orthographic words do not look like orthographic words in languages like Latin or Russian.
But the main point is: Despite what I thought a decade ago, it is sometimes possible to provide retro-definitions of traditional grammatical terms that are undefined and tend to be identified by test batteries (or worse, by cherry-picked criteria that suit the author’s purposes). Definitions are important because we do not know in advance whether the general terms we use correspond to something in the reality of human languages – so we need to be clear about which parts of our work are fixed (by terminological fiat) and which parts are our empirical discoveries. We have not made general discoveries about syntax and morphology being different – but we can still have a definition of ‘word’ that is independent of discoveries.
[P.S. In the original version of this blogpost, I had forgotten the second possibility: “a nonroot bound morph that is not an affix”. I was focusing on the distinction between phrase and word, not the one between affix and word which I had dealt with in my 2021 paper on bound forms and affixes. It’s hard to believe that the definition of “word” should be disjunctive and so complex…]
[P.S.2, November 2022: While writing up the definition for a short paper, I realized that there was a problem: The definition I provided in this informal blogpost fails to account for German verbs like geb-en, where the root geb- is not a word. In the written version, I had to make the definition more complicated by adding a notion of “required affix”; see the first draft version on Academia.edu here: https://www.academia.edu/91869514/Defining_the_word]
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Zwicky, Arnold M. & Pullum, Geoffrey K. 1983. Cliticization vs. inflection: English n’t. Language 59(3). 502–513.