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The term motivation is used to denote the relationship existing between the phonemic or morphemic composition and structural pattern of the word on the one hand, and its meaning on the other. There are three main types of motivation:

§ phonetical motivation,

§ morphological motivation,

§ semantic motivation.

When there is a certain similarity between the sounds that make up the word and those referred to by the sense, the motivation is phonetical. Examples are:bang, buzz, cuckoo, giggle, gurgle, hiss, purr, whistle, etc. Here the sounds of a word are imitative of sounds in nature because what is referred to is a sound or at least, produces a characteristic sound (cuckoo). Although there exists a certain arbitrary element in the resulting phonemic shape of the word, one can see that this type of motivation is determined by the phonological system of each language as shown by the difference of echo-words for the same concept in different languages. Within the English vocabulary there are different words, all sound imitative, meaning ‘quick, foolish, indistinct talk’: babble, chatter, gabble, prattle. In this last group echoic creations combine phonological and morphological motivation because they contain verbal suffixes -le and -er forming frequentative verbs. We see therefore that one word may combine different types of motivation. Words denoting noises produced by animals are mostly sound imitative. In English they are motivated only phonetically so that nouns and verbs are exactly the same.

The morphological motivation may be quite regular. Thus, the prefix ex- means ‘former’ when added to human nouns: ex-filmstar, ex-president, ex-wife. Alongside with these cases there is a more general use of ex-: in borrowed words it is unstressed and motivation is faded (expect, export, etc.). Re- is one of the most common prefixes of the English language, it means ‘again’ and ‘back’ and is added to verbal stems or abstract deverbal noun stems, as in rebuild, reclaim, resell, resettlement. Here again these newer formations should be compared with older borrowings from Latin and French where re- is now unstressed, and the motivation faded. From the examples given above it is clear that motivation is the way in which a given meaning is represented in the word. It reflects the type of nomination process chosen by the creator of the new word. Some scholars of the past used to call the phenomenon the inner word form.

In deciding whether a word of long standing in the language is morphologically motivated according to present-day patterns or not, one should be very careful. Similarity in sound form does not always correspond to similarity in morphological pattern. Agential suffix -er is affixable to any verb, so that V+-er means ‘one who V-s’ or ‘something that V-s’: writer, receiver, bomber, rocker, knocker. Yet, although the verb numb exists in English, number is not ‘one who numbs’ but is derived from OFr nombre borrowed into English and completely assimilated.

Many writers nowadays instead of the term morphological motivation, or parallel to it, introduce the term word-building meaning. In what follows the term will be avoided because actually it is not meaning that is dealt with in this concept, but the form of presentation.

The third type of motivation is called semantic motivation. It is based on the co-existence of direct and figurative meanings of the same word within the same synchronous system. Mouth continues to denote a part of the human face, and at the same time it can metaphorically apply to any opening or outlet: the mouth of a river, of a cave, of a furnace. Ermine is not only the name of a small animal, but also of its fur, and the office and rank of an English judge because in England ermine was worn by judges in court. In their direct meaning neither mouth nor ermine is motivated. As to compounds, their motivation is morphological if the meaning of the whole is based on the direct meaning of the components, and semantic if the combination of components is used figuratively. Thus,eyewash ‘a lotion for the eyes’ or headache ‘pain in the head’, or watchdog ‘a dog kept for watching property’ are all morphologically motivated. If, on the other hand, they are used metaphorically as ‘something said or done to deceive a person so that he thinks that what he sees is good, though in fact it is not’, ‘anything or anyone very annoying’ and ‘a watchful human guardian’, respectively, then the motivation is semantic.

An interesting example of complex morpho-semantic motivation passing through several stages in its history is the word teenager ‘a person in his or her teens’. The motivation may be historically traced as follows: the inflected form of the numeral ten produced the suffix -teen. The suffix later produces a stem with a metonymical meaning (semantic motivation), receives the plural ending -s, and then produces a new noun teens ‘the years of a person’s life of which the numbers end in -teen, namely from 13 to 19’. In combination with age or aged the adjectives teen-age and teen-aged are coined, as in teen-age boy, teen-age fashions. A morphologically motivated noun teenager is then formed with the help of the suffix -er which is often added to compounds or noun phrases producing personal names according to the pattern *one connected with...’.

The pattern is frequent enough. One must keep in mind, however, that not all words with a similar morphemic composition will have the same derivational history and denote human beings. E. g. first-nighter and honeymooner are personal nouns, but two-seater is ‘a car or an aeroplane seating two persons’, back-hander is ‘a back-hand stroke in tennis’ and three-decker ‘a sandwich made of three pieces of bread with two layers of filling’. When the connection between the meaning of the word and its form is conventional that is there is no perceptible reason for the word having this particular phonemic and morphemic composition, the word is said to be non-motivated for the present stage of language development.

Every vocabulary is in a state of constant development. Words that seem non-motivated at present may have lost their motivation. The verb earn does not suggest at present any necessary connection with agriculture. The connection of form and meaning seems purely conventional. Historical analysis shows, however, that it is derived from OE (ze-)earnian ‘to harvest’. In Modern English this connection no longer exists and earn is now a non-motivated word. When some people recognise the motivation, whereas others do not, motivation is said to be faded. Sometimes in an attempt to find motivation for a borrowed word the speakers change its form so as to give it a connection with some well-known word. These cases of mistaken motivation received the name of folk etymology. The phenomenon is not very frequent. Two examples will suffice: A nightmare is not ‘a she-horse that appears at night’ but ‘a terrifying dream personified in folklore as a female monster’.

Some linguists consider one more type of motivation closely akin to the imitative forms, namely sound symbolism. Some words are supposed to illustrate the meaning more immediately than do ordinary words. As the same combinations of sounds are used in many semantically similar words, they become more closely associated with the meaning. Examples are: flap, flip, flop, flitter, flimmer, flicker, flutter, flash, flush, flare; glare, glitter, glow, gloat, glimmer; sleet, slime, slush, where fl- is associated with quick movement, gl- with light and fire, sl- with mud. This sound symbolism phenomenon is not studied enough so far, so that it is difficult to say to what extent it is valid. There are, for example, many English words, containing the initial fl- but not associated with quick or any other movement: flat, floor, flour, flower. There is also nothing muddy in the referents of sleep or slender.


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