Conversion (linguistics)

In linguistics, conversion, also called zero derivation, is a kind of word formation; specifically, it is the creation of a word from an existing word without any change in form. Conversion is more productive in some languages than in others; in English, it is a fairly productive process.

Often a word of one lexical category (part of speech) is converted to a word of another lexical category; for example, the noun green in golf (referring to a putting-green) is derived ultimately from the adjective green. Conversions from adjectives to nouns and vice versa are both very common and unnotable in English; much more remarked upon is verbing, the creation of a verb by converting a noun or other word (e.g., the adjective clean becomes the verb to clean).

The boundary between conversion and functional shift (the extension of an existing word to take on a new syntactic function) is not well-defined.

Contents

Verbification

Verbification, or verbing, is the creation of a verb from a noun, adjective or other word. Verbification is a type of functional shift. It is also a form of derivation, and may involve any of the various derivational processes.

Verb conversion in English

In English, verbification typically involves simple conversion of a non-verb to a verb. The verbs to verbify and to verb are themselves products of verbification (see autological word), and—as might be guessed—the term to verb is often used more specifically, to refer only to verbification that does not involve a change in form. (Verbing in this specific sense is therefore a kind of anthimeria.)

Verbification may have a bad reputation with some English users because it is such a potent source of neologisms. Although most products of verbification are regarded as neologisms, and may meet considerable opposition from prescriptivist authorities, they are very common in colloquial speech, particularly specialized jargon, where words are needed to describe common actions or experiences.

Verbification is by no means confined to argot, and has furnished English with countless new expressions, e.g., "access", as in "access the file", which was previously a noun, as in "gain access to the file". Similar mainstream examples include "host", as in "host a party", and "chair", as in "chair the meeting". Other formations, such as "gift", are less widespread but nevertheless mainstream. Examples of verbification in the English language number in the thousands, including some of the most common words, such as mail and e-mail, strike, talk, salt, pepper, switch, bed, sleep, ship, train, stop, drink, cup, lure, mutter, dress, dizzy, divorce, fool, merge, and many more, to be found on virtually every page in the dictionary. In many cases, the verbs were distinct from their noun counterparts in Old English and regular sound change has made them the same form: these can be reanalysed as conversion. "Don't talk the talk if you can't walk the walk" is an example of a sentence using these forms.

Proper nouns can also be verbed in the English language. "Google" is the name of a popular internet search engine. To google something now means to look it up on the internet, as in "He didn't know the answer, so he googled it."

Other languages

In other languages, such as Semitic languages, verbification is a more regular process. In Esperanto, any word can be transformed into a verb, either by altering its ending to -i, or by applying suffixes such as -igi and -iĝi.

Humor

Verbification is sometimes used to create nonce words or joking words. In other cases, simple conversion is involved, as with formations like beer, as in beer me ("give me a beer") and eye, as in eye it ("look at it"). Sometimes, a verbified form can occur with a prepositional particle, e.g., sex as in sex it up ("make it sexier").

A Calvin and Hobbes strip dealt with this phenomenon, concluding with the statement that "Verbing weirds language", demonstrating the verbing of both verb and weird. (The former appears in its use as a gerund.)

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