Peter Hohenhaus’s concept of nonce-formation – A critical analysis

Seminar Paper, 2007

23 Pages, Grade: 2,3



1 Introduction

2 The absence of a good definition and Hohenhaus’s attempt to fill this gap

3 Hohenhaus’s features of none-words
3.1 Uniqueness
3.2 Situational and contextual dependeny
3.2.1 Self-explanatory nonce-words
3.2.2 Deviance and context-dependency
3.3 Deviance
3.3.1 The conspicuousness of regular and deviant nonce-words
3.3.2 The connection between deviance and acceptability rating of nonce-words
3.4 Lexicalisation of nonce-formations
3.4.1 Determinants of lexicalisation

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography

1 Introduction

What counts as a word? At first glance, this question seems to be trivial. The more time, however, one spends on reflecting about it, the more possible and plausible answers are appearing. One will soon discover that the matter is not easily decided upon. Simple definitions, like words are the items listed in a dictionary, cannot provide satisfactory explanations for all cases and leave a wide margin unaccounted for. Among other things, this margin includes all those terms which are coined for the first time.

There are various reasons why people create new words: they coin them on the spur of the moment because there might not be an adequate term to express just what they want to say; they coin them in order to create some stylistic effects; they coin them to make people laugh; they coin them to set themselves apart from others; they the coin them to denote new concepts and so on. Some of these terms, which are referred to as nonce-words, are created and forgotten, but others catch on and become established words of a language. Since nonce-words are formed for various reasons and since they appear in great numbers in written and oral contexts, it is of great linguistic interest to take a more detailed look at what nonce-words really are and how they can be characterised. Peter Hohenhaus met this challenge and published his work about Ad-hoc-Wortbildung in 1996. With his work he wants to shed some light on a linguistic field of research which has so far not received much attention. He provides a new concept of nonce-words, which he claims to be more precisely defined and adequate than anything that has been published about this topic beforehand.[1] This new concept is based on certain features with the help of which not only an identification of nonce-words is possible, but also the degree of ‘nonce-ness’ can be measured. The benefit of this new concept depends upon the accuracy with which the ascription of those features to different nonce-words can be realised. The aim of the present paper is to check this level of accuracy and to find out just how reliable the information is which is provided by the application of Hohenhaus’s concept.

2 The absence of a good definition and Hohenhaus’s attempt to fill this gap

Before a critical discussion about Hohenhaus’s work on nonce-formations can be given, the framework of his concept needs to be outlined.

In his introduction Hohenhaus states that there has been little research in nonce-formation and that his work steps on virgin soil in the way that it on the one hand exclusively focuses on this topic and on the other hand attempts to give an all-embracing analysis of it.[2] This all-embracing analysis includes a definition, a typology, a discussion of existing theories on word-formation and their competence to explain nonce-words and a chapter dealing with the functions of nonce-formation. A corpus on which Hohenhaus’s findings are partly based and which he consults to illustrate and confirm his assertions is added at the end of his work.[3]

At the beginning of his considerations, Hohenhaus elaborates on the difficulties of defining a nonce-word. He quotes established definitions and reveals their deficiencies.[4] In brief, he argues that almost all existing attempts only focus on the uniqueness of nonce-words and exclusively use this quality in order to categorize words as nonce-words. Since this disregards other central characteristics of nonce-formations, it is insufficient from Hohenhaus’s point of view.[5] Accordingly, he tries to provide an exhaustive list of the features of nonce-words by means of which he attempts to define them more to the point. He acts on the assumption that there are only degrees of ‘nonce-ness’[6], which can be measured. Consequently, the system he proposes, which enables us to determine the ‘nonce-ness’, is based on the extent to which potential nonce-words comply with the typical qualities of nonce-formations. The more attributes a word has got, the more it can be considered a prototypical nonce-word.[7] Thus, the itemized features of nonce-formations on the basis of which ‘nonce-ness’ can be measured are the essence of Hohenhaus’s definition and have to be analysed thoroughly.

Beforehand, however, it is of significance to address the reasons for the difficulties involved in defining nonce-words. Not until this is done, does Hohenhaus’s approach of classifying nonce-words in degrees of ‘nonce-ness’ make sense.

A definition typically relies on characteristic features on the basis of which the item which is to be defined differs from similar items. Ideally, it is thus possible to mark it off unmistakeably. When it comes to nonce-formation, this approach is not feasible despite the availability of characteristic features. This is due to the fact that the features of nonce-formations cannot be used as definite criteria with which a term can unmistakably be categorized as not all characteristics can be found in every nonce-formation. Hohenhaus therefore speaks of typical qualities, which help identifying nonce-words, but which fail to always give reliable indications.[8] This does not apply to one characteristic however, namely uniqueness, which can always and only be found in nonce-words and which would therefore have the potential to identify nonce-words beyond doubt. Yet, as will be shown later, the uniqueness of a word is a quality which is impossible to verify for a whole community of speakers and thus unsuitable for an objective definition.

These complications lead Hohenhaus to propagate “ein[en] skalaren Bergiff von Ad-hoc-Wortbildung“[9]. The benefit of this approach is obvious: Hohenhaus can make use of the typical features of nonce-words although not each one applies in every case. Since exceptions are accounted for, they have no destabilising power.

The downside of this system, however, is that it can hardly be refuted. To bring forth examples where the appliance of typical features fails to identify a nonce-word as such in order to show the shortcomings of Hohenhaus’s approach is a futile task in as much as it only strengthens the necessity of establishing a system like the one proposed by Hohenhaus. His approach has therefore to deal with the question at what point a certain number of exceptions seriously challenges the usefulness of his system of categorization and additionally where exceptions have to be placed.

3 Hohenhaus’s features of none-words

3.1 Uniqueness

Uniqueness is not only a characteristic of nonce-words but a precondition. Hohenhaus makes this unmistakably clear when he talks of a basic prerequisite that nonce-formations “noch nie zuvor gebildet worden sind” and that they “auch nicht wieder auftauchen”[10]. Elsewhere in his work, however, he contradicts his own statement in saying the following: “Eine Wortbildung, die (unabhängig voneinander) zweimal oder dreimal gebildet wird, kann nicht schon deshalb einen anderen Status bekommen.“[11] According to the first quote, the status as a nonce-word would seize to be applicable with a single recurrence of the same word, which would rule out the possibility of a nonce-word to be coined two or even three times, which is claimed by the second quote. In a footnote Hohenhaus explains the seeming contradiction in stating that multiple appearances of the same nonce-word do not change the status of ‘nonce-ness’ if the occurrences are independent of each other.[12] In order to be sure of the uniqueness of a word, one would thus have to check whether the word has ever been coined before and if so whether this coinage occurred independently. It is obvious, as Hohenhaus himself states, that the frequency of occurrence of a certain word is impossible to figure out in all possible contexts and that independence of occurrence is equally impossible to ascertain in all cases.[13] On the basis of these difficulties, Hohenhaus comes to the conclusion that a statistical approach would not be feasible and suggests to define the term ‘new’ and ‘unique’ in a psychological sense. He states: “Eine Ad-hoc-Bildung ist eine Wortbildung, die nicht im mentalen Lexikon des Sprechers/Hörers mit einem eigenen Lexikon-Eintrag gespeichert ist.“[14] This would consequently mean that a speaker uses a nonce-formation in those cases where he forms a word which he has not previously heard or uttered and which is thus not memorized as such. The advantage of this approach, however, in comparison to the statistical interpretation of the terms ‘new’ and ‘unique’, which were rejected by Hohenhaus out of “schlichten Praktikabilitätsgründen”[15], is not very plausible. The mental lexicon, which Hohenhaus refers to, is individual, meaning that the stocks of words people dispose of differ. In consequence, the decision whether a word is unique or not would depend upon the speaker or hearer and thus highly subjective. It is obvious that such an approach could not be used beneficially in defining nonce-words objectively. Hohenhaus is aware of the individuality of the mental lexicon, but considers it merely to be a difficulty of his approach.[16]

Hohenhaus’s rather lax treatment of this objection does not do justice to its significance. After all, a psychological classification comprises the possible assignment of one and the same word to different categories dependent upon the individual. This however, he only mentions as a passing remark in his footnotes.[17]

The disaccord considering uniqueness also manifests itself in Hohenhaus’s corpus. In order to check whether a word which Hohenhaus lists as a nonce-word is known at all, he asks the participants of his study the following question: “Have you ever encountered this word before?”[18] He adds that “im Idealfall sollte keiner der Informanten bezüglich Ad-hoc-Bildungen bei dieser Frage mit “ja” antworten“[19], yet exactely this happens in more than just one case.[20] Hohenhaus talks of an ideal here, meaning that he already expects some of his participants to give a positive answer. But can someone state that he has encountered a word before, if he had not memorized it then? And if he had memorized the word, would it then not seize to be a nonce-word according to Hohenhaus’s psychological definition of what a nonce-word is, namely a word which is not listed in the mental lexicon of a speaker or hearer? If the answer to both of these question is yes, only those nonce-words given in Hohenhaus’s corpus would objectively deserve this name which none of the participants has ever encountered before. Yet, even in this case, the classification of a word as a nonce-formation, particularly against the background of the relatively small group of interviewed people[21], can only ever be an assumption. Special attention has to be given to those examples in Hohenhaus’s corpus which received a rather high percentage of positive answers considering the question whether they were known. Words like beggable[22] had been encountered by 4 people, whereas 17 declared that they had never read or heard this word before. Therefore 23,5% of the people asked had encountered beggable before. If 23,5% of a speaker’s community are aware of the existence of a word like beggable, keeping in mind that uniqueness is a prerequisite of nonce-formations, it is highly questionable whether it can or should still be accounted for as a nonce-word. After all, there is also the category of neologisms, to which those words belong that are “bis zu einem gewissen Grade usuell und lexikalisiert”[23]. It could just as well be argued that beggable has crossed the borderline from nonce-formation to neologism.


[1] Hohenhaus, Peter. Ad-hoc-Wortbildung. Terminologie, Typologie und Theorie kreativer Wortbildung im Englischen. Frankfurt am Main u.a.: Lang, 1996, 9.

[2] Hohenhaus, 1996, 13.

[3] Hohenhaus, 1996, 383-495.

[4] Ibid., 21ff.

[5] Ibid., 27f.

[6] Cf. ibid., 65f.

[7] Cf. ibid., 65ff.

[8] Hohenhaus, 1996, 65.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Hohenhaus, 1996, 29.

[11] Ibid., 18.

[12] Ibid., 23, footnote 22.

[13] Ibid., 30.

[14] Ibid., 31.

[15] Ibid., 30.

[16] Hohenhaus, 1996, 33.

[17] Ibid., 33, footnote 41.

[18] Ibid., 370.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Cf. ibid., 466ff.

[21] Cf. ibid., 370: Hohenhaus interviewed 22 people.

[22] Ibid., 467.

[23] Bußmann, Hadumod. Lexikon der Sprachwissenschaft. Stuttgart: Kröner, 1990, 463.

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Peter Hohenhaus’s concept of nonce-formation – A critical analysis
University of Heidelberg  (Anglistisches Seminar)
Hauptseminar Sprachwissenschaft: English word-formation
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Peter, Hohenhaus’s, Hauptseminar, Sprachwissenschaft, English
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Christian Weckenmann (Author), 2007, Peter Hohenhaus’s concept of nonce-formation – A critical analysis , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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