The Concept of Productivity in Linguistics and its Relevance for the English Classroom

Term Paper, 2016
9 Pages, Grade: 1,0




1. Productivity in Linguistics

2. Constraints on Productivity
2.1 Pragmatic Restrictions
2.2 General Structural Restrictions
2.3 Word-Formation Model- Specific Restrictions

3. Didactic Relevance



In this research project I attempt to find out whether the linguistic phenomenon of productivity has a didactic relevance in the TEFL context (Teaching English as a Foreign Language). Therefore it is necessary to define the respective term “productivity” in the first part. The second major part mainly concerns the constraints on productivity as productivity and its constraints are interwoven. After having set the theoretical frame, didactic conclusions will be drawn to show whether it’s useful or not for a teacher to incorporate some of the ideas in the classroom.

1. Productivity in Linguistics

When analysing productivity one soon realises that the one and only definition cannot be given. In order to gain an insight into the field of productivity one has to analyse different definitions relating the question: “What is productivity and how can this concept be characterized?” According to Plag, productivity is the “property of an affix to be used to coin new complex words” (Plag 2003: 44). Those coined words can be divided into possible and actual words. The main difference is that a possible word is “a word whose semantic, morphological and phonological structure is in accordance with the rules and regularities of a language” but it doesn’t always become an actual word (ibid. 46). A quite common example is the word “cannibalizable”. Obviously it is formed properly according to distinct rules; however, this word hasn’t become lexicalized and can’t be found in the OED. This distinction is of grave importance when it comes to the question of productivity. Shall linguists only investigate the productivity being responsible for actual words or do possible words have to be included as well? If so, this poses a huge challenge for linguists as the difficulties are evident when it comes to analysing every single possible word of the English language. Plag suggests there are some affixes that are fully productive, others being less productive or even unproductive (ibid. 44). Plag’s perspective on productivity mostly highlights the significance of affixes and their ability to form new words. For now the question concerning possible and actual words remains unanswered. However, the attempt is made to come back to this question in another chapter. Bauer analyses productivity from a slightly different angle and states that “any process is […] productive if it can be used synchronically in the production of new forms, and non-productive if it cannot be used synchronically in this way” (Bauer 2002: 18).

In this context Bauer highlights two very debatable aspects. As opposed to Plague who referred productivity mainly to affixes, Bauer talks about productive and unproductive processes being used synchronically. This view suggests a dichotomous perspective and contextualizes productivity as a question of synchronic linguistics. One has to investigate whether this is a valid point as it seems to partly neglect the relevance of diachronic linguistics. Schmid’s analysis acts as a counterbalance to Bauer’s. According to Schmid, “productivity is not a dichotomous phenomenon (i.e. productive versus non-productive), but a scalar one” (Schmid 2011: 115). Thus, productivity should be considered a continuum ranging from non- productive to highly productive, whereas the higher end seems to be undefinable (ibid.). This point of view violates the school of thought that sees productivity as a dichotomous phenomenon. To me Schmid’s anti-dichotomous perspective is more convincing as it is supported by Katamba who claims that “[t]he difference between productive and unproductive morphemes is a gradient, not a dichotomy” (Katamba 2005: 102). With the help of uncountable examples one can illustrate that productivity is not just relevant to synchronic but to diachronic linguistics as well. For example, the suffix -ery forming abstract adjectives or nouns like “slavery” or “bravery” used to be productive several hundred years ago, whereas today this suffix can be seen as a dormant or even moribund morpheme (ibid. 101). The -th -pattern having coined words such as “growth”, “health” or “warmth” used to be very productive in the past as well, although today this pattern isn’t considered very productive anymore (Schmid 2011: 112). Nevertheless, one should take into account that “[moribund morphemes] could still be taken off the shelf and […] used to form new words when the need arises” (Katamba 2005: 102). That’s a very valid point as this both promotes the relevance of diachronic analysis and highlights the fact that productivity is not just a fixed property that an affix or a morphological process inalienably possesses. The degree of productivity can change throughout (language) history. Maybe one day the -th -pattern or the suffix -ery will become very productive again. Accordingly it can be argued that the view regarding productivity from a dichotomous perspective somehow neglecting diachronic linguistics should be abandoned. Schmid and Katamba illustrate this very lively. One should prefer a view using synchronic and diachronic analyses and not simply distinguishing between “productiveness” and “unproductiveness”.

Another important characteristic feature is the “unconscious nature of the formation of new words” (Haspelmath and Sims 2010: 115). The more unconsciously a given rule is applied, the more productive this rule is. This also relates to the question how words or morphemes are stored in our lexicon. Patterns with high memory strength tend to be more productive. This holds for so called “high frequency words” (ibid.). Accordingly the more frequently we access and use a pattern that’s stored in our lexicon the more productive it usually becomes.

This fact is important as it shows that productivity is an individual phenomenon. It very much depends on the individual use of certain patterns. Nevertheless one should not confuse productivity with creativity (cf. Haspelmath and Sims 2010, Bauer 2002). Summarizing one has to state that productivity is a highly contested area. Those debates refer to the questions whether productivity should concern synchronic or diachronic linguistics and whether it is a dichotomy or a gradient. Analysing productivity usually leads the linguist to different definitions with very different emphases. As illustrated above, Plag relates the concept to affixes whereas other linguists consider it from a broader perspective including whole word- formation processes.

2. Constraints on Productivity

Having said that some morphemes or morphological processes can be less productive than others leads to the question: Which factors are responsible for limitations on productivity? Based on Schmid those restrictions can be divided into three groups: pragmatic restrictions, general structural restrictions and word-formation model-specific restrictions.

2.1 Pragmatic Restrictions

According to Schmid reasonable referents have to exist in the world for a coined word. That’s why a possible word like carpet opener hasn’t become lexicalised yet as it denotes something which doesn’t exist. Additionally, when it comes to naming the self-evident further pragmatic restrictions come to prominence. For example, men always possess eyes, legs or arms. That’s why we don’t need a phrase such as the eyed man. Finally, complex lexemes should always describe something nameable (Schmid 2011: 116). In other words, “[a]s a general rule, a word will not be formed to denote an item/action/quality which does not exist” (Bauer 2002: 85).

Coming back to the question being raised in chapter 1 ( Shall the study of productivity refer to only actual words or shall it include possible words as well?), the pragmatic restrictions prove that a detailed analysis should always include both concepts. A carpet opener is no actual word. Yet this possible word becomes important when one attempts to explain pragmatic constraints. However, pragmatic restrictions could be seen as comparatively vague since human beings can always create fictional contexts (cf. science fiction) where certain words are suddenly needed. But this doesn’t mean that the idea of pragmatic restrictions should be abandoned. It serves as an orientation and has didactic importance, as to be mentioned later.

2.2 General Structural Restrictions

Referring general structural restrictions one can distinguish between blocking, etymological restrictions and haplology (Schmid 2011: 116).

Homonymy blocking refers to the fact that a possible word * liver (“s.o. who lives”) is blocked by the already existing word liver (“an inner organ”). Nevertheless, Plag suggests that the idea behind homonymy blocking should be abandoned as there are lots of homonymous words in English (Plag 2003: 64). An example is air and heir. These are homonymous words to be used in our daily life. A similar controversy can be found when it comes to synonymy blocking. It can be divided into type- and token-blocking. Type-blocking states that certain affixes compete with each other when it comes to word-formation leading to the fact that one affix blocks another. Again there is an uncountable number of words in English allowing at least two suffixes to be used. An example is destructiveness and destructivity. Both are to be found in the OED again. Thus, the idea of type-blocking should be abandoned as well (ibid. 66). The more reliable form of blocking is called token-blocking.


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The Concept of Productivity in Linguistics and its Relevance for the English Classroom
University of Leipzig
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Productivity, Linguistics, Classroom, Didactics, Fachdidaktik, Englisch, Linguistik, Produktivität
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Benedikt Liebsch (Author), 2016, The Concept of Productivity in Linguistics and its Relevance for the English Classroom, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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