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Word formation in English and Vietnamese

Running head: Word formation in English and Vietnamese

Word formation in English and Vietnamese: a contrastive analysis

Pham Thi Hong Ly
HCMC University of Pedagogy

Word formation in English and Vietnamese

Language is a principal mean used by human beings to exchange information
and communicate with each other. We use language to discuss a wide range of topics
which distinguishes us with animals. In other words, language is a vital tool of
communication. In order to share ideas and feelings effectively besides using gestures,
intonation in speech; a large vocabulary is also considered as a useful way. The more
vocabularies you have, the clearer and more accurate ideas you express. And one of
the most common ways to enrich vocabulary is word formation. It is a study of words,
dealing with construction or formation of words in a certain language. As a learner of
English and an English teacher in the future, I do this research to mention the
similarities and differences between English and Vietnamese word formation. And then,
some common errors that Vietnamese learners often make are discussed. I hope that
the information in this paper will be helpful in getting a deeper look about word formation
in the two languages, English and Vietnamese.

Word formation in English and Vietnamese
Literary review:
According to Oxford Dictionary, a word is a single unit of language which means
something and can be spoken or written. According to Nguyen Thien Giap, word is the
smallest unit of language, independently in meaning and form. Another definition of
word is that A word is a unit of language that carries meaning and consists of one or
more morphemes which are linked more or less tightly together, and has a phonetic
value (Wikipedia). For this definition, it is simply said that word is formed from
morphemes, the smallest units of meaning that a word can be divided into. There are
two kinds of morphemes in English and Vietnamese words. They are free morpheme
and bound morpheme. Free morpheme can occur on their own as an independent word
such as man, lamp, green, blackin English or nh, p, i, tt in Vietnamese... Bound
morpheme can not stand alone without attached to other morphemes. However, there
are differences in Vietnamese and English bound morphemes. In English, bound
morphemes are suffixes such as -ly, -ed, -ity or prefixes like un-, im-, anti- On the
contrary, Vietnamese bound morphemes are separate words serve as either
compounding or reduplicative elements, for example, tc k, bng bc, ng ten if we
split them off they still has their own meaning but it is not related to the meaning of the
whole compound word. In other words, adding bound morphemes into an English word
can form a new word whose meaning is related to the original one, but it is unlike in
In short, there are many differences in word formation in English and Vietnamese
though both of them are formed by morphemes.

Word formation in English and Vietnamese
Word formation in English
There are some ways to build a new word. They are affixation, compounding,
and other devices like conversion, clipping, blend and reduplication.
Affixation is a method in which an affix is attached to a root. English words
consist of two elements: root which is considered obligatory and carries lexical meaning
and affix which is optional and carries grammatical meaning or supplemental- lexical
meaning. Let us take the word teacher as an example. In the word teacher, teach is
the root which means educate or train and -er is the affix that cannot stand alone.
When attached to the root, -er supplements to the root with meaning of a person.
There are many kinds of affix. It can be divided into two kinds in terms of
position. According to Megginson, they are prefix and suffixes. Moreover, even the
words prefix, suffix and affix are all formed from fix by the use of prefixes:
ad- + fix (attached) = affix
pre- + fix (attached) = prefix
sub- + fix (attached) = suffix
Prefix is an affix which is attached to the beginning of the root so that it can
modify or change meaning of the word. The prefixes can be divided semantically into
these following groups: quantity prefixes, locative prefixes, temporal prefixes, negation

Word formation in English and Vietnamese
prefixes (see Appendix). However, in one such study (Ingo Plag 134), it is found that
numerous prefixes do not belong to any of the four groups above. For example, prefixes
express diverse notions, such as wrong, evil (mal-, malfunction, malnutrition), badly,
wrongly (mis-, misinterpret, mistrial), false, deceptive (pseudo-), together, jointly
(co), in place of (vice-) One more type of affix is suffixes. Unlike prefixes, suffix is an
affix which is attached after the root. There are four types of suffixes: nominal suffixes,
verbal, adjectival and adverbial suffixes. (see Appendix)
Compounding is the most productive type of word formation process in English. A
compound is a word that consists of two elements, the first of which is either a root, a
word or a phrase, e.g. biochemistry, systems analysis, over- the- fence gossip; the
second of which is either a root or a word (Ingo Plag 183). Most of compounds are
interpreted in such way that one element, head, is modified by others. And the
compounds inherits most of it semantic and syntactic information from its head (Ingo
Plag 183).
There are three types of compounds: open compound, hyphenated compound
and solid compound. An open compound consists of two or more words written
separately, such as salad dressing, Boston terrier, or April Fools Day... A hyphenated
compound has words connected by a hyphen, such as age-old, mother-in-law, forcefeed... A solid compound consists of two words that are written as one word, such as
keyboard or typewriter (The American Heritage book of English usage).
Compounds are divided into four types in terms of word class: nominal,
adjectival, adverbial and neoclassical compounds. First, let us explore noun compound

Word formation in English and Vietnamese
or nominal compound. Most compound nouns in English are formed by nouns modified
by other nouns or adjectives such as book cover, salesman, blackboard
(learnenglish). In compound noun, the first part modifies or describes the second one to
tell us kind of object or person and its purpose; and the second part identifies the object
or person in the first one. For example, in the word book cover, the first part book
gives us information about the type of object; and the second part is cover.
Compound nouns can also be formed using the following combinations of words:


Noun + Noun

toothpaste, car park

Adjective + Noun

monthly ticket, good- fellow

Verb + Noun

swimming pool, skating- rink

Preposition + Noun

underground, overdose

Noun + Verb

haircut, manhunt

Noun + Preposition

hanger on, timeout

Adjective + Verb

dry-cleaning, good- living

Preposition + Verb

output, input

In addition, a compound may be classified as permanent or temporary. A

permanent compound is fixed by common usage and can usually be found in the
dictionary, whereas a temporary compound consists of two or more words joined by a
hyphen as needed, usually to modify another word or to avoid ambiguity. In general,
permanent compounds begin as temporary compounds that become used so frequently
they become established as permanent compounds (The American Heritage book of
English usage).

Word formation in English and Vietnamese
Another type of compounding word is adjectival compound. Compound adjective
is a complex and challenging formation. It modifies the noun, with the two or more
worded adjective phrase, to create a new adjective. The adjective phrase is usually
written in with a hyphen (-). Its meaning is usually clear from the words it combines
(Muthusami, par.3). There are many ways to build a compound adjective.


adjective + noun

second- hand, hi- tech, long- distance

adjective + noun + -ed

blue-eyed, light- hearted, clear- sighted

adjective + past participle

low-paid, cold-blooded, high- handed

adjective + present participle

good-looking, long- acting, easy-going

noun + adjective

world- wide, sugar- free, knee- deep

noun + present participle

time-consuming, heart- breaking, labor- saving

noun + past participle

hand- operated, handmade, manmade

adverb + past participle

ill-equipped, well-behaved, well- prepared

adverb + present participle

newly- born, low-flying, well- known

number + noun (sing)

seven- year- old (boy), four- bed- room (flat)

With this kind of word formation, it will be easier and more convenient to express
more accurately and lively our ideas and feelings.

Word formation in English and Vietnamese
Next type of compounding is compound verb. A compound verb or complex
predicate is a multi-word compound that acts as a single verb (Wikipedia).
Sometimes compound verbs and phrasal verbs make us confused. In fact, there are
some differences between them. If we can add an object between two words, it is
phrasal verb. For instance, it is safe to say He takes his hat off. but it is impossible
to say He ill his dog treat. Another difference between phrasal verb and compound
verb is that the second component of phrasal verb is a preposition, whereas it can
be a noun or a verb for compound verb. And following table is some common ways
to form a compound verb:


noun + verb

hand- feed, baby- sit, proof- read, chain- smoke

verb + noun

do-time, go public, dry- nurse

verb + verb

dry- clean, stir- fry, freeze- dry

adjective + verb

double- check, broadcast, ill-treat

adverb + verb

outdistance, overdo, under-act

Derivation without affixation

We have just dealt with some affixational word formation process and
compounding. However, there are some more ways to build a new word without
affixation. They are conversion, clipping and blending.

Word formation in English and Vietnamese
Conversion is particularly common in English because the basic form of
nouns and verbs is identical in many cases. According to Ana and Gustavo,
conversion is extremely productive to increase the English lexicon because it
provides an easy way to create new words from existing ones. There are four main
types of conversion: noun to verb, verb to noun, adjective to verb and adjective to
noun. (see Appendix)
Clipping or truncation
According to Ingo, truncation is a process in which the relationship between a
derived word and its base is expressed by the lack of phonetic material in the derived
word. (156)
For instance:
Mike ( Michael)

lab ( laboratory)

Rob ( Robert)

math ( mathematics)

Andy ( Andrew)

demo ( demonstration)

Blending is a way of forming word from parts of two other words. It is often the
first part of the first elements combined with the second part of the second element
(Igno Plag 166). We can form a rule with A, B, C and D as parts of elements:
For example:
motor + hotel motel

breakfast + lunch brunch

Word formation in English and Vietnamese
goat + sheep geep

smoke + fog smog

Sometimes, it is possible to combine the first part of the elements together.

For instance:
modulator + demodulator modem

cybernetic + organism cyborg

In linguistics, reduplication is a repetition of a syllable, a morpheme or a word,
e.g chit- chat, murmur, hush- hush, ping- pong. Most of reduplication in English
imitates the sound. However, it is really an interesting phenomenon in which it is used
as informal expressive vocabulary.
Word formation in Vietnamese
Words in Vietnamese are the smallest meaningful unit that functions as a mean
of naming things, can be used and occur independently in speech to build a sentence
(ngonngu.net). To some extents, word formation in Vietnamese is different from the way
words built in English. Words in Vietnamese are not formed by adding affixes as in
English. These are some familiar ways to form words in Vietnamese: compounding,
conversion, clipping, blends and reduplication. It is the same to words in English.
Based on relation of components, compound words in Vietnamese can be
divided into two types: coordinated compound words (t ghp ng lp) and principal-

Word formation in English and Vietnamese
and-accessory compound words (t ghp chnh ph). Coordinated compound words
are words in which elements are equal of meaning. That coordinated compound words
express general and synthetic meaning is a feature making them different form
principal- and- accessory compound words. Let us take the word n ni as an
example. n and ni have their own meaning when they stand alone. And they are
on the same level of meaning. So we can combine it to create a new word n ni as a
coordinated compound word. On the contrary, principal- and- accessory compound
words are words in which components depend on each other. The accessory element
classifies and modifies the principal one. For example, in the word c chua, chua is
the accessory element that modifies c. So c chua is a kind of c and its feature is
Similar to compound words in English, compound words in Vietnamese is also
divided into three types in terms of word class: compound nouns, compound adjectives
and compound verbs. Most of compound nouns in Vietnamese are built based on HanViet words. Or they can be the combination of two Nm words, or Han- Viet words plus
Nm words.



Han Viet + Han Viet

i quc, m mui, thi s

Nom + Nom

qun o, nh ca, rung vn

Han Viet + Nom or Nom + Han Viet

nhn ngha, sng trng


Word formation in English and Vietnamese
One more similar method of creating a new word in Vietnamese is conversion.
Conversion means to create a new word with the same spelling but different meaning to
the original one. According to Nguyen Thien Giap, liguistics discovered essential
phenomena of conversion: enlarge or narrow the meaning of a word; metaphor and
metonymy; changing word-class (84).
For example:
chn vt (leg of a duck)

chn vt (a screw )

c ( snail- a kind of animal)

c ( a nut in technical field)

dim ( sunphur- a kind of chemical)

dim (match)

Above words are examples of enlarging meaning of words that is a process of

develop meaning of a word from particular to general, from specific to abstract, e.g.
adjective p is used in certain field of form but later p is also used in domain of
sense and relation such as p lng, p nt And these following are examples of
narrowing meaning of words that is a opposite process to enlarging meaning of words.
For instance, Ming tht ny c mi ri.. mi in this sentence means smell bad or
Another method of conversion is metaphor which is a process of changing
meaning of words based on the similarities of things taken to compare together, e.g. a
ugly girl is called Th N, a person who is always jealous in love is called Hon Th
or Otenlo One more method is metonymy that is a method of changing meaning of

Word formation in English and Vietnamese
words based on logic relation of things, e.g. Nh c nm ming n. means Nh c
nm ngi n. or Anh ta l mt chn st xut sc. means Anh ta l mt cu th
xut sc. In these examples, a part of body represents the whole body.
Similar to conversion in English, Vietnamese new words can be formed by
changing their word class.

th (noun)

rt th/ th lm (adjective)


ra (verb)

(mua) cuc (noun)

cuc (t) (verb)

In brief, with method of conversion, the treasure of vocabulary is increasing

ceaselessly and the speech will become more vividly.
Clipping in Vietnamese and in English are the same. It is a way of shortening a
long word to a short one. For example, we can say k l/ ki l instead of kilogram or
ng instead of ng Cng Sn Vit Nam The speakers may use this kind of word
formation on the purpose of saving.
Blend is a method in which we can break the structure of words by adding some
more words in. This method in Vietnamese is the same in English. For instance:

Word formation in English and Vietnamese
kh s

lo kh lo s

ngt ngho

ci ngt ci ngho

danh li + ham chung

ham danh chung li

tm hiu

tm m khng hiu


nh m khng

This kind of word formation is varied and for common purpose of playing on words to
create many new and interesting words.
Reduplication in Vietnamese is similar to reduplication in English. According to
ngonngu.net website, the minimum length of reduplication in Vietnamese is two words
and maximum is four words. However, the first one is the most typical. For two words,
there are three types of reduplication. The first one is two elements are completely the
same, e.g. co co, khng khng, ng ng The second type is reduplication in
tone, e.g. phi phi, thoang thong, hau hu The last one is reduplication in
syllable, e.g. bp b, chan cht, anh chIn short, reduplication creates a large
number of words in Vietnamese. And it is often used in music and poem.
Common errors
As non-native speaker and Vietnamese leaner of English, making errors when
transforming ideas from mother tongue into foreign language and vice versa is obvious
and unavoidable. In this part, I classify learners errors in three common types: errors

Word formation in English and Vietnamese
with affixation, with compound words, with conversion and errors with clipping and
Errors with affixation
Since many prefixes and suffixes whose meaning is the same, learners will be
confused which one goes with which word. For instance, prefixes un-, il-, im- mean
not or the opposite of, but we must use uninteresting, illogical or impossible
One more difficulty for learners is unclear understanding about meaning of prefixes and
suffixes. For example, the words misuse and disuse have different meaning but
learners may not understand clearly the meaning of dis- and mis-. Therefore, they
assimilate these two words and think that they have the same meaning while misuse
means using something in wrong purpose and disuse means no longer being used. To
solve this problem, the teacher must make students notice in the meaning of some highfrequently used prefixes and suffixes.
Errors with compound words
Learners of English often make many mistakes with compound words. The
difficulties of students are the order and meaning of compound words. First, about the
order, in Vietnamese, students always say bi u xe, lc lng lao ngso when
they translate them into English, they might say park car or force labor instead of car
park and labor force. Secondly, about the meaning of compound words, it is easy for
learners to give wrong meaning of compound words because they misunderstand
compound words and phrases. For example, to the words greenhouse and black

Word formation in English and Vietnamese
ball, they may say that green house is ngi nh mu xanh instead of nh knh and
black-ball is qu bng mu en not phiu chng/ phiu en in an election. Thus,
the solution for this error is that when teaching, the teacher should give clear distinction
between compound words and phrases by marking stress. For example:
noun compound

noun phrase


a black ball

phiu chng

qu bng en


a green house

nh knh

ngi nh mu xanh

One more error that students likely make is that they often forget to omit -s in a noun
to create a compound adjective. So they might say five-minutes (break) not fiveminute (break).
Errors with conversion
Word class in Vietnamese and in English is somehow different. That also leads
Vietnamese students to make mistakes while interpreting their ideas into English. In
Vietnamese, it is safe to say C y ht khng hay. but it is impossible to say She
sings not good/ beautiful. as some students often do. Or we cannot translate the
sentence bng l s thch ca ti. into Play football is my hobby. because it
makes no sense in grammar.

Word formation in English and Vietnamese
Errors with clipping and blend
Using clipping and blend in English too much may cause students to forget the
spelling of the original words so they tend to use the clipped or blended ones.
Word formation is a method of creating a new words so that it make our treasure
of vocabulary enrich. In English and in Vietnamese, there are some similar ways of
building new words: compounding, conversion, clipping, blend and reduplication.
However, in each certain method, many differences occur on process of word formation.
In addition, new words in English can be formed by adding affixes, but it is impossible to
do this in Vietnamese.
In general, to master a language, learners must have thorough grasp of how
words are formed and how to use it effectively.

Word formation in English and Vietnamese

(1996). The American Heritage Book of English Usage. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Ana I. Hernndez Bartolom and Gustavo Mendiluce Cabrera. (2005). Grammatical
Conversion in English. Retrieve December, 20, 2009, from
Compound noun. Retrieved December, 18, 2009, from
Compound verb. Retrieve December, 18, 2009, from
Megginson, David. (2007). Word formation. Retrieved December, 20, 2009, from
Muthusami. (2008). Compound Adjectives in English: A brief overview. Retrieve
December, 20, 2009, from
Nguyen, T.G. (2006). Dan luan ngon ngu hoc. Ha Nam: Education Publishing

Word formation in English and Vietnamese
Plag, Ingo. Word-formation in English. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press,
Tu trong tieng Viet. Retrieve December, 20, 2009, from http://ngonngu.net/index.php?
p=207 .
Word. Retrieved December, 20, 2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Word.

Word formation in English and Vietnamese
1. Quantity prefixes:





unilateral, unification


two/ twice

bilateral, bifurcation



multipurpose, multicolor

2. Locative prefixes:

semiannual, semi- desert






intracellular, intrados



interbreed, intergalactic



transmigrate, transcontinental

epion/ over
3. Temporal prefixes:

epiglottis, epi-central




pre- / fore-


pre-determine, forefather

post4. Negation prefixes:


post-modify, postmodern

Word formation in English and Vietnamese




not/ opposite of

disable, dishonest



irregular, irrelevance



impossible, imperil



unreal, uninteresting

1. Nominal suffixes:




quality/ state/

solidity, formality


process/ result

assessment, treatment


state/ condition

friendship, membership

2. Verbal suffixes:

contestant, assistant




randomize, characterize


broaden, blacken


identify, solidify
3. Adjectival suffixes:

Word formation in English and Vietnamese



readable, acceptable


childish, selfish


beautiful, colorful


careless, homeless

4. Adverbial suffixes:




carefully, daily


lengthwise, crosswise

1. Noun to verb
the file

to file

the water

to water

the Google

to google

2. Verb to noun
to call

a call

to dump

a dump

to guess

a guess

3. Adjective to verb

Word formation in English and Vietnamese

4. Adjective


to light


to empty


to open

to noun

the poor


the rich


the blind