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Definition of conversion, its synonymous terms


The term conversion (originally ‘the process of bringing over from one belief, view, or party to another’) [ME fr. MFr fr. L conversion-, conversio, fr. converses, pp. of convertere fr. con ‘with, together, thorougly’ + vertere ‘to turn around’] was first mentioned in 1900 by H. Sweet /Sweet: 1900/. It refers to numerous cases of phonetic identity of two words (primarily in their initial forms) belonging to different parts of speech ( round adj, n, v, adv; back n, adj, adv, v; idle adj, v; water n, v; eye n, v; up prep, v.).


Some of the new names derived by conversion are used regularly and become lexicalized, enter the lexicon. Some of the uses, however, remain nonce words, or occasional words.


The term conversion whenapplied to word-formation is not quite adequate because source words are neither converted nor transformed in contrast to, for example, water when it is converted into ice. To avoid polysemy of the term conversion some other terms were coined to denote this specific process of naming.


Thus, the term ‘ affixless word-derivation’ is used to underline the formation of a new word without a derivational affix. But this termdoes not permit us to distinguish it from sound- or stress-interchange (shift) that derived words without adding affixes, either.


The term ‘ zero-derivation’ stresses thata new word is derived by means of a special affix called the zero affix because its absence in a word is meaningful. But the existence of such an affix is still debatable.


The term ‘ root-formation’ is used to point out that root words participate in the process. But other complexes may participate in the process, too, as in to machine-gun, to fire-gun, to wireless and the term turns out to be inadequate.


The term ‘ functional change’ stresses that it is a phenomenon of usage, not word-formation. But this view can hardly be accepted because in fact a new word is derived with its own paradigm and system of meanings.


Some linguists regard conversion as a kind of polysemy because it is regularly patterned and derived units are semantically related like the senses of a polysemantic word. But in contrast to polysemy, the new naming units created by conversion belong to different parts of speech – they are different words and not just new senses. Conversion, therefore, is rather a kind of homonymy, though a very specific kind – apatterned lexical-grammatical homonymy where the old and new lexemes aresemantically related.


So, conversion may be regarded as a lexical-semantic or morphological or even a syntactic means of word derivation by means of a functional change. In any event, conversion is one of the most productive ways of extending the English vocabulary. Here, following the view of professor A.I. Smirnitsky, conversion will be treated as a morphological way of word-formation where the only word building means is a change of a word’s paradigm (cf.: the morphological paradigms of the word eye as a noun: eye – eyes and that of the word eye as a verb: to eye, eyes, eyed, will eye ).



Reasons for high productivity of conversion in modern English


While affixation has always been a productive means of word-formation in English, conversion became active only in the Middle English period and it is widely used in modern English.


There was no homonymy between initial forms of words belonging to different parts of speech in Old English having a complex system of inflections. Due to loss of inflections in Middle English many of these words became lexical-grammatical homonyms (cf.: love n love v in present-day English and their inflected equivalents lufu n and lufian v in Old English; see also different inflected forms for modern English work: OE werc, weorc as a noun and wyrcan as a verb, or answer n and v that had in OEa form andsawru as a noun and andswarian as a verb).


Another reason for the existence of conversion pairs in modern English is assimilation of borrowings. The modern English verb and noun cry, for example, had different forms in Old French from which they were borrowed: crier v and cri n.


But the main reason that conversion pairs are so widely spread in present-day English is the word-forming process of conversion itself. Due to the limited number of morphological elements serving as classifying, marking signals of a certain part of speech, word-formation executed by changing the morphological paradigm is very economical and efficient ( knife – to knife, eye – to eye, water – to water, to run – run, etc.). The majority of conversion pairs (more than 60%) in modern English are the result of conversion.


When conversion is studied diachronically scholars distinguish between cases of conversion and other processes leading to the same results like loss of inflections or assimilation of borrowings. When studied synchronically this difference does not matter.



Conversion of nouns and verbs


Any lexeme seems to be able to undergo conversion into a different grammatical class ( to up prices, to down his glass, a daily, etc.) unless there are already some other words in the language to denote the same concept (one may say sled for‘a vehicle for coasting down snow-covered hills’ but not *to sled, as there is a compound word for it — to sled-ride ).


The clearest cases of conversion are observed between verbs and nouns, and this term is now mostly used in this narrow sense.For other cases of conversion modern linguistics usually applies the term transposition .

Conversion is very active both in nouns for verb formation ( age to age, doctor to doctor, shop to shop, gas to gas ) , and in verbs to form nouns ( to catch a catch, to smile a smile, to offer an offer ).


There are hardly any semantic constraints on nouns as the source for verbs or on verbs as the source for nouns, there are still some preferences. Thus, nouns as the source for converted verbs typically denote instruments ( iron to iron ), parts of body that are viewed as instruments ( eye to eye ) and substances ( water to water ). Verbs used as the source for nouns derived by conversion typically denote movement ( to jump a jump ) and speech activity ( to talk a talk ).


Linguists have proven, however, that the most active type of conversion in English is n v, that is, conversion is more characteristic ofEnglish nouns. Hans Marchand /1969: 373/ admits that denominal verbs in English are much more numerous than denominal nouns. One can practically convert any noun into a verb if one has to communicate a particular message ( to knife, to eye, to fire-bomb ). You may, for example, even lamp the room — to install lamps in the room, though dictionaries do not register such a word.


Conversion of verbs into nouns is less common in English because very often derivation of nouns from verbs there happens by means of affixation: to arrive arrival, to open opening, to begin beginning, to read reading, to collect collection.



Relations within a conversion pair


From a synchronical point of view the biggest problem concerning conversion is establishing derivational relations within a conversion pair, that is establishing the direction of derivation and setting up a simple and a derived word there.


Linguists use a number of different criteria to determine the direction of derivation, though none of them is absolutely reliable.


Semantic criteria

a) The criterion of non-correspondence between part-of-speech meaning of the stem and lexical meaning of the root morpheme.


Stems of words related through conversion are phonetically identical but have different part of speech and denotational meanings ( hand n → hand v). So, semantically they are not identical. The problem is to identify which stem, or word, is primary and which one is derived.


In the noun hand, for example, the part-of-speech meaning of the stem ‘an object’ doesn’t contrast with the lexical meaning of the root morpheme ‘the end of the arm beyond the wrist’which also refers to an object. In the case of the verb to hand , however, the part-of-speech meaning of the stem ‘an action’contrasts with the lexical meaning of the root ‘the end of the arm beyond the wrist’. So, we may state that to hand is a derivative, as only in simple words the part-of-speech meaning of the stem corresponds to the lexical meaning of the root morpheme.


The same kind of non-correspondence of lexical meaning of the root and the stem in a derived word is observed in affixationally derived words ( teacher ). Tthe difference between an affixationally derived word and the word derived by conversion is that in the former case the derived word retains signs of the derivation process both in its formal morphological and in its semantic structure, too. In the latter case the traces of derivation are observed only in the semantic structure of the derivative.


b) The criterion of typical semantic relations between the words in a conversion pair.


Semantic relations in a conversion pair are diverse. Yet, scholars, such as P.A. Soboleva /Соболева 1959/, point out that verbs converted from nouns ( denominal verbs ) typically denote:

a) action characteristic of the object ( to monkey, to father, to fool );

b) action with the object ( to whip, to water, to knife );

c) acquisition of the object ( to fish, to milk, to mud );

d) deprivation of the object ( to dust, to skin ).


Nouns converted from verbs ( deverbal nouns ) usually denote:

a) instance of the action ( a jump, a smile, a try );

b) agent of the action ( a help; a hand but mostly derogatory: a cheat; a bore; a scold );

c) place of the action ( a race, a run );

d) object or result of the action ( a peel, help ).


Though the types of meaning in a derived word may be predictable, a lot of memory work is necessary to remember the exact meaning of the word derived by conversion because like any other derived word it is highly idiomatic:

a knife — to knife ‘to stab or wound with a knife’;

a boot — to boot ‘to put boots on; to kick; to make an error on the ground’;

a cap — to cap ‘to provide or protect with a cap’.

c) The polysemy degree criterion

Derived words are usually less polysemantic than the simple ones used as their sources (cf.: a great number of meanings in the simple noun head, for example, and much more limited their number in its derivative tobehead ). Words derived by conversion are not exceptions to this rule, and derived units in a conversion pair usually display a smaller degree of polysemy. The simple noun house, for example, has such meanings as ‘ 1. a building as a living quarters for one or a few families, 2. a) a shelter for a wild animal, b) a shelter for something, 3. HOUSEHOLD, 4. a residence for a religious or other community, the community itself, 5. a legislative assembly, 6. a place of business or entertainment, 7. the audience of a theater’ while the verb to house derived by conversion has only the meanings ‘ 1. to provide with living quarters, 2. to encase, enclose, 3. to serve as shelter’.


So, a lower degree of polysemy of a word in a conversion pair may be regarded as an indicator of its derived character.


2. The synonymity criterion


This criterion is based on a comparison of a conversion pair with a synonymic word pair where the direction of derivation is clear, and analogical derivational relations are deduced. For example, the relations between the words in the conversion pair to chat — a chat is believed to be the same as in their synonymic pair where derivational relations are formally expressed: to converse — a conversation. To chat, like to converse, is believed to be a simple verb and a chat, like a conversation, is regarded a derived noun.

The derivational criterion


This criterion is based on the analysis of the derivatives of the first degree of derivation. The noun is simple in a conversion pair ( a hand → to hand ) if a derivational base in the majority of the first-degree derivatives is nominal ( handful, handy, handsome ).. Vice versa, the verb is simple in a conversion pair and the noun is derived ( to laugh → laugh n) if a derivational base in the majority of first-degree derivatives is verbal ( laughter, laugher, laughingly ).


The frequency criterion


Lower frequency value of a word in a conversion pair indicates its derived character ( to answer 65 % → answer 35%; to joke 8% joke 82%).


5. The transformation criterion

In case if the transformation of nominalization of the verb in a conversion pair is possible ( race v in the horse is racing → the race of a horse ), we are dealing with a simple verb. When such transformation is impossible ( hedailymothered ‘protected’ the pet→ *the pet’s daily mother ) the verb should be regarded as derived. Similar patterns occur in a pair composed of a simple and a suffixationally derived words: nominalization is possible when the verb is simple and the noun is derived: John arrives tomorrow→ John’s arrival tomorrow, and impossible if the verb is suffixationally derived and the noun is simple: They will behead him tomorrow→ *His tomorrow’s head ).




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