Blog post written by Réka Benczes, based on an article in the latest issue of English Language and Linguistics
One of the most intriguing – and least studied – areas of English word-formation are so-called “tautological compounds” that are formed out of synonyms (such as subject matter), or where one of the constituents is already included in the meaning of the other constituent (such as oak tree).Their oddity can be attributed to two main reasons. First, as their name, “tautological compound” implies, at face value such combinations can be considered as prime examples for the redundancy of language. Second, they do not follow normal compound-forming rules in the sense that both constituents can function as the semantic head – as opposed to “normal” English compounds, where the head element of the compound is always the right-hand member (hence apple tree is a type of tree, and not a type of apple).
Perhaps due to their quirkiness not much has been said about tautological compounds in traditional accounts of compounding, which typically relegate them to a marginal area of English. However, there is more to tautological compounds than meets the eye. First of all, the study demonstrates that the term “tautological compound” is a misnomer, as such combinations are far from being tautological or redundant in their meaning. Accordingly, the paper differentiates between hyponym-superordinate compounds (such as tuna fish and oak tree) and synonymous compounds (such as subject matter or courtyard) and claims that both types play important roles in language.
Hyponym-superordinate compounds are remnants of our early acquisition of taxonomical relations by making the link between the hierarchical levels explicit. At the same time, hyponym-superordinate compounds are also used to dignify and upgrade concepts via the conceptual metaphor more of form is more of content, whereby a linguistic unit that has a larger form is perceived to carry more information (that is, more content) than a single-word unit.
Synonymous compounds have been shown to possess an emphatic feature, which has been exploited mainly in poetic language (as in the works of Coleridge). However, synonymous compounds are still very much present in everyday language, though in a slightly different form – as synonym-based blends (e.g., chillax “to calm down or relax” from chill+relax, or chivers “chills or shivers” from chill+shivers).
While tautological compounds have been around for a rather long time in the English language, they have received only very little attention (if at all) from linguists. Yet they provide fascinating insights into the motivational processes behind compounding, thereby making it necessary to assign this much-neglected category to its proper, well-deserved place within English word formation.