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A word is an independent linguistic unit . In natural language it has - in contrast to a sound or a syllable - an independent meaning .

A generally accepted definition does not exist and is also considered "difficult", since the term "word" is lexically ambiguous or (more specifically) vague and depends on the research point of view and on the linguistic level of interest as well as on the relevant theories . Whether “word” is a useful category in linguistics is disputed. So put Ferdinand de Saussure the term "word" completely back, saying instead, simply the " characters ". A word sometimes also means an abstraction from the concrete word form (“tree” and “trees” as forms of one and the same word ); such ideas are more precisely described in semantics under the term lexeme .

Conceptually, the “word” is mostly delimited from the phoneme , the morpheme , the syntagm, and the sentence . However, a single word can actually form a sentence, just like the word can consist of just a single morpheme and this in turn can consist of just a single phoneme, for example: Oh!

In relation to writing , a word is also defined as a section of text that is delimited by separators, such as spaces.


There are two plural forms of “word” . Ideally, the following semantic distinction is common:

  • Words refers to single or isolated objects.
  • Words refers to an utterance, contextual words.

The plural of word is words when it comes to the occurrence of several individual ones (“The directory contains 100,000 words”). From words we speak, however, in the use of words in fixed relationships ( words of thanks , greetings , i. W. ) or common expressions ( honest words , empty words , last words ).

According to the German dictionary , this distinction is attested in Middle High German and became increasingly popular in the 16th century, although the plural "words" is also used in high-ranking literature for words without context. The linguist Justus Georg Schottelius postulated this semantic distinction in the 17th century.

Word also denotes a meaningful, short statement ( a word of wisdom , word of power ) as a collective , especially if it forms a fixed form in which insertions are not possible (e.g. in proverb ). These in turn consist of several grammatical words. The plural words are required here. Words of Wisdom is thus an oxymoron .

Furthermore, the word as singular tantum - of which no plural can be formed here - denotes a doctrine (e.g. the word of God ) or a promise (e.g. break his word ).


Words are among the oldest abstract symbolic forms of humanity. Whether not z. B. Pictures are older is a question that is difficult to answer empirically (see primeval society ). In any case, they were preceded by repetitions of concrete actions that have been tried and tested. It is doubtful whether certain original words can be identified using methods of comparative linguistics (since the reconstruction of macro families is already disputed).


Depending on the perspective, various criteria are possible to identify words that are combined or supplemented with one another depending on the theoretical background and interest in knowledge . The expression "word" can be understood as phonetic-phonological, graphematic, morphological, syntactic or lexical-semantic:


Phonological criterion (word form)
phonological, phonemic (at) ical word
Words are chains of phonemes (sequences of sounds) that can be theoretically isolated using boundary signals such as pauses.
In German there is exactly one main accent syllable within each word . In other languages, such as French, the words become tightly bound and fused together as they are spoken. This means that a definition based on the typeface can differ greatly from a sound-oriented definition. According to the phonetic criterion, interjections such as uh etc. also count among the words.
Orthographic criterion (word form)
graphic, graphem (at) ical word
A word is a grapheme chain (group of letters) between two separators, mostly spaces.
This term refers to delimited fonts.
Morphological criterion (word form)
morphological, morphem (at) ical word
A word is the smallest possible linguistic unit that carries a meaning and can appear freely.
In this definition, word corresponds roughly to a free morpheme , which can, however, be extended by derivative morphemes (e.g. Herr, herr lich , ver herrlichen). A word defined in this way can be provided with inflection morphemes, whereby the word forms of this word are obtained (for example woman, women; loud, louder; do, do, do).
Syntactic criterion
syntactic word
Syntactic words can be defined as “the smallest movable and replaceable units of the sentence.” This term describes the syntagmatic property of serving as an atomic unit to which sentence structure rules can refer; the term does not have to be related to the word term morphology, e.g. B. the inflected word (a "word form") coincide. Syntactic words can create a unique word shape (example: . Fly . Fly fly ...), but this is not necessarily so (example: the / the / the / the fly ).
However, other authors do not differentiate between word form and syntactic word, but rather designate a syntactic word as “any specific grammatical expression of a word”, more precisely: a “lexeme”. The inclusion of semantic points of view can - in part - characterize the syntactic word as follows: "It is a lexeme that is so equipped with features that one can use it to build syntactic expressions - phrases and sentences."
Problems for a purely syntactic word term arise, for example, from the separable verbs in German, the components of which can be separated from one another (aufessen, he eats auf), but can still be replaced as a whole.
Semantic criterion (word paradigm)
lexical word , lexeme
From a semantic point of view, words are the smallest, relatively independent carriers of importance that are listed in the lexicon .
The meaning of words is, however, determined by their context of expression and therefore cannot be grasped without further investigation. Some words cannot be assigned a lexical meaning, at most a grammatical one ( functional words ).
For example, the terms flies , flew , flied, and flown are four word forms of a lexeme.

Discussion of attempts at delimitation

Delimitation according to blanks

Orthographic delimitation criteria are often rejected. This happens for internal language reasons and for language comparative reasons:

  • An argument in favor of rejecting an orthographic delimitation criterion is that the hyphenation is partially optional. Example: due to or due to .
  • Separable words should be considered as one word. Example: call - (I) call .
  • According to the old spelling, one wrote to go for a walk , now to go for a walk . According to the new spelling, you can write people walking as well as people walking . Walking and walking appear as one word.
  • It is unclear how hyphens and apostrophes should be counted.
  • The language comparison also shows that word boundaries are conventional. So the Turkish expression alabilecjim stands for I will be able to buy .
  • Nor is it convincing that, for example, washing machine is a word, the English expression washing machine is viewed as consisting of two words.
  • Not all languages ​​are written, and not all written languages ​​work with letters.
  • Some languages ​​or writing systems do not have spaces between words, such as Thai or Chinese .

For the linguist Johannes Volmert (* 1940) the orthographic definition of the word is "tautological, because the prior understanding of what a word is and where its limits are already incorporated into the writing conventions".

Differentiation after speaking pauses

Although the word as a phonetic unit (phonological word) is less criticized than the word as a graphic unit (orthographic word), it ultimately appears to be appropriately criticized: the definition appears circular because the unity of the word is not through pauses, but (possible) pauses the unity of the word are conditioned.

  • You can also put pauses between syllables without turning them into words. Example: wi-ki-pe-di-a remains a word, even if you put a pause between each syllable.
  • Typically, in most languages, when speaking for real, you don't pause between words.
  • In polysynthetic languages ​​in particular , recognizing pauses between words can be extremely difficult, so it is better to use other criteria, such as stress .


In grammar , words are differentiated according to parts of speech ( e.g. noun , adjective , verb ...) and examined with regard to sentence order , inflection , tonality (in tonal languages ​​such as Mandarin Chinese), etc.

There are different approaches to classifying words according to parts of speech. Syntactic, morphological and functional criteria are used. Today's classification essentially goes back to antiquity ( Dionysios Thrax ).


Words consist of morphemes, which are the smallest meaningful units in the language system, in inflected languages ​​from stem and inflection morphemes (house + es). In an isolating language like classical Chinese or Vietnamese, however, there is no inflection .

Types of words

Written words

Written words are represented using letters , characters or symbols and in many languages ​​they are separated from each other by spaces in front of the word or punctuation marks . In classical Chinese, each character corresponds to a word, a morpheme and a syllable.

Spoken words

Spoken words consist of syllables , which in turn consist of one or more phonemes (sounds). In some languages, tones that have different meanings are added (Mandarin Chinese, Hausa, Vietnamese), they are called tone languages (cf. also the intonation of German interjections such as “hm”). In accented languages like German, every word has a main accent. There is potentially a short pause before and after the word in spoken language .


A large part of the German vocabulary consists of words that come from other languages, so-called foreign and loan words . The proportion of vocabulary borrowed varies in different languages. In English, almost 75% of around 80,000 words were of non-Germanic origin. In a German etymological dictionary, over 30% of almost 17,000 words were borrowed.

With the 207 most common words in the vocabulary of a German native speaker, 50% of almost any text can be represented. Of these, monosyllabic words are the most common. The longer a word, the lower its frequency. This observation can be made in almost all languages. The underlying principle is called Zipf's law or Huffman coding .

The "word" has found its way into many German proverbs. Wanders German Proverbs Lexicon lists almost 1000 proverbs with "word" apart from words, dictionary, word stealers, little words, puns and punishments.


It has meanwhile become a sport to memorize as many words as possible in a given time. The world record for fifteen minutes is 214 words. To such memory skills to accomplish that access memory athletes in various mnemonics back.

As the longest known protein , titin also has the longest systematic name of a chemical compound according to the rules of IUPAC . In this generic name is the concatenation of amino acids names in the correct sequence, ie in the primary structure of the protein. The systematic name of titin begins with "methionyl ..." and ends with "... isoleucine". The word is composed of 189,819 letters.

The longest German word actually used without hyphens is "Asset Assignment Responsibility Transfer Ordinance " ( VZOZÜV ) with 56 letters. The longest word recorded in the Duden, however, is "Motor vehicle liability insurance" with 36 letters.

One of the words with the greatest cross-lingual similarity is a question word that is “Häh” (?) In German. This is what the linguists Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira and Nick Enfield from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen discovered. A word or utterance with which you can quickly signal that you have not understood your conversation partner. This form of expression seems to be universal, so to speak. Globally, utterances in the most varied of linguistic systems or individual languages can be detected not only in almost identical sound , but also in communicative terms with similar function and form. It thus becomes a (basic) indispensable tool for human communication. This seems remarkable, since words in unrelated languages ​​usually sound fundamentally completely different. It is a question syllable that is very similar in English: "Huh?", Mandarin Chinese: "A?", Spanish: "E?", Laotian: "A?" Or Dutch: "He?" and presumably represents an analogy . To this end, the working group led by Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira and Nick Enfield examined 200 conversations in 21 languages. The three linguists received the Ig Nobel Prize in the field of literature in 2015 for their work on this topic .



The Hebrew רבד (davar) occurs 2,570 times in the Hebrew Bible and is translated primarily by word , although it has more and stronger meanings. It can also be translated as “matter, announcement, instruction, concern, address, answer, occurrence, occurrence, eloquence, report, notification, behavior, message, for, thing, threat, event, requirement, something, case, story, chatter , Power, creative saying, achievement, word of power, message, normative saying, speech, reputation, thing, sentence, sense, language, dispute, act, part, circumstance, disposition, promise, proposal, advertising, effective word, wording or purpose. "

The Dutch Reformed theologian Frans Hendrik Breukelman describes it as “the word that someone speaks and the thing that someone does” or “the unity of word and deed.” The German Protestant pastor Gerhard Jankowski speaks of “God's energetic and powerful speech . "


The Gospel according to John begins with a prologue in the form of a strophic song (1.1–18 EU ) about the logos , the word. The well-known first sentence reads: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” It aims at Jesus Christ , the incarnate Word of God.

Other religions

The word also has a prominent meaning in the scriptures of other religions.


  • Gottfried Benn's two-stanza poem Ein Wort is famous .
  • Wanders German Proverbs Lexicon (5th volume) presents the considerable number of more than 1000 proverbs on the subject of words (including compositions with words: little words, dictionary, word stealer , little word, pun , pun): He uses the words like that Baer the cheese etc.

See also


Web links

Wiktionary: word  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wikiquote: Word  - Quotes

Individual evidence

  1. de Sivers: Word . In: André Martinet (Ed.): Linguistics . 1973, p. 185 (186) .
  2. K.-Å. Forsgren: word definition and field structure. Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, Göteborg 1977, p. 8.
  3. a b c plural of word (quoted from Grimm's German dictionary )
  4. a b DWDS entry on "Word" (with a quote from Wolfgang Pfeifer's Etymological Dictionary of German )
  5. ^ Peter Ernst: German Linguistics. WUV, Vienna 2008, p. 103. (UTB; 2541)
  6. ^ A b Jörg Meibauer: Introduction to German linguistics. 2nd Edition. Metzler, Stuttgart / Weimar 2007, ISBN 978-3-476-02141-0 , p. 17.
  7. ^ Bußmann, Hadumod (Ed.): Lexicon of Linguistics. Stuttgart 2008. Word section (a)
  8. a b Katja Kessel, Sandra Reimann: Basic knowledge of German contemporary language. Francke, Tübingen u. a. 2005, ISBN 3-8252-2704-9 , p. 61.
  9. word. In: Hadumod Bußmann (Ed.): Lexicon of Linguistics. 3rd updated and expanded edition. Kröner, Stuttgart 2002, ISBN 3-520-45203-0 .
  10. ^ After: Angelika Linke, Markus Nussbaumer, Paul R. Portmann: Study book Linguistics. 5th edition. Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen 2004, p. 65.
  11. ^ So - circular - Angelika Linke, Markus Nussbaumer, Paul R. Portmann: Study book linguistics. 5th edition. Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen 2004, ISBN 3-484-31121-5 , p. 63.
  12. ^ Patrick Brandt, Rolf-Albert Dietrich, Georg Schön: Linguistics. 2nd Edition. Böhlau, Cologne / Weimar / Vienna 2006, ISBN 3-412-00606-8 , p. 140.
  13. ^ Angelika Linke, Markus Nussbaumer, Paul R. Portmann: Study book linguistics. 5th edition. Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen 2004, p. 65.
  14. a b Duden, The Grammar. 7th edition. 2005, ISBN 3-411-04047-5 , Rn. 197
  15. According to Piroska Kocsány: Basic Linguistics: a workbook for beginners. Fink, Paderborn 2010, ISBN 978-3-8252-8434-3 , p. 82.
  16. Duden online, http://www.duden.de/zitieren/10241164/1.1
  17. ^ Jörg Meibauer: Introduction to German linguistics. 2nd Edition. 2007, p. 17; Anke Lüdeling: Basic course in linguistics. Klett Lerntechnik, Stuttgart 2009, ISBN 978-3-12-939004-7 , p. 80.
  18. Christa Dürscheid : Syntax. Basics and theories. 5th edition. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2010, ISBN 978-3-8385-3319-3 , p. 20. (UTB, 3319)
  19. ^ Christoph Gabriel, Trudel Meisenberg: Romance Linguistics. Fink, Paderborn 2007, ISBN 978-3-7705-4325-0 , p. 135.
  20. ^ Hans Reichenbach: Collected works. Volume 6: Fundamentals of symbolic logic. Vieweg, Braunschweig 1999, ISBN 3-528-08366-2 , p. 5.
  21. ^ Christoph Gabriel, Trudel Meisenberg: Romance Linguistics. 2007, p. 135.
  22. ^ Christoph Gabriel, Trudel Meisenberg: Romance Linguistics. 2007, p. 136.
  23. ^ Meibauer: Introduction to German linguistics. 2nd Edition. 2007, p. 17.
  24. Volmert: Language and Spoken: Basic Terms and Linguistic Concepts. In: Johannes Volmert (Ed.): Basic course in linguistics. 5th edition. UTB, ISBN 3-8252-1879-1 , 2005, p. 22 f .; according to Michael Bogdal: BA German studies: a textbook. Rowohlt, Reinbek bei Hamburg 2008, ISBN 978-3-499-55682-1 , p. 36: circular. because it depends on the prior understanding
  25. Critical to a phonological delimitation Christoph Gabriel, Trudel Meisenberg: Romanische Sprachwissenschaft. 2007, p. 136; Anke Lüdeling: Basic course in linguistics. Klett Lerntechnik, Stuttgart 2009, p. 80.
  26. Anke Lüdeling: Basic course linguistics. Klett Lerntechnik, Stuttgart 2009, p. 80.
  27. Wolfgang Viereck, Heinrich Ramisch, Karin Viereck: dtv-Atlas English language . dtv, Munich 2002, ISBN 3-423-03239-1 , p. 74.
  28. Helle Körner: On the development of the German (loan) vocabulary. In: Glottometrics. 7, 2004, pp. 25-49. Table p. 29 (PDF full text ).
  29. Werner König: dtv-Atlas German language. 15th edition. dtv, Munich 2005, ISBN 3-423-03025-9 , p. 114f. (dtv tape 3025)
  30. Anatol Stefanowitsch: The new longest word in German. In: Sprachlog. June 5, 2013, accessed June 5, 2013 .
  31. The longest German word - About insurance, proteins and laws | Word column | wort-suchen.de . In: wort-suchen.de . October 31, 2016 ( wort-suchen.de [accessed on May 6, 2017]).
  32. ^ M. Dingemanse, et al .: Is "Huh?" A Universal Word? Conversational infrastructure and the convergent evolution of linguistic items. In: Plos one 4, e94620, (2013), M. Dingemanse, et al .: Formats for other-initiation of repair across languages: an exercise in Pragmatic typology. In: Studies in language 38, (2014), pp. 5-43, KH Kendrick: The intersection of turn-taking and repair: the timing of other-initiations of repair in conversation. In: Frontiers in Psychology 6, 250, (2015), JP de Ruiter, et al .: Projecting the end of a speaker's turn: a Cognitive Cornerstone of Conversation. In: Language 82, (2006), pp. 515-535
  33. Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira, and Nick J. Enfield for discovering that the word “Huh?” (Or its equivalent) seems to exist in every human language - and for not being sure why it is. www.improbable.com/ig/winners/#ig2015
  34. Frans Hendrik Breukelman: Debharim: The biblical concept of reality of being in fact. Volume 2. Kok, Kampen 1998, ISBN 90-242-6158-9 .
  35. Gospel of John, chapter 1, verses 14-18.
  36. Quote from the Vedas
  37. Benn: One word