How many bases does the word girlfriends have?

Let's take this word apart.

  • girl -- root
  • friend -- root
  • s -- affix that denotes plural form

Base may be identical with the word root but can also be augmented with affixes while roots can not. Bases typically express a narrower lexical meaning that a root (ex: [[forest]er]).

So how many bases does the word girlfriends have?

  • girl -- base?
  • friend -- base?
  • girlfriend -- base?
  • I think linguistics uses the term head where you use base. Feb 6, 2015 at 19:34
  • 1
    As far as I remember, head determines the semantic category of the compound word and considered to be the rightmost stem girl[friend], here friend is the head. I think stem is a more correct substitution here.
    – tasty
    Feb 7, 2015 at 10:21
  • Odd. To my knowledge stem is only used for the unchanging part of an inflected word to which affixes are attached to obtain the inflected forms. Feb 7, 2015 at 10:29
  • well let's then say stem + affix is a base. Head is not a base according to wikipedia.
    – tasty
    Feb 7, 2015 at 15:01
  • 1
    "Base" is sometimes used in contrast to "stem", to refer to one of several forms of a root to which an affix may be added to form a stem. I think I have seen that use in Indo-European studies to distinguish the various ablaut forms of a root. And that is how Stanley Newman uses the term in his famous study of Yokuts.
    – Greg Lee
    May 17, 2015 at 15:24

2 Answers 2


You seem to have answered your own question. One base, "girlfriend", since that is what the affix "s" is added to, at least judging from the meaning. Morphologically, I guess it is not entirely obvious that "s" is not affixed to "friend", since we have the compound "musk oxen" rather than "muskoxes", where the form of the affix is determined by the second part of the compound.

  • What about hangers-on? Feb 6, 2015 at 5:41
  • And passersby. Feb 6, 2015 at 19:34
  • Base (or stem) may include only derivational affixes. So, I think hanger-on is a base of hangers-on, passerby is the base of passersby.
    – tasty
    Feb 7, 2015 at 10:28
  • I believe you're confusing base, which might not even be a technical term in linguistics? And head, which definitely is a linguistics term. May 19, 2015 at 13:37

By definition, compounds have more than one base: mice-killer is formed from MOUSE and KILL. Unlike Noun-Verb+er compounds, most of them are opaque and the relation between the two vary. There is a long tradition giving names to these different cases. For example, one of the oldest:

  • tatpurusa => blackboard: 1 head = BOARD, 1 modifier = BLACK
  • dvandva => bittersweet: 2 heads = BITTER & SWEET
  • bahuvrihi => chatterbox : no head (as a chatterbox is neither chatter nor a box)

A base is a lexeme used in a derivation usually for both the semantic and the phonological part of the construction. In girlfriend both the lexemes GIRL and FRIEND are used to build the derived word.

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