I'm wondering if there's a name for a phenomenon that I think of in the following way: Some words are far more deeply embedded within a language than others.

I'm contrasting the words "do" and "become" in English with their respective German counterparts "tun" and "werden". "Do" is more deeply embedded in English than "become".

  • It is used in such sentence as "What will you do?" or "That's what I did.",

  • but it is also used as an auxiliary verb in negative and interrogative sentences, as in "He does not sing" rather than "He sings not" or "Did he sing?" rather than "Sang he?".

  • It is also used as a pro-verb, standing in for other verbs, as in "Did he sing?" "He did."

By contrast, in German, "werden" is more deeply embedded in the language than "tun". "Tun" is used in German counterparts of "What will you do?" or "That's what I did." but it does not have the other uses listed above. "Werden" not only means "become" but

  • is also used as the auxiliary verb for forming the future tense, corresponding to "shall" or "will" in English (German, like English, lacks a full-fledged future tense)

  • and in addition is used in forming the passive voice, just as "be" serves that purpose in English.

So is there some name for that?

  • 3
    Besides grammaticalised, for verbs specifically there are also some hits for auxiliarised. As an example of a noun that is used in function words, I would mention English body. Commented Mar 27, 2018 at 14:44
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    Though the noun /'badi/ loses its stress and gets reduced to /bədi/ or even /bdi/ when grammaticalized.
    – jlawler
    Commented Mar 27, 2018 at 15:37
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    How is "body" grammaticalized? Is this about "everybody", "nobody", "anybody", "somebody"? Commented Mar 28, 2018 at 17:17

3 Answers 3


You could say that English do is more "grammaticalized" than German tun, and German werden is more grammaticalized than English become.

Section II of "The Grammaticalization of Aspectual Auxiliary Verbs in Korean", by Hae-Yun Lee reviews the concept of grammaticalization and gives some examples of what is meant by the term.


I think, a reasonable answer to your question may be "yes", but a number of terms actually covers what you are writing about. Just like is shown in the post of @sumelic, "deep embedding" exhibits the properties of grammaticalization: having grammatical meanings, synsemanticity, contiguous negation and interrogative inversion abilities, emphatic and VP-substitution functions.

To the extend that the verb in question has lexical meanings too, it is not completely grammaticalized. The intermediate step between the two stages I would call either everysemy or light/thin verb.

I would also say this phenomenon seems to exemplify lexicon-grammar continuum.

  • I think one could exhibit instances of what I had in mind that are not verbs. Personal pronouns, for example, could be considered deeply embedded in the unfortunately ill-defined sense that I had in mind. Commented Mar 27, 2018 at 20:57
  • (Personal) pronouns, prepositions... Commented Mar 28, 2018 at 3:19

In general, entrenchment is the term you are looking for. Words that are used more often are more ready at hand. Our choice of words is dominated by more frequent words, e.g. rather talking about brother and sisters than siblings. The opposite, namely choosing awkwardly the less frequent synonyms (or "homoeonyms") can add an air of archaism or poetry (as in your example "Sang he?") until it becomes downright agrammatical. Your example describes grammaticalisation (or subjectification), as has been pointed out. Another example: will evolves from meaning to want to an optative (similar to shall) and ultimately to a future auxiliary verb, a process that occurs in similar fashion in different languages.

  • In German, "will" still means "wants" (the verb, in first- or third-person singular). Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 23:35
  • True. A similar process took place with its synonym mögen (cf. Engl. might) which has acquired optative/subjunctive meaning, e.g. Mag sein (dass)... or er möge schweigen ("it may be that..." or "he shall be quiet"). Other examples are geben in es gibt..., "there is/are...", or Spanish haber lenited to hay, "there is/are..."
    – Abas
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 8:22

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