listeme (words)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms


A listeme is a word or phrase (or, according to Steven Pinker, "a stretch of sound") that must be memorized because its sound or meaning does not conform to some general rule. Also called a lexical item.

All word roots, irregular forms, and idioms are listemes.

The term listeme was introduced by Anna Marie Di Sciullo and Edwin Williams in their book On the Definition of Word (MIT Press, 1987).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "The second sense of word is a stretch of sound that has to be memorized because it cannot be generated by rules. Some memorized chunks are smaller than a word in the first sense, such as prefixes like un- and re- and suffixes like -able and -ed. Others are larger than a word in the first sense, such as idioms, cliches, and collocations. . . . A chunk of any size that has to be remembered--prefix, suffix, whole word, idiom, collocation--is the second sense of word. . . . A memorized chunk is sometimes called a listeme, that is, an item that has to be memorized as part of a list."
    (Steven Pinker, Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language. Basic Books, 1999)
  • "In their book On the Definition of Word, Di Sciullo and Williams (1987) introduce the term listeme for linguistic units that are thought to be 'listed individually' (as opposed to generated 'on-line'): their listemes include all root morphemes, most derived words, certain syntactic phrases (idioms and, probably, collocations), and a few sentences."
    (David Dowty, "The Dual Analysis of Adjuncts/Complements in Categorial Grammar," in Modifying Adjuncts, ed. by Ewald Lang et al. Walter de Gruyter, 2003)
  • Properties of Listemes
    "The lexicon contains a list of lexical items (e.g. nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs). Di Sciullo and Williams (1987) refer to the items listed in the lexicon as listemes. Most listemes are single vocabulary items such as mediatrix. The use of the term listeme is meant to highlight the fact that words in this sense must be listed in the lexicon because they have idiosyncratic properties (not governed by general principles) that speakers must simply memorise. By contrast, syntactic phrases are generated by general rules and are analysable in terms of those general rules. So they do not need to be listed in the lexicon. The idiosyncratic properties of listemes typically include:
    (a) morphological properties: mediatrix is borrowed from Old French; it takes the suffix -ices for plural;
    (b) semantic properties: mediatrix means 'a go-between'; mediatrix is human and female and the male equivalent is mediator;
    (c) phonological properties: indicating pronunciation (e.g. /mi:dIətrIks/);
    (d) syntactic properties: mediatrix is a noun, countable, feminine, etc." (Francis Katamba, Morphology. St. Martin's Press, 1993)
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Nordquist, Richard. "listeme (words)." ThoughtCo, Feb. 12, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, February 12). listeme (words). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "listeme (words)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).