All words of necessary or common use were spoken before they were written; and while they are unfixed by any visible signs, must have been spoken with great diversity. -- Samuel Johnson
It would be necessary to search for the reason for dividing language into words - for in spite of the difficulty of dealing it, word is a unit that strikes the mind, something central in the mechanism of language. -- Ferdinand de Saussure
Words are typical units of lexicology and lexicography. This seems obvious enough, but there has been a great deal of scholarly discussion about the status of the word in language structure. Some linguists avoid the term altogether giving preference to the morpheme as the smallest and basic grammatical unit. For, while in everyday speech we can live with expressions that have vague and multiple meanings, scientific terms should be unambiguous and, ideally, universally applicable. The word fails on both counts. 'Word' is a highly ambiguous term and hard to define in a way valid for all languages. Words are units at the boundary between morphology and syntax serving important functions as carriers of both semantic (Sampson 1979) and syntactic (Di Sciullo and Williams 1987) information and as such are subject to typological variation. In some languages words seem to be more clearly delimited and more stable than in others. The structural make-up of words depends on typological characteristics of languages.
(note: each verb and its forms are the same word, or different words?)
The remarks by Johnson and Saussure quoted at the beginning of this chapter point to the important fact that words are intuitively given units but hard to pinpoint. Once fixed by visible signs, they acquire a corporeal existence. It should be borne in mind that first and foremost words are lexical units or lemmata, that is, analytic units of the written language.