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Where Do Words Come From? (3)

Derived Words

In addition to the words a language inherits and those it borrows from other languages, all languages have rules for creating new words from old ones within the language itself. These rules are called derivation or word formation rules. New words may be formed by adding prefixes, particles added to the beginning of words, or suffixes, particles added to the end. For example, the English suffix -er creates a noun meaning 'someone who does X' from a verb, where 'X' is the meaning of the verb the noun is created from. So, from the verb run we can create runner 'someone who runs', from work we can create worker 'someone who works' and so on.

The suffix -ing has many functions in English but one of them is to create nouns from verbs meaning 'the thing created by X-ing': carve : a carving 'the thing carved', cut : a cutting 'the thing cut' (flower or newspaper article), painting 'the thing painted', and so forth. Of course, this suffix is more often used to create a noun meaning the action of the verb itself, as in running, cooking, drinking, acting. Here is a list of the most common endings and prefixes used to derive words in English.

Some English Derivational Affixes
Base Derived Word Derivation Derivational Meaning
carve carv-er Verb to Noun «someone who V's»
carve carv-ing Verb to Noun «the result of V-ing»
decide decis-ion Verb to Noun «the result of V-ing»
state state-ment Verb to Noun «the result of V-ing»
train train-ing Verb to Noun «the process of V-ing»
train train-ee Verb to Noun «someone who is V-ed»
excite excit-able Verb to Adj «that can be V-ed»
excite excit-ing Verb to Adj «that V-es»
domestic domestic-ate Adj to Verb «make Adj»
quick quick-en Adj to Verb «make Adj»
solid solid-ify Adj to Verb «make Adj»
write re-write Verb to Verb «V again»
write under-write Verb to Verb «not V enough»
write over-write Verb to Verb «V too much»
tender tender-ness Adj to Noun «quality expressed by the Adj»
legible legibil-ity Adj to Noun «quality expressed by the Adj»
important importan-ce Adj to Noun «quality expressed by the Adj»

As soon as a new stem (base word) enters the language, it is immediately subject to derivation. If we were to begin using blick tomorrow as a verb meaning 'to wrap in aluminum foil', we would immediately have a constellation of words derivable from it: blicker, blicking (with several meanings), blickable, blickability, unblickable and, maybe, blickee.

If derivation is available to all new stems in the language, we might well ask, "how do the new stems themselves get into English?" It is interesting that languages do not provide ways of adding new stems to their vocabularies, only ways of extending stems that are already there by derivation. So how do new stems get into our mental lexicons? That is a whole other story.

Click here to see how good you are at deriving new words from old

Continue to Part 4