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Archive for the 'Morphology: Word Structure' Category

English’s Invisible Suffix

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

I recently heard an NPR reporter misplace the accent on a word and it reminded me of the invisible suffix in English. I did not write down the specific word (I’ve heard this error many times on radio and TV) but it was a word like survey, which is pronounced both survey and survey. Both are legitimate words. Do you know the rule which governs where the accent falls? Here are some more examples:

  • reject : reject
  • increase : increase
  • subject : subject

If you think accent on the second syllable indicates a verb and accent on the initial syllable indicates a noun—you’re right.

This difference in accent may legitimately be called an invisible (though not inaudible) suffix since it distinguishes verbs from nouns as surely as -ment does in state and statement or -ation does in form and formation. The rule is very simple: two syllable verbs with accent on the second syllable are converted into nouns by simply shifting the accent to the first syllable. (The words generally have to be made up of two distinguishable constituents or morphemes such as re- and -ject in reject and in- and -crease in increase.)

The meaning of the noun created this way is “the result of the action signified by the underlying verb”, just as a statement is the result of stating and and formations result from forming. The result of surveying is a survey and if we reject something, it becomes a reject.

This rule is particularly productive (active) among verbs with the prefix re-. If you recap the news, the result is a recap, the result of retreading a tire is a retread, anything we remake turns out to be a remake. I could go on all night and through most of tomorrow but I think these examples are enough to show that this accent shift is an active rule of the English language.

Sometimes the meaning is simply the process of the verb, as a reboot of a computer is simply the act of rebooting, but the same duality of meaning can be found in nouns ending on -(at)ion and -ment. English has so few suffixes that all of them serve multiple functions.

The important point is that the language does provide a means of distinguishing between many verbs and nouns that are spelled identically and we should be careful to observe the rule that maintains this distinction when we utter these words.

Disconfusing Apprised and Abreast

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

Jackie Strauss, a dear contributor to our Good Word series, wrote me the following yesterday:

“I’m enjoying going through your list of commonly confused words. When I got to the word “apprised”, I wondered why you didn’t include “abreast”. I often hear people using both of these words to mean the same thing. Do they? Are they entirely interchangeable, e.g. “I’ll keep you apprised of his post-surgical condition” or “Please keep me abreast of his post-surgical condition”. Which would be correct, or are they both correct? Or can one only keep oneself abreast of anything?”

“And why is there no word like “disconfuse” or “unconfuse” that I could use in this very sentence?!? Please DISCONFUSE me!!”

Keeping someone abreast and apprised do not mean the same but the two words often can be used in the same context. “Keep me abreast” means “keep me up-to-date” while “keep me apprised” means “keep me informed”.

Somewhere I’ve written about the difference between meaning and reference. Words and phrases with different meanings can have the same reference, e.g. “the morning star” and “the evening star” refer to the same celestial body (the planet Venus, by the way). Jackie’s examples fall into the same category. These phrases are different in meaning but in such a way that they may often be used interchangeably in appropriate contexts.

When one of my students years ago wrote in a term paper that President Nassar of Egypt saw himself as “the halter of the British in the Middle East”, my marginal comment was, “My, you do keep abreast of things”. In that situation, only one of Jackie’s words seems to work.

Now, disconfuse is another story. We use disremember so often in the US that several dictionaries now carry it—including Merriam-Webster. It appears currently about 38,000 times on the Web. In fact, there is no reason not to add the prefix dis- to remember and the meaning is clear. I would say the same applies to disconfuse, which appears 143 times on the Web today (so Jackie is not the only one who has thought of it). The meaning is perfectly clear to me and is not synonymous with clarify, the antonym of confuse.

We are not restrained to use to words that we have already heard when we speak or write. Language is very productive and we are free to create new words whenever we need them so long as we follow the rules of grammar. My sense of the grammar is that the prefix dis- can be added more or less freely to verbs of Latin origin so I can think of no grammatical reason why we shouldn’t use disconfuse.

Did this disconfuse the issue enough for you?

Feminism and Feminine Forms

Monday, June 2nd, 2008

A reader who wishes to be known only as “JC” recently sent this comment to our Good Word inamorato:

In response to the inamorato email which states (in regard to feminine/masculine forms); “The use of suffixes like -ette and -ess to distinguish females from males is now harshly frowned upon.”

I can’t help but chuckle, sometimes, at the supposed “good intentions” of our almost obsessively politically correct society. Such morphemes are very useful, and, I suspect, exist for this very reason, [that] they convey meaning much more efficiently.

I’ve noticed this over the last several years in relation to the term actor. The unacceptability of this morpheme now necessitates the use of the term “female actor(s)” if one needs to make such a reference.

Consider the information conveyed in the word bartendress—not in the dictionary, to my knowledge, but useful nonetheless. I shudder to think what would happen if such a fad took hold of a language like Nahuatl, in which there seem to be [a plethora of] morphemes that can be used to construct single words that are pregnant with meaning!

This American sport even takes the liberty of imposing itself on terms from other languages. I’m sure you’re aware of the fact that a mixed group in the Romance languages, when referred to in the third person, will use the plural masculine pronoun unless it is composed of females.

Taíno, in reference to the Taíno Indians of the Carribean, is a word that has been Hispanicized (for obvious reasons), yielding Taínos for a (mixed) group and Taínas for a group of females.

In The Cave of the Jagua, an anthropological study about the Taíno Indians, the text constantly refers to “the Taínos and Taínas” just as readily as one would refer to “the English” or “the Germans”. Unfortunately, the Spanish language has made an insensitive and chauvinist distinction that now necessitates undoing.


Does Verbing Weird Things?

Wednesday, February 13th, 2008

Maxine Davis responded to our treatment of loathe in a way we did not expect. However, she raises a point with which many other careful speakers agree. Here is her comment and my reply:

“My loathing for the verbalization of nouns makes me loathe statements such as the one about Prudence Pender’s being ‘ambulanced to the emergency room’!”

“I do realize that this annoying trend is popular; although I am loath to admit it.”

“[I am] Enjoying the good word daily.”

Where would you air a pet peeve about language but before the good Dr. Goodword? He is delighted to see that you practicing the Good Word even as you complain about his description of it.

This is a malady I cannot cure but I can explain why it occurs in English in a way it does not in other European languages. Verbing nouns (if you’ll excuse the expression) is frequently criticized these days and has been for a decade or so. As Calvin and Hobbes (I forget which) put it years ago: “Verbing weirds things.”

English encourages widespread verbing because it has so few affixes that are demanded by grammar. Nouns in most other European languages require a variety of endings whose choice depends on how they are used in the sentence.  Rules of grammar preclude those endings from being replaced by verbal endings.

English has lost most of its morphology, which includes affixation, so nothing prevents the use of nouns as verbs or verbs as nouns, or either as adjectives. (I wonder why using verbs as nouns doesn’t pique anyone: a swing, a hit, a walk, and so on?) The noun hit looks exactly like the verb hit. The plural hits is identical to the one verbal form, 3rd person singular hits. 

In German, however, der Schlag, die Schläge (hit, hits) is quite different from schlagen “to hit”: ich schlage “I hit”, du schlägst “you hit”, er schlägt “he hits”. Nouns are nouns, adjectives are adjectives, and verbs are verbs in French, German, Russian, Finnish, Hungarian, and most other European languages.

So there is no cure but the good news is, it isn’t fatal.

More Ladyfingers and Woolly Bears

Thursday, November 8th, 2007

Yesterday and today even more totally undescriptive names of commonplace things in our lives popped into my mind. There must be a word for such but I have not yet been able to find it. If I don’t, I’ll suggest a neologism to press into that service.

OK, here are more: You wouldn’t want an earwig anywhere near your ear nor a rollmop near your mouth if they were anything near what their names suggest.  If the names of things were that important, people who would never dream of eating dogs would avoid hotdogs with the same fervor.

We never serve wingnuts in our nutbowls nor fry silverfish.  Shooting a real bull’s eye is—ugh! The one on a target has nothing to do with bulls.  And wouldn’t a baked Alaska be a mouthful if it meant what its name describes?

OK, I could go on but I probably made my point Monday. I just added these because of the hidden humor in words we use every day—without thinking.  Wouldn’t English be dull without them?

Borrowing and Corruption

Wednesday, October 24th, 2007

From time to time one of our Good Words rubs someone the wrong way. This happened to Lucy Medina when we published vamoose, mentioning that is a “materially corrupted” version of Spanish vamos. I was happy that she shared her immediate reaction to our essaylet on that word:

“As a Latina, I really resent the use of words in English that have come about by abusing another language, especially the Spanish language. The so-called western shows seen when I was a child in the 50′s did much to harm to the Latino children and the Latino population as a whole. There are still people alive who believe that what they saw on those western TV shows and movies is | historically true.”

“Maybe a series of word used in English that come from mis-using or abusing foreign languages would be ok, but I am not sure how I would feel about it.”

“Thanks for a usually great daily feature.”

The reason we love our job is because we meet so many people who take their language seriously and are, as we all should be, deeply emotionally affected by it. I would agree that the dissemblance of Western life in the motion pictures of the 40s and 50s probably is a danger to children and adults alike. However, I limited my response to the linguistic question of “corrupting” the pronuncation of borrowed words.

I know of no research indicating that borrowing and adapting words between languages (it works both ways) harms children or adults. Children have no idea where words come from; indeed, most adult speakers don’t know where they come from (unless they subscribe to the Good Word). I probably shouldn’t have said that vamoose is a “corrupted” form of vamos but that is a linguistic synonym for adapted that commonly appears in dictionaries.

Words are borrowed all the time; over half the English vocabulary has been borrowed from other languages. Since the sound systems of different languages are never compatible, adaptation or “corruption” is a normal part of borrowing.

I could see Spanish-speakers taking some pride in speakers of other languages appreciate Spanish enough to (try) to use Spanish words in their own speech. A language usually borrows from a language it considers exotic or superior in some way. That is why English borrowed so much from French and Latin. Spanish belongs to the same family of Romance languages.

What is an Absolute Adjective?

Monday, October 22nd, 2007

The “grammar” taught in US schools over the years has by far done more damage than good. It was written by prescriptive grammarians (as opposed to descriptive linguists) who prescribed rules based on logic rather than an understanding of the actual rules of the language. I came across a wonderful example of their influence while trying to find a few examples of absolute adjectives Saturday. They also are perfect examples of the dangers of the Internet that lurk within its wonders.

Within the first 20 returns of my googling “absolute adjective”, I found three mutually incompatible definitions.

1. At the Summer Institute of Linguistics, we are told that an absolute adjective is an adjective which functions as a noun, e.g. the rich, the poor, an empty. This is an ancient prescriptivist definition; in fact, any qualitative adjective may be used as a noun in English. 

2. The Wikipedia claims that absolute adjectives stand alone and do not belong to a larger construction, as happy is an absolute adjective in “The boy, happy with his lollipop, did not look where he was going.” This is simply an adjective phrase; they are consistently placed after the noun they modify in English.

3. The prescriptive grammarian at About.com defines them as adjectives, like infinite, unique, complete, or dead, that cannot be compared or intensified (no more infinite or very infinite. (I know the author is a presciptivist because he thinks a noun is a person, place, or thing.)

I was once discussing rather critically the performance of a college in the Russian Program with my dean. The dean, quite seriously, told me that she had it on good, objective authority that my colleague (a native speaker) spoke Russian better than me. My response was swift: “But we didn’t hire her to speak Russian.”

We had, of course, hired my colleague to teach Russian and the two activites are not the same at all. Teaching requires a strong understanding of the grammars of both languages and how they interrelate (if they do). A native-speaker’s knowledge of their native language is all unconscioius.

For some reason, many people believe that if you speak a language, you know it well enough to teach it to others. High school and college teachers are hired on the basis of the assumption that anyone speaking a language can teach it. But now hiring is a moot issue: the Internet provides an enormous university where anyone can build a virtual classroom and begin teaching whatever they like however they please. This is one reason I started yourDictionary and alphaDictionary, as reliable, authoritative language (grammar and dictionary) resources. alphaDictionary still is.

Now that I have this point off my chest, tomorrow I will share my thoughts on absolutely fascinating lives of absolute adjectives. They are far more intriguing than their representations in prescriptive grammars.

Reanalyzing Words

Wednesday, October 10th, 2007

We just passed 100,000 pieces of spam deleted from this blog’s “Replies”. I spend a good 15 minutes a day weeding out the porn, pharma, investment, and other offers from companies who are bent on destroying the Web by choking it with unwanted ads. One company was sweet enough to send over 100 copies of the same piece of spam as a reply to one of our blog entries in the course of one day.

OK, now that is out of my system (sort of), let’s take a look at word reanalysis. I mentioned phrase reanalysis in an earlier blog. Some call reanalyses mondegreens, after perhaps the most famous instance, which you may read about here. Just remember that mondegreens are not limited to song lyrics.

The real process is called reanalysis by linguists because what happens is that the listener mishears a phrase and draws the lines between the words in the wrong place. Listening is not a passive process: a listener is constantly analyzing sentences and drawing words out of what is a long single tune coming from the speakers mouth. Language is a spoken means of communication and there are no spaces between words in speech as they are here, for example.

The alternation of a and an before nouns has presented problems of analysis by hearers for as many centuries as English has had this article. Generally, the rule is a before a word beginning with a consonant and an before a word beginning with a vowel: a pear but an apple. The problem has always been in drawing the line between this word and the next when the next begins with an N.

My first example is orange, which arose from the misanalysis of the original phrase ‘a narange’, based on Arabic word narange “orange”.

Another famous example is Old English naedre “adder” (an nadre) which turned into an adder between 1300 and 1500, after two centuries of wide-spread, constant reanalysis.

The noun apron was originally napron, from Old French naperon, the diminutive of nape “tablecloth”, which came from Latin mappa “napkin”. Well, the phrase a napron became an apron but the English diminutive of napron, napkin, a small apron after all, survived the cut and preserved its initial N.

Now I have discovered yet another of these misanalyzed phrases: auger is a reduction of Old English nafogar from Germanic compound *nab-gaizaz, a tool for splitting wheel hubs. nab came from PIE *nobho- “navel”, which also referred to the navel of a wheel, its hub, called its nave. This produced in Old English nafu-gár “nave-piercer”. This word reduced by Middle English to nauger and the phrase a nauger. But if you (mis)place the space one letter, the result is what we have in Modern English: an auger.

So don’t laugh at your children when they mistake “Gladly the Cross I’d Bear” for “Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear”.  Adults misanalyze and reanalyze spoken English in ways that permanently affects it.

Haplology: the Syllable Thief

Monday, August 13th, 2007

Andrew Gillett just sent “a quick question which has been bugging me and my friends. I recently saw an ad in a magazine for mascara by Chanel. It had the word inimitable written on the ad and my friends and I had absolutely no idea why inimitable is spelt that way and not inimitatable or unimitatable, which seems to me to be more obvious since translate becomes translatable.”

Andrew has stumbled on an example of ‘haplology’, which should be ‘haplogy’ since it refers to the deletion of two adjacent identical or near identical syllables. English doesn’t like inimitatable because of the duplicated TATA in the middle—so it drops one TA. The same thing happens in other verbs, e.g. demonstratable becomes demonstrable though, if one of the syllables is accented (as in translatable), haplology will not apply.

Did you ever hear anyone say probly? This is the result of the same process since the OB and AB are pronounced identically in this word. This word undergoes haplology that is not reflected in its spelling but we find haplology built into the spelling of other words.

Other forms, like inimitable reflect haplogy in their spelling and everyone but Andrew ignores them: emphasis+ize is spelled emphasize and feminine+ize has permanently become feminize, dropping one of the INs.

The British apply haplology to those words with R appearing in two adjacent unaccented syllables: library becomes lib’ry and February becomes Feb’ry. So, haplology is all around us. Why then has haplology itself not undergone haplology? Because one of the LOs is accented.


Wednesday, August 8th, 2007

I think it was in J. D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenter that the word jeechet first appeared in print. It has always fascinated me because it is clearly one single word phonologically (a phonological word is easily defined as a series of linguistic sounds bearing a single accent). However, this ‘word’ corresponds to an entire four-word sentence!

Now, before you say that this is not a word but just the result of lazy speakers slurring their speech, let me assure you that linguists can track every single change from the sentence to the word using common rules of English phonology, i.e. rules that occur widely elsewhere and throughout the language. Here they are for your amusement and edification.

The first rule is that function words (monosyllabic pronouns, auxiliaries, prepositions, etc.) like did are rarely accented except for emphasis which is irrelevant here. The second rule is that unaccented vowels occurring before the accented syllable like the [i] here are regularly dropped in English, e.g. p’lice for police, s’pose for suppose. Since did is unaccented, it attaches to [you] for accent and the [i] then disappears, giving us
ddyou eat yet
However, since English (unlike Italian, for instance) does not tolerate double consonants, [dd] regularly reduces to [d] resulting in
dyou eat yet

Since you is another function word, it isn’t accented either and is regularly reduced to where [ê] represents a schwa, pronounced, roughly, [uh] dyê eat yet. However, since it is not accented, it must attach to the following word for accent, giving us
dyêeat yet
The only accent in this sentence is on eat which means that the vowel [ê] is now an unaccented vowel preceding the accented one and so falls to the ax of the second rule mentioned above, resulting in
dyeat yet

Next, the combination [dy] regularly reduces to [j] and [ty] to [ch], e.g. mature [mêtyur > [mêchur] and picture [piktyur] > [pikchur]. Since the accent is on eat in this sentence, both the [dj] and [ty] are subject to this rule, which reduces our sentence further to
pronounced [djeechet]. Of course, the sound [j] is a combination of [d] + [zh], the sound of the Z in azure. This makes the [d] redunant, giving us

One reason we can’t determine the number of words in a language is because a phonological word (the sound part) does not always directly correspond to a semantic word (the meaning). According to Dr. Language at yourDictionary.com (also me), “I would have” comprises 3 distinct sounds and meanings but “I’d've” is a single two-syllable phonological word that matches the same three meanings—one word or three?

Speaking a language involves a complex set of mental activities in different parts of the brain each of which follows its own rules. The output of these rules are plotted onto the input of others in ways linguistics is still exploring. One of the most remarkable aspects of language is the surprising variety of rules and interaction of rules that the brain must carry out in order for us to express ourselves and be understood.

No other ‘word’ in the English language exemplifies the labrynthine nature of the levels of grammatical rules and their interactions better than jeechet.