Peggy Nielsen has been puzzling over the use of the comparative degree to suggest “less than.” She has been searching for comparatives that compare (no joke meant in this sentence), but newer is the only example she can find in which the comparative actually connotes “less than” rather than “more than.” Here is her illustration: “The house has a newer roof,” means that the roof is actually older than a new roof. Peggy finds that rather odd.
Well, odd things abound in language, so this phenomenon comes as no surprise. Most can be explained, however. Let’s see if this one can.
In fact, few grammatical function markers (= morphemes) like the suffixes -er and -est have only one function. Take a look at -ing: in the sentence “I am walking” it marks a verb, in the sentence “Walking bores me,” it is on a noun; in the phrase “the walking man,” it forms an adjective, and in the sentence “Walking to work, he stubbed his toe,” it marks an adverb. However, a suffix that has contrary meanings is rather unusual.
Indeed, the comparative in these cases mean “rather ADJ”, where “ADJ” is the meaning of any comparable adjective. For instance, a newer roof means “rather new” and, by implication, not quite completely new. You must use it with a noun; in predicate position, e.g. “Our roof is newer,” it means only one thing. “He is a taller guy” without the than means that he is a “tallish” guy, rather tall, taller than some but not all.
Many languages have a separate suffix to indicate “rather”, just as English has the remnant of -ish. But English is undergoing a process of affix elimination, a process no one understands. Languages add affixes, turning “designated compounders” like -like (friend-like) into affixes (friend-ly). Then the same language turns around and rids itself of those suffixes and go back to using compounds. (Don’t worry your children: the process takes hundreds of years.)
Languages like Chinese and Vietnamese have no affixes, prefixes or suffixes in the sense of European languages. English is currently moving in their direction.
The interesting thing is that the functions (meanings) of these suffixes are not lost. This means that when a suffix is lost, its function must be taken on by another suffix (until that one disappears). Apparently, the function of -ish (meaning: “rather ADJ”) is being assumed by the suffix -er.
Not to carry the point to extremes, the suffix -er also works to mark agent nouns like baker, maker, lover. (What do cooler, warmer, dryer mean? Are they nouns or adjectives?) While -ish is being replaced by -er, the comparative -er itself is being replaced by analytic or phrasal expressions like more poor, more tall, more long—all heard more and more frequently in modern speech.
I’m sorry I wrote so much about this phenomenon. Blame it on Peggy for pulling on such an interesting loose end of our language.