Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

A New Function for the Suffix -en?

Returning to the topic of gifts from US Southerners to the English language I was writing on a few weeks ago (click here if you missed it), let me mention, perhaps, another one. Southerners are often chided for using young’ns for kids or children. The fact of the matter is, however, that except for the substitution of this expression for kids, it is a form found in many dialects of English.

Young’n represents a reduction of the adjective young plus the pronoun (not the number) one, that is, young one. This form has already been assimilated into the indefinite pronouns someone and anyone, suggesting that they do not have full lexical status in English, that is to say, on the level of cat, dog or rain. Rather, the pronoun one, as in “One must always be civil, mustn’t one?” is a grammatical morpheme, a function word.

The contraction of a function word like one with another word is often the first step in the conversion of that function word to an affix (prefix or suffix). Such conversions are slow transitions that take hundreds of years and it is always difficult to draw a line at an exact point when the independent or reduced word becomes an affix.

I think we have already passed that point in the southern US states and in other dialectal areas where this contraction occurs. I think so because of the consistency in the addition of this contraction to adjectives: “(Give me the) big’n, little’n, red’n,” and so on are just as common in those dialects as young’n.

This conversion is encouraged by the fact that English already has a suffix -en pronounced exactly the same way as the -‘n in young’n, etc. It is a little used affix found in a few outmoded adjectives such as wooden, woolen, and golden, and a handful of past participles like driven, written, and proven.

I am suggesting that young’n is on its way to become a regular noun youngen and that in the dialects of the southern US states a rule adding -en to adjectives making them nouns may already be in the grammar. Only time will tell if this change will spread as the addition of yall to the list of personal pronouns (click here for that blog).

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