Where English meets Linguistics
I read a joke on Facebook, a witty play on words:
My left brain has nothing right,
My right brain has nothing left.
The wit obviously lies in intentionally confusing two pairs of homophones, namely left as a direction and left as the past participle of leave, and right as a direction and right meaning proper and correct.
After a smirk or two, my inquisitiveness compelled me to ask questions. Are these words homophones by chance, or are they actually related to each other somehow?
After posting my other article So many negative prefixes, I received very positive feedback and many readers apparently found the article interesting and useful. Indeed, these little affixes (prefixes and suffixes) can be puzzling when they are similar in meaning but nevertheless non-interchangeable. That makes people ask why they are what they are: is there a subtle rule beneath all the messy superficial distribution, or things just happen by chance?
Not long ago, a friend asked me whether there are rules governing the usage of those suffixes of nationality, such as -ese, -ian and -ish. I thought about it for a while, then I remembered that years ago I read a post on the Internet, saying that -ese is a derogatory ending used only on those countries that the western world thought to be inferior, so we have adjectives like Chinese, Vietnamese and Burmese. After all, many of the Asian countries do form their adjectives in -ese. But I had doubts, don’t the westerners just love Japanese stuff? And why Korean, Indian, Malaysian and Indonesian then? So I decided to look for the answer myself.
In English, we can use a number of prefixes on adjectives to form their opposites. The following pairs come to mind as examples:
In most cases, these prefixes are not interchangeable, so we do not have *unlegal or *apossible, for instance. Of course, fluent speakers have no problem in using the right prefix for the right word, as more than often, the negative adjectives are learned word by word. But that should not stop us from pausing and asking, “Are these prefixes randomly matched with the words?” The lesson from Why is probible not possible and possable not probable? tells us that while not everything has a reason, most things indeed do not come from nothing. So the question that we should really ask is “What are the differences between these prefixes?”
In English when we want to describe something as “capable of doing something”, there is a handy set of adjectives that we can use which end in either -able or -ible. Examples are numerous, to name a few, we have adorable, applicable, curable, observable, operable, portable, probable for -able, and divisible, edible, feasible, legible, permissible, plausible, possible for -ible.
These two suffixes carry exactly the same meaning, i.e. “capable of V-ing”, or more often “capable of being V-ed”, where V is a verb constituting the stem of the word. For instance, applicable describes something that is “capable of being applied“, and changeable describes something that is “capable of changing/being changed”. They are, however, not interchangeable, as illustrated by the non-existence of the words *probible and *possable. Why, then, do some words use -able and others -ible?
We all know there are certain irregular verbs which do not quite fit into the normal paradigm for forming the past tense and the past participle. In other words, they do not form the past tense by adding -ed and the past participle by adding -ed/-en. These include verbs like ‘come’: come came come; ‘buy’: buy bought bought; and ’sing’: sing sang sung. Those of us who are not native speakers probably had a hard time trying to remember all these forms.
But being merely irregular is fine, at least they look alike. There are a few words in English which may seem truly out of place. Foremost of these is the verb ‘be’: am/is/are was/were been. Its tensed forms are simply too creative if they were really created out of the base form. Inquisitive as we are, we want to ask why and how.