Category: Morphology

So many negative prefixes

15 Sep 2008 In: Etymology, Morphology, Phonology, Semantics

In English, we can use a number of prefixes on adjectives to form their opposites. The following pairs come to mind as examples:

typical atypical
hydrous anhydrous
social antisocial
honest dishonest
legal illegal
possible impossible
active inactive
regular irregular
existent nonexistent
kind unkind

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?”

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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?

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Aren’t they too irregular?

11 Jul 2008 In: Etymology, Morphology

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.

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A rebel rebels? Or suspect a suspect?

13 Jun 2008 In: Morphology, Phonology

Homographs are words which share the same spelling but are nevertheless different in meaning and possibly also in pronunciation. An example is the word ‘bank’, which can either refer to a financial establishment in which you can do a lot of things to your money, or an edge of a river. In this case, we say they are two different words which happen to share the same spelling and the same pronunciation.

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Zipping words

30 May 2008 In: Etymology, Morphology

People have a general tendency to be lazy, so they find whatever way they can to save time and energy. In the case of speaking English, they try to compress chunks of words as much as possible to minimize the effort required, and maximize the meanings expressed.

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