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The formation of words

The study of the formation of words is morpohology. Morph is from the Greek meaning form or shape and in linguistics a morpheme is the smallest unit meaning. A word may be comprised of one or more morphemes and the way you test this is to break the word into its meaningful parts.

Words such as book, happy and beauty have one morpheme but can be modified through the addition of morphemes to create bookish, happiness and beautiful, each possessing two morphemes. Derivational morphemes are linguistic units added to root words that change the root word into a new word with a new meaning. In words such as beautiful, plentiful and graceful, we recognize the morpheme or suffix -ful which modifies the root word to create the meaning “full of.”

What we don’t see at the current stage of our language, however, is that the suffix -ous also means “full of” and through the process of derivational morphology has given us grievous ‘full of grief,” joyous “full of joy” and glorious “full of glory.” While the English suffix -ful is Germanic in origin, the suffix -ous is from Latin -osus and made its way into an earlier stage of English from Old French.

The suffix was adopted and became productive when speakers began to use it to form new words within English. In older stages of English speakers used words such as troublous “full of trouble,” beauteous “full of beauty”and “burdenous.” This suffix continues to be productive with 20th century formations such as pulchritudinous and serendipitous.

Some of our derivational suffixes in English come from Greek or Latin, making the original meaning a bit more difficult to see. The suffix -etic meaning “of or relating to” has given us words such as “sympathetic,” “pathetic” and “empathetic” while the Greek suffix -ize meaning “to make or conform to” or “to follow some practice” has given us authorize, synthesize, criticize and sympathize.

The morphological process that creates English adverbs ending in -ly also provides a historically interesting perspective. Adverbs such as slowly, happily and carefully append a suffix that historically meant “like” as in slow-like, happy-like and careful-like. This is also a suffix with a Germanic origin and originally meant ‘possessing the qualities of.” We see a similar historical process at work in the use of the suffix “-ness” to create words such as kindness, gentleness, weakness and happiness. This suffix is also Germanic in origin and in an older stage of English its original form efnes meant “equality” or “to make even.”

The suffix -itis is from the Greek meaning “disease of” and in English has been used to designate swelling or inflammation of as in tonsillitis “swelling of the tonsils” or laryngitis “swelling of the larynx.” Hepatitis “inflammation of the liver” and nephritis ‘inflammation of the kidney” are a bit more difficult to interpret, although the suffix -itis indicates the idea of a disease. Through the process of word formation, this suffix has produced the humorous senioritis ‘sickness often manifested in lack of interest in academic work experienced by those soon to graduate” where the “-itis” no longer means “swelling of” but more generally means “disease of.”

Derivational morphology is just one more example of the rule-governed nature of language, which functions as a system with rules or “linguistic algorithms” that speakers utilize to communicate their messages. Like many features common to language, most people are unaware of the rules or processes such as derivational morphology that are constantly operating and allow us to communicate creatively and effectively —or creative-like and effective-like.

JULIA PALMER is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College and can be reached at jpalmer@hsc.edu.