Affixation is the morphological process in by which bound morphemes are attached to a roots or stems to mark changes in meaning, part of speech, or grammatical relationships. Affixes take on several forms and serve different functions. In this tutorial, we will be looking specifically at affixation in Standard English.
An affix is a bound morpheme that attaches to a root or stem to form a new word, or a variant form of the same word. In English we primarily see 2 types. Prefixes precede the root or stem, e.g., re-cover, while suffixes follow, e.g., hope-ful. A third type of affix known as a circumfix occurs in the two words en-ligh-en and em-bold-en, where the prefix en/m– and the suffix –en/m are attached simultaneously to the root.
There are those who claim that infixation is also used as an emphasis marker in colloquial English. This occurs when an expletive is inserted into the internal structure of a word, e.g., un-fricking-believable.
Derivational affixes derive new words by altering the definitional meaning or the grammatical category of a word, whereas inflectional affixes show grammatical relationships between words or grammatical contrast. In English, both prefixes and suffixes can be derivational, but only suffixes can be inflectional.
Prefixes are abundant in English. Some are more commonly used (productive) than others. As mentioned above, prefixes are only used to derive new meaning or part of speech. Below is a list of those that are more common.
Suffixes can either be derivational or inflectional. Below is a list of common derivational suffixes.
In English there are 8 inflectional suffixes. As you will see, these are limited to showing some type of grammatical function.
You may have noticed that -er appears as both a derivational and inflectional morpheme. Although they share phonological form, they are two separate morphemes, having 2 separate functions and must not be confused. -er attached to a verb causes the derivation: verb noun, e.g., write writer. -er attached to an adjective shows inflection, i.e., the comparative form of an adjective: nice nicer. This is also true for –ing and –en. A verb + -ing can derive a noun or inflect a verb for past or present progressive.
set + ing = noun
The setting of the sun was covered by clouds.
set + ing + progressive verb
I was setting the table when the phone rang.
verb + -en = past participle (freeze + en)
The low temperatures had frozen all the crops.
noun + -en = verb (light + en)
Mary decided to lighten her hair.
There is question as to whether the limited usage of infixation in English actually a morphological process since the word being inserted is not itself an infix, as it is free-standing and not a bound morpheme. Furthermore, there is no resulting derivation or inflection.
Only expletives are used as infixes and in only a limited number of words. For example, infixes are only permitted when the expletive is flanked by stress. This means that only words with initial stress (trochees and not iambs) will be candidates for infixation.
un-expletive-believable but *unbe-expletive-lievable
Clitics are unstressed reduced units of meaning that attached to a limited number of host words. They generally are not considered a type of affix since they do not meet specific minimal phonological requirements (which will not be discussed here). Proclitics attach to the beginning of a root, e.g., ‘tis for ‘it is’, ‘dyou for ‘do you’. Enclitics are attached word finally, e.g., what’s for ‘what is’.
Rules of Formation
Although a speaker may generally count on intuition in forming complex words in terms of which affixes may be attached to which roots, underlying rules of word-formation actually account for the process. Our intuition allows us to attach ‘un-‘ to ‘productive’ but not to ‘fish’. We can attach the suffix ‘-ly’ to ‘kind’ but not to ‘sky’.
un + ‘productive’ but not *un + ‘fish’
‘kind’ + ly *’sky’ + ly
This distribution of affixes leads us to believe that there are rules of word-formation to which we intuitively adhere. So let’s break this down.
Certain affixes are more productive than others, meaning that they can be added to a large number of words without obstructing meaning. An example of a productive suffix in English would be –ness which we regularly use to derive nouns from adjectives.
adjective + ness = noun
happy + ness = ‘happiness’
In fact, some affixes are so productive that they can be attached to almost any stem creating nonce words in which meaning is transparent. Take –ish for example in English. This suffix can be attached to almost any noun or adjective to communicate like –ness. If a soup broth is not thick, it could be described as ‘thin’-ish and there would be no ambiguity as to this non-word’s meaning. All listeners would agree on the interpretation of ‘thin’-ish.
Unproductive morphemes, on the other hand, are not frequently used. An example would be the suffix –th as in ‘warmth’.
adjective + –th = noun
‘warm’ + –th = ‘warmth’
-th can only be attached to a small number of words. No English speaker would consider using the word ‘thinth’ to describe soup broth that is not thick.
So back to rules.
As we have seen, there are rules that govern the process of affixation (3). Furthermore, we know that when specific suffixes are attached to one part of speech, they derive another.
–ly will derive an adverb from an adjective.
adjective + –ly = adverb
‘calm’ + –ly = ‘calmly’
We can also use –ly with a limited number of nouns to derive adjectives.
noun + –ly = adjective
‘matron’ +-ly = ‘matronly’
‘friend’ + –ly = ‘friendly’
‘love’ + –ly = ‘lovely’
However this is not possible with verbs.
*verb +-ly = adverb/adjective
*’walk’ + –ly = adverb
Thus we can claim:
1. adjective + –ly = adverb
2. noun + –ly = adjective
Let’s look again at ‘-ness‘. This suffix can be attached to adjectives but not to nouns or verbs.
Let’s look again at –ness. This suffix can be attached to adjectives but not to nouns or verbs.
adjective + –ness = noun
‘sweet’ + –ness = ‘sweetness’
‘tender’ + —ness = ‘tenderness’
*noun + —ness = noun (or anything)
*‘house’ + —ness = ‘houseness’
*verb + –ness = noun (or anything)
*’study’ + –ness = ‘studiness’
Prefixes in English do not generally change the grammatical category of a word, but rather meaning. Even so, there are still rules as to how they are distributed.
Un- may combine with adjectives and certain verbs, but not with nouns or adverbs.
u–n + ‘friendly’ = ‘unfriendly’
un– + ‘do’ = ‘undo’
* un– + ‘computer’ = ‘uncomputer’
* un– + ‘very’ = ‘unvery’
In addition, to these distributional constraints, we will see that there is an order in which affixes must be combined with roots and stems. For instance, the word ‘unbelievable’ must be built by attaching –able to ‘believe’, deriving ‘believable’, and then add un– to derive ‘unbelievable’. We cannot add un– to ‘believe’ and then –able to ‘unbelieve.’ Even though the outcome seems to be the same, the meaning derived from the different rule orderings is not. This is due to the fact that un- generally attaches to an adjective and not a verb. That’s why ‘unbelieve’ is not a word to which an affix may be added.
This requirement for an ordered application of affixes is referred to as the hierarchal structure of derived words, which is shown by tree diagrams. These tree structures demonstrate the steps to adding multiple affixes to a root and how each addition may create a new word form. Below is an example of a diagram.
We see in (11) that the result of attaching un– to a noun root yields an ungrammatical structure. Furthermore, we cannot add –y to a noun. This derivation fails. However we see in (12) that when -y is attached to a noun, it yields an adjective. Now un– can be attached to an adjective. This derivation results in a grammatical structure.
Constructions such as (11 and 12) demonstrate an unambiguous word-formation. This means that the ordering of affixes is clear. There are, however, morphologically complex words in which two orders are possible with meaning being dependent upon the ordering. In (13), the first construction shows –able attaching to the verb root, resulting in the adjective ‘lockable’ to which un– is added, deriving an adjective with the opposite meaning: ‘not capable of being locked’. In the second diagram un– is first added to the verb root resulting in the verb ‘unlock’ to which –able can be attached resulting in an adjective meaning ‘capable of being unlocked’. The formation of the morphologically complex word ‘unlockable’ is ambiguous since both orderings of affixes result in a grammatical structure.
As you can see, it is crucial to be well-acquainted with the parts of speech and rules of formation. For practice, visit our self-correcting morphology exercises.
R. Aronow We use the term root as a bare, simple word that has not undergone any morphological processes, e.g., read. Stem refers to a morphologically complex word, i.e., 2 or more morphemes, to which additional morphemes may be attached, e.g., reread rereading.