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 Ling 131: Language & Style

Topic 2 (session A) - Being creative with words and phrases > Changing word class affixation

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Session Overview
(Semi) Automatic poetry
Introducing word classes
More on word classes
Manipulating word classes
Changing word class - affixation
Changing word class - functional conversion
New words for old
Word class problems
Word class checklist
Useful Links
Grammar Website

Creativity and word class changes - In English almost any noun can be verbed!

English is a language where it is easy for us to shift words creatively from one grammatical word class to another, as the above subheading makes clear. We noticed previously (Manipulating word classes) that writers can produce special meanings and effects by choosing particular word classes more often than usual. But they can also create interesting local effects by making unusual word class choices in texts. The first set of examples use productive morphological affixes as well as overall grammatical context to signal changes in word class. Then we have a look at word-class changes without any affixation (functional conversion).

Word class changes: affixation

Below is something said by the daughter (three years old at the time) of Greg Myers, an academic in the Department of Linguistics and Modern English Language at Lancaster University. She was clearly cross when she said it!:

I'm not joking, I'm realing.

This is the kind of remark which parents remember with amusement, and proudly embarrass their children with for the rest of their lives. The child is being very inventive, in this case turning the adjective 'real' into an intransitive verb, and saying the rough equivalent of 'I really mean this' in a way which forces a vivid opposition between the two clauses of her sentence.

The inventiveness is what makes what is said both striking and memorable. However, the fact that 'real' is not a verb in English also explains the amusement. The child had mastered the how to form present participles of verbs but had not yet internalised completely which words normally function as verbs. When very young children, or foreign learners of English, do things like this they are usually called mistakes. But if people acknowledged to be good writers do the same sort of thing they are praised for their inventive use of language!

Below, for example is how a journalist in The Guardian described how Margaret Thatcher, the first woman Prime Minister of the UK and a very formidable woman (who was known for her anti-European Union views and who usually carried a fairly large handbag) got her own way in an argument in a meeting of European heads of state:

She handbagged her European counterparts.

Here the noun 'handbag' is changed into a transitive verb, which therefore suggests dynamic and purposeful action from Mrs Thatcher towards her colleagues. And given the combative context of the meeting, it leads to the image of Mrs Thatcher hitting her opponents in the argument over the head with her handbag, much in the way that old ladies who lose their tempers are often humorously portrayed in cartoons and films. explanation of following animation

The humour then comes about because of the ludicrous contrast between the sort of image suggested above and the grand, serious and formal character that we would expect meetings among heads of state to have.

The examples below come from a novel about India. The idea of making mixing materials to make chutney is being used as a metaphor for the social mixing that is India:

What is required for chutnification? Raw materials, obviously -- fruit vegetables, fish, vinegar, spices ... Daily visits from Koli women ... But also: eyes blue as ice, which are undeceived by the superficial blandishments of fruit -- which can see corruption beneath citrus-skin; fingers which, with featheriest touch, can probe the secret inconstant hearts of green tomatoes . . .

(Salman Rushdie More about Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children, p.460)

1. Explain the morphological route that the base form of each of the highlighted words has undergone to arrive at the word class used in the extract.

2. Use this analysis to explain the resulting meaning and effect.

Submit your comments and compare them with ours.

Our answers

1) the morphological route


chutney arrow pointing rightchutnify arrow pointing rightchutnification

'Chutney' (noun) becomes a verb - 'chutnify' - through the addition of the productive affix '-ify' (cf. 'solidify', 'purify', 'beautify'). That verb in turn gets turned back into a noun with the addition of the '-ation' affix (cf. 'agitation', 'levitation', 'compilation').


feather arrow pointing rightfeathery arrow pointing rightfeatheriest

'Feather' (noun) becomes an adjective 'feathery', which is already a normal derivation in English. That adjective is then converted into its superlative form.

2) The resulting meaning and effect

Chutnification =

The resulting meaning is a result of the derivation from the base form.

Chutnification is the noun which refers to the concept of the process (verb) of making chutney (noun.).

Featheriest =

The meaning is obvious enough: the touch of the women is most delicate, like that produced by the most delicate feather you can imagine.

The word stands out because most speakers of English would assume that 'most feathery' was the superlative form of 'feathery', not 'featheriest'. In modern English we tend to use the 'more/most' comparative/superlative forms with words which are two syllables long and above, reserving the '-er'/'-iest' affixes for one-syllable and some two-syllable adjectives. 'Feathery is three syllables long, of course. There is also some evidence (see Laurie Bauer (1994), Watching English Change, London: Longman, pp. 51-60) that English is gradually moving away from the affixed forms altogether.


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