Suffixation in Middle Englisch, with particular regard to derivational suffixation, exemplified on Chaucer's "Physician's Tale"

Seminar Paper, 2001

21 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Definitions

3. Possibilities of classifying suffixes

4. Suffixes in the Physician's Tale

5. Native derivational suffixation
5.1 Derivational suffixation forming adjectives
5.2 Derivational suffixation forming adverbs
5.3 Derivational suffixation forming substantives

6. Double suffixation

7. Doubtful suffixation

8. Conclusion: Results and outlook

Appendix A: List of words suffixed outside the English language

Appendix B: List of words with a native grammatical suffix


1. Introduction

The English language has been very productive at all times in the area of word formation. English has, in fact, the reputation of a very creative language because of the many ways in which new words and expressions can be coined. When we look at a language to examine the processes of word formation, it seems reasonable to begin by scanning a discrete text which stems from a particular period of the language for all phenomena of word formation. Then it becomes necessary to focus on one particular type of formation, to analyse and explain it.

In this paper, I discuss Middle English derivational suffixation. The textual basis for this is The Physician's Tale, a part of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. While I try to include as many types of derivational suffixation as possible, I will omit zero-derivation, which is discussed in another paper by a fellow member of the Hauptseminar. Double suffixation will be looked at, too. I also venture a brief look at the use Computational Linguists make of morphological analysis.

2. Definitions

Morphemes, the smallest units of a language that carry a meaning, can be classified into several groups. One of these categories are the suffixes. Suffixes only appear attached to the end of a stem and, because of this inability to stand alone, they are called bound morphemes.

We have to distinguish between two types of suffixes. A suffix that expresses the syntagmatic relations between words in a clause is called grammatical suffix. When a new word is formed because a suffix is appended to the end of a stem, we call it a derivational suffix. A stem is that part of a word to which a grammatical morpheme can be added. The stem may consist of a single morpheme (simple stem) or of more than one morpheme (complex stem). This will be relevant in the discussion of double suffixation (see page 12).

Not all suffixes form new words at all periods of the English language. If they do in a given period, we call them productive, if they do not, they are unproductive. A suffix is called dead when a suffix is unproductive because it is not perceived as a suffix anymore.

Loaned suffixes are either dead because they were not recognised as suffixes when they were introduced into the English language, or alive, because they were identified and used as suffixes. The distinction between borrowed and native suffixation is, of course, based on the language in which a given stem was suffixed.

3. Possibilities of classifying suffixes

There are several ways in which suffixes can be grouped: according to

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

The patterns a) and b) are obviously too superficial to provide detailed insight into the field of suffixation and the origin of many suffixes is under debate. I have decided on grouping the suffixes according to the word class they produce because the result of suffixation is what we find in Chaucer. Where a suffix that produces members of several word classes, is present with an example of only one word class, I discuss it in the chapter about formation of that word class.

The suffix 'ful', for example, is discussed in the chapter on suffixes that form adjectives because the Physician's Tale contains the adjective 'sorweful' but not the noun 'handful'.

This method also helps to illustrate that there are some suffixes such as '-ly' which produce new words in more than one word class. Whether there is only one polysemic suffix or whether there are several homonymous suffixes is a matter that will be discussed in the appropriate place.

Many problems of dealing with suffixation arise from the fact that there is almost always another possibility of explaining or classifying a phenomenon. There are several suffixes that can be appended to a word (reader, reads), and one suffix can form words in different word classes with a different meaning, for example: „we differentiate“ and „poet laureate“. The number of possibilities makes word formation and suffixation a rather confusing area.

4. Suffixes in The Physician’s Tale

In the 286 lines of the Physician's Tale, we find 175 suffixed words. Of these words, 53 were suffixed in another language before they were introduced into the English language and will therefore not be subject of this paper. 81 of the remaining words were suffixed in English. They all carry grammatical suffixes which will not be discussed here either. The words that belong to those two groups are listed in Appendix A (p. 17).

This leaves 41 words that are relevant for this paper. 17 of them carry native derivational suffixes and do not pose any problems. The aspect of double suffixation is represented in 5 words, while the question whether the suffix appended is derivational or grammatical requires a closer look in 19 cases. In the following section I have subdivided the three above-mentioned groups into smaller sections according to the word class the new-formed words belong to.

5. Native derivational suffixation

5.1. derivational suffixation forming adjectives

'-ful'1 (sorweful, v.254)

The suffix -ful is originally identical with the adjective full2 from which it also takes the meaning “full of (something), having (something), characterised by (something)”. The case for polysemy is strengthened by the fact that there are several verbs to full (generally meaning to fill with something) and nouns full (usually denoting something that can be filled) in Old and Middle English. It is not entirely clear when -ful loses the status of a free morpheme and becomes a suffix. full as a substantive, adjective and verb is found from early Old English times onward, which tallies with what the examples from Marchand suggest, namely that ful became a suffix in Old English, probably via compounding.

The oldest derivates are desubstantival. Chaucer's word 'sorweful' belongs to this oldest group, formed in Old English and first recorded around 8973. In Middle English, the range of words that are suffixed with -ful broadens. Derivation is no longer only desubstantival; a handful of deverbal coinings appear in Middle English, forgetful (first recorded 1382) being one of them.

'-ly' (erthely, v.21; wommanly, v.50)

The development of the suffix -ly, which forms desubstantival adjectives, goes back to a Germanic root lîko that developed into OE. noun lîc, both words meaning “appearance, form, body”. Marchand suggests that combinations with 'lic' were originally bahuvrihi compounds which then developed into adjectives4. The modern spelling and pronunciation '-ly' / lI / appear to have been influenced by the ON form of the word.

When lîc is appended to a stem, the new word takes the meaning “having the appearance/quality of the first part of the word, befitting, characteristic of”. The forms that we find in Chaucer's “Physician's Tale” correspond to this pattern, wommanly more so than erthely, because erthely has taken on a special meaning and is only used with implied opposition to heavenly5.

The time at which -ly became a suffix is not known. The two words that we find in Chaucer do not help either because they are first recorded in Late Old English (erthely, 971) or even Middle English (wommanly, 1225). The suffix '-ly' ceases to generate new adjectives on its own in the Old English period. Those adjectives ending in '-ly' that do not come from Old English are formed, according to the OED, in analogy to the polysemic suffix '-ly' which forms adverbs6.

Marchand7 mentions 74 adjectives that end with -ly. Of those, 22 are of Old English descent and another 15 are first recorded in Middle English. The other half developed in (Early) Modern English. We may consider this as a good example to illustrate how powerful an impulse for word-formation analogy is. There is a second word class into which ly-suffixed words belong more frequently. This is reflected in Chaucer by the fact that ly forms adjectives in two cases, but three times more often it forms adverbs. They will be discussed in chapter 5.2 on page 6.

5.2. Derivational suffixation forming adverbs

'-ly' (gladly v.173, openly v.152, hastily v.192, pryvely v.128, sodeynly v.131, subtilly v.151)

This Germanic suffix forms adjectives. However, by far the greater number of '-ly'- suffixed words are adverbs. In the Physician's Tale, they outnumber the adjectives by three to one. For the development of this suffix see the chapter on '-ly' as a means of forming adjectives on page 5 (paragraph one).


1 I have normalised the way the suffixes are spelled in the chapter headings. The discussion of the suffix 'ful' includes all other spellings of the suffix (such as fuol, folle, full, and fow). This applies for all suffixes mentioned.

2 Marchand 1969: 291.

3 Dates for first recordings are always taken from the OED on CD-ROM.

4 Marchand 1969: 329.

5 OED, q.v.

6 OED2 on CD-ROM s.v. '-ly, suffix1'

7 Marchand (1969: 330).

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Suffixation in Middle Englisch, with particular regard to derivational suffixation, exemplified on Chaucer's "Physician's Tale"
LMU Munich  (Institute for English Philology)
international advanced seminar over "Middle English lexicology, computer-assisted"
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Suffixation, Middle, Englisch, Chaucer, Physician, Tale, Middle, English
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Martin Klinkhardt (Author), 2001, Suffixation in Middle Englisch, with particular regard to derivational suffixation, exemplified on Chaucer's "Physician's Tale", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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