Word-building patterns and their meaning

To describe the system of a given vocabulary, we must know not only the elements from which words are built, but also the patterns in which they are combined. To achieve this aim, we must single out recurrent (= regularly used) combinations of morphemes and determine the relations between their components.

The combining possibilities, or valency, of English affixes are very important semantically, because the meaning of a derivative form depends not only on the morphemes it consists of, but also on the combinations of stems and affixes that can be contrasted with it. Contrast is to be looked for in the cases of a same morpheme in different environments, or different morphemes in environments otherwise the same.

The difference between -ism and -ity, for example, becomes clear if we contrast humanism with humanity, or realism with reality. Roughly speaking, -ity forms countable nouns meaning what a corresponding adjective describes, while -ism forms uncountable nouns meaning a corresponding idea or form of ideology.

A word-building pattern, or a derivational pattern, is therefore defined as a meaningful combination of stems and affixes that occurs regularly enough for part of speech, the lexico-semantic category and semantic peculiarities common to most words with this particular arrangement of morphemes to be determined. Every type of word-building and every part of speech therefore has a typical set of patterns. A pattern of this type can be isolated from numerous contexts in which it is used.

For instance, the patterns involved in the use of the negative prefix un- can be summed up as follows:

1) Un- with an adjectival or participle I or participle II stem – negative meaning (uncertain, unknowingly, unexpected)

2) un- with a verbal stem – meaning of ‘reverse action’ (undo, unwrap)

3) un-with a verbal, noun-derived stem – meaning of ‘releasing’ (unhook, unlock)

The more productive an affix is, the more probable is the existence of deviations from the regular pattern. V + -ee usually implies a recipient of the action, as in trainee, employee, etc.; sometimes, however, it is added to intransitive verbs and then implies an agent (an escapee is one who escapes, and so is refugee).

Sometimes the regular pattern is broken, as is the case with flammable and inflammable, which seem to be antonyms but are in fact synonyms. The cause for this is the misleading form of inflammable, which on the pattern of informal, inhospitable, etc. seems to imply ‘fire-resistant’. In actual fact, however, inflammable, owing to a homonymous meaning of in- (causative and not negative, like in inaugurate), means ‘easily set on fire’. The word flammable, with itsclear-cut meaning, was intentionally designed to prevent any possible misunderstanding, and is mostly restricted to technical contexts, like flammable liquid, or any case where in Russian we would have OГHEOПACHO (note also that inflammation is a medical term and inflammatory may, on top of that, have a political meaning).



To sum up: the word-building pattern is a structural and semantic formula more or less regularly produced; it reveals the morphological motivation of the word, the grammatical part-of-speech meaning and in most cases helps to refer the word to some lexico-grammatical class, while the components of the lexical meaning are mostly supplied by the stem.


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