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Word Building and English Word Formation

by Sherwin Cody

English speaking peoples have been inclined to exaggerate the irregularities of the English word-formation. The fact is, only a small number of common words and roots are irregular in formation, while fully nine tenths of all the words in the language are formed according to regular principles, or are regularly derived from the small number of irregular words. We use the irregular words so much more frequently that they do indeed constitute the greater part of our speech, but it is very necessary that we should master the regular principles of word-building, since they give us a key to the less frequently used, but far more numerous, class which fills the dictionary, teaching us both the spelling of words of which we know the sound, and the pronunciation of words which we meet for the first time in reading.

Accent. In English, accent is an essential part of every word. It is something of an art to learn to throw it on to any syllable we choose, for unless we are able to do this we cannot get the true pronunciation of a word from the dictionary and we are helpless when we are called on to pronounce a word we have never heard.

Perhaps the best way to learn the art of throwing accent is by comparing words in which we are in the habit of shifting the accent to one syllable or another according to the meaning, as for instance the following:

1. Accent.

a. What ac′cent has this word?

b. With what accent′uation do you accent′ this word?

2. Concert.

a. Did you go to the con′cert last night?

b. By concert′ed action we can do anything.

3. Contrast.

{a}?. What a con′trast between the rich man and the poor man!

b. Contrast′ good with bad, black with white, greatness with littleness.

4. Permit.

a. I have a building_-per′mit_.

b. My mother will not permit′ me to go.

5. Present.

a. He received a beautiful Christmas pres′ent.

b. She was present′ed at court.

6. Prefix.

a. Sub is a common pre′fix.

b. Prefix′ sub to port and you get support.

7. Compound.

a. He can compound′ medicine like a druggist.

b. Nitroglycerine is a dangerous com′pound.

As a further illustration, read the following stanza of poetry, especially accenting the syllables as marked:

     Tell′ me not′ in mourn′ful num′bers,
       “Life′ is but′ an emp′ty dream′!”
     For′ the soul′ is dead′ that slum′bers,
       And′ things are′ not what′ they seem′.

This is called scanning, and all verse may be scanned in the same way. It is an excellent drill in learning the art of throwing the stress of the voice on any syllable that may be desired.

Two Laws of Word-Formation.

We are now prepared to consider the two great laws governing word-formation. These are:

1. Law: All vowels in combination with consonants are naturally short unless the long sound is given by combination with other vowels, by accent, or by position in the syllable with reference to consonants.

2. Law: Words derived from other words by the addition of prefixes or suffixes always retain the original form as far as possible.

1. We are likely to suppose that the natural or original sound of a vowel is the long sound, because that is the sound we give it when naming it in the alphabet. If we will examine a number of words, however, we shall soon see that in combination with consonants all vowels have a tendency to a short or obscure pronunciation. The sounds of the consonants are naturally obscure, and they draw the vowels to a similar obscurity.

Since such is the case, when a vowel is given its long sound there is always a special reason for it. In the simple words not, pin, her, rip, rid, cut, met, we have the short sounds of the vowels; but if we desire the long sounds we must add a silent e, which is not pronounced as e, but has its sound value in the greater stress put upon the vowel with which it is connected. By adding silent e to the above words we have note, pine, here, ripe, ride, mete. In each of these cases the e follows the consonant, though really combining with the vowel before the consonant; but if we place the additional e just after the first e in met we have meet, which is a word even more common than mete. E is the only vowel that may be placed after the consonant and still combine with the vowel before it {while being silent}; but nearly all the other vowels may be placed beside the vowel that would otherwise be short in order to make it long, and sometimes this added vowel is placed before as well as after the vowel to be lengthened. Thus we have boat, bait, beat, field, chief, etc. There are a very, very few irregular words in which the vowel sound has been kept short in spite of the added vowel, as for instance, head, sieve, etc. It appears that with certain consonants the long sound is especially difficult, and so in the case of very common words the wear of common speech has shortened the vowels in spite of original efforts to strengthen them. This is peculiarly true of the consonant v, and the combination th, and less so of s and z. So in {(I) }live, have, give, love, shove, move, etc., the vowel sound is more or less obscured even in spite of the silent e, though in the less common words alive, behave, etc., the long sound strengthened by accent has not been lost. So as a rule two silent vowels are now used to make the vowel before the v long, as in leave, believe, receive, beeves, weave, etc. In the single word sieve the vowel remains short in spite of two silent vowels added to strengthen it. Two vowels are also sometimes required to strengthen a long vowel before th, as in breathe, though when the vowel itself is a strong one, as a inbathe, the second vowel is not required, and o in both is so easily increased in sound that the two consonants alone are sufficient. It will be seen, therefore, that much depends on the quality of the vowel. A and o are the strongest vowels, i the weakest (which accounts for sieve). After s and z we must also have a silent e in addition to the silent vowel with which the sounded vowel is combined, as we may see in cheese, increase, freeze, etc. The added vowel in combination with the long vowel is not always needed, however, as we may see in contrasting raise and rise.

Not only vowels but consonants may serve to lengthen vowel sounds, as we see in right, night, bright, and in scold, roll, etc. Only o is capable of being lengthened by two simple consonants such as we have in scold and roll. In calm and ball, for instance, the a has one of its extra values rather than its long sound. The gh is of course a powerful combination. Once it was pronounced; but it became so difficult that we have learned to give its value by dwelling a little on the vowel sound.

Another powerful means of lengthening a vowel is accent. When a vowel receives the full force of the accent by coming at the end of an accented syllable it is almost invariably made long. We see this in monosyllables such as he, no, etc. It is often necessary to strengthen by an additional silent vowel, however, as in tie, sue, view, etc., and a has a peculiarity in that when it comes at the end of a syllable alone it has the sound of ah, or a Italian, rather than that of a long, and we have pa, ma, etc., and for the long sound y is added, as in say, day, ray. I has a great disinclination to appear at the end of a word, and so i{s}h usually changed to y when such a position is necessary, or it takes silent e as indicated above; while this service on the part of y is reciprocated by i's taking the place of y inside a word, as may be illustrated by city and cities.

When a vowel gets the full force of the accent in a word of two or more syllables it is bound to be long, as for instance the first a in ma′di a. Even the stress necessary to keep the vowel from running into the next syllable will make it long, though the sound is somewhat obscured, some other syllable receiving the chief accent, as the first a in ma gi′cian. In this last word i seems to have the full force of the accent, yet it is not long; and we note the same in such words as condi′tion, etc. The fact is, however, that i being a weak vowel easily runs into the consonant sound of the next syllable, and if we note the sounds as we pronounce condition we shall see that the sh sound represented by ti blends with the i and takes the force of the accent. We cannot separate the tior ci from the following portion of the syllable, since if so separated they could not have their sh value; but in pronunciation this separation is made in part and the sh sound serves both for the syllable that precedes and the syllable that follows. In a word like di men′sion we find the i of the first syllable long even without the accent, since the accent on men attaches the m so closely to it that it cannot in any way relieve the i. So we see that in an accented syllable the consonant before a short vowel, as well as the consonant following it, receives part of the stress. This is especially noticeable in the word ma gi′cian as compared with mag′ic. In magic the syllable ic is in itself so complete that the g is kept with the a and takes the force of the accent, leaving the a short. Inmagician the g is drawn away from the a to help out the short i followed by an sh sound, and the a is lengthened even to altering the form of the simple word. In the word ma′gi an, again, we finda long, the g being needed to help out the i.

Since accent makes a vowel long if no consonant intervenes at the end of a syllable, and as a single consonant following such a vowel in a word of two syllables (though not in words of three or more) is likely to be drawn into the syllable following, a single consonant following a single short vowel must be doubled. If two or more consonants follow the vowel, as in masking, standing, wilting, the vowel even in an accented syllable remains short. But in pining with one n following the i in the accented syllable, we know that the vowel must be long, for if it were short the word would be written pinning.

Universal Rule: Monosyllables in which, a single vowel is followed by a single consonant (except v and h never doubled) double the final consonant when a single syllable beginning with a vowel is added, and all words so ending double the final consonant on the addition of a syllable beginning with a vowel if the syllable containing the single vowel followed by a single consonantis to be accented.

Thus we have can——canning, run——running, fun——funny, flat——flattish; and also sin——sinned (for the ed is counted a syllable though not pronounced as such nowadays); preferred, butpreference, since the accent is thrown back from the syllable containing the single vowel followed by a single consonant in the word preference, though not in preferred; and of course the vowel is not doubled in murmured, wondered, covered, etc.

If, however, the accented syllable is followed by two or more syllables, the tendency of accent is to shorten the vowel. Thus we have grammat′ical, etc., in which the short vowel in the accented syllable is followed by a single consonant not doubled. The word na′tion (with a long a) becomes na′tional (short a) when the addition of a syllable throws the accent on to the antepenult. The vowel u is never shortened in this way, however, and we have lu′bricate, not lub′ricate. We also find such words as no′tional (long o). While accented syllables which are followed by two or more syllables seldom if ever double the single consonant, in pronunciation we often find the vowel long if the two syllables following contain short and weak vowels. Thus we have pe′riod(long e), ma′niac (long a), and o′rient′al (long o).

In words of two syllables and other words in which the accent comes on the next to the last syllable, a short vowel in an accented syllable should logically always be followed by more than one consonant or a double consonant. We find the double consonant in such words as summer, pretty, mammal, etc. Unfortunately, our second law, which requires all derived words to preserve the form of the original root, interferes with this principle very seriously in a large number of English words. The roots are often derived from languages in which this principle did not apply, or else these roots originally had very different sound values from those they have with us. So we have body, with one d, though we have shoddy and toddy regularly formed with two d's, and we havefinish, exhibit, etc.; in col′onnade the n is doubled in a syllable that is not accented.

The chief exception to the general principle is the entire class of words ending in ic, such as colic, cynic, civic, antithetic, peripatetic, etc. If the root is long, however, it will remain long after the addition of the termination ic, as music (from muse), basic (from base), etc.

But in the case of words which we form ourselves, we will find practically no exceptions to the rule that a short vowel in a syllable next to the last must be followed by a double consonant when accented, while a short vowel in a syllable before the next to the last is not followed by a double consonant when the syllable is accented.

2. Our second law tells us that the original form of a word or of its root must be preserved as far as possible. Most of the words referred to above in which single consonants are doubled or not doubled in violation of the general rule are derived from the Latin, usually through the French, and if we were familiar with those languages we should have a key to their correct spelling. But even without such thorough knowledge, we may learn a few of the methods of derivation in those languages, especially the Latin, as well as the simpler methods in use in the English.

Certain changes in the derived words are always made, as, for instance, the dropping of the silent e when a syllable beginning with a vowel is added.

Rule. Silent e at the end of a word is dropped whenever a syllable beginning with a vowel is added.

This rule is not quite universal, though nearly so. The silent e is always retained when the vowel at the beginning of the added syllable would make a soft c or g hard, as in serviceable, changeable, etc. In changing, chancing, etc., the i of the added syllable is sufficient to make the c or g retain its soft sound. In such words as cringe and singe the silent e is retained even before iin order to avoid confusing the words so formed with other words in which the ng has a nasal sound; thus we have singeing to avoid confusion with singing, though we have singed in which the eis dropped before ed because the dropping of it causes no confusion. Formerly the silent e was retained in moveable; but now we write movable, according to the rule.

Of course when the added syllable begins with a consonant, the silent e is not dropped, since dropping it would have the effect of shortening the preceding vowel by making it stand before two consonants.

A few monosyllables ending in two vowels, one of which is silent e, are exceptions: duly, truly; also wholly.

Also final y is changed to i when a syllable is added, unless that added syllable begins with i and two i's would thus come together. I is a vowel never doubled. Th{u}?s we have citified, butcitifying.

We have already seen that final consonants may be doubled under certain circumstances when a syllable is added.

These are nearly all the changes in spelling that are possible when words are formed by adding syllables; but changes in pronunciation and vowel values are often affected, as we have seen innation (a long) and national (a short).

Prefixes. But words may be formed by prefixing syllables, or by combining two or more words into one. Many of these formations were effected in the Latin before the words were introduced into English; but we can study the principles governing them and gain a key to the spelling of many English words.

In English we unite a preposition with a verb by placing it after the verb and treating it as an adverb. Thus we have “breaking in,” “running over,” etc. In Latin the preposition in such cases was prefixed to the word; and there were particles used as prefixes which were never used as prepositions. We should become familiar with the principal Latin prefixes and always take them into account in the spelling of English words. The principal Latin prefixes are:

ab (abs)——from ad——to ante——before bi (bis)——twice circum (circu)——around con——with contra (counter)——against de——down, from dis——apart, not ex——out of, away from extra——beyond in——in, into, on; also not (another word) inter——between‎ non——not ob——in front of, in the way of per——through post——after pre——before pro——for, forth re——back or again retro——backward se——aside semi——half sub——under super——above, over trans——over, beyond ultra——beyond vice——instead of.

Of these prefixes, those ending in a single consonant are likely to change that consonant for euphony to the consonant beginning the word to which the prefix is attached. Thus ad drops the d inascend, becomes ac in accord, af in affiliate, an in annex, ap in appropriate, at in attend; con becomes com in commotion, also in compunction and compress, cor in correspond, col in collect, coin co-equaldis becomes dif in differex becomes e in eject, ec in eccentric, ef in effectin becomes il in illuminate, im in import, ir in irreconcilable; ob becomes op in oppress, oc in occasion, ofin offend; and sub becomes suc in succeed, sup in support, suf in suffix, sug in suggest, sus in sustain. The final consonant is changed to a consonant that can be easily pronounced before the consonant with which the following syllable begins. Following the rule that the root must be changed as little as possible, it is always the prefix, not the root, which is compelled to yield to the demands of euphony.

A little reflection upon the derivation of words will thus often give us a key to the spelling. For instance, suppose we are in doubt whether irredeemable has two r's or only one: we now thatredeem is a root, and therefore the ir must be a prefix, and the two r's are accounted for,?indeed are necessary in order to prevent our losing sight of the derivation and meaning of the word. In the same way, we can never be in doubt as to the two m's in commotion, commencement, etc.

We have already noted the tendency of y to become i in the middle of a word. The exceptional cases are chiefly derivatives from the Greek, and a study of the Greek prefixes will often give us a hint in regard to the spelling of words containing y. These prefixes, given here in full for convenience, are:

a (an)——without, not amphi——both, around ana——up, back, through‎ anti——against, opposite apo (ap)——from cata——down

dia——through en (em)——in epi (ep)——upon hyper——over, excessive hypo——under‎ meta (met)——beyond, change syn (sy, syl, sym)——with, together

In Greek words also we will find ph with the sound of f. We know that symmetrical, hypophosphite, metaphysics, emphasis, etc., are Greek because of the key we find in the prefix, and we are thus prepared for the y's and ph's. F does not exist in the Greek alphabet (except as ph) and so we shall never find it in words derived from the Greek.

The English prefixes are not so often useful in determining peculiar spelling, but for completeness we give them here:

a——at, in, on (ahead) be——to make, by (benumb) en (em)——in, on, to make (encircle, empower) for——not, from (forbear) fore——before (forewarn) mis——wrong, wrongly (misstate) out——beyond (outbreak) over——above (overruling) to——the, this (to-night) un——not, opposite act (unable, undeceive) under——beneath (undermine) with——against, from (withstand)