What Role do Prefixes and Suffixes Play in Languages?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Grammaticalization is not only something that creates a word, it is also what creates most prefixes and suffixes. How could someone not knowing any language, figure out what that first language was going to be?

A close-up of the word 'prefix' in a dictionary.
In addition to creating words, grammaticalization also applies the same process to prefixes and suffixes. (Image: TungCheung/Shutterstock)

Prefixes and Suffixes

If someone doesn’t know anything about English, French, or Spanish, and tries to figure out how the first language would be, would they stick endings on “I speak”? How likely is it that they would say, “I speak” and then stick something at the end? “Yo hablo,” “Tú hablas,” “You speak.” English speakers are used to dealing with that when learning other languages.

Endings in a language start out as free-swimming words, kludging on to another word and wearing away. They’re like the male anglerfish, becoming just a bump in the end.

This is a transcript from the video series Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Latin Words

Dealing with Latin, which has got endings, for example, amo, amas, amat: I love, you love, he loves, is a source which started out as free words and there were endings for the future: “I will love,” amabo, “you will love,” amabis, “he will love,” amabit. But just like in English, there are lots of ways of expressing the future, like, I will love, I’m going to love. There was another way of expressing the future as Latin developed, especially in colloquial Latin. For English speakers, that meant, I must love. In Latin to say, I have to love is another way of saying, to do it in the future.

Page of a book with Latin text.
Latin started with a source, starting with free words and endings for the future. (Image: space_heater/Shutterstock)

For example, amare, “to love,” and then habeo, “I have, I have to love,amare habeo. Conjugated: habeo, “I have,” habes, “you have,” habet, “he has.” It would be amare habeo, “I have to love,” amare habes, “you have to love,” which didn’t mean have to, but will. So, there was amabo on the one hand, that meant I will love. Another way of saying I will love would be to say amare habeo. That was the situation then. But, people started saying amare habeo a lot; which became the common expression. When expressions are commonly encountered, sounds tend to wear away faster than if something is said occasionally. Just like I’m going to is really pronounced colloquially I’m gonna, amare habeo became amarehab… and gradually the habeo or the habes or the habet became just an ending stuck on to the end of the word. Latin became, among other things, Italian, and the future in Italian is not anything like amabo, it’s amerò. So, amare habeo became amerò.

Learn more about how language is an innate ability of the human brain.

Recycling in Languages

That’s how the future suffixes developed. Even in Latin, amabo, I will love, had started out as a free-swimming item. I am to love in Proto-Indo-European was one way of saying I will love. The bhwo became –bo, amabo, but then Latin came along. There was a different way of indicating the future, where those new endings started, which happens as time goes by in a language. All of those suffixes that trouble us when we learn a language like French, Spanish, or Russian, are ones that originally were words. They come from a process that has a way of recycling itself.

Learn more about the Proto-Indo-European word for sister-in-law that was spoken 6,000 years ago.

Impact of Grammaticalization

Sometimes, grammaticalization can go so far that it leaves behind bits of things that we don’t really think of as suffixes at all. For example, the words like nibble, dribble, dabble, jiggle, there’s nibble and then there’s nip, dribble and drip, dabble and dab, jiggle and jig. Think about dribble and drip. Something drips, it goes “dwip, dwip,” if it’s dribbling it goes “dridridridi,” it’s faster, tighter, like a hummingbird. To nip something is probably doing it once, nibble is “rabbiting” it; we don’t nip something many times. There is le which means doing something many times quickly within a set amount of time. There are little suffixes, much more alive and immediate in many languages around the world.

Learn more about the theory of “Proto-World” hypothesis.

Words with Different Renditions

Not a living ending anymore, which came from some free word, now unrecoverable, kludged to the end of words and had that meaning, a product of grammaticalization. It happens also with tone.

For example, there is a language of southeast Asia called Lahu. In Lahu there is a word to eat, pronounced roughly as , which used to have a different rendition. One would eat or make someone eat, in other words, feeding the other. In order to make them eat, an s- prefix is put on the front of it. Having and then s-câ, would be to make them eat. Putting the s- in front tended to mess up the tone which happened in different ways in different languages as well.

Two Lahu young women standing together.
There are several words in Lahu language which start with a concrete piece and become an abstract just by putting a letter in front of them. (Image: November27/Shutterstock)

The s- wore off over time because sounds tend to do that which just leaves the changed tone. When the s- wears off, then the tone change makes the difference between eating and making someone eat or putting on your own clothes and you dressing someone else. Or you drinking and you giving someone something to drink. That’s grammaticalization, because what started out as a concrete piece of something is now completely abstract. So, grammaticalization works in those languages, too.

Common Questions about Human Language

Q: What is a prefix and a suffix?

Letters, when added at the start of a word to change its meaning is called a prefix, while as a suffix is added to the end of a word.

Q: What is a prefix name?

A prefix name is a prefix that is included before a person’s name and can be used as the title for a person’s professional title. For example, Barrister, Dr., Professor.

Q: How do words evolve?

Human language is always evolving and the words also evolve with either changing the meaning of a sentence or slightly altering a sentence.

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