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Semantics and Word Formation

The Semantic Development of Five French Suffixes in Middle English


Cynthia Lloyd

This book is about the integration into English of the five nominal suffixes -ment, -ance, -ation, -age and -al, which entered Middle English via borrowings from French, and which now form abstract nouns by attaching themselves to various base categories, as in cord/cordage or adjust/adjustment. The possibility is considered that each suffix might individually affect the general semantic profile of nouns which it forms. A sample of first attributions from the Middle English Dictionary is analysed for each suffix, in order to examine biases in suffixes towards certain semantic areas. It is argued that such biases exist both in real-world semantics, such as the choice of bases with moral or practical meanings, and in distinct aspects of the shared core meaning of action or collectivity expressed by the derived deverbal or denominal nouns. The results for the ME database are then compared with the use of words in the same suffixes across a selection of works from Shakespeare. In this way it can be shown how such tendencies may persist or change over time.


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CHAPTER 1 Productivity and Semantics 1


Chapter 1 Productivity and Semantics In this study, then, I shall be considering the five latinate deverbal nominal suf fixes ment, -ence/-ance, -ation, -age and -al, in Middle English and in a restricted sample from Shakespeare, with a view to tracing their produc- tivity and perhaps establishing more precise semantic distinctions than those so far available. I shall examine the contexts of their earliest recorded citations, discussing my ME sample chronologically across three periods: 1150–1300, the fourteenth century and the fifteenth century. 1.1. Productivity Aronof f (1976), Booij (1986) and Plag (1999) have all commented on the relation between productivity and semantics. Before turning to the question of semantics, and in particular the semantics of derived words, I will brief ly discuss some of the methods of identifying and assessing productivity. 1.1.1. Determining factors Psycholinguistic tests have shown that frequency plays some part in deter- mining productivity. The most productive forms appear to be those with high type but low token frequency, that is those with many class mem- bers, infrequently used (see Bybee 1985: 134). Words of a high token fre- quency have greater lexical strength: that is, they ‘undergo less analysis, are less dependent on their related base forms than those with lower token 2 Chapter 1 frequencies’ (1985: 119). The degree of type frequency necessary for produc- tivity is of course dif ficult to determine. Dalton-Puf fer suggests that a ‘criti- cal mass’ may operate for major derivational categories (1996: 224–5). For Dalton-Puf fer, the...

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