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A Case Study of -some and -able Derivatives in the OED3: Examining the Diachronic Output and Productivity of Two Competing Adjectival Suffixes

Abstract : In this exploratory study, we seek to compare two adjectival suffixes from a diachronic perspective: the native -some suffix and the imported Romance suffix -able. We aim to provide answers to these questions: in terms of competition, what evidence shows that -able can be viewed as a direct competitor to -some? Also, what other influences may have contributed to its decline (many other adjectival suffixes form competitors (-ful, -ish, -ly)? Other than increasing morphosemantic competition, can subjectification explain the successfulness of -able? We consider several hypotheses based on our data, explaining the shift in the landscape of adjectival suffixation and the apparently resulting decline of -some suffixation. Firstly, a semantic study of key words shows that Vable derivatives and Vsome derivatives differ in their semantic makeup, in that -able adjectives have a passive sense, whereas some adjectives in Vsome have an active sense (TENDENCY TO category, such as meddlesome [1615] “prone to meddling”), but are also compatible with a passive sense occurring (INTENDED FOR category) as in ticklesome “apt to be tickled”). This active passive alternation may have led to semantic instability, loss of transparency, and resulting loss of productivity (as suggested in the frequency- productivity chain proposed in Fernandez-Dominguez [2010: 202]). Secondly, a corpus study in multiple corpora (EHBO, COHA, Project Gutenberg OEC, COCA), as well as the OED data, both suggest that -some adjectives have a low frequency of usage over all periods of English. This low token frequency would have likely slowed propagation and therefore contributed to the decline in availability of the pattern. Finally, it is possible that -some declined due to direct pressure from -able. This hypothesis is however difficult to establish for multiple reasons:

1) blocking is a gradient phenomenon, rather than a cut-and-dried pressure;
2) the highly different frequency of usage of -some and -able in historical and contemporary corpora make it difficult to compare on a large scale;
3) other pressures exist, which haven’t been included in this study, such as other suffixations which may also have caused a chain reaction of adaptation within the language system. To test this, we conducted several case studies comparing active-oriented -some adjectives (in the TENDENCY TO category, such as meddlesome) and then passive adjectives (in the INTENDED FOR category, such as ticklesome) with Vable alternates. The conclusions reached were threefold. Overall, -some can be seen as semantically instable compared to -able: active-passive reinterpretation occurs in a number of -some adjectives (winsome, fearsome). On the other hand, -able has a more predictable semantic pattern, having mostly passive-oriented senses. Secondly, existing-some adjectives have a low token frequency as shown by extensive corpus searches, and this is verified in all periods, except for the 1850s where -some adjective formation increased out of a deliberate attempt to increase native suffixation. Finally, despite this lack of usage, -some has not become obsolete and opaque, and remains an active suffix. This begs the question of what register-specific contexts favour the use of -some adjectives.
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https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-03079996
Contributor : Chris A. Smith Connect in order to contact the contributor
Submitted on : Thursday, December 17, 2020 - 2:41:48 PM
Last modification on : Wednesday, November 3, 2021 - 7:03:31 AM
Long-term archiving on: : Thursday, March 18, 2021 - 7:49:24 PM

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Chris Smith. A Case Study of -some and -able Derivatives in the OED3: Examining the Diachronic Output and Productivity of Two Competing Adjectival Suffixes. Lexis. Journal in English Lexicology, Université Jean-Moulin-Lyon III - Centre d’Études Linguistiques (CEL), 2020, Diachronic Lexical Semantics, [40 p.]. ⟨10.4000/lexis.4793⟩. ⟨hal-03079996⟩

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