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difficulty of borrowing inflectional affixes

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages and Linguistics (EHL)' started by Gavril, Jul 17, 2013.

  1. Gavril Senior Member

    English, USA
    Inflectional affixes are among the least (if not the least) borrowable elements of a language. What is the leading theory (or theories) on why inflectional affixes are so rarely loaned?

    Two possibilities that seem likely to me are

    1) affixes are not very "marked" semantically -- speakers don't usually think about them in isolation (though this is far from impossible) but are more likely to think about combinations of them with phonetically longer elements

    2) affixes are often phonetically minimal, and therefore are often difficult to *mention* in isolation, even if one wanted to do so.

    What other theories have been proposed?
    Last edited: Jul 17, 2013
  2. palomnik Senior Member

    Let me make sure that I understand what you're talking about. Do you mean, for example, inflectional endings, as in Latin or the Slavic languages? Are you also referring to particles or semi-words serving purely grammatical functions, such as you will find in East Asian languages?
  3. Gavril Senior Member

    English, USA
  4. CapnPrep Senior Member

    Loanwords are borrowed as whole words; speakers don't have access to the morphological structure unless enough loans are introduced to induce a pattern. Inflectional endings only become apparent as a pattern if they are part of a paradigm, i.e. in opposition to other forms of the same lexeme with different endings. Since languages usually just borrow a single form from the source paradigm, and adapt it to their own morphology, there is no opportunity to identify and adopt the original inflectional ending. As an illustration (not really concerning inflection), recall the recent thread about Spanish loanwords containing the Arabic definite article al-. If Spanish speakers had systematically borrowed both definite and indefinite forms of these words, they may have ended up assigning some function to the prefix al-. But as it happens, they primarily borrowed the prefixed forms, which meant that for them, there was no prefix.

    In the rare cases where multiple forms from the same source paradigm are borrowed, the inflectional ending may become accessible. For example, the spreading of the cactus/cacti type of plural to other singulars ending in [əs].
  5. 123xyz Senior Member

    Skopje, Macedonia
    I guess another reason, complementary to those mentioned above, may be that inflectional endings and grammatical particles are not so much part of the lexicon, but rather of the grammar - the grammar is the underlying mechanism of the language and as such is much more rigid than the lexicon. It is also more complete than the lexicon, so it is less likely to be added to. Simple meanings denoted by some inflectional endings and grammatical particles are expressed so often and are so basic that any language already has a developed system of expressing them before having a chance to borrow them from another one (of course, there are many cases where grammatical structures have been borrowed to express grammatical meanings which could not be expressed previously, but usually without borrowing any new affixes but using the existing ones in a different way or differently arranging/using various words in different forms. This is less "basic" than the affixes themselves and also has got more do with lexical change).
    Furthermore, affixes that appear very often may be viewed as integral components of the words in which they exist so that replacing the affix would make all those words where it was initially present in appear unusual, particularly since the frequency of affixes makes it easier to get used to them than, for example, certain vocabulary words.
    Borrowing of affixes and grammatical particles may also be less likely since borrowing new words not only introduces words for concepts which previously remained unnamed and/or were expressed in cumbersome and/or less appealing ways but may also create new shades of meaning in certain pre-existing words and the new loanword to which they are related (such as "pig" vs. "pork" and "body" vs. "corpus"), which is unlikely with grammatical affixes and particles due to their limited and simple meaning, making it less necessary to borrow them.
  6. Ёж! Senior Member

    I think, not exactly more rigid, but more inertial, because more systematical – it better saves its own impetus. Foreign grammatical elements are not perceived to have their possible place in the native language, at least not in the exact same form as in the foreign language. They contradict the native language's customs by their very sound, combined with their meaning.
    I disagree. Could you really call the meaning of the English articles limited or simple, for example? I don't think so. The meanings of grammatical elements are no less and no more simple than the lexical meanings, what is different is that they are more obligatory.
  7. palomnik Senior Member

    Personally, I cannot think of many examples where this has occurred, except where the affix has "come along for the ride", such as CapnPrep points out about Spanish loan words from Arabic. Farsi has borrowed Arabic "broken" plurals, which are an affix of a sort, but only for Arabic loan words. Japanese has borrowed the Chinese affix /de/ (teki in Japanese) to show the possessive, but only for Chinese loan words where that affix was used.

    The only really valid example I can think of was the borrowing of the participle and gerundive forms in literary Russian from Old Church Slavonic. Whether borrowing from an earlier form of the language qualifies under what you state is I suppose debatable, but the fact is that the form did not exist in contemporary Russian until it was borrowed consciously as a formation from Slavonic, sometime in the eighteenth century, I think.
  8. CapnPrep Senior Member

    Another question is whether the inflectional affix has to keep the same or a similar inflectional function in the new language.

    The noun bus in English and other languages is the Latin dative/ablative plural ending (< omnibus), but I doubt anyone would consider this to be a case of borrowing of inflection, since the fact that omnibus could be truncated to bus shows that speakers did not have the original Latin morphology in mind. But the ending -ibus has been borrowed with weak productivity into English and French for jocular, macaronic derivations. In English it mostly forms nouns (but obviously not in the dative/ablative case): circumbendibus, stinkibus. In French it is an adverbial ending: rasibus. So this would be a case of an inflectional affix being borrowed as a derivational affix.
  9. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    It really depends how wide-spread and how deep the knowledge of language you borrow from is in the population of you own language or in the sub-population where the word is used. E.g. in 19th century Germany you would assume anybody educated enough to read a grammar book to be fluent in Latin and I recently saw a chapter header "Die Conjugation der Verborum" in a mid 19th century book. In modern books you would see "Die Konjugation der Verben".

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