Printer Friendly

On the origin of the English diminutive suffix -y, -ie.

One of the etymological mysteries of contemporary English historical linguistics is the origin of the diminutive suffix -y, -ie, which first appeared during the Middle English Period. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the morpheme derives from English renderings of Old French names like Davi, Mathe (i.e., Davy, Mathy), "which have the appearance of being pet forms of David, Mathou" (OED, s.v. -y suffix (6)). However, as Marchand (1968: 298) objects, "'For whom?' we naturally ask. When there was no suffix and accordingly no possibility of hypocoristic interpretation of the final -y, the termination was hardly capable of being transferred to other names." In his impressive study of the early use and evolution of the affix, Sunden (1910) hypothesizes that -y, -ie had its origin in personal names in Scots but did not at first have hypocoristic value -- it was simply "a general onomastic suffix tending to increase its sphere of application according as weak final -e [with hypocoristic value] was dropped" and as it then assumed the hypocoristic value of the "dropped" -e, e.g., QE Wulfsige > Wolsi (Sunden 1910: 162-163). But, once more, Marchand (1968: 298) points out: "... the argument we have raised against the explanations of the QED comes up again. It is difficult to conceive of extension from words which were not analyzable as two-morpheme words. Reinterpretation usually presupposes bi-morphemic character of a pattern." Jespersen (1922: 402, cf. 1933a: 294-299) ascribes the origin of-y, -ie to the fact that "the vowel [i], especially in its narrow or thin variety, is particularly appropriate to express what is small, weak, insignificant, or, on the other hand, refined or dainty" as a result of its inherent "symbolism". He implies that this "vowel symbolism" may be related to the tendency of children to "add an -i at the end of words" and of "traits like these [being] imitated by nurses and fond mothers ... [A]s this linguistic trick is thus associated with children and nurseries, it will naturally acquire a hypocoristic or diminutive force" (1933a: 297-298). This same position is espoused by Marchand (1968: 298), although he does acknowledge difficulty in answering the question "why the symbolic value of i came to life so late (not before 1400)." In this brief paper, I wish to provide still another theory about the origin of this perplexing morpheme -- a theory based on recent research into "panchronic laws" of linguistic change and universals involving child language acquisition.

Of course, a "panchronic law" constitutes a principle regarding "the overall direction of linguistic change" (Fox 1995: 194). In a recent impressive study of such directionality of linguistic change, Jurafsky (1996) provides compelling linguistic and cognitive evidence about the evolution of diminutive affixes. Specifically, he maintains that "the origin of the morphological diminutive is the sense 'child'", that is, "the source was either semantically related to 'child' (e.g., a word meaning 'child' or 'son'), or pragmatically related to 'child' (e.g., a hypocoristic suffix on names)" (1996: 562). He also demonstrates that the diminutive from 'child' "lies at the heart of many pragmatic uses of diminutive suffixes", including "hypocorism, patronymics, names of tribes, countries, and languages, various kinds of nominalizations and assorted metaphorical formations [e.g., contempt or affection], words of approximation, and often as a general method of producing new adjectives or nouns" (1996: 565).

In addition to Jurafsky's typological findings, I believe that contemporary descriptions of the nature of "caretaker speech" also provide insight into the etymology of -y, -ie. Caretaker speech represents "a distinct speech register" by means of which "caretakers systematically modify the child's environment, making the task of language acquisition easier" (Moskowitz 1981: 50). It is well known that caretaker speech "seem[s] to mimic the phonological structure of an infant's own vocabulary" (Moskowitz 1981: 51, cf. James 1990: 180-181). One of the most salient features of the vocalic system of children in the early stages of language acquisition is its tripartite structure, consisting of the vowels /a, i, u/. According to Parker and Riley (1999: 179), such a state of affairs results from two tendencies: "first, extreme values in the vowel system tend to be acquired before intermediate values ... [and] second, children typically acquire segments common among the world's languages before they acquire those that are relatively rare." In any event, the prevalence of/i/ in child language brings about its prevalence in caretaker speech. This observation lends some credence to Jespersen's contention that /i/ has a natural association with "notions of smallness or weakness and of femininity" (1933a: 298).

Now it is widely recognized in regard to the appearance of -y, -ie that "the first word recorded is baby 1377 (f[rom] babe)" (Marchand 1968: 299, cf. Sunden 1910: 136). (1) In my view, baby was simply a caretaker speech (or nursery speech) variant of babe, the older of the two variants, Of course, it is not uncommon for nursery words to become eventually standard words (cf. Goth. atta 'father' < 'daddy' (Lehmann 1986: 46)), but prior to the widespread replacement of babe by baby, (2) the existence of the former led to a morphological resegmentation of the latter as bab(e)-y. Because of the panchronic law identified by Jurafsky, the suffix -y, -ie as a part of a word for 'child' naturally came to adopt diminutive signification and was subsequently and gradually generalized to other word forms (apparently first to personal proper names and then to other common nouns, cf. Marchand 1968: 298) and to related meanings. (3) I find it significant that even the common nursery words mammy (mommy) and daddy are "not ear lier than the 16th century" (OED, s.v. -y suffix (6)), implying, as expected, the primacy of baby in the origin and generalization of the ending. Of course, pre-extant forms terminating in -y, -ie were either unaffected by the appearance of the new suffix (e.g., berry < OE berige; honey < QE hunig) or were subject to morphological reinterpretation under its influence if semantic circumstances warranted (e.g., Davy 'dimin. of David' < OF Davi; Mathy 'dimin. of Matthew' < OF Mathe).

Although the etymology of the diminutive suffix -y, -ie most certainly will remain controversial, the plausibility of the hypothesis presented here is enhanced because of its basis in contemporary typological and psycholinguistic investigation.

(1.) Sunden (1910: 136), after asserting "that the hypocoristic function of the suffix -y is earlier than the slangy or the purely diminutive function and that it originated as far back as the 15th c.," is forced to note that "the only instance indicative of an earlier origin is baby recorded in 1377 (Langland, Piers Plowman B.)." His ad hoc attempt to derive baby from a contraction of baban "(of Celtic origin) recorded c. 1230 (Ancren Riwle)" is motivated by a desire to explain away an early diminutive use of -y which does not fit his chronology.

(2.) Thus, according to The Oxford English Dictionary, babe "remained as the dignified word (e.g., in Scripture) and is now chiefly poetic."

(3.) Because of the close typological affinity of the diminutive and hypocoristic functions, it is not surprising that these two uses are inextricably bound in the evolution of the suffix (cf. Sunden 1910: 135-66; Jurafsky 1996: 562).


Clark, Eve -- Paul Eschholz -- Alfred Rosa (eds.)

1981 Language: Introductory readings. New York: St. Martin's.

Fox, Anthony

1995 Linguistic reconstruction: An introduction to theory and method. Oxford: OUP.

James, Sharon

1990 Normal language acquisition. Boston: Little, Brown & Company.

Jespersen, Otto

1922 Language: Its nature, development and origin. London: Allen & Unwin.

1933a "Symbolic value of the vowel i", in: Otto Jespersen, 283-306.

1933b Linguistica: Selected papers in English, French and German. Copenhagen: Levin & Munksgaard.

Jurafsky, Daniel

1996 "Universal tendencies in the semantics of the diminutive", Language 72: 533-578.

Lehmann, Winfred

1986 A Gothic etymological dictionary. Leiden: Brill.

Marchand, Hans

1968 The categories and types of present-day English word formation. (2. edition.)

Munchen: C. H. Beck'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung.

Moskowitz, Breyne Arlene

1981 "The acquisition of language," in: Eve Clark - Paul Escholz - Alfred Rosa (eds.), 77-107.

The Oxford English Dictionary

1989 (2. edition.) 20 vols. Oxford: Clarendon.

Parker, Frank - Kathryn Riley

1999 Linguistics for non-linguists. (3 edition.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Sunden, Karl

1910 "On the origin of the hypocoristic suffix -y (-e, -ey) in English", in: Festschrift tillegnad Karl Ferdinand Johansson, 131-170. Goteborg: Wettergren & Kerber.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Adam Mickiewicz University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Shields, Kenneth, Jr.
Publication:Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies
Date:Jan 1, 2001
Previous Article:The Scots -- Northern English continuum of marking noun plurality.
Next Article:The code and context of Monasteriales Indicia: a semiotic analysis of late Anglo-Saxon monastic sign language.

Related Articles
Old English : that is (,) an orthographic problem (noch einmal).
On the histories of de-verbal adjectives in Middle English.
Old English reflexes of Sievers' Law.
The dialect position of the Old English Orosius.
Collateral adjectives, Latinate vocabulary, and English morphology (1). (Linguistics).
ME -Lich(e)l-ly. (1).
The origin and diffusion of English 3SG-S.
On some French elements in early middle English word derivation.
Comparative constructions in English (1).

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters