Fun With Linguistics: Productivity

In linguistics we have a term for how you can use patterns to create new words: productivity. For example, the -ly suffix can be added to many adjectives to create new adverbs: “nice” becomes “nicely” while “able” becomes “ably.” That’s a productive pattern. What’s amazing is that children who are learning to speak a language natively start using such productive patterns intuitively, without ever being told explicitly how to do it. And they are correct most of the time. But when they misapply a productive pattern, it’s often funny. Tonight, I heard another funny. This evening Andrew and Kathryn (our 7 year old twins) decided they would sleep under a make-shift tent created by draping bed sheets over chairs and stools. As I was helping them lay down their make-shift beds, Andrew determined that he would use a huge beach towel as his “blanket.” Kathryn objected, misapplying a productive word-formation pattern:

“But . . . that’s not . . . blanketable.”

I’m still smiling. 🙂

10 thoughts on “Fun With Linguistics: Productivity”

  1. Funny! The thing is, I don’t know if it’s as much an all-out misapplication of the rule as it is an extension of the suffix to apply to nouns as well as verbs. We actually already have this with peaceable, fashionable, salable, and probably a few others.

    Don’t let your dad tell you you’re doing it wrong, Kathryn! 😉

    1. Now, now, don’t go stirring my children up against me! 🙂 It’s nice to make your acquaintance, Steve, and thanks for stopping by and commenting. Your first two exx. are appropriate to show that one cannot always explain a morpheme in light of a productive pattern with its rules and semantic value. One wonders if these were simply formed by analogy, or if there was another pattern that wasn’t productive, thereby leaving a limited number of examples in the language. Your last one, salable, would appear to follow the pattern, since that adjective would describe something that can undergo the verbal notion that -able is affixed to–“able to be sold.”


      1. Yes, the semantics of the association seem to be rather fluid: I think it’s possible to see “useful for…” in “blanketable” and in “salable”. As far as other, less productive patterns, recall that the historical meaning of Latin -abilis was not as strictly “capable of” but also analogous to our suffix “-worthy”. If you think about it, “fashion-worthy” and “sale-worthy” work alongside “blanket-worthy”. Who knows? 🙂

      2. hey, philip. is carable acceptable? (carable “able to carry”). a friend of mine just accidentally said that word because what she really want to say is “handy”.
        “This keychain is very carable” she meant was handy keychain.

      3. I think “carriable” would be the form of the word that you’re looking for. This is a good example of productivity–the creation of a word based on known morphemes and their application to stems that don’t already take them.

    2. Oh, sorry it took so long to approve your comment. I’ve been off my computer *all day* (this is very rare). When I turned it on at 10pm tonight, I realized that it was the first time I had it on since the night before!

  2. Good point–Latin loanwords with that derivational affix and semantic value may well have influenced some of our “new” English words with non-Latin roots. [I think of how -izo formations in Greek have been brought over into English, such that -ize formations for verbs are productive in English on all sorts of words which are not Greek-based.] “Laughable” is another word that comes to mind, similar to the 3 you mentioned. And I’m sure that, since my kids are learning Latin, the Latin pathway was exactly what she was thinking! 😉

    1. Ha ha…yes, I didn’t mean to imply that now-obscure Latin etymology mysteriously influences current practice, especially in your kids. 🙂 (That’s one of the issues I have with universal grammar…but that’s a different subject.)

      But there may be surviving words, such as “laughable”, in which the earlier usage survives despite the predominantly productive usage being related to “able”, probably due to its purely coincidental similarity to our word “able”. Anyhow.

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