Counterpoint: Against Derivational Morphology

By: | Post date: 2017-11-11 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: English, Linguistics

Matt Treyvaud has refuted my argument in In Defence of Derivational Morphology, in the following comment which I’m happy to repost:


“Speciesism” was a better choice than “specism” for the English word. Even an English speaker who was perfectly fluent in Latin would have chosen “speciesism” if they had any taste at all. To the extent that “speciesism” is ungainly, it is the fault of the word “species” itself, an absolute perfect storm of fifth-declension awfulness. This is a word which can drive English speakers to grotesques like “specieses” and “species’” through pluralization alone. It is no innocent in this matter. (Oh, all right, it’s the fault of the English-speaking community, for not finding a better way to borrow it. Same deal.)

“Specism” would be pronounced “spekkism” by literally everybody. It would be mistaken for prejudice against people who wear glasses. Conversely, people trying to type it would almost immediately create an awkwardly well-attested variant “speciesm.” Some people would get confused and end up at “speciesism” anyway. It would have been the “octopodes” of isms.

“What about ‘fascism’?” a straw man sneers. “Are you saying that should be ‘fascesism’?” Well, if the word was meant to emphasize the connection to fasces rather than just name the ideology uniquely, then yes — it should have been “fascesism” (and pronounced with an /s/ rather than an /S/, at that). But it wasn’t; it was borrowed direct from Italian as a sort of semi-proper noun (and note that “did you know that fascism is from fasces which is a bundle of sticks??” is one of those facts that surprise people in their teens; the connection is completely opaque to us).

Cross-Counterpoint: “Speciesism” Is Actually Good Derivational Morphology, On Which Continental Europe Does Not Have a Monopoly

The “-ism” of “speciesism” is not the same as the “-ism” of anarchism, although of course they are related. The OED recognizes this and currently has two (2) draft additions ready to drop into its definition of “-ism”:

a. Forming nouns with the sense ‘belief in the superiority of one —— over another’; as racism, sexism, speciesism, etc.

b. Forming nouns with the sense ‘discrimination or prejudice against on the basis of ——’; as ageism, bodyism, heightism, faceism, lookism, sizeism, weightism, etc.

As the examples show, in English, we form words of this type by adding “-ism” to a word chosen to represent the concept, and that’s that. Some people might prefer to leave the “e” out of words like “ableism” and “sizeism”, but that’s as far as it goes; in any case this doesn’t affect pronunciation. “Lookism” is interesting; I assume it’s based on “looks” and the “s” was dropped for some reason, but perhaps it is from “look” (“I don’t like the look of him”). Note that we also have “ableism” rather than “abilitism” or “ablenessism” or similar. This “-ism” suffix can attach to anything — any kind of word with any ending shape. If anything there seems to be a preference for attachment to words that weren’t borrowed from Latin or its descendants. Classicists are welcome to their opinion, but they shouldn’t imagine themselves to have any authoritative standing in the matter.

In short, “speciesism” is not only a perfectly good word, it’s actually the best word that could have been created by applying that “ism” to the word “species,” which is itself one of the low points of English eclecticism.

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