In defence of derivational morphology

By: | Post date: 2017-11-08 | Comments: 20 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Modern Greek

In my post on the formation of speciesism, I noted that

Speciesism is a coinage so clueless about how Latin works, it could only have been coined in English, and in English after people stopped learning classical languages, at that. (It dates from 1970.) The -es in Latin is an inflection. You never ever put derivational suffixes like -ism after inflections. Except if you have no idea about the language you’re putting the suffixes onto, to begin with. The Latinically correct way of coining the word would have been specism, and you do indeed see that as a less frequent alternative to speciesism.

Now, Greek avoided spisisismos, and rendered the term as spisismos as the main rendering of speciesism (although Wikipedia does also list σπισισισμός.) I’d like to think that Greeks recognised the inflection in speci-es-ism, and had their linguistic sensibilities offended, as fellow speakers of a highly inflected language. It’s far likelier that they simply threw a haplology at the problem: /sp-is-is-mos/ already sounds ludicrous enough, /sp-is-is-is-mos/ could not be taken seriously by anyone.

I was heartened to see commenter Pepe [Georgios-Perikles Schinas], at Nikos Sarantakos’ blog, expressing those offended linguistic sensibilities. Just so you don’t think I’m making this stuff up.

It features the delightful Greek slang word καφρίλα, the stench (-ila, i.e. characteristic) of a kafros (someone who does not give a crap about bothering other people; derived, as it turns out, from kaffir “infidel to Islam” via Italian cafro.)

Pepe, 31 October, 2017 13:42 :

That was no haplology. That was a correction of an error.

Speciesism is an English word derived from an unassimilated Latin loan, species, and a productive ending also borrowed from Latin (-ism < Latin -ismus, ultimate derivation from Greek though that is irrelevant here.) So it is a purely Latin word, which was formed now and not when Latin was a living language.

But it was formed utterly irregularly. Sticking derivational (or inflectional) endings on a complete word to generate a new one is the kind of boorishness [καφρίλα] that would be committed only by someone unaware that there are languages outside of American English; and who isn’t even that deeply familiar with American English itself. Seen very superficially, English words look like they are derived in that way. They aren’t of course in English, and even less so in Latin. It’s as if we tried to derive an equivalent word in Greek from eid-os and ended up saying eid-os-ismos.

I think that a Latin speaker would not even think in such a way as to come up with deriving such forms; but if forced to he would say speciismus or, by contraction, specismus. So speci(i)sm in English. Therefore, now that we are left with conventional hellenisation of the English, σπισισμός (because directly from Latin it would be σπεκι(ι)σμός.)

I’m sure that the Greek antispecisisist window-smashers had that in mind, and corrected the extraneous -si-.

Maria, 31 October, 2017 16:53

A pedantic note: the ending on 5th declension nouns is -ie- and not -e-, so spec-ie-s > spec-ism(us).

Pepe, 31 October, 2017 17:21:


At any rate, the corresponding Latin or Greek terms of sundry sciences and disciplines are usually formed correctly, by scientists or intellectuals who were neither Greeks nor, of course, ancient Romans. And typically they were neither linguists nor classicists, so those linguistic mechanisms were not part of their ground knowledge. But they were familiar with those mechanisms: something that demonstrates a certain broad-mindedness. The ill-formed speciesism, so we read, was not formed by the window-smashers, but possibly by a British psychologist. And fine, he didn’t know any Latin: that in itself does not show narrow-mindedness. But he didn’t even realise that somewhere in between English and Latin, there was something that he did not know about. That leaves a bad impression. I’ll acquit him for insufficient evidence (“the term was coined or popularised by the British psychologist Richard Ryder in 1973″), but there is a shadow cast over somebody.


  • languagehat says:

    You will not be surprised to hear that I entirely agree with Matt T., but I’m saying it anyway. As I’ve often said before, to use English well you don’t need to know anything about any other languages (and the same goes, of course, for using other languages well). Once species became an English word, all facts about Latin became utterly irrelevant.

    • Mpf. 🙂

    • John Cowan says:

      Sure, which is why we don’t watch our teleopticons and drive around in our suimobiles. But English derivation patterns are part of English; they aren’t just random. Looksism is fine, but *toothgrindingism is not; for that sense of -ism, we need and have bruxism (though we could have had frendism, frendeism, fresism instead).

      • Looksism is fine, but *toothgrindingism is not

        … Why? Presumably only because the semantics of “looks” is so different from “look”?

        • John Cowan says:

          No, because the -ism of a prejudice can attach to any English word, whereas the -ism of a behavior or a school only exists as part of neoclassical compounds. We don’t have Freudism (though French has freudisme); we need to create from this Germanic name a pseudo-Latin Freudianus and then we can make Freudianism out of it. They are really two separate morphemes with the same pronunciation, spelling, and etymology but different categorization patterns: Greekism would be prejudice against (or possibly in favor of) Greeks, whereas Grecism is a name for a Greek word in an English context.

          • David Marjanović says:

            There’s Darwinism, though.

          • Wow. I never realised this. And it makes sense, since the prejudice meaning is more recent.

          • John Cowan says:

            I found by accident today that dandyism in French is dandysme, which strikes me as going too far the other way, but what the hell, it’s their language.

            Also, I forgot to point out that looks ‘appearance’ is no longer a plural but a pluralia tantum noun, like scissors, with plural agreement (usually) and singular meaning. So looksism is not really a derivational ending added to an inflectional ending, any more than scissors-like is.

        • John Cowan says:

          David M: In Darwinism the difference is indiscernible: Darwin > Darwinus > Darwinism. The middle term isn’t just hypothetical, either: googling for “Carolus Darwinus” finds two Latin , two French, and one German source. One of the Latin works mentions him in the same breath with Herbertus Spencer.

  • Matt T. says:

    Counterpoint: Against Derivational Morphology

    “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.

    • I’m not persuaded, but I am impressed I’m not persuaded, but I am impressed!

    • I’m not persuaded, but I am impressed! Are you ok for me to post this?

    • John Cowan says:

      Okay, Nick, you’re impressed but not persuaded, we get it. 🙂

      Anyway, I was going to post something similar but had only square tuits: -ism does work like this sometimes. In addition, I suppose believing in metallic currency would be specieism (from a frozen ablative).

      • John Cowan says:

        In the 19C, track and field sports were known as pedestrianism, which is clearly from the noun rather than the adjective.

      • Okay, Nick, you’re impressed but not persuaded, we get it. ?

        As you won’t be surprised to hear, the mobile app I was using to respond to WordPress comments does not rate high on usability.

        -ism does indeed work like that in English sometimes, and in fact I thought the established term was *looksism. But there is a distinction between Latinate and Germanic vocabulary still (by force of analogy if nothing else).

        The frozen ablative is good Interlingua Sine Flexione (as you’ll know from our common past in Lojban, when I’d suggested it as the way to borrow Latin stems), but it’s still not good Latin. 🙂

    • David Marjanović says:

      “Lookism” is interesting; I assume it’s based on “looks” and the “s” was dropped for some reason

      Phonology. The sonority hierarchy pressures -ksi- to become a syllable, but ks- is not allowed as a syllable onset in English. This is also why, of the many people who have discussed the form, few have managed to remember the cdesign proponentsists correctly.

    • Konstantinos Papaconstantinou says:

      I am Konstantinos Papaconstantinou and I am trying to email Nick Nicholas but none of the links provided by him seem to work. Why?

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