Linguistic Productivity: Initial Thoughts

What is linguistic ‘productivity’?

A quick search finds that the emphasis tends to be on morphological derivation, especially when it comes to newly coined words. Taking the verbal form of ‘tweet’ as an example, we might derive forms like ‘tweeting’, ‘tweeted’, etc. according to the conventions of English verbal morphology.

There are cases which are potentially harder to classify. How, for instance, should we describe the relationship between ‘selfie’ and ‘wefie’? Not surprisingly, derivation processes also vary by region; I remember hearing about Japanese ‘selca’ (presumably selfcamera) from my sister before ‘selfie’ became the thing it is in culture.

Looking into the original derivation of ‘selfie’ itself turned up an interesting tangential finding of its own. As observed by etymonline, the ‘-ie’ suffix is now far less common than the ‘-y’ suffix in English. It is the function of the ‘-y’ suffix itself that is the point of interest, in that it appears terribly general in its potential scope of application, acting as a noun suffix, an adjective suffix (e.g. frost → frosty), a general state/condition suffix (crampy, perhaps?) , and as a kind of diminutive in pet names (e.g. kitty). This generality of scope readily suggests a range of conjectures regarding the semantic, syntactic, and even prosodic functions and constraints relevant to this suffixation.

These being my first scribblings on the subject, I don’t want to travel too far down that road, but I do want to record a few general questions that seem worth exploring:

  1. Can we identify, describe, and compare specific productive strategies?
  2. Can we measure productivity or productive force? Are there ways to measure relative preference?
  3. What could the presence of (or preference for) certain productive strategies in a particular dialect, idiom, or language tell us, if anything?

The context I have in mind is Singapore English, which I would characterize as a contact language where the substrate language(s) are Chinese dialects. (While lexical borrowings tend not to be from the Chinese languages, they form the ‘substrate’ in that they provide the syntactic structure.) The difficulty in applying an idea like linguistic productivity is that unlike, say, English, which has derivational morphology, in languages like Mandarin Chinese things like part-of-speech and tense/aspect would be indicated through processes like compounding, or inferred from the overall syntax of phrases and sentences. This leads us to the question of whether ‘productivity’ is potentially applicable beyond morphology at all, to syntactical processes or perhaps lexical compounding.

I’ve got a bunch of materials to read (including an article on ‘Lexical productivity versus syntactic generativity’), though I’m not sure where they might lead. This is part of a project I’ll be working on over the next few months.