Episode 104: Prefix Preferences

During the early Middle English period, many loanwords from Latin and French were borrowed into English.  Very often, those loanwords came in with prefixes and suffixes that were new to the English language. Many of those new affixes appear for the first time in the Ancrene Wisse.  In this episode, we explore the decline of Old English prefixes and the rise of continental prefixes in the early Middle English period.


11 thoughts on “Episode 104: Prefix Preferences

  1. Love it! Thank you for doing these.

    I’ve been trying to read the Middle English text of “Canterbury Tales” and I’ve been confused by all the words that begin with “y-“. I’m certain you’ll get to Chaucer eventually and I’m looking forward to it, but this really helped.

    I was wondering, did they choose to use “unable” instead of “inable” because it sounds too close to “enable”?

    • Good question. I don’t know if “enable” had any influence. “Enable” was also spelled as “inable” in Middle English, so it does seem possible that there may have been some confusion.

  2. Thanks for all your work on this podcast – I’m a happy Patreon supporter.

    My wife and I were wondering whether the y- prefix is also responsible for the “a-” of “a-hunting” [as in “a-hunting we will go”] or “a-leaping” [as in “lords a-leaping”.] Or is that something else?

    • Hi Avery,

      I actually discussed the origin of the ‘a’ in “a-hunting” or “a-singing” in Episode 94. It isn’t related to the ‘ge-‘ or ‘y-‘ prefix. It is actually derived from the preposition “on.” In Old English, when a verb was used as a noun (in other words, when a gerund was formed), it usually followed a preposition like “on.” So it was common to say something similar to “on-singung is fun” rather than “singing is fun.” The preposition was generally lost in Middle English, but it lives on in colloquial uses like “They were a-singin’.”

  3. Another episode of honorificabilitudinities!

    08:19 the ge- prefix is indeed pronounced “ge” with a hard G in standard German (Standarddeutsch). Note that the modern Berlin accent pronounces it “ye”. So after hearing a sneeze a Berliner might say “yesundheit”. There was a softening of that preposition in many northern Germanic dialects. Not sure if the Old English prononciation was a result of that shift.

  4. Kevin,

    I think you mixed up the Old English mid(with) and mid(d)(middle). So midday and midnight mean the middle of the day and night.

    • My sources are actually in conflict on this point. “Mid’ was used both ways in Old English – as a preposition meaning ‘with’ and as an adjective meaning ‘middle.’ Clearly “midnight” means the ‘middle of the night,’ but my understanding is that it is based on the same root word as “mid” meaning ‘with.’ Etymonline.com suggests that they are the same root root word with slightly different meanings. The OED lists them separately and indicates that they were both inherited from Proto-Germanic. There is not a clear etymology beyond that. Anyway, in this episode, my assumption was that these were two different uses of the same root word, but upon further review, I am not 100% sure.

  5. Pingback: Prefixes and Prepositions – Grammar Logic and Rhetoric

  6. In German ‘gesund’, the ‘u’ is pronounced as in ‘book’, not as in ‘boom’. And the ‘d’ is pronounced ‘t’, and the ‘s’ as ‘z’.

  7. Kevin, on my second pass through (and slowly up to Episode 60), I have found four Episode Transcripts and fourteen Episode Comments with the word “delight”, but Episode 104 is (to the best of my knowledge) the only episode that mentions the origin of “delight”. (ref “Ancrene Wisse”)

    I am NOT delighted to find that “delight” is lumped in with “… depart, desert, devout, devotion, demur, destroy and default, and that in most of these words, the de- prefix was in your secondary sense of ‘down’ or ‘away.’

    When I tell Peggy “your voice delights me” I mean it in the sense that Peggy’s voice is extremely melodic, and yet I think that you suggest that both senses of the prefix “de” imply a negative sway.

    In no way would I say that Peggy’s voice was negative.
    I have doubts too about “devout”.

    I am curious: Why do we have an apparently negative (not, down, away etc) prefix for the word “delight”.

    Are your subscribers trying to tell you something when they comment “delightful episode”? I am of the opinion that, like me, they find great pleasure and derive (uh-oh!) great comfort from your podcasts.

    Might you please think about this and come up with an explanation. Otherwise I shall have to tell Peggy that each time I hear voice, “it makes my heart flip over”, and I’m not that devout (grin!)

  8. “Delight” etymology. From there you go to “delicious” etymology, then to the French “délicieux”, from there to délice and at the bottom of that page it reads that the word comes from the Latin de + lacire, lacire = to make fall into a lace (string, cord, trap…) so it seems that a delight is something that takes you away from a bad situation.

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