Common Topic

Derivational Morphology and Word Building

Keywords: derivation, suffixes, prefixes, part-of-speech, word building, compound words

In this article we will explore the basic derivational morphology of Common and the Common language's word building strategies that don't involve borrowing or calquing vocabulary from other languages, including compounding and derivation from other parts of speech.

There are a few basic tendencies that characterize Common in this regard:

  • Common is a relatively isolating language. It does make compound words, but they don't tend to stretch very long compared to languages like German.
  • There is a tendency to use modifiers, chained verbs, isolated modifying terms and grammatical devices like valence changes to express meanings that another language with more of an emphasis on word building, like Malay or Turkish, might express with a derived or compound word.
  • Zero derivation between terms that can act as nouns and verbs, or modifiers that can act as adjectives and adverbs is also a common strategy. Common will tend to have a zero-derived word where another language might have a separate vocabulary item, like the way 'zeul' means both 'eye' and 'look'.
  • That said, compounding does occur, and certain derivations are very important sources of vocabulary.
  • Derivational affixes are absolutely required to move back and forth between modifiers and terms, or to create a tight binding modifier from a loose binding modifier.
  • Certain types of words - determiners, whether auxiliary verbs or articles, and all conjunctions, absolutely cannot undergo any kind of derivation, including zero derivation, to another part of speech. Determiners are limited to their inflections, and conjunctions might associate with other words to form common idiomatic expressed but are never truly derived.
  • That said, moving back and forth and back again between parts of speech is an extremely common way that different shades of meaning are built up in Common, where other languages might use additional affixes to express that shade of meaning.
  • It is very common for Common derivational affixes to have multiple forms depending on the phonology of the word to which they are affixed.

We will lay out a fairly comprehensive listing of the major derivational morphology of Common. Compound words will be looked at in more detail in the attached article on compounding.

A note of caution about these derivational affixes and word building strategies: these techniques and morphology are highly productive and can be readily used to produce new vocabulary. However, the derivational morphology of Common is far from some philosophical system of perfect logic. In fact, it is distinctly limited and the interpretation of certain derived forms can be highly idiomatic. Therefore, do not derive your own vocabulary unless you have achieved a high level of mastery of the language! Otherwise, try to stick with forms you have already observed in use and are faily confident what they mean. Making a mistake in this area can result in embarassing or even physically dangerous situations if a word with an unintended idiomatic meaning is inadvertently selected. Incautious use of derivation is one of the major ways for learners of Common to get in trouble.

Derivational Morphology

We will look at each derivational affix one at a time or in related groups, and then consider the effects of stacking these derivations.

1. Term to Thematic Term: -ka, -ca, -kija

Therse are broadly equivalent to words ending in -er or -ee in English, like 'employer' or 'employee'. Thematic terms are derived from regular terms such that:

  • The base term is interpreted as a verb.
  • The resulting thematic term is also a term.
  • The thematic term is ordinarily interpreted as a noun.
  • Based on the affix chosen, the thematic term plays an actor role in the underlying verb.

Basically, a 'thematic term' is a noun derived from another term treated as a verb, where the affix describes the role of the new noun in relation to that verb. Where Common doesn't really have non-finite verbs, these thematic terms can get pressed into service to serve some of the functions of a participle.

There are three thematic derivational suffixes. Each one corresponds to one of the three thematic (verb-role indicating) cases of Common, the absolutive, ergative and dative. They have no special phonological rules other than the normal repair strategies of Common. If suffixed to a word ending in k or c that matches the first letter of the affix, the letter is doubled and the cluster is pronounced as a geminate.

Thematic Term Derivational Suffixes
Affix Type Gloss Meaning Examples
-ka Experiential EXP Absolutive 'hitajka' - That which is sleeping
'zeulka' - That which is examined
-ca Causative CAU Ergative 'zeulca' - That which is looking
-kija Recipientive RCP Dative 'jusalkiya' - That which is desirable

These affixes are all considered to be forms of the same word, and the lemma (dictionary entry) is '-ka'.

These affixes can only apply to a term that is interpretable as a verb and result in another term which is interpretable as a noun. Notice in the examples that in order to interpret the meaning of the resulting derived term, we usually intrepret the underlying verb as per its paradigm verb to decide how to interpret the affix. This leads to some results that English speakers find unexpected.

Take 'zeulca', approximately 'looker'. So far so good, it looks like the suffix '-ca' in Common is about the same as the suffix 'er' in English. The suffice -ka, then, as in 'zeulka', approximately 'lookee', then looks like the English suffix '-ee'. However, then look at 'sleeper', which is 'hitajka', not 'hitajca' as you might expect! This is because 'hitaj' belongs to the pali paradigm and is naturally intransitive. Hence, its agentive suffix is -ka, not -ca. This is most easily understood by analogising to the case system, as we did in the table above.

Interpreted as verbs, thye are generally pali verbs meaning 'to be X'.

2. Term to Modifier: -(y)s

The suffix -(y)s converts a term into a modifier. The glossing abbreviation is MOD. The modifier is considered to reflect a neutral essence of the term, but in practice the interpretation of the modifier derived with -ys leans more towards the noun interpretation of the term, if it has any significant noun interpretation. The way the derived modifier is interpreted can be highly idiomatic and there can also be multiple possible meanings in regular use.

There is a special phonological rule to using -(y)s: If the term it applies to ends in a vowel, drop the 'y'. This does not apply with words ending in a diphthong. So, 'pikkis', 'devious and lazy', from 'pikki', 'cat', but 'lytys', 'boxy' from 'lyt', 'box' and 'hitajys', 'sleepy', from 'hitaj', 'sleep'.

There is a sound change in modern High Common where:

[çəs] > [s] / [vowel]__#

This syncope basically causes terms that end in -ih or -eh to have the modifier form -is or -es instead of -ihys or -ehys. You will hear most High /Common speakers make this shortening in casual speech systematically, but in writing this is not usually reflected. One example to the contrary is 'axih' --> 'axis' instead of the expected 'axihys'.

3. Thematic Term to Thematic Modifier: -kas, -cas, -kijas

This derivational class is formed simply by taking a derived thematic term and then applying the suffix -(y)s to it to make it into a modifier. These deserve special mention because they are extremely common idiomatically and they are used an awful lot in places where other languages might use a non-finite verb form. For example:

A pocuk noxa triju ija hitajkas pikki.
The(ABS) child go(P.IM) see the(DAT) sleep-EXP-MOD cat.

'The child saw the sleeping cat.'

These modifiers are usually modifiers of manner when used with noun phrases. In general, they are almost always used with noun phrases, although idiomatic use as adverbs is not unheard of.

4. Modifier to Term: -(y)n

The suffix -(y)n derives a term from a modifier. It follows exactly the same phonological rules as -(y)s, the 'y' is dropped if the modifier ends in a vowel, but is not dropped if the modifier ends in a diphthong. This suffix cannot be used with a tight binding modifier, e.g., an irregular tight binding modifier like 'faj' or a regular one ending in -no like 'lano', it must be used with a loose binding modifier. The derived term can a somewhat flexible meaning, but is usually taken to have a somewhat abstract meaning as representing the quality of what the modifier represents rather than an instance of an object having that quality. In fact, when Common still had a concrete/abstract gender distinction, all such derivations were members of the abstract gender. So for example, 'uzren' derived from 'uzre', 'green', can mean 'a green one' or something like that, but would usually be read as 'greenness'.

Note the resemblance to the dummy term 'yn' - Davidson wrote that this was intentional and the suffix '-(y)n' was intended to have evolved from modifiers fusing with the dummy term in phrases with an omitted head term.

A common use of -(y)n is to turn a modifier into a term and then use that term as a modifying term. The effect of this is to make the derived word less of a description and more of a name or identifier when applied to the head term. An example of this is the native name of the Common language itself. The word for language is 'zisse'. It bears an obvious relationship to the word 'zesse', or 'tongue'. The relationship is that in Old Common, 'zesse' was in the concrete gender. Zisse is an example of deriving a new term by changing the gender of another term, which was never a highly productive pattern in Common but which can be seen in words like zesse/zisse invented by Davidson as well as in early fan coinings.

The word for 'common', 'frequent' or 'often' is 'xafe'. Hence the name of the Common language is 'na Xafen zisse', or just 'na Xafen'.

5. Term to Abstract Quality Term: -(y)syn, -kasyn, -casyn, -kijasyn

These suffixes turn a regular term into a term that implies the abstract quality or state of being associated with the term. They work like suffixes '-ness', '-hood', '-ship', etc in English. Starting from the original term, if the term has more of a verbal sense, or the speaker wants to interpret it in a verbal sense, a thematic term is first derived with -ka, -ca, or -kija. Otherwise the base term is used. Then the term is derived into a modifier with -(y)s. Finally, the modifier is derived back into a term with -(y)n. The -(y)syn version of this type of derivation obeys the exact same 'y' dropping rules as the other suffixes above. An example of the derivatioon sequence from 'jusal', a term which can be used as a noxaj verb meaning to want or desire:

  1. jusal + -kiya > jusalkija: 'desired thing'
  2. jusalkija + -(y)s > jusalkijas [']: 'desirable'
  3. jusalkijas + (y)n > jusalkijasyn ['ən]: 'desirability'

6. Loose Binding Modifier to Tight Binding Modifer: -no

The suffix -no changes a regular, loose binding modifier into a tight-binding modifier for modifying other modifiers. Not all modifiers can be sensibly converted into a tight binding modifier, and the use of this suffix is highly idiomatic. See the article on Modifiers for Modifiers for details. A classic example is 'mikteno', 'roughly', 'approximately', from 'mikte', which means the same thing but applies more to the head term or the whole phrase as opposed to another modifier in the phrase. It is, however, a productive pattern.

Simple Term Derivations with General Head Terms

There are several common head terms which act much like derivational affixes to derive new words from other terms or from modifiers by compounding. They mean things like 'person', 'thing' or 'idea' and derive a lot of useful vocabulary. They often form compounds instead of standing alone, and can form compounds with other terms or with modifiers. All such derivations originate from non-compounded noun phrases that got fused, and as such the elements will always appear in an order that is sensible for a non-compounded Common noun phrase, e.g., modifiers before terms, modifiers obeying their normal sequence. Some are notable in compounds for having special phonological rules for compounding outside the normal repair strategies of Common.

1. People: -(a)tuin

It is common to use a general head term for a type of person as the head of a compound that itself represents a type of person. The most basic example of this class is the term 'atuin', 'person', a generally polite word for an adult human being of adequate social standing. In this case, the term is somewhat grammaticalised, and can be used to derive a 'human-associated-with' type of term from some other term or modifier or combination thereof.

When used in this fashion, the leading vowel of 'atuin' as a stand-alone word is dropped if possible, unless it is needed to break up an illegal consonant cluster. An example would be 'wisintuin', 'gourmand', from 'wisin', 'cuisine' and '-(a)tuin', person. You could also say 'wisinca', 'one who dines', but the form with 'tuin' is popular and avoids referring to a thematic role around the idea of 'wisin' as a verb and allows the speaker to think of 'wisin' in a noun sense as the concept of cuisine instead.

2. Animate Non-Humans: -(o)zrom

The term 'zrom' can be used to denote animate, self-directing things that aren't people, like animals, robots and for the superstitious (not encouraged by the NWO, but common), spirits. The vowel 'o' is echoed before the term if compounding results in an illegal consonant cluster (in other words, 'zrom' has a special phonological rule). The word 'zrom' can be used on its own and means something general like 'whatsit' or 'thingie' or 'critter', always assumed to be animate and somehow self-directing.

An example would be 'sufetcazrom', a cleaning robot, from 'sufet', 'wash', '-ca', 'CAU' and '-(o)zrom', animate thing. Notice how -(o)zrom  is sometimes used in addition to rather than instead of a thematic term, as it clarifies the animacy and non-humanity of the referent.

3. Tools: -wala

The term 'wala' can be used on its own to mean 'tool' or 'device' and refers to some often hand-held piece of equipment without animacy or agency of its own made by a human to serve a purpose. It has no special phonological rules for compounding and obeys normal repair stratgies. An example would be 'zeulwala', or 'eye tool', used to refer to binoculars or a handheld electronic visor.

4. Inanimate Objects: -(e)rek

The term 'rek' can be used to denote inanimate objects. This term also has an irregular phonological rule: the vowel is echoed in front of the term if the term to which it is affixed ends in a consonant at all, but gets dropped if the word ends in a vowel. In Old Common, 'rek' obeyed a rule more like -(o)zrom above, but it seems that speakers just liked inserting the 'e', because by the middle period, the -erek variant was standard.

'Rek' can be used by itself as a term and means approximately 'thing'. It has a connotation of both inanimacy and uselessness. Interestingly, the word 'etirek', 'old, worn out', looks like it was created by taking a word 'eti', deriving a compound with 'rek', and having it drift from being a term to a modifier. We can't say what Davidson's strategy was, but to say 'an old thing' today, you would still have to say 'etirekerek'. Another example would be something like 'eotilerek', 'the red one', referring to some red object.

5. Places: -step

The term 'step' means a place or location. As the head of a compound, it does not follow any special phonological rules, but uses the normal repair stretegies of Common. An example of a word derived from -step' would be 'slekystep', a general term that could mean a non-luxious eatery, a mess hall or or a food stall.

6. Ideas and Concepts: -fisa

The term 'fisa' means 'thought', 'idea', or as a verb 'think'. It is routinely used to derive names for religions, philosophies and ideologies. The word for philosophy, 'fisakasyn', is derived from it. An example of a word derived from -fisa is 'Onpafisa', from 'onpa', 'world' or 'globe', and -fisa, meaning 'Globalism', the official ideology of the New World Order.

7. States of Being: -pali

In addition to being the paradigm verb for the intransitive verbs taking the auxiliary se, pali, 'stand', is also commonly used to derive terms that are states of being from other terms or fomr modifiers. It has no special phonological rules other than the usual repair strategies. It is often employed for concepts where speakers want a word that more unambiguously represents a concept than derivation with -(y)n or -(y)syn. For example, 'pocukpali' translates almost directly as 'childhood', but 'pocukysyn' could be that or also 'childishness' or something like that.

8. Kinds, Types or Varieties: -(h)ot

Words for kinds of things can be derived with the -(y)syn ending. They can also be derived by taking the word 'hot', which means 'kind', 'type' or 'variety', and suffixing it to another term or a modifier. As a suffix, -(h)ot obeys a special phonological rule that the 'h' drops if the term to which it is affixed ends in a consonant. For example, the word for humanity or mankind is 'atuinot'.

9. Times: -cel

Words for periods of time or moments in time can be derived by adding the ending '-cel' from the word 'cel', which means a moment or period in time. It has no special phonological rules.

10. Containers: -lyt

The suffix '-lyt' derives from the term 'lyt' meaning a box or rectangle. It can be applied to another noun term, usually a concrete, inanimate object or substance, to derive a word for a container for that thing. In this usage, the resulting container doesn't have to be very boxy or rectanguar.

11. Bearers and Conduits: -cual

The term 'cual', 'bear' or 'carry', can be used to derive words that are bearers or conduits for things.

12. Languages and Manners of Speech: -zisse

The suffix '-zisse' from the term 'zisse' can be used to derive names of languages. Common is not consistent in how it does this, however - sometimes a name of a language will be derived from a demonym with '-ysyn' (e.g., Kurtysyn, Kurdish), sometimes a language name will be directly borrowed (e.g., Hinti, Hindi) and sometimes it will be derived from some characteristic word using '-zisse' (e.g., Ankelzisse, English; Tuszisse, German).

13. Intensification/Completion: ro-'

The intensiifcation prefix ro-' (the ' means that the next syllable is stressed) comes from the preposition 'ro', 'away', and derives forms with intensified forms of their base meanings, or implying finished action. What has actually happened in practise is that ro-' derivations have been used either deliberately or through semantic shift over time to mark special senses of the base term, so words derived in this way can have surprising idiomatic meanings. It is generally better to memorise these forms and to not attempt to derive words using this prefix on the fly, because the results can be surprising and even potentially dangerous.

14. Lands and Countries: -wek

The ending '-wek' derives names of lands, territories or countries from some recognizable characteristic or human residents. It is shortened from 'wekja' and was coined in the middle period. It has no special phonological rules.

15. Arts and Crafts, Disciplines: -(w)iru

The ending -(w)iru comes from the term 'wiru' meaning an art or craft and is used to derive words for complex arts, crafts or disciplines. It is essentially a normal compound with 'wiru', and in early period Common, it was completely regular. During the middle period, the 'w' was increasingly omitted in speech following a consonant, perhaps due to the fact the syllable is always unstressed in compounds, and this began to be reflected in writing. When the language was codified in the early modern period, this irregularity was officially recognised.

16. Negative or Inverse: ik-'

The prefix 'ik-'' is derived from the negative tight binding modifier 'ik', except that it applies to terms, acts as an attached prefix, and is never stressed. It does much like the English prefixes 'un-', 'de-' or 'dis-' and negates or inverts the sense of the term.

17. Collections: -(h)oro

The suffix -(h)oro is derived from the term 'horo', a gathering or collection. It derives terms that are collections of the base term, generally used as nouns. It can be used to make a plural multitude into a singular mass noun.

18. Parts of a whole: -kit

The suffix '-kit' derives nouns that are the result of partition of an object, or verbs that are the act of partitioning that object.

19. Substances: -paj

The term 'paj' for 'stuff' or 'substance' is so heavily used in compounds like X-paj to derive words that mean somthing like 'substance of X' or 'substance like X' that it is essentially a derivational suffix.

20. Becoming/Goal: u-'

The prefix u-' derives forms that tend to have an idiomatic meaning of becoming or work towards a goal. An example is 'unýfe', to level up. This prefix is only semi-productive and should be used with care.

21. Sustaining/Stasis: e-'

The prefix e-' derives forms that tend to have an idiomatic meaning of a static condition or something that effort is being expended to maintain. An example is 'ehítaj', to be fast asleep. This prefix is only semi-productive and should be used with care.

22. Village or Town (Place Name): -tor

The suffix -tor just comes form the word 'tor', 'village', and is popular in Commonised names for villages and towns, even occasionally cities.

23. Town or City (Place Name): -ifór

The suffix -ifór just comes form the word 'ifór', 'town', and is popular in Commonised names for towns and cities. It retains the accent in compounds, which may then have two accent marks. The fór always gets primary stress, and the syllable that would normally get the primary stress in Common gets secondary stress.

24. Academic or Scentific Study or Discipline: -til

The suffix -til is often used to denote an academic or scientific study or discipline, much like the suffix -logy borrowed from Greek does in English.

Other Compound Derivations

In Common, practically any combination of terms and modifiers that can appear together in a noun phrase can fuse into a compound word, often with phonological simplifications in the process. The process that creates such new word is precisely the process of taking some part of a phrase that typically appears in juxtaposition and starting to run it together and fuse it. Even internal conjunctions and tight binding modfiers can get caught up in this process, although articles and auxiliaries do not. Common does tend to have isolating tendencies, but these compounding processes do occur and are productive.

To repeat the word of caution above, be very careful attempting this youself. Ordinarily, you should rely on dictionary entries whose use you clearly understand. Compounding produces highly idiomatic constructions, and if you attempt it yourself, the result will not always be what you think. The outcome can be simple embarrassment, but if you offend the wrong person, a more sinister outcome is possible, so the best advice is to exercise caution.


This non-exhaustive exploration of Common derivational morphology and word building strategy gives the basic grounding necessary to dive into discussions surrounding particular subject matters and areas of vocabulary and grammar. We will periodically return to this article and expand upon it as needed.


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