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It is clear that languages can borrow words and even syntax from other languages but do they borrow morphemes?

For example, the English morpheme -ation has a very specific usage in Portuguese. It is specially seen in the word embromation, that comes from the verb embromar, something like “to deceive”. The morpheme -ation transforms it into a noun used to describe bad English. It can also be added to any other word to give it an “English quality”, always in a funny way and making reference to one's poor mastering of English. Although it is certainly not part of the standard Portuguese, it is recognized by almost any speaker and has been used in language school advertisement. (There are funny examples of embromation on YouTube, both here and here.)

Are there any other cases of morphemic borowing, be they jokes or part of the standard system of a language?


Edit: some theorical considerations

The very concept of morpheme was brought up several times throughout the answers and the comments to my question, so I would like to quickly address this point. My notion of morphology and consequently morphemes comes from Steven Pinker's pretheoretical Words and Rules. He considers morphology to be separated from syntax and responsible for the “rules for forming complex words, including regulars” (page 23). Its main job is to make it possible to join lexicon elements, such as words and morphemes, together, thus saving us from the trouble of memorizing the past form for every verb, for example. Rather than defining morphemes, I will only say that they are the set of memorized chunks that affixes such as -ation (as in “affiliation”), un- (“unthinkable”) and -s (“dogs”) belong to.

Also, it is quite natural that a language will borrow morphemes (and lexicon, syntax etc.) from the language(s) it came from. I would say that my main interest are those cases in which the borrowing had little to do with political imposition of a language (like Ancient Rome did in most cases, or Spain in its colonies) or linguistic evolution and heritage. Rather, I'm looking for morphemes borrowed because of the need of expression that morpheme would cover.

To conclude, I don't have any specific definition for morpheme, nor am I too concerned with the issues the concept brings; also, “pure” borrowings constitute stronger evidence than “forced” ones.

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  • From hippietrail's comment, are things like 'uber-' (meaning 'very') or '-nik' (as in refusenik') or '-athon' (as in 'saleathon') what you're looking for? Any kind of prefix/suffix? or just grammatical ones? – Mitch Sep 18 '11 at 13:31
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    I assume you are specifically talking about bound morphemes? Depending on your definition of morpheme, any loan word could be considered as borrowing morpheme(s) otherwise. – James Tauber Sep 18 '11 at 15:40
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English has done this rather extensively -- the "-ation" you quote is originally Latin. The verbalizing suffix "-ize" is originally Greek (and entered the language via Latin (borrowing) and French (descent from Latin)). And "-ify" is originally Latin. Both these are unambiguously productive (as is "-ation"). More recently and colloquially, English speakers have borrowed "uber-" as a prefix (from German). Attached to an adjective ("uber-tired," "uber-happy") it carries roughly the meaning of "very." On nouns ("uber-linguist") it means something like "very exemplary."

For a non-English example, the Basque past participle suffix "-tu" (the only pp. suffix which is productive today) is widely (though not universally, as I understand) held to be derived from Latin "-tum," the neuter past participle suffix.

These are just examples from two languages I happen to know something about. So I'd say that this happens all the time, both as a colloquialism or "joke" and also as a part of core linguistic meaning.

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  • I forgot to state that it seemed very clear to me that a given language would always borrow elements from the language(s) it came from, though putting it that way is simplifying the discussion. It is only expected that Romance languages would borrow even morphemes from Ancient Greek and Latin. However, the German -uber is a much more interesting evidence, since it was borrowed for, I believe, sheer linguistic reasons — there is no *stratum relationship between English and German. – rberaldo Sep 18 '11 at 17:17
  • @rberaldo Descent is not borrowing. Romance languages do not "borrow" from Latin, in general -- they "inherit" (though there can also be re-borrowing, when the original source word changes pronunciation/meaning, then the original word is borrowed with original pronunciation/meaning). Latin/Romance are not descended from Greek. I'm not sure what your point about *stratum relationships is, since such relationships are not categorical, and the evidence for their existence is the fact of (more or less extensive) borrowing. – Aaron Sep 18 '11 at 18:04
  • that's a good point. About Greek, I think Latin borrowed things from it, and that's how many Greek roots and words are part of Romance languages nowadays. – rberaldo Sep 19 '11 at 15:01
  • “-ize” and “-ify” cannot be applied to a lot of adjectives, not even colloquially (“greenize”? “quickify”?) or nouns (“garbagize”? “speedify”?), so I wonder what definition of “productive” you are using? I would say that the “uber-” example is significantly more productive than “-ize” and “-ify”. – Timwi Sep 21 '11 at 0:03
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    @Timwi, the notion of productivity is gradient, rather than categorical. So we do have novel coinages with "-ize" (monetize, commoditize) and "-ify" (Islamify, beerify). We can contrast this with a Germanic suffix like the verbalizer "-en," which has "quicken" and "redden" but no modern coinages. What's more, Google has (legit) hits for "garbagize" and "speedify." "Quickify" is probably blocked by "quicken." "Greenize" is therefore the only one of your putative counterexamples that stands up, but "-ize" could be productive only with nouns. – Aaron Sep 21 '11 at 2:13
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Yes there are borrowings. Like Aaron said, English (I'll take it as an example) has done it extensively. If you click on the "Example Greek and Latin Roots" link in this page, you'll see a lot of morphemes borrowed by English from Greek and Latin. Some examples can be:

  • anthrop — human;
  • bio — life;
  • cac — bad;
  • chrom — color;
  • chron — time;
  • circum — around;
  • gam — marriage, sexual union;
  • log — study, speak;
  • mis — hate;
  • phil — love, tendency;
  • phon — sound, speech sound;
  • corp/corpor — body, flesh.

...and many more. (You can find more morphemes also in the wikipedia page that I linked when answering to the question that hippietrail linked.)

Regarding specifically the list above, some of them are even combined:

  • misanthropymis + anthrop + y;
  • cacophonycac + o + phon + y.

There was another thing I wanted to talk about. Some scholars and linguists, like Hugo Schuchardt have stated that morphemes are transferable only indirectly: They are acquired through the introduction of words. In other words, the speakers of a given language become acquainted with morphemes because they were "brought in" with the loanwords. After the morphemes have been "interiorized" by the speakers, they might create new words in their native language using those morphemes.

Not all agree with this, as it happens with the trends of thoughts, but it's an interesting point of view. You can read more about it in this document. It doesn't go really in depth, but it's a good starting point if you want to investigate the matter. I couldn't find any other interesting links about it.

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  • @rberado: As telling as this answer is, it makes me wonder what exact;y a morpheme is. Is it a vocabulary root (as in your examples) or is it only a grmmmatical marker like a verb tense inflection or change of part of speech? Though I think it is probably both, I kinda assumed it meant (and the OP meant) only the latter. – Mitch Sep 18 '11 at 13:27
  • @Mitch: All of the things you listed are morphemes, although I don't know what you mean by "change of part of speech". See "mangiavamo" (=we were eating) in italian: mangi [morpheme indicating the meaning] + av [morpheme indicating the past tense] + amo [morpheme indicating the person number and also "who"]. – Alenanno Sep 18 '11 at 13:33
  • Continues from the other comment: In the examples from my answer (the ones with the +), they are all morphemes, except for the "o" which is there to make it possible to pronounce the word. The other ones are all morphemes (of different categories, but still morphemes) because they all bring a meaning. – Alenanno Sep 18 '11 at 13:33
  • By 'change of part of speech' I was referring to the example '-ation' that makes a noun out of an adjective, or something like '-ly' which makes an adverb out of an adjective. But yees, I realize now that they're all morphemes. – Mitch Sep 18 '11 at 14:07
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    It is (sometimes) possible to make a three-way distinction: the root, derivational morphology, inflectional morphology (derivational morphology responsible for part-of-speech change and inflectional morphology responsible for morphosyntactic and morphosemantic markers) – James Tauber Sep 18 '11 at 15:45
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Norwegian has borrowed the semantically murky derivation {-is} from Swedish, I've only seen it make nouns. Unfortunately that morph is so short it probably haven't been indexed by Google Scholar. I'll keep an eye out for links on it.

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No one has mentioned probably the best and most humorous example: acquisition of the plural morpheme -s into Japanese.

American sports, particularly baseball, are very popular in Japan, and american teams are followed very closely. Many teams have plural names — the Red Socks, the Cardinals, etc. You have the same pattern in american bands, too — the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, etc. Apparently, Japanese speakers interpreted the plural morpheme to be something like a team-generating morpheme: you take a noun, add -s to it, and you get a team name.

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    Which other American sports are popular in Japan? NFL, basketball, hockey, Nascar? (-: You might want to include some Japanese examples to make this plausible. Also Japanese works on syllables so it couldn't use plain -s. -su is probably most likely if anything. – hippietrail Sep 30 '11 at 13:53
  • Yeah, I wanted to be more specific, but honestly this is off the top of my head and from my historical linguistics prof. If I can find some better evidence, I'll edit. – Nathan Sep 30 '11 at 13:59
  • I asked a question getting at something like this on Japanese Language & usage a couple of months ago after seeing both "garu" and "garuzu" written in Japanese for "girl" and "girls". (link coming) – hippietrail Sep 30 '11 at 14:11
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    Actually, because the plural marker is usually voiced, it's usually /zu/. And even native words are not immune to this treatment: Pokémon Mystery Dungeon had Rescue Team Ganbarus (救助隊ガンバルズ). – Zhen Lin Sep 30 '11 at 16:27
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    American bands ??? – Colin Fine Oct 25 '11 at 14:27

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