English isn't a highly inflected language, but it did evolve from one and still has at least: -s, -es; -ed, -ing; -er, -est; for nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

Do we know if these all evolved from separate words, or do they go too far back into PIE to know?

  • 1
    I believe that all of these suffixes have been suffixes since PIE times. Dec 4 '17 at 15:57
  • One could argue about the 3sgPres -s; -(e)th was PIE *-t, but I'm not sure where the Scandinavian -s comes from.
    – jlawler
    Dec 5 '17 at 1:36

English is generally regarded as having the following 7 inflectional suffixes. All of them have been suffixes since Proto-Indoeuropean, but most have followed a rather circuitous path along the way. This is rough outline:

  1. plural -s:
    < AS -as 'masc. a-stem nom.-acc. pl.'
    < PGmc -anz 'acc. pl.'
    < PIE -(o)ns 'acc. pl.'
  2. third person singular -s:
    < AS -st '2nd person sg.' (2sg was leveled with 3sg by analogy with ON)
    < PGmc -zi '2nd person sg.'
    < PIE -si '2nd person sg.'
  3. past tense/participle -ed:
    < AS -ode 'class 2 weak verb past'
    < PGmc -ode 'class 2 weak verb past'
    < PIE -to- 'adjectival derivational suffix'
  4. past participle -en
    < ON -inn 'past part.'
    < PGmc -īnaz 'adjectival derivational suffix'
    < PIE -nos 'adjectival derivational suffix'
  5. progressive -ing:
    < collapse of AS -ing 'gerund' and -ende 'present participle'
    < PGmc -ung- 'gerund' / -and- 'pres. part.'
    < PIE -enkw- 'deverbative' / -nt- 'active pres. part.'
  6. comparative -er:
    < AS -ra 'comparative'
    < PGmc -iz(o)/-oz(o) 'comparative'
    < PIE -yos- 'elative'
  7. superlative -est:
    < AS -st 'superlative'
    < PGmc -istaz/-ostaz 'superlative'
    < PIE -yos- + -tas/-tos 'nominalizer'
  • 2
    Yes, I need to document my references. Dec 4 '17 at 17:05
  • 3
    I thought the "-ed" weak suffix was thought to have possibly been derived from suffixation of a separate word like "do". The Wikipedia article "Germanic weak verb" says "The origin of the dental suffix is uncertain. Perhaps the most commonly held theory is that it evolved out of a periphrastic construction with the verb to do" Dec 4 '17 at 18:01
  • 3
    @sumelic Yes, I've seen that too, and it's probably worth adding to the answer. Part of the problem is that past tense -ed and past participle -ed seem to have had different sources, and then merged (kind of like the two -ings) Dec 4 '17 at 19:59
  • 1
    Doesn't possessive "'s" come from "his," e.g., "the dog, his bone"->"the dog's bone?" Dec 4 '17 at 20:36
  • 4
    @Ben Crowell. I don't think so. I intentionally left out the possessive since it's a clitic unlike the inflectional suffixes; that said, possessive -s seems to come from AS -es, and in turn the Proto-Germanic genitive singulars with -s. Dec 4 '17 at 20:47

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