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Saw this answer on ELU and it has two Old English suffixes that are written with a preceding asterisk:

(from the addition of an *-ian verb- forming suffix in Germanic), as well as strong/ strength and several others (from the addition of an *-iþ adjective-forming suffix).

I checked the original copy of the book* the paragraph is taken from and it also uses an asterisk. I can't seem to find anything on Google. My guess would be that those suffixes are marked with a preceding asterisk because they're no longer productive.

Can anyone give some insight?

*(The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language by David Crystal.)

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The first thing to realise here is that that is not Old English. Read the quote carefully:

an *-ian verb-forming suffix in Germanic

That means the form is Proto-Germanic, rather than Old English. It’s perfectly customary – in fact it’s the standard convention – to use asterisks to indicate that a word or form is reconstructed, meaning that there is no textual attestation of it, but it can be inferred based on comparative evidence that this is what it must have looked like.

In the case of Proto-Germanic, the entire language is unattested (because the speakers of the language had no writing system – writing arrived in Germanic areas much later, when the proto-language had already developed into several different languages), so any form that is said to have been used in Proto-Germanic should have an asterisk in front of it. But asterisks are also used to indicate single words or forms from attested languages, if the word itself happens not to be attested. For example, there are a number of verbs in Latin which are only attested with various prefixes; the base verb itself is not seen in any extant Latin texts. Even though it’s often fairly easy to guess what the base form would be, we use an asterisk to show that it is, after all, an educated guess and not based on actually reading the word in a text written by a Latin speaker of the time.


Note that asterisks are also used to indicate that a form is impossible (e.g., to illustrate that the Latinate prefix in- always assimilates to certain following consonants, you could say that *inlegal and *inpossible don’t exist). This is an entirely separate use which does not apply here, but which is worth knowing.

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  • 1
    I'd argue the use of an asterisk to indicate an impossible form is not separate. Rather in both cases the underlying sense of the asterisk is "unattested". As you say, reconstructed proto-languages are inherently unattested so all receive an asterisk, whilst in an extent language with a sufficiently large corpus (like English), asserting a form is unattested is equivalent to saying it's impossible
    – Tristan
    Jan 4 at 11:13
  • For languages with more limited corpora (especially without native speakers to consult) there is potential for confusion of course. Some words in Latin aren't attested in all forms (especially verbs, as they have so many forms), but some of these can be reliably reconstructed based on what we know of Latin grammar and the rest of the verb's paradigm, but should still receive an asterisk; otoh some words would be genuine errors and would also receive an asterisk (e.g. believing flōs to be a t-stem and using *flōtem as its accusative singular)
    – Tristan
    Jan 4 at 11:18
  • @Tristan Partly true, but what is a sufficiently large corpus? In the context of, say, hypothetical words that form the basis of attested derivations, even languages with quite large corpora, like Latin or Middle English, leave room for doubt. Also, some impossible forms (à la inpossible or the more common unpossible) are actually attested, even though they’re systematically impossible – but they’re either one-off errors or deliberately impossible formations in such cases, so their attestation doesn’t negate their impossibility. Jan 4 at 11:20
  • true but that also gets us into distinguishing error from idiolectal variation and then we're really in the weeds
    – Tristan
    Jan 4 at 11:25
  • For the Simpsons fans here, it is interesting that unpossible is actually attested from the 17th c. Mar 31 at 20:14

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