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In e.g. English, why do we say that better and best are inflections of "good" and not derivations of "good"?

Why is tastiest commonly understood as an inflection and not a derivation of tasty?

I think these words have meanings as different as some words understood to be derivations, like lord and overlord, or angel and archangel.

It's not possible to generate overlord and archangel based on common predictable rules, and -er and -est for degree of comparison are much more productive, but there are some fairly regular derivational affixes too.

Are there any languages where it's easier to argue that degree of comparison is actually expressed via derivation and not inflection?

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    It turns out that in English comparative and superlative are inflectional. They could be syntactic, or there could be several degrees of comparison. I don't know of any languages without comparative constructions, but there might be some -- comparison can be described in many ways. But I don't know why it might be considered derivation; it's way too regular, for starts.
    – jlawler
    Nov 13, 2022 at 21:52
  • Meaning is not that helpful for differentiating between derivational vs. inflectional affixes, both are much more abstract, when compared to "lexical" roots, cf. red - redder (inflection) - reddish (derivation), more reddish etc.
    – Alex B.
    Nov 14, 2022 at 0:15
  • In German, which shares an ancestor with English, the stem can change, e.g. groß / größer, which suggests inflection, not derivation. Nov 14, 2022 at 4:11
  • @AdamBittlingmayer why does that suggest inflection? Off the top of my head, I can think of at least one stem-changing derivation in English: stable → stabilize
    – minseong
    Nov 14, 2022 at 9:35
  • @theonlygusti Because it's like a verb or noun inflection. The derivation of stabilize from stable did not happen in English (cf. French stable and stabiliser), by the way, and in fact English speakers basically say stablize. Nov 15, 2022 at 10:48

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The line between "inflection" and "derivation" is a blurry one, but the level of semantic regularity is a good rule of thumb. I'm not aware of any adjective where the meanings of X-er and X-est are not regularly derived from the meaning of X. (There are some adjectives that don't accept -er and -est, but that's a different issue.)

Compare a derivational affix like un-. For the most part, you can derive the meaning of un-X from the meaning of X—but how do you explain "uncanny" and "undead"? I'm not aware of any exceptions like this for -est.

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  • Want to bet that bet might give you some trouble as the root of better? ;-)
    – LjL
    Nov 14, 2022 at 3:01
  • @LjL Ah yes, that famous English adjective, "bet". :P
    – Draconis
    Nov 14, 2022 at 3:08

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