8 Grammar Terms You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

1. Morpheme

A morpheme is the smallest unit of language that carries meaning. A word consists of one or more morphemes. For example, elephant is a morpheme, the plural suffix –s is a morpheme, the word elephants is a word consisting of two morphemes.

Morphemes can be “free”, meaning they are used by themselves, (e.g. house, car, walk, eat, from, to, but, him) or they are “bound”, meaning they only appear when attached to another free morpheme (e.g. the plural suffix –s, the past tense –ed,  the prefix re-, the possessive ‘s, etc.). The concept of a morpheme is extremely useful in describing any language, and I’ll make use of it throughout this post.

2. Optative

This is a form of a verb that indicates the speaker’s desires or wishes. English has no specific verb form dedicated to this, but with some archaic-sounding syntax you can say:

  • May you be successful
  • May we always enjoy our time together

English has a subjunctive mood, which is similar to the optative because it is used for expressing a speaker’s wishes or desires. However, the subjunctive creates a subordinate clause, which must be joined up with a main clause. An optative verb can exist all by itself.

Some languages have a specific optative form. For example, Kumyk, a Turkic language spoken in the Caucasus, has an optative mood which can be created through a combination of the suffix –ɣaj and an auxiliary verb edi. For example:

Jaxšy jangur jav-ɣaj edi.
good rain rain-optative auxiliary
‘Would that it rained!’

3. Hortative

This is a type of imperative, which may be a more familiar term. Imperatives are usually described as being commands or orders, but now that you know the word “optative” from the previous section, you can think of the imperative as a type of optative. With an imperative, the speaker expresses her wish about the future, and more specifically the speaker wants the listener to be responsible for making those wishes come true. The English imperative is just a bare form of the verb, such as Dance!, which indicates that the speaker wants dancing to occur, and the listener is the one who should make that happen.

Hortatives differ from imperatives in that the speaker wants someone other than the listener to be involved. English has a hortative verb ‘let’ for this purpose:

  • Dance! (imperative, only the listener has to dance)
  • Let’s dance! (hortative, the speaker is also committed to dancing)
  • Let her dance! (hortative, a third person, not the listener, must dance)

4. Evidentiality

This is a grammatical category that encodes a speaker’s source of evidence for a statement. English has no exact equivalent, but it is possible to paraphrase. Languages that use evidentials differ in terms of what kinds of evidence they use. Evidentials can broadly be split into three categories.

(1) Personal experience

There are many ways that this kind of evidence can be encoded. Kewa has an evidential suffix -ha which covers any kind of sensory evidence (sight, smell, taste, touch, sound). Tuyuca has an evidential suffix -ti which is used for any kind of non-visual evidence. Koasati has a suffix -ha used specifically for auditory evidence.

(2) Inference or deduction

This is used when a speaker has reason to believe something happened, but did not directly witness it. Mongolian, for example, has an evidential morpheme biz. Saying ter irsen means “he arrived”, but saying ter irsen biz means something more like “it appears as though he arrived”

(3) Hearsay or 3rd person report

Cusco Quechua has an evidential -si, used when information comes from 3rd party sources. This might be used when telling someone about an event you heard on the news (as opposed to witnessing directly) for example. Lezgian has a suffix -lda used under similar circumstances. Possible English paraphrases might be “I heard that X”, “People are saying that X”, “It’s been reported that X”, etc.

5. Affix

Affixes are small morphemes that cannot stand on their own, and must be attached to another word. You’ve probably heard of a prefix or a suffix, which are common kinds of affixes. Prefixes go on the beginnings of morphemes, suffixes go at the end. For example, the English word reheatable contains the root heat, the prefix re-, and the suffix –able.

There are also infixes, which go, well, in the middle of another morpheme somewhere. In Khmer (which you might know as ‘Cambodian’), the infix –ɑm– goes inside verbs to add a causative meaning:

  • kɗau ‘hot’,
  • kɑmɗau ‘to reheat’.

Some languages also contain what’s known as circumfix, which is like a combination of a suffix and prefix together. The German past tense gets indicated with a cicumfix which is ge…t

  • speilen  ‘to play’
  • gespielt ‘played’

In Tuwali (an Austronesian language of the Philippines), verbs can be turned into nouns using a circumfix ka…an

  • baddang ‘help (v.)’
  • kabaddangan ‘helpfulness’

6. Metathesis

Metathesis involves swapping the order of sounds in a word. One kind of metathesis is a historical process where the order of sounds changes in some word. The verb ‘ask’ is pronounced as ‘aks’ in many dialects, and this a metathesis where /k/ and /s/ have swapped. Actually, ‘aks’ is a very ancient alternative that goes back to Old English, and it used to be considered an acceptable literary variant, although today it’s not well received.

Some languages use metathesis for grammatical purposes, although this is pretty rare. One example is from Saanich, an endangered language spoken in Canada. It uses metathesis for verb aspect:

/ts’xwət/ ‘shove (non-actual)’
/ts’əxwt/ ‘shove (actual)’

Notice that the /xw/ has swapped placed with the /ə/ in the middle of the word.

7. Clitic

A clitic is like a prefix or a suffix, except that a clitic appears in a certain position in a sentence, and attaches to phrases. It isn’t assigned to individual words like affixes. In English, the possessive ‘s is one example. Even though traditional grammars tend to describe it as a suffix, or as something that “modifies a noun”, it is actually a clitic that attaches to nearby noun phrases, not to individual nouns.

  • The man’s hat.
  • The man in the corner’s hat.
  • *The man’s in the corner hat.

The hat belongs to the man, but in the second example the possessive appears at the end of the phrase, on the word ‘corner’.

8. Ergativity

This refers to the way that subjects and objects match up with each other in a language. In English, which is not ergative, subjects of verbs all have the same grammatical case, and objects of verbs have a different case:

She laughs (intransitive subject)
She devours pizza (transitive subject)
Dave likes her (transitive object)

The subject pronouns is she, and the object pronoun is her. Ergative languages, on the other hand, line things up differently: intransitive subjects and transitive objects are the same, and it is the subject of transitive verbs that becomes the odd-one-out. For example, Dyribal, an Australian language, is ergative. The subject of a transitive verb has a special suffix –nggu which indicates the ergative case. The subject of an intransitive verb, and the object of a transitive verb, take no suffix at all.

The following examples from Dyribal use a convention from linguistics called ‘tri-linear glossing’. The first line is Dyribal, the second line is a morpheme-for-morpheme description, and the third line is a translation into English. I’ve put the word for ‘father’ in bold so you can follow more easily what’s going on.

nguma banaga-nyu
father return-non.future
Father returned’ (intransitive subject)

nguma yabu-nggu bura-n
father mother-ergative see-non.future
‘Mother saw father’ (transitive object)

yabu nguma-nggu bura-n
mother father-ergative see-non.future
Father saw mother’. (transitive subject)

Notice how the word for father nguma has no suffix in the first two cases, where it is an intransitive subject and a transitive object. It takes the suffix –nggu only in the third case when it’s a transitive subject.


Filed under Linguistics

10 responses to “8 Grammar Terms You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

  1. Wow, the only words I had an idea of are morpheme and affix. Thanks for updating my vocabulary

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Old English, derived from Old German or Friesan, also had circumfixes such as ‘yclept’, didn’t it?


    • I had never seen or heard the word ‘yclept’ before, and I had to go look it up. From what I gather, historically there might have been a circumfix y-…-t. It’s no longer a productive affix, unlike the modern German past tense, so I don’t know if would really count as an example of a circumfix in English. Thanks for the comment. It’s always nice to learn something new!


  3. I didn’t know about hortatives, so I feel much more educated! :)


  4. Some of those sound more like Marvel’s names for new superheroes! :D

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Fascinating! I knew some but not others. Thanks for the post.


  6. Pingback: Grammarly has Top Linguists. Top. Linguists. | linʛuischtick

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