Possible World Words

Someone mentioned hearing an interview on the radio in which a native Spanish speaker (who was speaking English in the interview) used the word conspiration when referring to conspiracy.  Interesting.  There is no word in any English dictionary for the word conspiration. However, our conspiracy is derived from Anglo-Norman conspiracie, an alteration of Old French conspiration.  In modern Spanish the word is conspiración.  All of these come from the Latin conspiratio (agreement, union).  So, the Spanish speaker apparently mapped the current Spanish word into a parallel English form,  utilizing English rules of pronunciation.  So, why isn’t conpiration a word in current English usage?  Good question.

As speakers of English we know how to create sets of related words by employing different endings or suffixes. For example, the verb hesitate is related to the noun hesitation by the suffix –ion; this pattern is quite general:

  • levitate/levitation, gravitate/gravitation, elevate/elevation, exterminate/extermination, radiate/radiation, etc..

One might wonder why it’s retire/retirement and not retire/retiracy by analogy to conspire/conspiracy. Indeed, why not allow conspirement?  The patterns do reveal underlying consistencies: many nouns ending in -acy refer to the state of some social group:

  • democracy/theocracy/piracy/advocacy/conspiracy

Other nouns ending in -acy that are related to adjectives refer to a state of having the property described by the adjective:

  • obstinate/obstinacy, intimate/intimacy, primal/primacy, efficacious/efficacy, accurate/accuracy

What about secrecy?  The state or quality of being secret entered English from Old French (secré – variant of secret). In the 15th century the English noun appeared as secretee.  About a hundred years later secrecy appears, believed to have formed on the model of existing primacy.  Another example of language’s fluid and changing nature.

But, could we have secretness?  We do have efficaciousness even though we also have efficacy. What is the difference in meaning between these two nouns? The root in both cases has Latin origin, but the first suffix (-ness) is about as Germanic a suffix as English possesses, unlike the Latinate (-acy) of efficacy.  Secretness does not currently have the credentials of a proper dictionary entry (at least to my knowledge), but -ness is a highly productive noun-forming suffix in Modern English.

One envisionment (it’s becoming a word!) of word patterns is to imagine a 2-dimensional matrix with all the possible roots represented along one axis and all possible suffixes  (in our case) along the other. At any given time in the history of the language a subset of the possible combinations (each cell in the matrix is a possible combination of root + suffix) will actually be in current usage; over time some combinations will fade from currency and others become ‘activated’.  Such a model would allow for words such as secretism and secretude (both presumably meaning a state of being secret).  Is such a model realistic? It doesn’t predict which combinations will occur, but only which ones could occur.  Perhaps it fails to capture important real constraints that would always ‘black out’ many of the possible combinations. Notice that it doesn’t predict combinations such as determinationness (determine + -tion + -ness). This latter example seems to truly violate English word-formation rules in a way that is different from the above examples. Understanding what makes a linguistic ‘boundary’ hard or dynamic is an interesting question — there is still much to be learned.

I’ll end with some candidate possible words; let your own intuitions be the judge. 🙂

  • redundantness
  • alcoholive
  • scareable
  • simplific
  • horritude
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