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RegDwight's excellent answer showing the historical usage of despite got me thinking about the processes by which new prepositions are coined. Prepositions are generally considered a closed class, and there are no active derivational processes for generating new ones--yet new prepositions do occasionally arise.

The 17-century examples in the linked question show despite being used as a sentential adverb taking a complement with of, though contemporary usage has despite as a preposition that directly governs its object. At some point the of started to disappear from "despite of", and the word despite was reanalyzed as a preposition rather than an adverb. This got me thinking:

  • What other words are documented to have transitioned from adverbs to prepositions?
  • Do any words other than adverbs ever make this leap? Are there any nouns or verbs that have somehow transitioned to prepositions?
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since is probably another example. –  neatnate Dec 19 '10 at 3:37
    
The examples are many. Just checking Etymonline for a few obvious candidates reveals a number of different mechanisms, see e.g. before, between, after, until, underneath... –  RegDwigнt Dec 19 '10 at 23:12
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Possibly one thing to look for is English dialects that use non-standard words as prepositions. –  Peter Shor May 22 '11 at 15:47

5 Answers 5

In Ancient Greek, it is assumed that most, if not all, prepositions were once adverbs. That is why most prepositions can still be used as adverbs starting a sentence in Ancient Greek, as in "upon [that event], the King refused to...". If the same applies to the Germanic languages, it accounts for the existence of our ubiquitous phrasal and separable verbs, which still use "prepositions" in a non-prepositional way. The fact that new phrasal and separable verbs can still be created supports this hypothesis.

On a side note, the preverbial affix e- (the augment) for the past tenses in Ancient Greek probably came from an adverbial constituent *he meaning something like "past" or "then". (There is evidence suggesting that this is cognate to the Proto-Germanic prefix that is used with past participles in German and Dutch, ge-, though others suggest instead that ge- is related to Latin con-, Greek sun-, "together". If the latter, I don't know whether *he- would be related to con-/sun- as well. In any case, Old English used to have ge- as well, the vestiges of which can still be seen in many words, such as a-like (Dutch gelijk) and e-nough (Dutch "genoeg"). For more on the English prefix, see the question What we've gelost.)

It is my theory that most elements of syntax are relatively new (some post-Proto-Indo-European) and originate in separate words that melted with content-words and turned into affixes by clisis (enclisis, proclisis, etc). There is evidence that points to this for inflection: it is believed that, say, the dative ending -i was once a separate word, perhaps some postpositional adverb, which accompanied the direction of an action. Evidence for this might be the use of certain suffixes in Greek that are sometimes interchangeable with cases: -the(n) is mostly a (poetic) suffix of separation, which is normally expressed by the genitive; but it can often take on other functions of the genitive too, such as possession. And there are other suffixes that imitate partial cases: -de for direction (instead of accusative/dative/preposition), -(s)ô approximately for a forward position.

The birth of relative pronouns (classical hos) and demonstrative pronouns (classical houtos) in Ancient Greek is sometimes estimated to be not long before the time of Homer, because, in his epics, there is usually no difference in form between these pronouns and the article; it is often hard to decide on the interpretation of an instance of to (neuter article in classical Attic) or hos (masculine relative pronoun in Attic), when all three options seem possible for each (article, demonstrative, relative). This is evidence that syntax can also develop from differentiation between allophones/allomorphs, or out of nowhere.

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A fairly new preposition is modulo, meaning ‘except for’. It originally derives from modulō, the ablative case of Latin modulus, modulī. By ‘new’, I mean in the last few centuries; the first attested Latin use of modulus as a preposition was in 1801 by Gauss, and he normally shortened it to mod just as people today still do. The OED gives modulus as a preposition these two senses:

  • a. With respect to a modulus of (a specified value). See modulus n. 2b. Cf. mod prep.

  • b. In extended use. (a) With respect to an equivalence defined by (some feature), disregarding differences indicated by (some unimportant feature); (b) taking into account (a particular consideration, aspect, assumption, etc.).

For sense b, it provides these four citations:

  • 1953    W. Ambrose Let. in S. Nasar Beautiful Mind (1998) xx. 155    [John Nash] proceeded to announce that he had solved it, module [sic] details.
  • 1960    Jrnl. Philos. 59 776    Which we choose is entirely arbitrary, but (modulo the assumption that any run covers a line segment) it determines how we answer the question [etc.].
  • 1973    C. C. Chang & H. J. Keisler Model Theory 7    The language is determined uniquely, modulo the connectives, by the sentence symbols.
  • 1992    Stud. Eng. Lit.: Eng. Number (Tokyo) 161    The Navajo underlying structure is identical, modulo word order, to the one found in all the languages studied in Ch. 3.

Another example of where we grab a Latin ablative to create an English preposition is pace, meaning ‘with due deference to (a named person or authority); despite’, which is ‘used chiefly as a courteous or ironic apology for a difference of opinion about to be expressed.’ It’s the ablative of pāx, pācis. For example, pāce tuā means ‘by your leave’. In English, pace takes a complement in the oblique case, while in Latin it would take one in the genitive. So Cicero’s pace magistri dixerim, ‘that I might/should speak with due deference toward the master’ has magistri as the genitive singular, not the nominative plural. But in English we would say pace the master or pace him in a normal oblique case, not *pace the master’s or *pace his in the genitive.

Hm, the only English preposition taking a genitive complement that comes quickly to mind is at when it corresponds to French chez, as in at Jim’s or at mine, where we assume one is talking about a house or place.

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Wikipedia says that absent is a preposition in AmE and not BE. Since absent is not historically a preposition in English—see this article—this is an example of an adjective becoming a preposition.

In fact, you can see absent becoming a preposition using Google Ngrams:

Ngram for "Absent the"

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But how do you know it is being used in a preposition in all or even most of these examples? Looking at the Google Books results on the first page, we see periods intervening or clause boundaries like "when the kidney is absent the corresponding renal vessels are...". In fact, I didn't notice any examples after looking at several pages of results. We need to be careful about using Google Books ngrams too recklessly. –  Kosmonaut May 22 '11 at 17:19
    
@Kosmonaut: the Ngram is for "Absent the", with a capital A. This means it almost certainly begins a sentence. I don't see how you would use "Absent the" at the beginning of a sentence when it's not a preposition. If you look at the Ngram for "absent the" with a small a, there is no dramatic rise in use. On the other hand, I went through quite a few pages of the Google books search results, and the only use of absent as a preposition I found was "no Union absent the states; no states absent the Union", so its use as a preposition seems rare. –  Peter Shor May 22 '11 at 17:43
    
Shor: Although I still do see some false positives where there is a capital "A" for one reason or another, it certainly cuts a lot out that didn't belong (just from skimming through the results). If you compare the lowercase and uppercase versions next to each other, you can see that the lowercase form is much more common, which might account for finding few examples in the mixed results. So, I am not sure. But it is clearly not nearly as bad as I first thought :) –  Kosmonaut May 22 '11 at 19:46
    
@Kosmonaut: I agree this evidence isn't ironclad, but it does appear to be correct. Wiktionary has a citation from 1919 using absent as a preposition. I don't know whether this is the earliest known use, but I suspect so. The earliest citation this 1985 article found was from 1945, which agrees with the Ngram fairly well. –  Peter Shor May 22 '11 at 23:31
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Shor: The earliest citation from the OED is 1888: "If the deed had been made by a stranger to the wife, then a separate estate in her would not have been created, absent the necessary words." Anyway, once you pointed out the case-sensitivity of the results, you convinced me it's probably more or less reflective of the rise of the preposition usage. –  Kosmonaut May 23 '11 at 1:49

Do any words other than adverbs ever make this leap?

Yes

Are there any nouns or verbs that have somehow transitioned to prepositions?

Yes. Prepositions can be formed by way of participles.

eg. Regarding, concerning.

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Looking at Wikipedia's list of English prepositions gives me the impression that very many English prepositions (at least for the broad definition of "preposition" that Wikipedia seems to be using) are actually derived from verbs or adjectives. Despite is peculiar in that it's derived from a loan-translation of an Old French phrase en despit de, meaning literally in contempt of, so it's natural that we'd have said despite of originally. I found it interesting that Etymonline says it almost became despight during 16th-century spelling reform.

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