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It's clearly not "conjugation", and I'm not even sure which keywords to use for google to help on this. Without having time to dedicate my next few days to read though linguistics textbooks, I thought the experts here might know.

Is it just "the adjective form"? There must be a name for the process that takes a noun and turns it into an adjective.

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possible duplicate of Fiery -- what other words spell this way? –  MετάEd Oct 5 '12 at 21:26
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@MετάEd, the two questions are superficially related, but this one is actually asking something quite different. –  Marthaª Oct 6 '12 at 1:40
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3 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

There's a difference here between the sound and the spelling.

From the noun 'fire' to the adjective we get 'fiery'. From 'wire' we get 'wiry', The pronunciation transformation is regular (the two rhyme).

There are other nouns ending in the sound '-ayr' (or in some varieties '-ah-yer' or '-ahr') which don't form an adjective this way, e.g. tire->tire-like.

Normally one doesn't refer to a suffix change for a noun to an adjective as a conjugation, or a declension (at least in English), or really even an inflection. An adjective suffix is enough. Converting, deriving, or transforming will all work.

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It's hard for me to authoritatively declare this the answer; I'm by no means an expert. However, you clearly have been selected by others as the answer by their voting. Thanks for the help. –  kenny Oct 6 '12 at 2:51
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I think the general term you are looking for is "derivation". The -y suffix is a "derivational affix" in morphological terms. I'm not aware of a word for the specific process of turning a noun into an adjective.

The fact that the -y adjective formed from "fire" is irregular ("fiery", instead of "firey") is just an accident of the language. There are many other nouns that produce irregular derivations (of all parts of speech): for instance glory + -fyglorify.

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adjectivization, actually. –  Mark Beadles Oct 5 '12 at 22:33
    
@tchrist It isn't "gloryfy", so it's irregular. There happen to be a whole bunch of words with the same irregular derivation rule, but that's no different than, say, stem-changing verbs in Spanish. –  Zack Oct 5 '12 at 22:49
    
@MarkBeadles I thought of that on the way home but doubted it was used in practice. –  Zack Oct 5 '12 at 22:50
    
@tchrist I can see that this is going to be like the time you tried to argue that the conditional future should never be used (you're still wrong about that, btw). In any given language there is one regular transformation rule for each class of transformations. All the other transformation rules are irregular. The way you tell which rule is the regular rule is you make up a word and you ask a native speaker to apply the transformation to it. In the case of the -y suffix, the regular rule is you just stick it on the end and you don't change the stem at all. –  Zack Oct 6 '12 at 0:07
    
To head off the obvious nitpick, the word you make up has to follow the phonotactics of the language and it has to be designed not to trigger any special rules. Sometimes this means you have to make up a whole bunch of words before you figure out which rule is really the default. But this is all standard descriptive linguistics. –  Zack Oct 6 '12 at 0:12
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I would call the variations inflections (or inflected forms)

inflection: an ending or other element in a word that indicates its grammatical function in a sentence. (whether it is plural or singular, masculine or feminine, subject or object, and so on)

(Italics mine). I'm sure most people would agree the -y ending is an inflection (often indicating adjectival usage). As Zack says, there's nothing unduly remarkable about the fact that fiery is "irregular" in other respects; I'd still call the ire/ier switch a form of inflection.

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Actually no; this is derivational morphology, not inflectional morphology. Examples of inflectional morphology at work include cat/cats, mouse/mice, walk/walks, walk/walked, sing/singing/sang/sung, and big/bigger/biggest. Those are all inflections. On the other hand, things like care/careful/carefully, actor/actress, and dog/doggy are considered derivational, not inflectional. –  tchrist Oct 5 '12 at 22:45
    
@tchrist: I'm aware of that distinction, but I think it's largely pointless. It seems to me that no useful purpose is served by dictionaries listing, for example, helpless, helplessly, helplessness as separate entries, while radii is normally only given as a plural form under radius. I don't see why "inflections" that change verb tense or number should be so fundamentally distinguished from those that change, say, an adjective to an adverb. But please don't spend a lot of time trying to tell me why I'm wrong - I just think what I think. –  FumbleFingers Oct 5 '12 at 23:06
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