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Edit: I am looking for a particular linguistic term for this process (which here uses terminal palatalization to indicate such) of turning passive verbs like drink into active verbs like drench. I know one such term exists, because I have seen John Lawler use it, but I cannot now find his posts where he did so. The OED does not mention this general phenomenon in the related etymologies. For all I know, it may be older than OE, perhaps even going back all the way to PIE.

English has a bunch of verb-pairs where the first one ends in a stop and the second in a palatal, usually with vowel-modification, like these:

  • cling, clench
  • drink, drench
  • hang, hinge
  • meng, minge (now dialectal)
  • stink, stench
  • tint, tinge
  • wring, wrench

What is going on there? It seems like some hidden regularity of some sort. What does it mean?

For words that seem to be missing one of the pair, did those once exist? I’m thinking of words like quench: what happened to *quing?

Does this have anything to do with these pairs:

  • message, messenger
  • passage, passenger
  • porridge, porringer
  • pottage, pottinger
  • wharfage, wharfinger

Or is that something different and unrelated?

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I'm tempted to close as "GR" - but the first group, except tinge (L. tingere, tinctum) appear to be derived from OE verb pairs in -incan, -encan, the latter representing causative variants in -nkjan in PGmc; quink was there (see OED s.v. quinkle), but didn't last. The second group are of French derivation "with intrusive -n" ( See this), except wharfage appears to be OE wharf with an analogical -age, -inger. – StoneyB Dec 22 '12 at 18:27
I think it's misleading to call most of these "word-pairs". Why wring/wrench, for example? What about wrest/wrestle/wrangle/wreak/wreck/writhe/wriggle/writhe etc.? They're all pretty much occupying the same semantic territory. – FumbleFingers Dec 22 '12 at 23:21
@FumbleFingers: etymologies would bear out closer connections if they exist. It's not clear that that is the case for all of them. tchrist, can you give supporting links for these? – Mitch Dec 23 '12 at 1:47
@FumbleFingers In the first group all pairs are clearly semantically related and also show a similar phonological relationship: the first ends in nasal or nasal+stop, the second ends in nasal + affricate. In the second group, all pairs are clearly semantically related and also show a similar phonological relationship: the first ends in the affricate [dʒ] and the second ends in nasal+the same affricate+"-er". OP's question goes to whether there is are etymological relationships within and between the two groups. – StoneyB Dec 24 '12 at 17:16
@StoneyB: Thanks to John's answer, the relationship is now clear, but of course I didn't know it before. It's an excellent question (even if I am tempted to think tchrist already knew the answer, and was perhaps prompted to ask in pursuit of another hat! :) – FumbleFingers Dec 28 '12 at 14:25
up vote 16 down vote accepted

The first bunch are indeed "a hidden regularity", just like a fossilized skeleton. The second bunch are a different phenomenon completely that I won't touch on here.

The first bunch are all evidence of what Indo-Europeanists call the "Yodated Causative", a -y suffix that formed a causative/inchoative stem when added to a verb root, just like a later en causative/inchoative affix did: black ~ blacken, white ~ whiten, red ~ redden, joy ~ enjoy, rapture ~ enrapture, light ~ lighten ~ enlighten, etc.

The yodated causative was productive in Indo-European, and many verbs formed common causative/inchoative stems with it. After it stopped being productive, the stems it left behind gradually got reinterpreted as separate verbs.

But most of those verbs still share one physical feature: final Palatalization. A high front semivowel like IPA [j] (called Yod in I-E studies, from the Hebrew letter י; it's the first phoneme in yellow) is actually a very short unstressed high front vowel [i], and high front vowels (and semivowels) tend to be anticipated by speakers by moving the tongue toward the palatal area, producing a palatalized consonant out of whatever comes before the [i] or [j].

In modern English, that means they end in a palatal consonant or cluster, like /ʃ,ʒ, tʃ/, or /dʒ/, which is true of the second verb in each pair of verbs in the first bunch. They all end in a palatal, and they all mean -- or once meant, to be more precise -- 'to come to V' or 'to cause X to V', where V is the first verb in each pair. There are some vowel changes, often cases of umlaut, which also anticipates palatal vowels.

  • cling, clench (see other kl- words for a rather different hidden regularity)
  • hang, hinge
  • meng, minge (now dialectal)
  • stink, stench
  • drink, drench ("You can lead a horse to water, but you can't drench him")
  • tint, tinge
  • wring, wrench

All the pairs in the first bunch have nasals in their endings; this is not necessary and there are lots of pairs that don't contain an /n/. For instance

  • milk, milch
  • dike, ditch

Indeed, yodated causatives are the first thing one should suspect when encountering an English verb ending in a palatal consonant; if you look around, you may well find its noncausative counterpart, too. Two for the price of one.

As to the second group, the intrusive -n- of message ~ messenger etc is treated in the OED in the entry for passenger:

In late ME. n was phonetically inserted before -ger /-dʒər/ as in some other words, including harbinger, messenger, ostringer, porringer, scavenger, wharfinger, etc.: cf. also popinjay.
(See Jespersen in Engl. Studien XXXI. 239.)

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Thank you very much, John. That was exactly what I was looking for. – tchrist Dec 22 '12 at 18:39

Brinton et.al. *Lexicalization and Language Change say that “in PGmc. the causative was formed derivationally by past singular of verb + -j-; umlaut led eventually to the formation of non-causative/causative pairs like sit/set (the latter is < PGmc. sat ‘sit-PAST’ + j- CAUSATIVE); see also lie/lay, sit/set, fall/fell, or drink/drench or the N/V pair stink/stench (Hopper and Traugott 1993:223n.2; Newmeyer 1998:263-264).”

So the first group all basically represent palatalization of PGmc causatives (except the tinge pair, which is L. tingere, p.ppl. tinctum). Quink is conjectured to have been there (see OED s.v. quinkle), but didn't last.

The second group are mostly of French derivation “with intrusive -n” (Etymonline); that source remarks s.v. Messenger that “With parasitic -n- inserted by c.1300 for no apparent reason except that people liked to say it that way (cf. passenger, harbinger, scavenger)”. Wharfage appears to be late O.E. hwearf with an analogical -age derived from the French model and -inger created on the intrusive-n + -er model.

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The OED includes ostringer and its alternate spelling austringer (a keeper of goshawks) in the set of words with “intrusive” n. Others it mentions of that category are popinjay, nightingale, farthingale. – tchrist Dec 25 '12 at 6:05

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