Has English adopted any common morphemes from any "exotic"-type languages? By that, I'm trying to exclude our most frequent borrowings; i.e. French, Latin, and Greek, from which nearly all our suffixes and prefixes are borrowed — endings like -ance, -ette, -ience, -ium, -ology, and innumerable more. (Prefixes would be for example, anti-, circ-, princ-) However, once you escape those big 3, I find it gets a lot harder; I personally can't think of any off the top of my head. Can anyone else?

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    Hm, I just thought of one of one just now, a newly acquired one, from Chinese, -fu, which has been increasingly used as an appellation to mean "skill or expertise."
    – Uticensis
    Commented May 22, 2011 at 14:10
  • Ops, I forgot that one... Should I add it? By the way, +1 for the question. I didn't know of some of these morphemes :D
    – Alenanno
    Commented May 22, 2011 at 14:35
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    By morphemes, do you mean affixes? Any foreign load word typically contains non-English morphemes, of which you will understand there are a great many that do not come from the big three. Oh, and the line between affixes and other morphemes is extremely blurred. Most of your examples seem to be affixes, but princ- surely isn't: it is just a common root. // On a side note, if you consider frequency in speech, I'm not sure whether Greek would be third and not, say, Dutch (boss, anyone?). Commented May 22, 2011 at 15:16
  • Hmm adopted roots surely are morphemes so would fit the letter of the question but I think not the spirit of the question so hopefully the question is clarified rather than the root floodgates opened. Commented May 22, 2011 at 16:27
  • @Billare: for '-fu', you should make that a real answer.
    – Mitch
    Commented May 23, 2011 at 1:19

7 Answers 7


Yiddish: 'nik', as in "beatnik", no-goodnik, peacenik.

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    Etymonline says the -nik suffix was, in the Sputnik days, imitative. So, it's Russian rather than Yiddish. (The New Oxford American Dictionary confirms, adding “perhaps influenced by the U.S. use of Yiddish nik”.)
    – F'x
    Commented May 22, 2011 at 14:19
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    @F'x: You're right, it has a Slavic origin.
    – Alenanno
    Commented May 22, 2011 at 14:34
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    @F'x: I think Etymonline is wrong. -nik is used in English almost exactly as it is used in Yiddish and not at all in any reminiscent of "sputnik". The usages I'm most familiar with, like "nogoodnik" and "upstairsnik" (upstairs neighbor) predate Sputnik. Wiktionary just says the morpheme "experienced a surge" "after" the launch, but even that may be a post hoc error. In 1958, Herb Caen called someone a "beatnik" in print (certainly drawing on his own Yiddish-speaking background, not the Soviet space program) and the rest was history. Commented May 22, 2011 at 16:08
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    @Malvolio: I don't know whether Yiddish have this ending, but it's pretty common in Russian Language (and in Slavic languages in general).
    – Alenanno
    Commented May 22, 2011 at 16:24
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    @Malvolio: Given the origins of Yiddish, and given that the way it is used in English is entirely consistent with how it is used in Slavic languages, it is almost certainly Slavic, possibly by way of Yiddish.
    – Marcin
    Commented May 23, 2011 at 14:54

These ones are the ones I could find.

  • The link brings you to a more in depth description.
  • Between parentheses, you'll see the origin.

The main page that I found at the beginning is "English Morphemes ". I tried to order them in a matching order to fit your question. If you see something that doesn't fit, feel free to let me know.

Misc. origins:

  • -nik (slavic origin): The English suffix -nik is of Slavic origin. It approximately corresponds to the suffix "-er" and nearly always denotes an agent noun (that is, it describes a person related to the thing, state, habit, or action described by the word to which the suffix is attached). In the cases where a native English language coinage may occur, the "-nik"-word often bears an ironic connotation.

  • -lock (Old English): The suffix -lock in Modern English survives only in wedlock. It descends from Old English -lác which was more productive, carrying a meaning of "action or proceeding, state of being, practice, ritual".

  • "Shm-reduplication" (presumably Yiddish): Shm-reduplication is a form of reduplication in which the original word or its first syllable (the base) is repeated with the copy (the reduplicant) beginning with shm- (sometimes schm-), pronounced /ʃm/. The construction is generally used to indicate irony, derision or skepticism with respect to comments about the discussed object:

He's just a baby!
Baby-shmaby. He's already 5 years old!

The construction appears to have originated in Yiddish and was subsequently transferred to English, especially urban northeastern American English, by Yiddish speaking Jews. It is now known and used by many non-Jewish English speakers.

  • There was another one I saw recently... I can't remember the author at the moment though.
    – Alenanno
    Commented May 22, 2011 at 14:37
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    Many of these were not adopted but inherited. I considered anything that came from Old English to be part of the family by birth with no adoption papers necessary and hence not within the scope of the question. Commented May 22, 2011 at 14:42
  • @hippietrail: Those are not from Old English, to be exact, they came through it, but originally are from Proto-Germanic. If others agree with you about them being off topic, anyway, I'll remove them.
    – Alenanno
    Commented May 22, 2011 at 15:06
  • @Alenanno: Again Old English did not borrow/adopt from Proto-Germanic, Old English is a Germanic language, a descendant. From father to son to grandson is still a hand-me-down and not a souvenir brought home from abroad. Commented May 22, 2011 at 15:14
  • The Old English and Germanic morphemes are not adopted — otherwise every single word in English is adopted. Circumfixes and suprafixes aren't borrowed either. Connecting vowels (aka theme vowels) aren't morphemes; remember, morphemes have semantic meaning. N- is not borrowed from another language. -Zilla is an English innovation; it is formed by analogy with Godzilla — the -zilla morpheme was not borrowed from Japanese.
    – Kosmonaut
    Commented May 22, 2011 at 15:15

It's on the fringe but uber- has an English entry in Wiktionary.


Here's a couple more I found in English word-formation by Laurie Bauer:

  • -ese (from Italian) Balinese, Nepalese, Vietnamese
  • -i (from Arabic) Bengali, Iraqi, Israeli, Pakistani
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    as does ur-. Commented May 22, 2011 at 16:09
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    @Malvolio: -ur is also in Wiktionary but it's less of a fringe-dweller and I think you should submit it as an answer rather than a mere comment! Commented May 22, 2011 at 16:24

hippietrail thinks I should point out that ur- (meaning "original", as in urtext) is another example. Dictionaries say it comes from the German but I think it was at least reinforced by the name of the ancient Sumerian city Ur.


This is a bit of a stretch, but the OED lists 'fest' -- as in 'filmfest,' 'gabfest,' and (obviously) 'oktoberfest' -- as having been borrowed from modern German. (For the apparently cognate 'festival' it offers a different etymology that passes through Old French and Medieval Latin to the Latin 'festīvus.')


If you take your rule as being any productive (makes new words easily) affix that is not from the accepted literary/scientific neologism-making affixes you alluded to (that is, allowing from also from Latin/Greek/French but still keeping to the spirit of what you asked):

  • -athon: any long extended activity. From marathon < Marathon (Gr) the town in ancient Greece. - sale-a-thon, dance-a-athon. sure this is Greek but...
  • du jour: From 'du jour' (Fr) 'of the day'. sure this is from French but...

Ooh, I just thought of a good one: -borne. As in "airborne" or "seaborne". It comes from German.

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    Sorry I can't find any evidence that these come from German. The dictionaries I checked don't have separate entries for -borne as an adjective and state that borne is airborne is just from the past participle of English to bear. Commented May 23, 2011 at 1:26
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    "bear" and "borne" both come from early German. Was there a requirement it come directly from the foreign language? Commented May 23, 2011 at 3:14
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    If You mean Germanic or Proto-Germanic then all non-adopted words in English come from there too. Back in the deep mists of time there were no separate languages Afrikaans Danish Dutch English Flemish German Icelandic Norwegian Scots Swedish Yiddish. You don't adopt your own kin. Commented May 23, 2011 at 4:30
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    German is not the same as Germanic. Some loans apart, English does not come from any form of German.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented May 23, 2011 at 13:08
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    @Colin File: Exactly. Etymonline and Wiktionary both say borne/bear come from Old English and not from German. Here is the path: Modern English bear ← Middle English beren “carry, bring forth” ← Old English beran “to carry, bear, bring” ← Proto-Germanic *beranan, *barōnan “to bear, carry” ... Commented May 24, 2011 at 3:25

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