I am an English student from Austria and have a question concerning morphology.

In the reading I did for one of my introductory courses on linguistics there was a chapter on the analysis of word-formation and which affixes get attached to the word first (in Plag et al. 2009). He explained it quite well that one should have a look at the meaning of the word to discern of how many components it consists. His example was 'unfearful' and it was easy to understand why fearful was formed first, after which the prefix un- can be added.

So, now I ask, what happens if you have a word like 'unhappier' which in my analysis consists of the adjective happy, a suffix for the comparative and a prefix for the negation. Is there any way to analyse whether unhappy or happier was formed first? Or is this a stupid question, because the comparative does not create a now word per se, rather changes it's grammatical function?

  • Hello, dukerasputin. As an aside, 'to discern of how many components it consists' would be 'to determine how many components it consists of' in idiomatic English. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 9 '15 at 17:18
  • thanks, I was actually thinking on where to put the 'of', but isn't this use of a preposition at the end of a sentence something that prescriptivists try to beat out of innocent english students? at least some of my english teachers at school were quite strict in that sense. – dukerasputin Nov 9 '15 at 19:22
  • Yes. But you don't want to end up like them. Check here on ELU for real English usage. For instance, nohat's brilliant riposte. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 9 '15 at 19:30
  • Yes that is true i don't want to end up like that. Also, I study to become a teacher and I sure as hell don't want to teach like that. – dukerasputin Nov 9 '15 at 19:52
  • Here's a facer. According to The Online Etymology Dictionary, 'unhappy' (c 1300) would seem to predate 'happy' (late 14C) (though Etymon also concedes that it doesn't). – Edwin Ashworth Nov 9 '15 at 21:25

The un- goes on first, to create the antonym of happy, and then the comparative of the resulting adjective unhappy is formed by the addition of the comparative suffix -er. But the generally favored comparative forms for words that long are constructed with the intensifier more, in this case more unhappy. See Ngram comparing frequency of more unhappy vs. unhappier. Free Dictionary lists unhappier as comparative of unhappy, and I think most native speakers, even while raising an eyebrow at the form, would understand it as such, rather than as the negation of happier.

  • Thank you for the answer and for pointing me towards Ngram, i did not know about that. And yes I would also use more unhappy, but unhappier was on the PP slides of that lecture and I wanted more information on that! – dukerasputin Nov 9 '15 at 17:19
  • Ah that with the negation was my fault, I forgot about the word antonym. – dukerasputin Nov 9 '15 at 17:28
  • Grüß Gott, @dukerasputin. Negation is fine too. Shakespeare's character John of Gaunt, in his famous "This England" speech in Richard II, speaks of "less happier lands," but that is the sort of Early Modern English that sends most modern readers to the explanatory notes at the bottom of the page. – Brian Donovan Nov 9 '15 at 17:31
  • to be honest I would happily use '"less happier" in writing, but then my professors that try to teach me academic writing would be the least happiest and would probably send me to stand in the corner. – dukerasputin Nov 9 '15 at 17:39
  • Native speakers are much more likely to simply say they are less happy. According to that NGram, both the "double negation" forms are about equally likely, but neither comes close to the simpler version with no negation at all. – FumbleFingers Nov 9 '15 at 17:44

This is kind of tough, because as you say, the usual part-of-speech analysis doesn't tell you whether it is un(happier) or (unhappi)er. Both seem morphologically possible. I had to ask my wife (a linguist), who said that it's ambiguous. If it's un(happier), it means "not more happy", and if it's (unhappi)er, it means "more unhappy".

If that's not right, it's not my fault. Personally, I'm sure it has the second of these two senses, but I'm unsure about the first. The more I think about it, the unsurer I become. (Whoops!)

  • Don't become an unsurer! Unsury is against the law! – Brian Donovan Nov 9 '15 at 19:14
  • @Greg Lee: yes I agree with you about the meaning, and now that I think about it, the second analysis about the comparative suffix being added last makes more sense too. – dukerasputin Nov 9 '15 at 19:27

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