What is the etymology of the suffix '-ness'? I have come across it in OE texts but always assumed it was a later borrowing.

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    Hi Rita Barker, welcome to the site. One of our go to resources is Etymonline and they have the etymology of -ness. Is there more than this that you're interested in? – Matt E. Эллен Jan 3 '12 at 12:56
  • I think you are referring to the (obs) noun 'ness' as Loch Ness, not the suffix as in 'happiness'.There is no equivalent in German (cf -'heit/keit) which puzzles me. – Rita Barker Jan 3 '12 at 13:25
  • No, I'm referring to the second link, which talks about "suffix of action, quality or state". – Matt E. Эллен Jan 3 '12 at 13:36
  • @Rita - follow Matt's link. It has the etymology of -ness and its germanic roots. Not Loch Ness. – slim Jan 3 '12 at 13:38
  • Oops! There is a German equivalent (-nis). Thanks for info Matt. Rita – Rita Barker Jan 3 '12 at 14:04

This suffix is widespread among the Germanic languages, though it is no longer productive in all:

  • English -ness (Old English -nes(s), -nis(s), -nys(s))
  • Dutch -nis (Old Dutch -nussi, -nisse, -nesse)
  • German -nis (Old High German -nissi, -nessi, -nassi, -nussi)
  • Gothic -nassus

There is no consensus yet about why the first vowel varies so widely among the Germanic languages.

The -n- was originally not part of the suffix, but of the stem of many root words that *-assus was often attached to; it was later stolen by the suffix and became part of it, which already happened in Proto-Germanic.

The -s is probably the nominative ending (my own, reasonable interpretation of the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal).

That leaves *-assu- as the basic suffix (the WNT confirms this). It in turn came from *-ad-tu-: -ad- is a Germanix suffix forming verbs out of adjectives (Gothic -at(j?)-), and -tu- is a suffix forming abstract nominal stems from verbal stems.

The suffix -esse in French (fin-esse etc.) is not directly related: it comes from Latin -itia (fin-itia). The -ia part is probably the common Proto-Indo-European suffix *-ia/ya indicating mass nouns; it is possible that the -(i)t- part is related to Germanic -tu- in *-ad-tu-, but that seems doubtful.

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  • Is there a common ancestor for the Germanic 'ness' eg. – Rita Barker Jan 3 '12 at 21:07
  • @RitaBarker: I'm still trying to find out whether there is a Proto-Indo-European origin of the Proto-Germanic suffix; I don't have my etymological dictionaries on hand. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jan 3 '12 at 21:09
  • Is there a common ancestor for the Germanic 'ness' and the Old French<Latin 'esse' (cf finesse). They seem to perform the same function.-Rita – Rita Barker Jan 3 '12 at 21:20
  • @RitaBarker: See my edit above: probably not, but we can't be sure. It is alas very hard to find etymological information on suffixes earlier than Proto-Germanic and Latin/Greek. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jan 4 '12 at 2:59

Oxford Dictionary Online states that it is of Germanic origin:


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  • I am surprised there appears to be no near equivalent in German where '-heit/keit'are the norm, which survive in English as '-hood'. – Rita Barker Jan 3 '12 at 13:36
  • @RitaBarker: Although they have common origins, the two languages (i.e. English and German) can't evolve and change in the same way. The people and the cultures that have shaped them are, after all, different. – Irene Jan 3 '12 at 13:48
  • Which of course I realise. – Rita Barker Jan 3 '12 at 13:56
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    @RitaBarker: It survives in German in words such as 'Geheimnis' - secret. – Barrie England Jan 3 '12 at 17:04
  • @BarrieEngland and Finsternis - darkness (for an example where the English translation also has "-ness") – phoog Jan 4 '12 at 22:59

I think there is a much simpler explanation for "ness". It might simply mean "to carry/contain". In Russian language for example, the word "нести" (nesti) means to carry and a lot of the Slavic words contain this ending (in the form of "nost' since nosit' means to carry as well).

Vernost' (Faithfullness) - to carry 'vera' (faith) Drevnost' - ancient times - to carry antiquity Vechnost (eternity) - to carry a vek/veche (decade) Blagodarnost' (gratitude/kindness) - to carry blagodarstvo (gratitude) Mrachnost' (darkness) - to carry mrak (dark) Duhovnost' (spirituality) - to carry a spirit

Now some English words; goodness, sickness, willingness, business, nest, honest (one who carries honor) I am sure you can come up with many other examples.

On the other hand "less" would mean the exact opposite of "ness" Ex: faithless, godless, fearless, speechless

There might also be a relation to "is-ist-es-est"

I am not a serious etymologist, just wanted to share my observations since I speak both languages.

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  • You're right that -nost' is a common suffix for abstract nouns in Slavonic languages, and I too have wondered whether it might share an origin with -ness. But I don't think your nesti theory works semantically; and creating a suffix out of an independent root is exceedingly rare (though it has happened in the Romance languages, which use suffixes derived from Latin mente (originally "with [an XXX] mind") for adverbs). – Colin Fine Mar 4 '14 at 19:32

I think that is coming from the greek estia which means fireplace and home. Through latin/old french -esse and old germanic -ness you have a great number of nouns nowadays. It is so obvious to me.

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    It may be obvious to you, but it is in no way true. The Germanic suffix is attested in Gothic (from the 4th and 5th centuries), long before Old French. At that time, the Latin suffix was still -itia, which can in no way yield Gothic -nassus. The Greek word—which, incidentally, is not ‘estia’, but ἑστίᾱ/ἱστίη ‘hestiā/histiē’—is also entirely unrelated. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 4 '14 at 13:16

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