1

It is quite clear that the word "signify" is derived from sign and the suffix -ify:

  • sign + -ify = signify

The letter "g" in the word sign is silent but when the suffix is added, it becomes pronounced:

  • /ˈsɪgnɪfaɪ/

Although the "g" doesn't get pronounced when another suffix -able is added:

  • sign + -able = signable ... /ˈsaɪnəbəl/ (no /g/)

Another example is the word damnify:

  • /ˈdamnɪfaɪ/

Upon the addition of the suffix -ify the "n", which would otherwise be silent, becomes pronounced. Now I looked up their etymologies and came to know that those words weren't formed within English. "Damnify" is from Old French damnefier and "signify" is from Old French signifier and I suspect they have etymological /g/ and /n/, respectively.

For "signable" Wikitionary merely says "sign + -able" and I can't find it in any other etymological dictionary. The reason "signable" doesn't have a /g/, in my opnion, can be attributed to its compounding within Modern English; looking at the results from Google Ngram makes my opinion appear correct in that "signable" has zero results and "signify" predates it by over 500 years.

The suffix -ify (which we also use to make words in Modern English) is from French ifier.

Questions:

I have two closely related questions:

  • Does the suffix -ify have any inherent characteristic of making consonants pronounced which would otherwise be silent?
  • What if I add it to a Modern English word (say benign or align)? Will it make the "g" pronounced?
0

2 Answers 2

1

Your question is based on a false premise. According to Etymology online the word signify comes not from 'sign' but from the Latin 'significare' via the Old French 'signifier'. The same source gives the origin of both the noun and verb sign as the Latin word 'signum' via the Old French 'signe'. The 'gn' in 'signe' and, probably in 'signifier' would have been pronounced rather like 'niy' (I don't have the IPA symbols available) but this would have been more evident in 'signe' than in 'significare'.

English speakers must have transcribed that sound (which does not exist in English) in two ways, one emphasising the 'g' in 'signify', 'significance' and so on and the other emphasising the 'n' in 'sign'. The fact that there are syllables starting with a 'i' following the 'gn' in 'signify' and 'significance' but not in 'sign' was probably a contributing factor. The fact that 'sign' would have been used more widely by the mainly illiterate general population might also have contributed.

3
  • Thanks. I realize that, but the whole point of my question is about the behavior of the suffix ify.
    – user387044
    Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 8:58
  • @Sphinx What I get from this answer is that -ify actually reverses the silencing, restoring pronunciation; it doesn't add pronunciation where there wasn't any.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 11:50
  • @Sphinx You said in your question 'It's quite clear that "signify" is derived from sign and the suffix -ify'. What I am saying is that that is not clear at all, in fact the sources say that signify is only tangentially related to 'sign' if it is related at all. Therefore trying to derive a general point about the -ify ending from 'sign' and '-ify' is a pointless exercise since they are not related.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Apr 8, 2021 at 20:57
0

There is apparently nothing particular about "-ify" and the most probable phenomenon to be associated to this restitution of the g (widely applicable) is the reduction of the long vowel (/aɪ/, /eɪ/, /u:/ to a short one (/ɪ/, /ʌ/) or simply the possible choice of a short vowel before non ending "-gn" (dignity); the adoption of a long vowel is apparently the rule before ending "-gn".

  • sign /saɪn/, signage /ˈsaɪn ɪdʒ/, BUT signal /ˈsɪg nᵊl/, signify /ˈsɪg nɪ faɪ/, signature, signalment, signet, significant, …

  • assign /ə ˈsaɪn/, assignable /ə ˈsaɪn əb ᵊl/, assignee /ˌæs aɪ ˈni:/, assignment /ə ˈsaɪn mənt/, BUT assignation /ˌæs ɪg ˈneɪʃ ᵊn/, assignat /ˈæs ɪg næt/

  • benign /bə ˈnaɪn/, BUT benignant /bə ˈnɪg nənt/, benignity /bə ˈnɪg nət i/

  • design /dɪ ˈzaɪn / BUT designate, designation, designatory, …

  • malign /mə ˈlaɪn/, BUT malignant /mə ˈlɪg nənt/, malignancy, malignity

  • impugn /u:/, impugnable BUT impugnation /ˌɪm pʌg ˈneɪʃ ᵊn/

  • reign /reɪn/, BUT (Here, we find as well a change in the digraph.) regnant /reg nənt/, regnal, regnancy

  • align /ə ˈlaɪn/, alignment /ə ˈlaɪn mənt/

  • arraign /ə ˈreɪn/, campaign /kam ˈpeɪn/, campaigning /kam ˈpeɪn ɪŋ/

  • deign /deɪn/, deigning /ˈdeɪn ɪŋ/

  • dignity, dignify, dignitary

  • consign, consignment, consignee

4
  • But what determines the vowel length before the ⟨ɡn⟩? (I've done a lot of research on this but to no avail; that is to say, this is a circular argument.) Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 10:34
  • @DecapitatedSoul I've asked myself that question also and haven't done any research, but I do find the coincidence puzzling; it might have a rational explanation.
    – LPH
    Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 10:39
  • This phenomenon also occurs with consonant letter sequences other than <gn>, and also when the shorter word's last vowel is short (hymn/hymnal; solemn/solemnity; bomb/bombard). I suggest the following: the consonant letter sequence after the shorter word's last vowel represent a consonant sound sequence which English doesn't allow in a syllable's coda. So we make one of them silent. But when a suffix beginning with a vowel is added, that sequence's last consonant can now be the new syllable's onset, and the consonant sound sequence is now allowable.
    – Rosie F
    Commented Nov 5, 2022 at 14:05
  • Your argument appears to lead to no useful generalization; the list of exceptions could be too important (for "mn" there would be fewer exceptions (contemning)). Without much research, I gathered a list of words that do not verify the contemplated rule: lamb lambing, lambed, limn, limned, limning ( exception: "limner"), bomb, bombing, bombed, bomber, dumb, dumber, dumbest, numb, numbed, numbing, number, crumb, crumbed, crumby, plumb, plumbing thumb, thumbing, thumber, quantities of -ng ending words, bang, long, wing, etc.
    – LPH
    Commented Nov 5, 2022 at 20:37

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.