“Suffix” or “Ending”—Clarifying the Terminology

Aug 20, 2015 by

A reader of my earlier post “Some Observations on Morphophonological Adaptation of English-derived Loanwords in Russian Slang” pointed out that my use of the term “suffix” for the plural marker in Russian is incorrect; the term “ending” should be used instead. Although I have already responded to the reader in private, I will also clarify this potential terminological confusion here.

The Russian linguistic tradition draws a 3-way distinction between “prefixes”, “suffixes”, and “endings”. “Prefixes” in this system are, as one would expect, morphemes that attach to the beginning of the root. Both “suffixes” and “endings” attach to the end of the root, with the “endings” attaching—as their name suggests—at the end, that is outside any “suffixes” that may be present. (The only exception appears to be the morpheme ‑sja, which attaches outside any “endings” encoding agreement on verbs in person/number/gender; but see Nesset 1998a,b.) Back in early middle school, we had to use different notation for “suffixes” and “endings” when doing morphological analysis: “suffixes” were marked with an “accent grave”-like diacritic and “endings” were put into little squares. (Yes, we did do this sort of thing as early as the 4th grade!)

So what is the difference between “suffixes” and “endings” in the Russian model? According to the textbook definitions, a “suffix” is “a functional morpheme, attaching after the root (immediately or after another suffix) and serving to form new words or their non-syntactic forms”, whereas an “ending” is “a morpheme serving to change word forms and to express grammatical meanings: number, gender, case, person” (translation mine). The “endings”, we also learn, serve to connect words to the rest of the sentence. In a word like knižka, –k is a “suffix” (a diminutive, to be more precise), while -a is an “ending”, expressing declension class, gender, number, and case.

The Western/Anglophone linguistic tradition, however, uses a different system, one that I used in the abovementioned post. Instead of one 3-way distinction, two independent, orthogonal 2-way distinctions are made: prefixes vs. suffixes and inflectional vs. derivational morphemes. Prefixes and suffixes in this system differ by the locus of attachment: before or after the root. Inflectional and derivational morphemes differ by their function: the latter serve to form new words, whereas the former serve to make new forms of words and express grammatical meanings. Thus, the Russian “suffixes” correspond to “derivational suffixes” in the Anglophone model, while “endings” are “inflectional suffixes”. (Both, however, can be referred to as simply “suffixes” in English, when their function is either unimportant or clear from the context.)

suffix_prefixOne reason I used the terminology from the Anglophone model in the post in question is not to confuse (the majority of) my readers, who are familiar with this model but not the Russian one. I do, however, also think that the Anglophone model is also more adequate than its Russian counterpart in that it clearly separates form (prefix vs. suffix) from function (inflection vs. derivation)—a distinction that is generally very important in the study of language. Moreover, the Anglophone model, which distinguishes four types of morphemes where the Russian system distinguishes three, is more adequate for the description of a broad range of languages and, ironically, of the Russian language itself. The Russian model does not distinguish inflectional and derivational morphemes attaching before the root, in the same way it distinguishes inflectional and derivational morphemes attaching after the root. From the cross-linguistic perspective, the Anglophone model allows to draw more precise distinctions between prefixes serving different functions. This allows for a better description of prefixing languages. Thus, one could hardly use the term “ending” (which in Russian, as in English, is cognate with “end”) to designate an inflectional prefix, for instance, in Swahili. Moreover, the Russian model appears to imply that the difference in function—derivation vs. inflection—is significant only in the case of suffixes but not of prefixes. There are no good reasons to think that this is true. Almost 300 languages in the 969-language WALS sample use prefixation to encode inflectional categories, including such Bantu languages as Zulu and Khosa, Guaraní in South America and Yaqui and Chipewyan in North America, Ket in Western Siberia, Berber languages in northwestern Africa, and many others (see the WALS map on the left).

When it comes to describing the Russian language itself, distinguishes “suffixes” from “endings” but using only one term for prefixes obscures the generalization that Russian, like English, places all the inflectional information after the root, whereas derivation can be done by a wider range of morphological means: both prefixes and suffixes, as well as an occasional infix, reduplication, backformation etc. This similarity between Russian and English is due, of course, to their common Indo-European roots.



Nesset, Tore (1998) Antiphonotactic Suffixation: Russian -sja and Optimality Theory. Scando-Slavica 44: 145-153.

Nesset, Tore (1998) Affiks eller klitikon? Norsk Lingvistisk Tidsskrift 16: 185-206.


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