I am prefixed and suffixed. I am a college teacher (er—one who performs an action) who teaches literature (ure—function, process) and composition (ion—result of an act or process). I rhapsodize (ize—engage in an activity) about Moby Dick but sometimes sneak off to see such cultural (al—of or relating to) Karmelkorn as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. I have hypothyroidism (hypo—deficiency; ism—state or condition). I tend to vote democratic (crat—member or partisan of; ic—character or nature of). I am a vegetarian (arian—believer, advocate). I am friendly (ly—like in manner or nature) and can be social (al—tending to, fit for) but prefer solitude (tude—quality or state). I do not own a smartphone (smart—too techie for me to operate) or a smart anything, except, occasionally a mouth. Age catches me out these days, and I often feel seniorclysmic (OK, I made that up). I was overweight (over—over, duh!) as a young man, but now my physician (ian—skilled in) worries that I am too skinny (y—characterized by), which is strange considering my near mitochondrial Reese’s Peanut Butter Cupitudinarianism, a craving I am able to resist about as successfully as attempting to thread a needle while being tickled. Faced with a RPBC, my willpower comes out with its hands up.
All of who I am, it seems, is defined by bits of language that are located six doors down from the corner office of actual words—mere slivery, splintery units of linguistic structure, snippets, really, tittles and tidbits, runts in the lexical litter. And yet, they have meaning, which means that hanging them on the fore or aft of words gives them the power to broker the coordinates of my identity. I don’t mind. They can, I believe, teach us something about the grammar of our lives.
Prefixes and suffixes—along with infixes, which English does not have, except for such mildly profane exclamations as “absodamnlutely”—are classified as áffixes. There are two types of áffixes in English: inflectional and derivational. Only eight inflectional áffixes remain in English, all of them suffixes. Two tell us whether nouns are plural or possessive; four tell us whether verbs refer to actions that are past, present, or ongoing; and two tell us whether adjectives are comparing two things or evaluating one thing among many as superlative. Inflectional suffixes thus refine the meaning of the word they are attached to, but more than that, they establish a word’s relationship to other words in the string of words containing it. The “s” at the end of “grammarians” means more than one and would require the use of the pronouns “they,” “them,” and “their” when referring to them and the verb “are” in the sentence “Grammarians are fond of horseradish on their ice cream.” The “en” on “eaten” requires a form of “have” as a helping verb and means the eating occurred in the past before another past action: “The grammarians experienced digestive distress after they had eaten horseradish on their ice cream.”
Now, indulge me in a metaphor here: because inflectional suffixes work outside the word, ligaturing to and affecting other words, let’s consider inflectional suffixes to be socially oriented.
Derivational áffixes allow us to derive new words either by changing the part of speech of the word to which they attach or by altering the word’s meaning: add able to the verb “sustain” and, voilá, you have the adjective “sustainable.” Add the prefix un to “sustainable and, revoilá, the meaning changes. Add ster to “hip” and you get a noun and one very irritating guy; add ize and you verb him into action; add tion and you’ve got “hipsterization,” a monstrous transformation worthy of a horror film; add de at the beginning and you’ve returned him to human form.
All these additions are far from arbitrary. Grammatical rules dictate what can be added to what and in what order the addition will proceed. The suffix able attaches by rule to verbs to make adjectives (compare-comparable). The prefix in attaches to adjectives to render another adjective but with a different meaning. Thus, the order of attachment for “incomparable” would have to be able first, then in. In other words, the structure of words with affixes is hierarchical. It occurs in steps; it spools in a precisely ordered sequence.
Now, metaphor time again. Because the derivational áffix process occurs in words rather than, like inflectional suffixes, across words, because it is internal to a particular word, changing its, and its only, meaning and identity, ligaturing to and affecting no other words in the string of words containing it, let’s consider derivational áffixes to be individually oriented.
So, what, then, is the take away for the grammar of our lives? The “social” nature of inflectional suffixes teaches us to possess the capacity for plural perspective taking; to attend to the tense, the historical context and contingencies, that shapes and governs the lives with which we interact, to compare qualities and ideas, and to assess them for their superiority. The lesson of inflectional suffixes is to imagine, analyze, and evaluate; to broaden our horizons, not practice the idolatry of merely reinforcing our views; to realize that, while circumstances emplace us, we can think beyond them.
The “individual” nature of derivational áffixes teaches us deliberative and purposeful change—that who we are, what we are, what we think and feel and do and perceive can be reconfigured; that the categories in which we are placed, in which we place ourselves, can be revised; that the meanings we hold can be transformed. Derivational áffixes instill a disposition for growth.
There is a deep structure to our lives, a biological grammar. It develops, perhaps according to Erik Erikson’s eight-staged theory of psychosocial development, or Jean Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development, or Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, or Beck and Graves’s nonlinear Spiral Dynamics model, or the Seven Ages of Man the melancholy Jacques outlines in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. It matters little to which theory we subscribe. What matters is what we make of our life’s stages, how we experience the urgent energy of them, how we imagine and embody them, the parameters we set within them. What matters is not the deep structure but the surface structure, the way we express our lives, in small ways and in large. We can change; we can catalyze ourselves, be emergent, and not simply a lingerer in a room with a wavy-glass window and a caged parrot, waiting for our number to be called. We may be áffixed, but we are not affíxed.