Affixation In English And Vietnamese English Language Essay

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A purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions and desires by means of a system of voluntarily produced symbols is defined as language (Sapir, Language, P.7). Therefore, every language itself provides attentive learners with a wide knowledge of the primary function, social nature as well as the important characteristic which is the system of symbols consisting of different levels from sound systems to meaning, such as phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics. Only the unity of these four systems can form what is so-called language. Correspondingly, with a purpose of researching on this field that is to bring you, Vietnamese learners of English, an in- depth look at how minimal meaningful English morphemes can be used again and again as building blocks to form different words and some relevance to the constitution of Vietnamese words, I hope this can be a useful material for you to approach English reading comprehension and bilingual translation work from a more efficient and interesting angle.

Literary review

According to Eugene A Nida, "morphemes are the minimal meaningful units which may constitute words or parts of words" (Nida, 1946:1) and are defined as units of semantic content or grammatical function. Morphemes are of two kinds: free morphemes, ones that can be uttered alone with meaning and bound morphemes, ones that cannot be uttered alone with meaning. Based on this definition, affixes are defined as bound morphemes because they occur before or behind roots or cores of all words and somewhat modify the basic meaning of the roots.

e.g. Verb + - able  Adj: enjoy + - able

Verb + - er  Noun: wait + - er, act + - or

un + Adj  Adj: un + - productive, un + - easy

Adj + - en  Verb: deep + - en, thick + - en

Besides, like bound morphemes, affixes may also be derivational or inflectional, which means that affixes can create new words by deriving new words from other words or making minor grammatical changes necessary for agreement with other words without changing meanings or parts of words. From that point, affixation is assumed as the linguistic process speakers use to form new words by adding bound morphemes at the beginning, the middle or the end of words. Correlatively, affixes are divided into prefixes, suffixes, infixes, suprafixes or suprasegmental and so on.

Some categories of affixes:



prefix -stem

Appears at the front of a stem




Appears at the back of a stem




Appears within a stem - common in Borneo-Philippines languages




One portion appears at the front of a stem, and the other at the rear




Links two stems together in a compound




Incorporates a reduplicated portion of a stem

(may occur in front, at the rear, or within the stem)


Maltese: k-i-t-e-b = "he wrote"

(compare root ktb = "write")


A discontinuous affix that interleaves within a discontinuous stem


mouse → mice

Changes a segment of a stem


produce (noun)

produce (verb)

Changes a suprasegmental phoneme of a stem


Alabama: tipli = "break up"

(compare root tipasli = "break")


The elision of a portion of a stem

Those kinds of affixes are categorized, depending on their position with reference to the stem. In general, there are three types of affixes:

- Positional categories of affixes. In this category, prefix and suffix are extremely common whereas the other terms are uncommon as they are not important in European languages.

- Lexical affixes or semantic affixes. These are relatively rare bound elements that appear as affixes. In other words, they are similar to word roots/stems in function but similar to affixes in form. Although similar to incorporated nouns, lexical affixes differ in that they never occur as freestanding nouns, i.e. they always appear as affixes.

- Orthographic affixes. Here, the terms for affixes may be used for the smaller elements of conjunct characters. These are called prefixes, superfixes, postfixes, and subfixes according to their position to the left, on top, to the right, or at the bottom of the main glyph. A small glyph placed inside another is called an infix. For example, the Tibetan alphabet uses prefix, suffix, superfix, and subfix consonant letters.

Affixation in English

English prefixes are bound morphemes providing lexical meaning and added before either simple roots or complex bases consisting of a root and other affixes, multiple roots, or multiple roots and other affixes.

e.g. undo = prefix un- + root do

untouchable = prefix un- + root touch + suffix -able

non-childproof = prefix non- + root child + root proof

non-childproofable = prefix non- + root child + root proof + suffix -able

English words may consist of multiple prefixes: anti-pseudo-classicism (containing an anti- prefix and a pseudo- prefix). In English, all prefixes are derivational. This contrasts with English suffixes, which may be either derivational or inflectional. That is why many English prefixes can only be added to bases of particular lexical categories. For example, the prefix re- meaning "again, back" is only added to verb bases as in rebuild, reuse, resell, re-evaluate, resettle. It cannot be added to bases of other lexical categories. These restrictions can be used to distinguish between identical-sounding prefixes. For instance, there are two different un- prefixes in English: one meaning "not, opposite of", the other meaning "reverse action, deprive of, release from". The first prefix un- "not" is attached to adjective and participle bases while the second prefix un- "reverse action" is attached to either verb or noun bases. Thus, English can have two words that are pronounced and spelled the same and have the same lexical category but have different meanings, different prefixes, a different internal morphological structure, and different internal bases that the prefixes are attached to:

unlockable = [ un [ [ lock ]verb able ]adj ]adj = "not able to be locked"

unlockable = [ [ un [ lock ]verb ]verb able ]adj = "able to be unlocked"

Only certain verbs or nouns can be used to form a new verb having the opposite meaning. In particular, using verbs describing an irreversible action produces words often considered nonsense, e.g. unkill, unspend, unlose, unring. These words may nevertheless be in occasional use for humorous or other effect.

Unlike derivational suffixes, English prefixes typically do not change the lexical category of the base. Thus, the word do consisting of a single morpheme is a verb as is the word redo, which consists of the prefix re- and the base root do. However, there are a few prefixes in English that are class-changing in that the word. The reason is that the prefix belongs to a lexical category that is different from the lexical category of the base. Examples of this type include a-, be-, and en-. a- typically creates adjectives from noun and verb bases: blaze (noun/verb)  ablaze (adj). The relatively unproductive be- creates transitive verbs from noun bases: witch (noun)  bewitch (verb). en- creates transitive verbs from noun bases: slave (noun)  enslave (verb)

Several English words are easily analyzed as a combination of a dependent affix and an independent base, such as in the words boy-hood or un-just. Following Marchand (1969), these types of words are referred to as words formed by native word-formation processes.

Other words in English are formed by foreign word-formation processes, particularly Greek and Latin word-formation processes. These word types are often known as neo-classical or neo-Latin words. Words of this nature are borrowed from either Greek or Latin or have been newly coined based upon Greek and Latin word-formation processes. On these days, however, some foreign elements have become a part of productive English word-formation processes. An example of such a now native English prefix is co- as in co-worker, which is ultimately derived from the Latin prefix com- (with its allomorphs co-, con-, col-, and cor-).

Affixation in Vietnamese

Before discussing affixation in Vietnamese, we should mention the characteristics of its morphemes. The noticeable feature of Vietnamese morphemes is that there is no difference between them and the syllables. Almost every morphemes in Vietnamese is considered as "forms of syllables", e.g. nhà, ăn , ở, người, về, e, u, etc. The number of morphemes containing two or three syllables is very low and they have exotic origin, e.g. xà phòng, ô tô, etc. In Vietnamese, there are many morphemes that also function as potential monosyllables meanwhile, unlike inflectional languages, the pattern of morpheme form for polysyllables is a compounding one. Accordingly, it is easier to recognize a monosyllable than a word. This difference reflects contradictory characteristics of the so-called morpheme in both languages. Besides, we can find that there are more morphemes defined as single words in Vietnamese than in English in terms of speech articulation. The definition of morpheme is quite general as well as universal. It is, however, proposed in a particular way, based on the characteristics of word formation and distribution of linguistic units ruled by each language. Most Vietnamese morphemes are defined owing to word sense which may be meaningful or meaningless. While articulating morphemes, we can see some function as parts of words though the others are morphemes of collocation. The first group is very common in English. The second one is usually found in Vietnamese, e.g. nhà, đất, nÆ°á»›c, sá»±, cuá»™c, diá»…n, Ä‘ã, Ä‘ang, sẽ, về, etc. Back to the term affixation, as discussed above, we can prove that affixation still exists in Vietnamese although it is limited. Only prefixation and suffixation are attested. A few affixes are used along with reduplication. Many affixes come from the Sino-Vietnamese and learned part of the lexicon. Here are some examples,




bán nguyệt "semicircular, semi-monthly" (bán- + -nguyệt "moon"),

bán đảo "peninsula" (bán- + đảo "island")



khả kính "respectable" (khả- + kính "to respect"),

khả quan "satisfactory" (khả- + quan "to behold")


familiar (added to surnames)

lão Thinh "old" Thinh, good old Thinh" (lão- + Thinh surname)


"counter to, against"

phản cách mạng "counter-revolutionary" (phản- + cách mạng "revolution"),

phản chiến "anti-war" (phản- + -chiến "to fight")



phi nghĩa "unethical" (phi- + nghĩa "righteousness"),

phi chính phủ "non-governmental" (phi- + chính phủ "government")


"above, better"

siêu thị "supermarket" (siêu- + thị "market"),

siêu đẳng "outstanding" (siêu- + đẳng "level")


"over, high"

tăng a xit "hyperacidity" (tăng- + a xit "acid"),

tăng can xi "hypercalcernia" (tăng- + can xi "calcium")


ordinal (added to numerals)

thứ mười "tenth" (thứ- + mười "ten"),

thứ bốn mươi ba "forty-third" (thứ- + bốn mươi ba "forty-three")





chính trị gia "politician" (chính trị "politics" + -gia),

khoa học gia "scientist" (khoa học "science" + -gia)



tác giả "author" (tác "to create" + -giả),

học giả "scholar" (học "to learn" + -giả)


forms causative verb

a xít hóa "to acidify" (a xit "acid" + -hóa),

mỹ hóa "to americanize" (Mỹ "USA" + -hóa)


"field of study"

ngôn ngữ học "linguistics" (ngôn ngữ "language" + -học),

động vật học "zoology" (động vật "animal" + -học)


"measuring device"

nhiệt kế "thermometer" (nhiệt- "warm" + -kế),

áp kế "manometer" (áp "get close, approach" + -kế)


"field of study"

nha khoa "dentistry" (nha- "tooth" + -khoa),

dược khoa "pharmacy" (dược- "drug" + -khoa)



hoạ sĩ "artist" (hoạ "to draw" + -sĩ),

văn sĩ "writer" (văn "literature" + -sĩ)



giáo sÆ° "professor" (giáo "to teach" + -sÆ°),

luật sư "lawyer" (luật "law" + -sư)



quan sát viên "observer" (quan sát "to observe" + -viên),

phối trí viên "coordinator" (phối trí "to coordinate" + -viên)

A contrastive analysis of affixation in English and Vietnamese

As we all know, English is an inflectional language categorized into the group of analytic ones, which means English word formation becomes less fusional and it is added manner of syncategoremantic words, word order, etc. On the contrast, Vietnamese is defined as an isolating language so it has no inflectional phenomenon, but only the roots. In terms of word formation, thus, we can easily find that there is a similarity between English and Vietnamese that is about manner of syncategoremantic words and word order.

In his presenting the components that constitute words, Professor Nguyá»…n Thiện Giáp gives the concept of semi-affixes, which is defined as "the factors that do not completely lose their own sense of things, but have the nature of an affix and are found repeatedly in many words. The basic criteria of semi-affixes is their auxiliary nature, reflected in the characteristics of the meaning, distribution and function. While completing the function of forming words, they retain the relationship of meaning and form with independent roots so they do not really change into affixes" (Dẫn luận ngôn ngữ học. Giáo dục Publishing House, 1998, P.67). When Vietnamese is brought into comparison, Professor Giáp states that the factors, like viên, giả, sÄ©, hóa and so on, also have the nature of a semi-affix (sÄ‘l, P.68). For this reason, morphemes which have grammatical values and Chinese-Vietnamese origin, but full independence are the ones that have the nature of semi-affixes. Here are some examples:

e.g. - sĩ : nghệ sĩ, hoạ sĩ, nhạc sĩ, viện sĩ, nha sĩ

- học : dân tá»™c học, tâm lí học, xã há»™i học, sinh học

tiền - : tiền đề, tiền lệ, tiền sử, tiền tố, tiền nhiệm

bất - : bất biến, bất cẩn, bất chính, bất công, bất định, bất nhân, bất nghÄ©a, bất ngờ

From these example, we can see that each word is constituted of two factors: one contains meaning of the whole word and the other has a tendency toward grammatical meaning. Here, the second factor is considered as the morphemes that have the properties of semi-affixes. Putting this into comparison with some English equivalences, we find that there is certain correspondence between Vietnamese "semi-affixes" with English affixes about the role of forming words.

e.g. artist, painter, musician, academician, dentist

ethnology, psychology, sociology, biology

premise, precedent, prehistoric, prefix, predecessor

invariable, careless, illegal, injustice, indeterminate, ungrateful, unexpected

Therefore, it is clear that there was a correspondence in the role of forming words between Vietnamese "semi-affixes" and English affixes. However, it is not an entirely one-to-one correspondence, which means not every Vietnamese "semi-affix" has an English suffix as an equivalence. For example, sÄ© in Vietnamese has its equivalences which are -ist,-er,-an, etc. in English or bất in Vietnamese has its English equivalences like in-, -less, il-, un- and so on. Conversely, suffix -er in English which functions as a constituent of word formation, such as -er in painter, teacher, worker, driver, etc. has the "semi-affixes" Vietnamese like -sÄ© (hoạ sÄ©), -viên (giáo viên), -nhân (công nhân), etc. as its equivalences. We easily find a similarity between English and Vietnamese in word formation, which is that they follow a formula of constituting words, root+affix/semi-affix. However, the frequency of use and properties of this formula change in different languages. In English, this formula becomes very common because English belongs to inflectional group.

Although there is no one-to-one correspondence as what we have discussed in the way of forming words, there are still some specific morphemes as language equivalences in semantic category. For example,

a. Category of negation

In English,

dis- : dishonest, disorganize, dislike, disappear, disadvantage

il (+l)- : illegal, illiberal

im (+m or p)- : imposible, impolite

in- : indirect, invisible, injustice

ir (+r)- : irregular, irrelevant

non- : non-alcohobic, non-stop, non-profit

un- : uncomfortable, unusual, undated, uncertain, unpack, unzip

-less : hopeless, powerless

In Vietnamese,

bất- : bất định, bấn đồng, bất biến, bất tận…

phi- : phi lí, phi nghÄ©a…

vô- : vô vi, vô đạo, vô tình, vô hình…

b. Category of ability

In English,

- able : writeable, unable, comfortable…

- ible : visible, possible, comprehensible…

In Vietnamese,

khả- : khả dụng, khả năng, khả biến…

- được : viết được, ăn được, nhìn (thấy) được…

c. Category of denomination

In English,

- er/ or : driver, editor

- ist : tourist, scientist

- ant/ ent : assistant, student

- an/ ian : republican, electrician

- ee : employee, examinee

In Vietnamese,

- sÄ© : nhạc sÄ©, hoạ sÄ©, giáo sÄ©, nha sÄ©, bác sÄ©, viện sĩ…

- viên : giáo viên, sinh viên, nhân viên, diá»…n viên…

- giả : học giả, tác giả, kí giả…

- nhân : thi nhân, quân nhân, công nhân, nạn nhân, bệnh nhân…

nhà - : nhà văn, nhà thÆ¡, nhà báo, nhà giáo…

In brief, these examples help learners easily associate English affixes with the so-called Vietnamese meaningful morphemes including semi-affixes which are not entirely independent. This kind of morphemes in Vietnamese has a high productivity of words because the semantic content of each morpheme is of a category, but a single notion. Consequently, the existence of groups of affixes and "semi-affixes" as equivalences between English and Vietnamese is a considerable advantage to translation work.

Some implications for English Teaching and Learning

Studying affixation can provide learners with receptive and productive skills. As for receptive skill, learners can easily make guesses about the meaning of unknown vocabulary because of their being well-equipped with a wide knowledge of word building in terms of affixation. For instance, to complete a task of reading comprehension, the learners may deduce correctly the meaning of some new items found in the given texts, based on their own understanding of affixes (see appendix). In additional, learners' ability of expression is strongly enhanced if they can apply what are taught at school about basic principles of word formation, as for productive skill.

On the other hand, teachers should pay more attention to teaching affixation in the classroom. As Matthews (1974) put it : "How does one plunge into syntax when one cannot identify and understand the elements whose role and distribution is in question ? It is only in favoured cases , where the morphology is simple or is already thoroughly explored , that a beginner can plunge into syntax ." So beside teaching the grammatical syllabuses, teachers may adjust the lessons to arrange an appropriate amount of time used to give the students some practice of affixation, based on teaching situation. Moreover, teachers can cleverly put an emphasis on how word structures are formed by giving students different tasks designed on the strategy: to help learners get general rules of some affixes in terms of semantic category so that they can make their own system of affixes and enrich their vocabulary. For Vietnamese learners, it is also necessary to give them an association between certain prefixes and suffixes in English with the equivalences of the mother tongue because of the existence of similarities discussed above. By learning about it, learners can avoid some mistakes in translation work. Besides, this makes the lesson much more interesting and easier to be memorized.

Dik (1967) states : "To learn a language is not so much to memorize a set of sentences ; rather , it is to familiarize oneself with a linguistic system in such a way and to such extent that one is able to construct sentences and other linguistic structures on one's own ." In general, it is essential to suggest that at least the process of how words are constituted should be presented in EFL course books and either teaching or learning it should be carefully focused on in order to meet the absolute requirements of language teaching .


In short, this paper shows you a detailed contrastive analysis of affixation concerning Vietnamese and English with the purpose of emphasizing how important and useful word structure should not be ignored at school to help learners acquire the target language much comfortably and thoroughly. Yet, to some extent, the paper has not extended all the vast knowledge in this field because I just try to focus on some very basic concepts and primary theories in comparing and contrasting affixation in Vietnamese and English to express my viewpoints to readers. On the whole, I do hope that it will be a useful material for teachers and students who share the same interest with me in how to improve the way we study our target language efficiently.


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