Attenuative morphology

From a posting to the Linguistic Typology list, a proposal for a workshop on Attenuated qualities in a cross-linguistic perspective, beginning attenuatively:

Our smallish-to-middling workshop focusses on the diverse morphological and lexical means of expressing attenuation (reduced degree of a quality) in the languages of the world.

More of the proposal to follow. First, a few notes on two more familiar grammatical categories related to attenuatives.

Diminutives and augmentatives convey, respectively, smallness (or related content, like affection) and largeness (or related content, like significance). Start from Italian farfall-a (fem.) ‘butterfly’ and farfall-e (fem. pl.) ‘butterfly / bowtie pasta’:

From these, diminutives farfall-in-a (fem.) ‘little butterfly’ and farfall-in-o (masc.) ‘bowtie’, and an augmentative farfall-on-e (masc.) ‘big butterfly, philanderer’, (fem. pl.) ‘large farfalle pasta’. (Cue “Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso”.) Back to the attenuative proposal:

Examples (i)-(iii) illustrate the use of derivational morphemes to mark a quality as being attenuated; in (iv) a reduced degree of a quality is marked by reduplication, and in (v) attenuation is expressed by the use of a dedicated ideophone.

(i) English -ish as in green-ish

(ii) French ‑âtre as in blanch-âtre ‘whitish’

(iii) Kambaata (Afroasiatic, Cushitic) -lab as in biish-lab-á ‘reddish’ (from biishsh-á ‘red’) and qaraar-lab-á ‘a bit bitter’ (from qaraar-á ‘bitter’)

(iv) Gashua Bade (Afroasiatic, Chadic) ɓuwâ-ɓuwâ ‘reddish’ (from ɓuwâ ‘red’) (Ziegelmeyer 2015)

(v) Sar (Nilo-Saharan, Central Sudanic) pùtɨ̀-pùtɨ̀ attenuates the basic colour terms ndà ‘white’, kɨ̀rē ‘white’, ndùl‘red’(Gotengaye & Keegan 2016)

Typological studies of derivational morphology show that attenuation is among the most frequent adjectival derivational categories in the languages world-wide (see e.g. Bauer 2002: 42), and we find attenuative morphology mentioned in descriptions of languages from different families all over the world, see e.g. Czech (Janda & Townsend 2000), K’ichee’ (Mayan) (Polian 2017), Khanty (Finno-Ugric) (Sauer 1967) and Udihe (Nikolaeva & Tolskaya 2001), to name but a few arbitrarily chosen examples. Note that grammatical elements with attenuative meaning are also labelled “moderative”, “approximative”, “diffusive”, “deintensifying” in the literature.

So far attenuative morphology has attracted much less attention in cross-linguistic studies than, for instance, diminutive morphology. Although attenuation is discussed in the major typological works on “Evaluative morphology”, most notably in the seminal work by Grandi & Körtvélyessy (2015), there are still synchronic and diachronic aspects of attenuative derivation that remain unexplored. To the best of our knowledge, it has so far not yet been investigated systematically which semantic classes of adjectives (or quality lexemes) are most likely to permit attenuative marking (maybe colours?). We also have little knowledge of the diachronic origin of attenuative morphology of non-Indo-European languages. Furthermore, we would like to extend the study of attenuation from purely morphological, mostly derivational attenuative marking, to lexical means of expressing attenuation (see (v) above) and to also study modifying attenuative adverbs and ideophones. Note, for instance, that among African languages – which are well-known for their ideophonic colour intensifiers – there are (at least) 17 languages that possess specialized ideophonic colour attenuators (Segerer & Flavier 2011-2018).


Bauer, Laurie 2002. What you can do with derivational morphology. In: Bendjaballah, S., W.U. Dressler, O.E. Pfeiffer & M.D. Voeikova (eds.). Morphology 2000. Selected Papers from the 9

th Morphology Meeting, Vienna, 24-28 February 2000, pp. 37-48. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins.

Gotengaye, Constant & John M. Keegan, 2016. Dictionnaire Sar. (link)

Grandi, N. & L. Körtvélyessy (eds.) Edinburgh Handbook of Evaluative Morphology. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Janda, Laura A. & Charles E. Townsend 2000. Czech. Munich: Lincom Europa.

Kalnača, Andra 2015. Latvian. In: Grandi & Körtvélyessy (eds.) 2015, pp. 253-261.

Laman, Karl Edward 1936. Dictionnaire kikongo-français, avec une étude phonétique décrivant les dialectes les plus importants de la langue dite kikongo. Bruxelles : Librairie Falk fils.

Morris, Lori 2009. A toughish problem: The meaning of ‑ishLACUS Forum XXIV: 207-215.

Nikolaeva, Irina & Maria Tolskaya 2001. A Grammar of Udihe. Berlin: Mouton.

Polian, Gilles 2017. Morphology. In: Aissen, J., N.C. England, R. Zavala Maldonado (eds.). The Mayan Languages, pp. 201-225. London/New York: Routledge.

Sauer, Gert 1967. Die Nominalbildung im Ostjakischen (Finnisch-Ugrische Studien V.). Berlin: Akademie.

Segerer Guillaume & Sébastien Flavier 2011-2018. RefLex: Reference Lexicon of Africa, Version 1.1. Paris, Lyon.  (link)

Ziegelmeyer, Georg 2015. On the adjective class in Gashua Bade. Afrikanistik-Aegyptologie-online 2015.

That should sort of give you the idea.

One Response to “Attenuative morphology”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    My favorite combination of diminutive and augmentative suffixes is the Italian violoncello, literally “little big viol” (viol[a] plus augmentative suffix -on[e] plus diminutive suffix -cello).

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