Verifying Causatives: A Corpus-based Study of the Middle English Derivational Suffix -fien

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Susanne Lang


Modern English has more than 800 verbs that alternate between intransitive and causative use (McMillion, 2006). This characteristic of Modern English results from long-term diachronic changes and the transformation of the derivational system of English (Durkin, 2014; van Gelderen, 2018). The current study seeks to investigate the Middle English derivational suffix -fien, which is said to be a productive causativizing suffix in Modern English (Plag, 1999). However, its causativizing properties with regard to previous stages of English are almost unexplored (Dalton-Puffer, 1996). The suffix came into English as part of simplexes through the language contact with the Anglo-Normans (van Gelderen, 2018). A corpus-based analysis using the three Middle English corpora: The Penn-Helsinki Parsed Corpus of Middle English 2, The Parsed Corpus of Middle English Poetry, and The Parsed Linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English reveals that -fien derivatives can be categorized into three different classes regarding their semantic properties. In addition, it is shown that causativity is a matter of degree. Most investigated verbs have an underlying causative meaning but incorporate multiple senses that are either more prototypical causative or ‘abstract causative’. Lieber’s (2004) lexical-semantic framework is used to demonstrate that -fien is a causativizing suffix with a causative skeleton but without a lexical meaning. This study provides one piece to the puzzle of the unexplored ‘morphological history’ of English and the long-term effects of the language-contact situation with Anglo-Norman.

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Lang, S. (2022). Verifying Causatives: A Corpus-based Study of the Middle English Derivational Suffix -fien. Mannheim Papers in Multilingualism, Acquisition and Change, 4, 1–56.
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