Privative

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A privative, named from Latin privare,[1] "to deprive", is a particle that negates or inverts the value of the stem of the word. In Indo-European languages many privatives are prefixes; but they can also be suffixes, or more independent elements.

Privative prefixes[edit]

In English there are three primary privative prefixes, all cognate from PIE:

These all stem from a PIE syllabic nasal privative *n̥-, the zero ablaut grade of the negation *ne, i.e. "n" used as a vowel, as in some English pronunciations of "button". This is the source of the 'n' in 'an-' privative prefixed nouns deriving from the Greek, which had both. For this reason, it appears as an- before vowel, e.g. anorexia, anesthesia.

The same prefix appears in Sanskrit, also as a-, an-. In North Germanic languages, the -n- has disappeared and Old Norse has ú- (e.g. ú-dáins-akr), Danish and Norwegian have u-, whereas Swedish uses o, and Icelandic uses the etymologically related ó.

Confusion of privative and non-privative in English[edit]

Many words introduced into the English from the Latin start with the prefix in-. While often this is a privative it is not always so. Even if it is a privative the meaning may be unclear to those who are not familiar with the word.[2] The following three examples illustrate this.

Example one: inexcusable

Here the prefix is a privative and the word means the opposite of excusable that is, "unable to be excused, not excusable".


Example two: invaluable

This is also a privative but it does not mean "not valuable, not precious". While today valuable is a synonym for precious it originally meant "able to be given a value".[1] The meaning of invaluable hinges upon this original meaning and thus means "of very great value" or literally "value cannot be estimated (because it is so great)", similar to priceless but dissimilar to worthless.[3]


Example three: inflammable

A naive reader may interpret this as "not flammable". However, this is wrong. The word does not contain a privative but a locative and flammable (the newer word in English by three hundred years)[4] rather than being the opposite of inflammable means the same thing.

Here the prefix in- arises from the Latin for "in, inside, within" and inflammable derives from the Latin root inflammāre[5] meaning "able to be set alight, able to kindle a flame". Since at least the 1920s there have been calls to stop using inflammable and substitute it exclusively with flammable to avoid confusion which happens even with native English speakers. [4]

Privative suffixes[edit]

Some languages have privative suffixes; -less is an example in English. Further examples are -t(a)lan or -t(e)len in Hungarian or -ton/-tön in Finnish (non-IE languages).

References[edit]

^ The meaning "able to be given a value" is largely obsolete today.

See also[edit]