Sunday, September 4, 2011

Assimilated Prefixes, In-Mortalized in Stone

When speaking, we tend to assimilate one sound into another, to make it easier to say the word smoothly. This happens with many prefixes. For example, we say suffix, rather than the technically "pure" form of the word, *subfix. It is easier to say suffix.  The sound /b/ at the end of the prefix sub- has been assimilated into the sound /f/ at the beginning of the base fix. Spelling follows sound, so the prefix is spelled suf-, but the meaning of the prefix sub- is still reflected in the word: We 'fix' a suffix in place 'beneath or after' the base/root.

More obviously, we 'fix' a prefix in place 'before' the base/root. In this case, the prefix (pre-) appears in its default and most recognizable form. It has not been assimilated.

A similar process of assimilation occurs in the word support. It would technically be *subport but because the root port (meaning 'to carry, to bear') begins with the sound /p/, the final sound of the prefix is absorbed into the beginning of the root. Sounds are assimilated, and spellings reflect the sounds, but morphemic meaning remains. Whether we spell it *subport or support, it indicates that something is 'carried, from beneath.'

Recently, I visited Niagara Falls, where the Niagara River literally "falls" into a tremendous basin (Horseshoe Falls), dumping about 600,000 gallons of water per second. The scene inspires a sense of abundant supply, power, and release.

On the Canadian side of the Falls is a monument to the poem Ode to Niagara.  The Cuban patriot and poet José María Heredia wrote the stirring poem while in exile. First published in 1825, he wrote it to awaken in his people "an ever-burning passion for freedom."

Heredia closes his poem with the hope that his verses will be immortalized. However, on the plaque (see picture) the word immortal is spelled *inmortal. In the engraved poem, the prefix in- has not been assimilated into the beginning sound of the base word, mortal.

It may be that the plaque contains an engraving error, but the word immortal was historically spelled with the prefix in-. For example, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, Chaucer used the Middle English inmortal in Troilus & Criseyde (1374, i 103): "So aungelli was hyre natyf beaute Þat lyke a þyng inmortal semede sche."

Can you interpret Middle English? It's much easier than Old English! I haven't formal training, but perhaps it reads like this: "So angelic was her native beauty that like a thing inmortal seemed she."

How does assimilation influence the teaching of vocabulary?
I suspect that when an assimilated prefix is present, we are less likely to parse the word, mentally, into its morphemes. It should be easier to detect the word's meaning when the prefix is in its more recognizable default form, and has not been assimilated. But English without assimilation would make for clunky speech. The phonological process of assimilation makes speech easier, but obscures meaningful morphemes--prefixes, especially.

Learning about prefixes includes learning about their most common alternate forms. Teaching and learning about assimilated prefixes involves learning about how sounds (phonology) overlap with morphemes (morphology, including affixes and roots) and with orthography (spelling). Learning about assimilated prefixes might enable students to detect the inherent--but somewhat disguised--structural logic in applicable words, for the purpose of reading, spelling, understanding, and using the given words.

Vocabulary lessons can be augmented by discussions of morphological relations, including discussion of assimilated prefixes. In her fabulous book Proust and the Squid; The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf (2007) explained how morphology contributes to word learning and argued for more explicit instruction of prefixes, suffixes, and roots in schools:
"Morphological knowledge is a wonderful dimension of the child's uncovering of "what's in a word," and one of the least exploited aids to fluent comprehension.” (pg. 130) 
Pertinent but brief and interactive instruction might be applied in cases where the meaning of the prefix contributes neatly to the meaning of the whole word, and where the prefix has been assimilated and is not readily recognizable.

Assimilated prefixes are found in a range of words, including science terms. For example, consider the word evaporate ( e-  +  vapor   +   -ate). The prefix e- is an ancient assimilated form of the Latin prefix ex-, meaning 'out, upward'.  Evaporate literally means 'to make vapor go out and upward.'  Several fairly common words contain this assimilated prefix, including erase, erupt, elect, escape, enormous.

Want more?? Learn about prefixes and their various assimilated forms at, a website created by the highly respected Michael Quinion. View several lists of assimilated prefixes, created by Prof. Virginia Hellenga for her students in Scientific Terminology at Monmouth College, Illinois.

Also, word learners -- students and adults alike -- might study words with assimilated prefixes, take the associated Quizlet, or play some related word games, like Scatter and Space Ride. Click here to try it.


Wolf, M. (2007). Proust and the squid: The story and science of the reading brain. New York: Harper / Perennial Press.


  1. Thanks for highlighting this aspect of morphology Susan. Some of your readers may know assimilated prefixes as "chameleon" prefixes, but I prefer to use the term "assimilated" as it more precisely describes the process involved.

    You commented that you suspect readers are less likely to parse words into constituent morphemes when they have assimilated prefixes. That may be true - but especially so in classrooms that do not teach about morphology in general or assimilated prefixes in particular. However, once teachers and students know about this feature of English spelling (with your help!) they have learned a very powerful signal the spelling system provides to guide morphological analysis.

    Seeing a word with the same letter twice in a row near the beginning of a word is like a bright neon sign, signalling to the learner that those two letters probably mark a morphemic boundary. Armed with knowledge of how to make word sums and how to use references, students and teachers can identify affixes and bases they might otherwise skip over. Words like ACCEPT, SYLLABLE, AGGRESSIVE, SUFFER, ILLUMINATE, SUCCESS all use assimilated prefixes. (Perhaps you are now wondering about the word ASSIMILATED too!)

    This is the great thing about learning to be a word scientist with our students. We learn to discover things like prefixes that no one ever taught us explicitly. For example, letter sequences like AC-, SYL-, AG-, SUF-, IL-, SUC-, or AS- may not jump out as likely prefixes to people new to morphological analysis. Learning that two letters near the beginning of a word is a potential marker of a morphemic boundary gives a learner (student or teacher) a reason to conduct an investigation that could look like this:

    1) Hypothesize that ACCEPT might have an AC- prefix and a CEPT base because of the CC.

    2) Test this hypothesis in a good dictionary.

    3) Discover that AC- is an assimilated prefix of AD- and that CEPT goes back to the Latin root 'capere' for "take".

    4) Now this student/class is primed to build a matrix or word web looking for words built on this base CEPT (I recommend The Word Searcher and Etymology Online as useful tools along the way).

    I find learning sticks much better when the content is something the learner discovered than when it is something they have been given. When students and teachers discover new affixes and bases as a result of an investigation, they have not just learned those new words and morphemes, they have built their interest and skill for investigating words.

    I emphasize assimilated prefixes in my work with teachers precisely because they leave a clear spelling footprint of the morphological structure of words that those new to morphological analysis can investigate independently. Assimilated prefixes help learners move from recognizing morphemes they have been taught, to discovering new morphemes. This, kind of investigation of word structures and word meanings is, of course, totally in line with the recommendations from vocabulary instruction researchers do develop students "word consciousness" that you have highlighted in your blog many times.

    I'd also like to add that morphological analysis is not just about learning the meaning of new words - although that is a good thing! Morphological analysis can be used as a tool for organizing and explaining our thinking about concepts. The best way that I can explain what I mean by that is to point readers to a link that includes a video of a Grade 7 student explaining his learning in Social Studies through an assignment that included the use of morphological analysis of key terms from the start. Consider what this student has to teach us about the world with the support of his morphemic analysis of the word DISSIDENT.

    A description of the as + sign + ment that led to this exceptional student work is available at that link as well.

  2. Pete, I fully agree more with your entire comment. Yes, once students have learned a bit about assimilated prefixes, the more likely they are to see them. And it is MUCH better if kids can make the "find" themselves, but at first they need guidance. Thank you for the 4 steps. I hope Vocabulogicians will read your comment (it is worthy of a full post).

    PS. I looked at your dissident video. The young man has done a thorough job, explaining the morphology/etymology of the word and describing how it applies in both current and historical context.

  3. Anonymous9/27/2011

    Likewise, when students are taught about how base elements work in spelling, they are less likely to identify the polymorphemic stem as a base, but to understand it as + -- the same base as we find in + , or , and its derivatives.

    Understanding that these words share a base, and thus belong to the same morphological family, is key to broadening and deepening word knowledge. Wolf is right -- morphological knowledge, right there where meaning resides, is the least exploited aid in understanding how language works.


Comments are published after they are reviewed, to ensure they are not SPAM.