John Larrysson's Column: The Grammar of Y at the End of a Word (1 of 3)
Words of Old French Origin

The letter Y at the end of a word represents different suffixes. The meanings include, the status of, the condition of, having the quality of, and the diminutive. In this article I will cover the status of and the condition of. Both of these are used in English words of French and Latin origin. They came into English when the Norman French ruled colonial England. Next time I will cover the Old English structures. 

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Commonly the Y noun suffix shows the status of a thing. A group of men armed with weapons of war is an army. The word is from the Old French armée. The word city is from the Old French cite, originally meaning citizenship or membership in a community. The word entry comes from the Old French entree meaning to enter. The Old French past participle verb suffix -E has been converted into a -Y noun suffix in English.

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Another Y suffix is found in abstract nouns. The word identifies the condition or quality of a thing. Many important nouns have this suffix. A felony (crime) is committed by a felon. These are from the Old French felonie and felon. A folly (silly action) is committed by a fool. These are from the Old French folie and fol. One shows courtesy by a courteous action. These are from the Old French curteisie and curteis. This suffix comes from the Latin suffix -IA, which in Old French was altered to an -IE suffix, then to Y in English.

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The Latin suffix -IA was directly replaced by a Y in English in some country names that end in -Y. These include Germany, Hungary and Italy, which come from the Latin Germania, Hungaria and Italia. This structure is an adjective which means the land of the ______.1 The same structure gives us the word history from the Latin historia (meaning a story of) and family from familia (meaning the property of 2).

[audio 4] 

Often the original root word is no longer in use. For example we can look at the words mercy and perjury. Their original root words are from Old French and are no longer used in English. The word mercy shows that someone has the qualities of divine forgiveness from the Old French word mercit (meaning thanks or reward). The word perjury, (the act of promising to tell the truth and then lying – especially in court), is from the Old French parjurée (against oath = per + iurare). Even if the root is gone, the suffix form may be in common use. These -Y word endings were added to English because of the time when the Norman French ruled England. Many very widely used nouns in English have this origin.

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1. Norway, Uruguay and Paraguay are not Latin derived names and are unrelated to this structure.

2. The Latin familia meant the slaves, house and property owned by a person and their relatives, not the person and their relatives. The Latin word for parents and children was domus (from which we get the word domestic.) In English, the meaning of a group of people who form one household under one husband-authority, including parents, children, servants and occasionally borders is from the 16th century. The modern meaning of parents and their children, whether they live together or not, is from the 17th century. 

Y-related Articles:

The letter Y & The Double Vowel Rule

Pronouncing The letter Y At The End Of A Word

Pronouncing The Letter Y at The Middle of a Word

Pronouncing The Letter Y at The Front of a Word

by John Larrysson [email protected]  

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.


NOTE: Starting in 2016, this column has been published once every two weeks, on every other Tuesday.

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