John Larrysson's Column: The Grammar of Y at the End of a Word (2 of 3)
Words of Old English Origin

The letter Y at the end of a word represents different suffixes from Old English and French. The meanings include, the status of, the condition of, having the quality of, and the diminutive. In the last article I covered the status of and the condition of. Both of these are used in English words of Old French origin. This time I will cover the Old English structures.

[audio 1]

The English -Y suffix can create an adjective from a noun meaning having the qualities of or full of. That is turning the word for a thing into a description of being like that thing. For example: Wine that is oaky has an overly strong flavour of the oak barrel. A road that is icy is covered with ice. Other such words include: noisy, bendy and gluey. When the root word ends with a -Y the ending is -EY as in clayey.

Originally this first -Y suffix was from the Old English -ig, which was added to nouns to create an adjective. However from the 13th century onwards it was used with verbs (runny and needy) and from the 15th century onwards has even been used with other adjectives (bluey and crispy).

[audio 2]

There is another English -Y suffix (or an -IE suffix, especially in Scottish English), which is used to form diminutives. Diminutives are forms of a word showing small size, lesser importance or familiarity. The use of Tommy instead of Thomas is an example of a diminutive. Other examples include Sandra being reduced to Sandy, Catherine to Kathy, Richard to Ricky, Charles to Charley and Matthew to Matty. The same thing happens with non-names such as kitten being changed into kitty. So is girly/girlie instead of girl. Depending on context, the use of a diminutive can show friendly informality or insulting contempt. Only use them if you are sure of how they will be received.

[audio 3]

Often Y at the end of a word gives us a view into the history of a word. Most students will not be able to understand the full background. However presenting words grouped by a similar meaning having the quality of, the status of, the condition of and the diminutive may aid understanding.

[audio 4]

Y-related Articles:

The Grammar of Y at the End of a Word (1 of 3)

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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