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1. Definition

An affix is a formative attached to a stem. Affixes, like stems, are parts of the grammatical word (i.e. they are parts of the syntactic X0). Affixes need stems as their grammatical hosts, they necessarily cooccur with stems.

Affixes, unlike clitics, are categorially restrictive, i.e. they attach only to stems of a certain parts of speech. (English affix re- attaches only to verbs: re-use, but not numerals: *re-five.)

Affixes usually have a more restricted phonology, segments used for affixes in a language are only a subpart of the phoneme system. Affixes are usually shorter than stems, are phonologically bound, have more abstract meaning than stems and occur in a fixed order (but see counterexamples below).

Many simple morphemes are exclusively segmental and consist of a single affix. Therefore in a simplified view affixes are said to bear meanings, instead of saying it’s the morphemes which bear meaning. For an affix which is a part complex morpheme, this view is somewhat misleading. For such examples see simulfix, morpheme or formative.

2. Examples

English (West-Germanic, Indo-European)


Akkadian (East-Semitic, Afroasiatic)

‘They (feminine) got ill.’

3. Subtypes

3.1. Position

Affixes vary in their position relative to the stem: prefix (precedes the stem), suffix (follows the stem), infix (is in the stem). All three types can be seen in the examples above, but here is a general scheme:

prefix suffix infix
pf-stem stem-sf st<inf>em

3.2. Inter-Affix Dependencies

Various dependencies can be found between affixes. One affix may change the meaning of another affix:

German (West-Germanic, Indo-European)

setz-t Ge-setz ge-setz-t
set-3s.PRES some.thing-set, ‘law’ PTCP-set-PTCP

The occurrence of an affix may depend on another affix (coocurrence dependency):

Czech (West-Slavic, Indo-European)

star-ší nej-star-ší *nej-star
‘older’ ‘oldest’

A prefix and a suffix which only occur together are called a circumfix. The Czech and German examples above are not circumfixes in a proper sense. For details see circumfix.

3.3. Phonology does not matter

Phonologically bound affixes

All of the above examples were affixes that are phonologically bound, i.e. they are a part of a phonological word. A Turkish example from Bickel & Nichols (in press) shall demonstrate this once again. (All vowels within the domain of a Turkish phonological word harmonize.):



‘It is because they cannot be introduced to each other.’

(lit. ‘[it] is from their not being able to be made known to each other.’)

Phonologically free affixes

Affixes need not be necessarily phonologically bound but can be phonological words of their own. What makes them affixes is being a syntactically unseparable part of the X0. The following Lai Chin sentence consists of one grammatical word having three affixes, but phonologically, it is three words. Nhaa and làay are phonologically free suffixes, whereas na- is a phonologically bound prefix.

Lai Chin (Example from Bickel & Nichols (in press))

phonological words (ω na-tuk) (ω nhaa) (ω làay)
grammatical words [gw na-tuk -nhaa -làay]
2s.A-hit.with.stick -3p.P -FUT
‘You will hit them.’

Even English has some phonologically free words which can be analyzed as infixes (Examples from Bauer 1983):

[gw (ω kanga)<(ω bloody)>(ω roo)]

[gw (ω guaran)<(ω friggin)>(ω tee)]

Detached affixes

Detached affixes are phonologically bound, but their phonological host is not part of their grammatical host. A Santali example (taken from Neukom 2001:100) shall illustrate this:

phonological words (ω əuri=e) (ω hɛ̃g-re) (ω dal-aka-e-tahɛn-a)
grammatical words [gw əuri] [gw e- hɛ̃g-re] [gw ɲ- dal-aka-e-tahɛn-a]
until=3s.S- confess-LOC=1s.S- strike-CONT:ACT-3s.O-CONT-IND
‘I will continue to strike him until he confesses.’

The Santali verbal prefixes for subject agreement are phonologically bound to any phonological word that immediately precedes the verb. In cases where the intonational phrase begins with a verb, these subject agreement markers appear as the last suffix on that very verb form. For details see Neukom (2001: 113ff).

3.4. Quirky cases

Lexical affixes

Affixes usually have more abstract meaning than stems. However, in Nuu-chah-nulth we find affixes with very concrete meaning, called lexical affixes:

Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), (Wakashan), (Nakayama 1997:38)

ʔuqɬaːpʼaƛ qʷayacʼiːk, takaːtisˀaqƛq.
ʔuqɬaːp-ʼaƛ qʷayacʼiːk, tak-aːt-ʻis-ˀaˑqƛ-q.
thinking-TEL wolf
thought wolf
‘Wolves thought that he would probably go down the stream of the current.’

Nuu-cha-nulth (Nootka), (Wakashan), (Nakayama 1997:43)

‘We used to get together in a house on the beach.’

Free order of affixes

In Kusunda (a language isolate of Nepal), at least some verbal suffixes may appear in random order (Watters 2005:70):

tsi sip-tsi-n
I enter-1-REAL
I entered.

is in free variation with:

tsi sip-n-tsi
I enter-REAL-1
I entered.

In Chintang, a Kiranti language of Nepal, we find a random order of prefixes (Bickel et al., Ms.):

They didn't see us.

is in free variation with:


See also

dictionary article affix


  • Bauer, Laurie. 1988. Introducing linguistic morphology. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Bauer, Laurie. 1983. English Word-formation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bickel, Balthasar & Nichols, Johanna. in press. Inflectional morphology. In: Shopen, Timothy [ed.], Language typology and syntactic description. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (revised second edition).
  • Bickel, Balthasar & Banjade, Goma & Gaenszle Martin & Lieven Elena & Paudyal, Netra & Rai, Ichcha & Rai Manoj & Rai, Novel Kishore & Stoll, Sabine. Manuscript, 2005. News from Himalayas: languages with free prefix ordering. PDF
  • Nakayama, Toshihide. 1997. Discourse-Pragmatic Dynamism in Nuu-cha-nulth (Nootka) Morphosyntax UMI Dissertation 9809637
  • Neukom, Lukas. 2001. Santali. Lincom Europa.
  • Watters, David E. 2005. Notes on Kusunda grammar: a linguistic isolate of Nepal. National Foundation for the Development of Indigenous Nationalities. Kathmandu, Nepal.