I dragged myself out of bed at 8:30 AM today. Under normal circumstances, if I’m still in bed at 5:45 AM, it means that I had a rough night–I am most definitely both a morning person, and an early riser. Seulement voilà (“the thing is”):
- At this time of year, it doesn’t get light outside in Paris until about 8:30 in the morning.
- At 2 AM I got obsessed with the need to learn all of the words for baby animals in French.
Morphemes are the things that words are made of. For example, the plural cats has two morphemes: cat, and the s that carries the meaning of plurality. (This happens to be the example from which my child learned what a morpheme is–as a young child, and as we did the dishes together. Must suck to be a linguist’s kid…)
English has an odd little morpheme that refers to things that are small. Like the s of cats, it is what is called a bound morpheme, meaning that it cannot be a word on its own–it has to be attached to something else. (Contrast that with the cat in catnap (a short, light nap), catnip (a plant–it’s basically pot for cats), and cathouse (a brothel–archaic)). Here are a couple of examples:
- duckling: a baby duck.
- inkling: a small hint, or a small piece of knowledge. (I’ll give some examples of its use later.)
The -ling morpheme is also not productive: that means that you can’t really use it freely to make “new words.” For example, it’s not clear that anyone would know what you meant if you casually threw the words waterling (parallel to inkling) or penling (parallel to duckling) into a conversation. (Contrast that with -gate, which over the course of my lifetime has become applicable to practically anything, with the meaning of “a scandal related to:” Bridgegate, Pizzagate, etc.) Because it’s not productive, one could list all of the words in English in which it occurs. Limited only by my memory, of course. My best shot at doing so:
- duckling: baby duck
- gosling: baby goose
- foundling: a child who has been found after having been abandoned
- changeling: when the elves take away your baby and leave one of their own in its place
- inkling: a small hint, idea, trace, piece of knowledge, clue
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Zipf, you’re a drooling idiot. There are lots of words in English that end with -ling: for example, DROOLING. Feeling, wheeling and dealing (French: mic-mac or micmac), healing…
Well… I may be an idiot, but I’m not a drooling one. Here’s the thing: a morpheme is defined by its sound (or spelling)–in our case, ling–and by its meaning. Drooling and gosling (baby goose) contain the same sounds/letters, but not the same meaning of smallness, so it’s not the case that they share the same morpheme. -ling is a pretty textbook (French: typique) example of a non-productive morpheme.
So, yeah: I don’t sleep much, and I’m trying to learn to speak French, so at 2 AM I got obsessed with learning the names of baby animals in French. This web page got me started, and then I started searching WordReference.com for weird English-language baby animal names (say, gosling), and here you see the results. (Yes, some occur more than once.) At 2 AM, I only knew chiot (puppy), chaton (kitten), and veau (calf)–how about you? And, native speakers (Phil d’Ange, I’m lookin’ at you)–can you add some more?
English-language example sentences
- The Steel Riders Saga is a sci-fi/fantasy novel about Free Wheeler, a foundling discovered by the legendary Steve Thompson during a deep terrain ATV ride. Thompson leads an ATV pack known as the “Steel Riders.” In their fantastical journeys Free Wheeler finds true love and home. (Twitter, @quantum_tide)
- Meanwhile, in Australia, there’s a National
#GravyDay. I have never heard of anything so glorious! (Nobody in my family cares about gravy as much as I do. I… might be a foundling?) (Twitter, @VG28263355) @Decervelage Can I just say…Baby Faced Finster. A foundling!! You Naughty Baby!! Hahaha! (Twitter, @TheSuperAmanda)
- I’ve mentioned this numerous times on the podcast but… I have an inkling that Nintendo will use Smash DLC to promote upcoming (inc third-party) Switch releases. (Twitter, @pixelpar)
- My new resolution is to not read the thread of comments of tweets where I know or have an inkling that it’s not going to be a good thing. (Twitter, @valparkie)
- You are a gem of a friend and you don’t have an inkling of how much i appreciate your ignorance of my vices. (Twitter, @Shakti_Shetty)
- I don’t have an inkling of what the future holds but I’m excited (Twitter, @JaredTench)
- Roommate, Camden *going to Waffle House in Dunn*: “If I get the smallest inkling of a crack-whore, I’m leaving!” (Twitter, @dr_pattyguin)