Friday May 6, 2011
By DR LIM CHIN LAM
Looking at the ways in which abstract nouns are formed and used.
HOW the rambling mind works! I was reading a review of the movie Red Riding Hood (The Star/Weekender, April 30, p. WE2) when I did a double take. There it was, the curious text: “In a community where everyone has long lost touch with the mothership ...” There is no doubt that the reviewer was steeped in space travel and the TV series Star Trek but she failed to distinguish between mother ship (“a large spacecraft or ship from which smaller craft are launched or maintained”) and mothership. As for me, something else came to mind, viz. the first lines of the poem, Death the Leveller (by James Shirley, 1596-1666): “The glories of our blood and state / Are shadows, not substantial things”. No, I was not thinking of the lofty theme of the poem but of the phrase, “not substantial things”.
Mothership? Is this an abstract noun – one of a type of nouns for things intangible or not substantial – formed by tagging the suffix -ship onto the common noun mother, the suffix itself denoting a state or condition or quality or attribute. Is mothership an abstract noun that means “the state of being a mother”? There is no such abstract noun, even though the word mothership is properly styled after friendship or relationship. What about motherhood or, if one were to go back to the Latin roots, maternity or maternalism? Motherhood (mother + suffix -hood), maternity (mater “mother” + adjective suffix -nus + suffix -ity), or maternalism (maternus + -al + -ism) are valid words but they are not synonymous. There are many suffixes that can be used to form abstract nouns. However, there is no one suffix to fit all words (as is illustrated above); and, conversely, there is no one word that can add on every one of these suffixes.
At this juncture, we might note that Malay also has suffixes, often used with prefixes, to form abstract nouns. The following are some examples: kematian (death), perikanan (fishery), kehutanan (forestry), penghutanan (conservation of forest).
English has a very much wider range of suffixes to form abstract nouns from common nouns as well as adjectives and verbs. The table provides a list (very likely not exhaustive) of such suffixes. After compiling it, I cannot but be amazed by the awesome armoury of suffixes available to form abstract nouns covering a whole range of situations.
Abstract nouns as common nouns
It must be noted, however, that it not uncommon for an abstract noun to become a common noun – and to be used even in the plural – when the suffix refers to the item or the feature or the act denoted. The following are some examples: distances (as in a land of great distances), intricacies, freedoms (as in the four freedoms), deletions (i.e. the items deleted), colloquialisms, inducements (the items offered as inducement), illnesses (but not sicknesses), and hardships (but not sportsmanships).
I am now almost overcome with sleepdom (no?), sleepment(no?), sleepness (no?), sleepiness (ye-e-e-s!). Good night.