The meanings of deverbal nouns have been classified by various linguists in terms of case, such as instrument or result of action. However, there is some debate as to whether meaning can attach to the derivational suffixes such as -ation, -ment, etc., which form these nouns. For some the meanings of the suffixes themselves are unspecified,a part from the grammatical recategonsation involved in changing a verb to a noun. Others see an affix as interacting with the base to affect the semantics of the\ud derivative. Earlier historical linguists described deverbal suffixes as attracting a 'nexus' of meanings which are common to all of them, and which cluster round a central\ud semantic notion such as 'action/fact'. Furthermore,it has been suggested that each suffix develops through time a unique combination of such meaningsin a hierarchy of its own.This is the question I am concerned with here.\ud \ud \ud My interest is in the French nominal suffixes -ment, -ancel-ence, -ation, -age and -al, which entered Middle English (ME) via borrowings from French, and which now form abstract nouns in English by attaching themselves mainly to verbs. I shall argue that from their earliest appearance in English these suffixes began to select characteristically from the nexus of common meanings, in terms both of the kinds of bases to which each suffix was characteristically attached, and also of the kinds of contexts in which words formed in it tended to appear. I further conclude that each one may specialise in a distinct aspect of the central meaning 'action/fact', such as specific instance or quality.\ud \ud \ud My method has been to examine the integration into English of each suffix, then to take samples of about 200 words in each, in order to determine the semantic categories in which they were used in their earliest recorded citations in the MED and OED. Some of these contexts will be analysed in detail. I will then compare these findings with those from an examination of the same suffixes in five plays by\ud Shakespeare. By comparing the earlier semantic profiles for ME words with those for the same words in Shakespeare, as well as with those for words of later origin in the same suffixes, I hope to touch on some ways in which suffix use might develop over time, in the selection both of bases and semantic contexts
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