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Word Stem Formation

Updated: 6-28-2011 7:45 AM

Introduction

The nouns and verbs in Ojibwe typically consist of a word stem and inflectional affixes, which surround the stem:

inflectional prefixes + WORD STEM + inflectional suffixes

The stem, or core part of a word, carries the basic meaning or meanings of the word; the inflections show grammatical ideas and relationships. Many word stems are made up of smaller word parts. Some of these parts are themselves words or word stems; others do not constitute word stems themselves, but appear again and again in different word stems, each time adding a particular meaning to the underlying stem. For example, all of the stems in the words below have a meaning that includes the idea of through, and all of them have an element in common:

zhaabwaakade  =  it is burned through

zhaabwaate  =  light filters through

zhaabonigan  =  needle

A particular group of sounds (zhaabw- or zhaabo-) appears in these and many other stems that include the idea of through. The sound group does not constitute a word or a word stem by itself. Because this sound group is often associated with the meaning through, the meaning can be said to be attached to the sound group, which in turn can be considered a stem-forming element. This particular element typically occurs as the first element of a word stem.

Many Ojibwe words are made up of similar elements that act as building blocks in word stems. Each such element contains a particular group of sounds (which may vary in pronunciation depending on how it fits with other elements) and has a particular meaning or function and (usually) a particular position inside a stem. Word stems made up of such elements can also serve as building blocks in other stems, and these in turn inside others. Every time a stem-building element is added to another element or to a word stem, a meaning or function is added or changed and a new stem is created.

The process of assembling or building stems out of such elements or out of existing word stems is called derivation. There are three main ways of assembling word stems: by primary derivation,by secondary derivation, and through composition.

A stem formed by primary derivation, called a primary stem, is made up of one or more elements that are not word stems themselves. A stem formed by secondary derivation, called a secondary stem, is made up of an underlying word stem and at least one stem-building element. A stem formed through composition, known as a compound stem, contains a relatively independent element, such as a word stem or a preverb or prenoun that resembles an adverb or other particle, and a word stem. A verb stem may also be modified in meaning by a process of reduplication, in which a prefix, the form of which depends on the sounds in the first syllable of the stem, is added to the front of the stem.

The patterns of stem derivation are not as regular as those of inflection, which, with very few exceptions, follow established rules. Word stems belonging to a particular word class will usually follow the pattern of inflections established for that word class. The patterns of derivation, however, are both more complex and more varied. Small groups of word stems will follow a common pattern, but, even within these small groups, many exceptions will occur.

A teacher of Native languages has remarked that studying the stem-building elements of Native languages and the patterns by which they are put together is like studying the thought pattern of the languages.

As important as inflection is to the operation of the languages, it is in derivation that the distinctive and meaningful core of the languages is most apparent. In examining the composition of word stems, we are looking at very old but still creative and changing aspects of the languages. To become really fluent in Ojibwe, a student has to learn to understand and to make up new combinations of stem-building elements and to do so in accordance with the established patterns of the language.

Because some stem-building elements occur frequently and are easy to identify, teachers might be tempted to break all of the word stems they teach down into elements or other words. This may prove a tricky and even dangerous practice, since there are many elements that are pronounced in the same way as, or that sound similar to, other elements, but that have different meanings or positions. Breaking down stems into their elements and analysing them and describing the patterns of stem formation can often be a complex process, and teachers should make sure that their explanation and patterns apply to more than one stem before using them in class.

There is still much to be learned about derivation, the sounds of the stem-forming elements, their patterns of arrangement, their meanings, and their history. This section on stem formation is intended primarily to introduce one way of looking at these elements and their patterns. Consequently, it should be noted that only the most basic kinds of stem-building patterns are discussed here, and that there are many other types of elements and patterns that are not dealt with. Most important, teachers should keep in mind that using a wide variety of stems in real words and sentences is often a better way to teach them than just analysing or explaining them.

Here the word stems given as examples appear in fully inflected forms; uninflected forms appear odd and are hard to pronounce or recognize as being part of Ojibwe. In most cases, they are given in relatively simple inflected forms, and as often as possible in forms that contain no overt inflectional affix, or only one.

Thus nouns are given, where possible, in the singular form, and verbs are given in the independent order with a third-person subject, or a third-person subject and object, because the inflectional affixes in these forms are not very prominent, often being in the zero form.

When stems or stem-building elements are identified in the text, they are preceded (for suffixes) or followed (for prefixes and stems) by a hyphen to indicate that they are not full words, but only parts of words.

In writing such elements, the connective sounds that may appear between elements when they are assembled into stems are usually omitted. There are several other pronunciation rules whose function is to adjust the sounds of elements and stems when they are put together, which are not discussed in this outline. It should also be noted that in Central Ojibwe the pronunciation rule called syncope often causes vowels to be dropped, so that the pattern of vowels in a given element will vary according to the position of the element in the word in which it appears. 

Although learning and understanding word stems is essential to learning the Ojibwe language, and some stem-building elements occur frequently and are easy to identify, one might be tempted to break all of the word stems they teach down into elements or other words. This may prove a tricky, since there are many elements that are pronounced in the same way as, or that sound similar to, other elements, but that have different meanings or positions. Breaking down stems into their elements and analyzing them and describing the patterns of stem formation can often be a complex process, and one should make sure that their explanation and patterns apply to more than one stem before using them. Keep in mind that using a wide variety of stems in real words and sentences is often a better way to learn them rather than analyzing or explaining them.  Only the most basic kinds of stem-building patterns are addressed here, there is still much to be learned about derivation.

When stems or stem-building elements are identified in the text, they are preceded (for suffixes) or followed (for prefixes and stems) by a hyphen to indicate that they are not full words, but only parts of words. In writing elements, the connective sounds that may appear between elements when they are assembled into stems are usually omitted.