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Circumfixes in English: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:04 Adding to a Word
  • 1:10 Circumfixes in English
  • 1:41 A-Ing
  • 2:44 Em-En & En-En
  • 3:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

In many languages, there are different affixes words can gain that change their meaning. In this lesson, you will learn about circumfixes and look at some English examples.

Adding to a Word

Did you go running yesterday? Or perhaps you walked around the block? 'Running' and 'walked' are both examples of root words that have had something attached to them to alter the meaning. By attaching '-ing' to 'run,' you place it in the progressive tense. By adding '-ed' to 'walk,' you place it in the past tense.

English is full of examples like this, where adding a few letters to a word can alter its meaning. These attachments, no matter where they appear in the word, are called affixes. There are several ways to add attachments to words.

Most common in English are prefixes, which attach to the beginning of a word, and suffixes, which attach to the end of a word. The examples we just mentioned of walking and running are both suffixes. Another type of affix is a circumfix. Circumfixes attach to both the beginning and the end of a word. They are essentially made up of both a prefix and a suffix, but since the attachments are always used together, they have a separate category. In order for it to be a circumfix, the root word must be bracketed on both sides.

Circumfixes in English

Circumfixes are far less common in English than in other languages, and so you are much more likely to see either suffixes or prefixes. In addition, they are not productive affixes. An affix is productive if new words are coined by using them. Typically in English, new words use either suffixes or prefixes, not circumfixes. However, historically, circumfixes used to be more productive, and there are some examples that we still use in conversation and literature.

A-Ing

One example that was very common historically is the 'a-ing' circumfix. 'A-' attaches to the beginning of the word and '-ing' to the end. This circumfix was typically attached to verbs. It changed the meaning of the root word so that it meant to be doing that activity right at that moment.

One famous example comes from the traditional Christmas song 'The Wassail Song.' 'Wassail' means 'to toast to good health.' The following excerpt is the first three lines of the song:

'Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wand'ring'

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