Able and -ible

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Научни трудове на Съюза на учените в България–Пловдив Серия А. Обществени науки, изкуство и култура том IV, ISSN 1311-9400 (Print); ISSN 2534-9368 (On-line), 2017, Scientific works of the Union of Scientists in Bulgaria–Plovdiv, seriesA. Public sciences, art and culture, Vol. IV, ISSN 1311-9400 (Print); ISSN 2534-9368 (On-line), 2017.


Maria Anastasova

University of Plovdiv Paisii Hilendarski

Abstract: The main objective of this paper is to make a comparison between a group of English adjectives derived by means of the suffixes -able and -ible and the present passive participle in Bulgarian – a participle often classified as a verbal adjective in Bulgarian and with which the aforementioned adjectives are often translated. The paper attempts to provide evidence that these English adjectives are not only semantic but also functional equivalents to the Bulgarian present passive participle and finally raises the question whether the parallels drawn between the English -able/-ible adjectives and the Bulgarian present passive participle are ample evidence to differentiate a group of present passive participles in English.
Key Words: Present Passive Participle, Adjective, Formant, Functional Equivalent
In current-day English there is a group of approximately 1800 adjectives derived by means of the suffixes -able and -ible and they tend to become more and more numerous. If we closely examine their etymology, we will come to the conclusion that some of them originated as far back as the beginning of the 13th century and others have a fairly recent origin. It is safe to say that a great number of the verbal stems they are derived from have French and respectively Latin origins as do the suffixes themselves. However, there are some verbal adjectives (such as understandable) derived from Old English verbal stems rather than from such of overtly Latin and French origins. We could also add that despite the fact that many have Latin origins (via French), the verbs they are derived from are parts of the English lexicon as well. This probably supports the idea that even if they were initially taken from French and Latin as ready-made forms, later on, the process of derivation with these suffixes became productive in English and was embraced as a native one.

Their Bulgarian counterparts in the majority of cases are the present passive participles formed with the help of the morpheme -m. Similarly to the English -able/-ible adjectives these Bulgarian forms are said to be of foreign origins – Ivan Kutsarov mentions briefly in his Theoretical Grammar of the Bulgarian Language that they have Russian and Old Church Slavonic origins (Kutsarov, I., 2007), whereas Konstantin Kutsarov provides more detail in his research work on Bulgarian participles by stating in his opening chapter that it is true that more often than not present passive participles are introduced into the language as ready-made products from Old Church Slavonic and Russian, but one can also come across such forms which are derived from living Bulgarian verbs. (Kutsarov, K., 2012).

A more comprehensive examination of the -able/-ible and -m formants’ etymology points at even greater similarities between Bulgarian present passive participles and the aforementioned English adjectives. The dictionary entry about the etymology of -able/-ible puts emphasis on the fact that the suffix is actually -ble and the vowels depend on the stems of the verbs. -Ible is usually added to verbal roots of overtly Latin origin whereas -able is added to verbal bases of either English origin or to any other foreign verbal roots. The etymological entry of the aforementioned suffix (-ble) also uncovers its kinship to the Latin verb habere – “to have, to hold”. Respectively a more thorough look into the etymology of the -m formant reveals that it is part of the root of the Old Bulgarian verbs of possession 3ti and im7ti (Dzhelyova, 2015) – the former meaning “to take, to hold” and the latter – “to have”. A. Dzhelyova adds that as a suffix in the present passive participle, -m means that the bearer is the centre of a certain property. (Dzhelyova, 2015)

Ivan Dobrev calls -m a medial pronominal root and he argues that present passive participles in Bulgarian originated from old substantives denoting a centre of activity. He explains further that the ancient forms of present passive participles nosim] (carriable, portable) derived from the transitive verb nositi and visim] (hangable) - from the intransitive one vis7ti, initially meant substantives or objects which possessed the quality or capability of being carried or hung. Dobrev also lists the functions the –m formant served in the past among which (in addition to the formation of present passive participles) is the formation of instrumental and dative case inflections.

According to Dobrev, however, not all Indo-European languages derived their instrumental and dative inflections from the medial pronominal root -m. Some of these case inflections actually developed from another old suffix -bh akin to the preposition b(o)=ob (Latin). The instrumental, ablative and dative meanings of the suffix -bh were developed from the use of the element in the sense “in front of/opposite”. The postpositive adverb bh which indicated the presence of a side person or object during the implementation of the activity was granted the new meaning of a case inflection for indirect objects, starting points and instrumental circumstances. Based on the fact that -m participated in the formation of not only the instrumental-dative case endings but also in verbal inflections and the formation of present passive participles, it would not be too far-fetched to presume that as a participant in the -ble suffix -b is a formant of a similar participle in English.

In the etymological entry of -able we find out that it represents the Proto-Indo-European *-tro- which was used for the formation of nouns denoting instruments and this fact backs the hypothesis even more. A. Dzhelyova describes the roles that *-d/*-t morphemes (*-t is present in *-tro-) played in Proto-Indo-European language – one of which was to participate in the formation of the genitive case inflections. Genitive case is the chief case used for quasi-subjects and quasi-objects and it also denotes going from and towards a certain centre. (Dzhelyova, 2015)

If we are trying to claim that Bulgarian present passive participles and -ble adjectives are so alike, then we should probably try to apply the definition of one to the other. Few Bulgarian scholars deal with present passive participles in detail. In most theoretical grammars they are barely mentioned let alone given a definition. Many Bulgarian grammarians even go further in classifying participles in general as verbal adjectives and not as participles or participial adjectives. Most attempts at defining what participles actually are end up as descriptions of what verbal and nominal characteristics they possess.

K. Kutsarov (2012) provides what seems most like a definition of participles and a differentiation between them and adjectives. He says that it is true that an adjective and a participle are similar in that they can both be used attributively and predicatively. What separates participles from adjectives is the fact that their verbal base activates the quality they attribute. According to him a participle designates an active attributive quality of the phenomenon named by the noun. (Kutsarov, 2012) The same could be as easily ascribed to the English -ble adjectives as well.

One of the characteristic features of adjectives often used to draw a line between adjectives and other parts of speech is that the majority of adjectives can have degrees of comparison unlike other parts of speech. The fact that -ble adjectives bear degrees of comparison does not prove their adjectival status – Bulgarian present passive participles also allow degrees and if that is not enough evidence due to their controversial status, we can easily add examples of other types of participles which behave in a similar manner (по-успял; по-усмихнат). What all of this proves, however, is that participles are indeed an intermediate link between adjectives and verbs.

Another point in favour of the theory that -ble adjectives are not pure adjectives is that participles are said to recognize the category of voice (unlike adjectives). -ble adjectives can be paraphrased by using the following models: “to be+past participle/ able to be+past participle“ in which they bear an uncanny resemblance to Bulgarian present passive participles that also contain both a passive and a modal meaning. Nakova (2009) writes in her paper on Bulgarian present passive participles that they are marked with the modal meaning ABILITY which does not affect in any way their participial status. In fact, we could argue that the same is equally valid for -ble adjectives.

In favour of the -m verbal adjectives’ status as participles, she mentions that the strongest argument of many Bulgarian scholars for excluding them from the paradigm of participles is the fact that they do not take part in complex verbal predicates and that a verb phrase of the type съм+прилагателно на -м (sŭm+-m prilagatelno=be+-m adjective) is defined as a complex nominal predicate. Nakova (2009) disproves this by explaining it is not the only participle in Bulgarian which does not participate in complex verbal predicates (the Bulgarian present active participle and deeprichastie often translated with a gerund in English are other illustrations).

Тhe morphologically marked Bulgarian past passive participle does not participate only in verbal constructions with copula verbs but is also used attributively in which case it does not lose its passive sense and the same goes for the present passive participle. (Kutsarov, K., 2012) Thus we could easily infer that a construction containing a -ble adjective no matter whether the aforementioned adjective is used predicatively or attributively, due to the presence of a passive sense, is, in fact, analogical in use and meaning to constructions containing Bulgarian present passive participles.

The last part of this paper presents a study of examples from George Orwell’s 1984. Before going into details, I would like to mention briefly that in addition to the examples from Orwell’s 1984 and its Bulgarian translation, I have also analysed 300 -able and 215 -ible vocabulary units to avoid the translator’s subjectivity and preferences for certain lexical and grammatical constructions. This lead to comparatively equal results: about 61% of English -able adjectives and 60% of -ible adjectives are translated in Bulgarian with present passive participles. The reason why the rest of the -able/-ible adjectives are not translated with present passive participles is the lack of such participles from the corresponding verbal bases (no matter whether they are transitive or intransitive). Thus, we are oftentimes obliged to translate the English -able/-ible adjectives either by means of past passive participles which serve as substitutes for the missing present passive ones, or by means of whole phrases which convey the same meaning a present passive participle would, if it existed.

All that would probably be better illustrated if examples from the corpus are presented. The commentaries on the book and its translation do not intend to evaluate the quality of the translation under consideration. The purpose of this analysis is to try to establish to what extent English -ble adjectives and Bulgarian present passive participles could be considered as functional equivalents. Having clarified the matter, I shall present the results.

In the corpus I examined for the purposes of this paper (George Orwell’s 1984) there are 188 instances of usage of -able adjectives (Fig. 1) and 179 instances of usage of –ible adjectives (Fig. 2). For the sake of convenience the two variants of the formant will be examined in parallel and the examples will be organised according to their equivalents in Bulgarian.

Fig. 1: -able adjectives

Fig. 2: -ible adjectives

The best starting point would probably be -ble adjectives translated in Bulgarian with present passive participles. The statistics of the examined corpus shows that 41.49% of the -able (examples 1 and 2) adjectives and 12.85% (examples 3 and 4) of the -ible adjectives are translated in Bulgarian with present passive participles. Out of the eleven different groups of equivalents in Bulgarian this one holds first place among -able adjectives and third place among -ible ones:

(1) The past was dead, the future was unimaginable. (EN: 18)

(2) Беше сам, миналото беше мъртво, а бъдещето – немислимо. (BG: 19)

(3) Nothing holds it together except an idea which is indestructible. (EN: 123)

(4) Нищо не го обединява, освен една идея, и тя е непобедима. (BG: 127)

The low percentage of –ible adjectives could easily be accounted for not only by the translator’s preferences but also by the fact that if we look closely at the corpus dealing with –ible adjectives, we will notice that –ible adjectives are primarily represented by four adjectives: possible – 40.78%; impossible – 27.93%; terrible – 7.82%; horrible – 5.03% out of all 179 –ible adjectives. These results could also be explained by the participation of two of these four adjectives (possible, impossible) in epistemic predicative constructions considered by some scholars as constructions with more peculiar status.

The next Bulgarian equivalent which takes a prominent place in the statistics based on the corpus is Bulgarian adjectives formed by means of the suffix –en – 33.51% of –able adjectives (examples 5 and 6) and 54.19% of –ible ones (examples 7 and 8) have this equivalent:

(5) An unmistakable message had passed. (EN: 11)

(6) Несъмненото послание бе предадено. (BG: 13)

(7) It was an intricate and responsible job and had better be dealt with last. (EN: 26)

(8) Това бе сложна и отговорна задача и по-добре бе да се заеме с нея накрая. (BG: 28)

As far as -able adjectives are concerned all other Bulgarian counterparts have comparatively weak representation. The third place is shared by two types of constructions – such containing past passive participles (examples 9 and 10) and such consisting of other types of adjectives (different from the ones formed by means of the suffix -en – examples 11 and 12). Each of these holds 3.72%:

(9) They wore them down by torture and solitude until they were despicable, cringing wretches, confessing whatever was put into their mouths, covering themselves with abuse, accusing and sheltering behind one another, whimpering for mercy. (EN: 178)

(10) Сломявали ги с изтезания и самота, докато не ги превръщали в окаяни раболепни отрепки, които признавали всичко, вложено в устата им, покривали се с лъжи, обвинявали и се прикривали един зад друг, хленчели за пощада. (BG: 189)

(11) Even those three miserable traitors in whose innocence you once believed – Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford – in the end we broke them down. (EN: 179)

(12) Дори онези трима жалки предатели, в чиято невинност ти някога вярваше – Джоунс, Ааронсон и Ръдърфорд, – накрая и тях сломихме. (BG: 190)

The same constructions have comparatively low percentage of occurrence in the examples containing -ible adjectives – 1.68% for other adjectives (examples 13 and 14) and 1.12% for past passive participles (examples 15 and 16):

(13) There was the most terrible oppression, injustice, poverty worse than anything we can imagine. (EN: 62)

(14) Имало жестока експлоатация, несправедливост, мизерия – не можем да си представим колко лошо е било. (BG: 65)

(15) The eyes of the chinless man kept flitting towards the skull-faced man, then turning guiltily away, then being dragged back by an irresistible attraction. (EN: 164)

(16) Очите на мъжа без брадичка се стрелкаха към човека с череповидното лице, после виновно се отклоняваха, за да се върнат пак като омагьосани. (BG: 175)

The second position with -ible adjectives is held by sentences in which the adjective is translated with a verb in Bulgarian (21.23%) most probably because of what has already been mentioned – namely that the two prevalent adjectives possible and impossible take part in epistemic predicative constructions which could easily be translated with modal verbs. In the case of -able adjectives modal verbs (examples 17 and 18) constitute only 3.19% thus sharing the fourth position with passive constructions (examples 19 and 20) and nouns or nominal phrases (examples 21 and 22):

(17) This place was many metres underground, as deep down as it was possible to go. (EN: 199)

(18) Това помещение беше много метри под земята, толкова дълбоко, колкото можеше да се стигне. (BG: 210)

(19) Perhaps her thickened, stiffened body was no longer recognizable from behind. (EN: 206)

(20) Едва ли натежалото и втвърдено тяло можеше да бъде разпознато в гръб. (BG: 218)

(21) It also follows that though the past is alterable, it never has been altered in any specific instance. (EN: 148)

(22) Оттук също следва, че въпреки променливостта на миналото то в нито един момент не е било променяно. (BG: 158)

The latter two have different values in the statistics concerning -ible adjectives – nouns/nominal phrases hold 5.59% (examples 23 and 24) and passive constructions - 1.12% (examples 25 and 26):

(23) Why had it not been possible to outflank them in some way? (EN: 204)

(24) Защо не беше намерен начин да ги обкръжим? (BG: 216)

(25) Has it ever occurred to you that it is reversible? (EN: 186)

(26) Хрумвало ли ти е някога, че той може да се обърне? (BG: 197)

There are four more groups of translation equivalents which I will only briefly mention because their presence is very scarce and they are not of great importance to this paper. In the case of -able we have substantivised adjectives in the English text in 2.66% of the sentences and these substantivised adjectives are translated in Bulgarian by means of nouns. The percentage of such instances in the -ible corpus is much lower – 0.56%. The -able adjectives which are not translated at all in the Bulgarian text are 2.66% whereas the -ible ones are 1.12%. The least popular correspondents are adverbs (-able – 1.60%; -ible – 0%) and constructions with other types of Bulgarian participles (-able – 1.06%; -ible – 0.56%).

Based on what has already been presented we arrive at the following conclusions:

  1. Compared in terms of their etymology -ble adjectives and Bulgarian present passive participles are both borrowings and both contain morphemes having to do with verbs of possession which mean “to have, to hold”.

  2. The roles of the formant which participates in the derivation of -ble adjectives are quite similar to the ones the -m formant has in Bulgarian.

  3. Both formants were used for the formation of case inflections of cases that denoted people or things involved indirectly in the activity expressed by the verb.

  4. As far as their meaning is concerned -ble adjectives and Bulgarian present passive participles both possess modal passive meaning which is not a sufficient argument to exclude them from the paradigm of participles.

  5. The definition of what present passive participles denote could be applied successfully to -ble adjectives as well.

  6. As the examined vocabulary and book corpora have shown, we could, without any doubt, consider -ble adjectives and Bulgarian present passive participles as functional equivalents.

These similarities and the presence of such word groups in many other languages (there are such participles in Finnish and Latvian) provide enough justification for us to start wondering whether the aforementioned adjectives and participles should be categorised in the same way.

Dobrev 1982: Добрев, И. Старобългарска граматика. Теория на основите. София, 1982.

Dzhelyova 2015: Джельова, А. Типологична характеристика на глаголно-именните словосъчетания с родителен и дателен падеж в старобългарския книжовен език. Пловдив, 2015.

Kutsarov 2007: Куцаров, И. Теоретична граматика на българския език. Морфология. Пловдив: Университетско издателство „Паисий Хилендарски“, 2007.

Kutsarov 2012: Куцаров, К. Българското причастие. Пловдив: Университетско издателство „Паисий Хилендарски“, 2012.

Nakova 2009: Накова, В. Възраждане на сегашното страдателно причастие в съвременната българска реч. // Romanoslavica, Vol.45, 2009, 59-68.


EN: Orwell, G. 1984. 24.05.2017

BG: Лилия Божилова, превод, 1989. Оруел, Джордж. 1984. 24.05.2017

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