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Q&A

How can a prepositional phrase shift to become a verb?

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I don't know why, but the embolded semantic shift for agree (v.) below unsettles me.

  1. a gré is a prepositional phrase, correct?

  2. If so, how can a prepositional phrase transmogrify into a verb (e.g. agreer)? Can you please make this shift feel more intuitive, or naturalize this shift?

late 14c., "to give consent, assent,"
from Old French agreer "to please, satisfy; to receive with favor, take pleasure in" (12c.), a contraction of phrase a gré "favorably, of good will," literally "to (one's) liking"
(or a like contraction in Medieval Latin) from a,

from Latin ad "to" (see ad-) + Old French gre, gret "that which pleases,"
from Latin gratum, neuter of gratus "pleasing, welcome, agreeable"
(from suffixed form of PIE root *gwere- (2) "to favor").

In Middle English also "to please, gratify, satisfy," a sense preserved in_ agreeable_. Of parties, "come to agreement; make a settlement," mid-15c.; meaning "to be in harmony in opinions" is from late 15c. Of things, "to coincide," from 1520s. To agree to differ is from 1785 (also agree to disagree, 1792).

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2 answers

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Like any language change, it can be a bit confusing to current speakers while it is happening, but once the resulting verb is established, nobody will blink anymore.

Latin was especially fond of verbification of prepositional phrases. Prepositions simply became prefixes.

To overcome your unsettling feeling, you can open a Latin dictionary near the beginning and look for words where the initial "a" is followed by a double letter. This is typically a residue of a prefix "ad-", itself derived from a preposition "ad", having undergone assimilation[1] to the first sound of the root.

For example, "accipio"[2], "addico", "affecto", "aggrego"[3].

The actual frequency of the process is perhaps higher than what the suggested procedure intuitively demonstrates, because sometimes the assimilated letter was written as a single letter ("aspiro"), or the assimilation was blocked by semantic considerations ("adbibo" meaning "drink a toast to"; if it became "abbibo", then the prefix "ad-" would become "ab-", the semantic opposite of "ad-".)

This derivational process remained productive in successor languages and also in English. The tendency to create new English(!) words by combining Latin prefixes with Latin roots was at its height in 17th and 18th centuries, but the process is available to this day and it even has a name.

Your example word "agree" probably[3:1] first underwent this process in Late Latin or Old French, so this particular verb was borrowed into Middle English in its finished form.

(The derivational process isn't limited to Latin or to European languages. However, many languages don't have any prepositions, so they naturally cannot use the exact same process.)


  1. English "assimilate" comes from Latin "assimilare" from "ad similem" ("towards similar"). I wanted to translate Latin "assimilare" with English "incorporate" but then I'd be tempted to add another footnote to point out that the originally Latin prefix "in-" comes from a preposition "in". ↩︎

  2. English "accept" is via Latin "accipio" (meaning "I take" or "I take to myself", refering to a current one time action), through its frequentative form "accepto" (also meaning "I take", but implying that my attitude will hold also in the future, repeatedly). And "accipio" is from "ad-" + "capio" (the latter meaning very plainly "I take"). Here the prefix is applied to a verb rather to a former noun or former adjective. I'm elaborating this example nevertheless because you first mentioned "accept" in a comment if I noticed correctly. ↩︎

  3. English "aggregate" is via Latin "aggrego" from Latin "ad gregem", i.e. "to the group" or "to the herd". Switching to infinitive forms, Latin "ad gregem ducere" (literally "to lead [animals, etc.] to the herd [so as to make them a part of the herd]" was shortened to a "adgregere" and eventually "aggregere". The herd in question can be pre-existing or created only by this act of "aggregation" or "grouping". ↩︎ ↩︎

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Many thanks as always for your answers! Can you please elaborate on how the meaning got verbified? Please don't hesitate just to edit your an swer, rather than posting a comment. Once verbified, what did "ad grex", i.e. "to the group" or "to the herd" mean? For instance, in English, it's unidiomatic to say I "to the group" or I "to the herd". How did I ""to the group" or I "to the herd" mean "I accept" or "I agree"? PSTH‭ 4 months ago

I don't think this really answers the question. Latin ad-, as a prefix, is adverbial in sense, even though ad is a preposition user8078‭ 4 months ago

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I don't know the linguistics behind it, but perhaps can address one of your questions—

Can you please make this shift feel more intuitive

— by noting that prepositional phrases sometimes become verbs in English, too, though rarely. You can find lots of examples on the Web of "per-dieming" at a job and "undergrounding" power lines, for example.

(English prepositional phrases more easily become nouns, incidentally. "A f'rinstance", "an at bat", "an FYI", etc.)

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