Word Structure

  • Brian Foster


When quiz-masters or schoolteachers require their victims to produce the opposite of a given word the correct answer is often a word of totally different root, e.g. as the opposite of ‘artificial’ we can say ‘natural’. If the question were put the other way we could give as the opposite of ‘natural’ either ‘artificial’, or else, ‘unnatural’, according to the precise shade of meaning. On the spur of the moment we might well recall only ‘unnatural’, since obviously the use of a prefix is a convenient way of indicating reversal of meaning. In Esperanto this is in fact the usual way of forming contraries, so that bona ‘good’ has as its opposite malbona ‘bad’; in other words Esperanto simply prefixes mal- to any word in order to obtain that word’s opposite. To take another example: amiko is ‘friend’ therefore malamiko is ‘enemy’. Of course it is by no means unknown for English to carry out a similar process with ‘mal-’ (also with ‘mis-’ and ‘dis-’) but here the technique is not always quite the same as in Esperanto, since these prefixes more often than not indicate not exactly an opposite but rather an element of imperfection or remissness, as in ‘maltreat’ or ‘distaste’. It is ‘un-’ which so often expresses the negative or opposite of nouns, adjectives and verbs, but although this prefix has been used extensively in English since the earliest times it cannot be applied indiscriminately.


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  1. 1.
    H. Montgomery Hyde, Norman Birtket (Hamish Hamilton, 1964), p. 515.Google Scholar

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© Brian Foster 1968

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  • Brian Foster

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