marathon-athon

March 6, 2009 § Leave a comment

A little informal formal linguistics in this post.

Morphology is the study of word formation. Well in linguistics it is. In geology it is something different. Something about rocks, I guess. Linguists talk about meaningful bits of words by using the term morpheme. If we take a word like unattractive,  we will all agree, I hope, that we can break it down into 3 parts or 3 morphemes, each of which contribute some of the meaning to the whole:

un-attract-ive

neg-attract-adj

The second version is an attempt to describe the structure of the word, the morpheme withe shape un-is a negator. This attaches to the adjective form attractive. The -ive   is doing the work of making the verb attractinto an adjective or describing word.  We know that un-  morphemes attaches to attractive rather than attract morpheme, i.e., the verb, because we cannot say *he really unattracts me. (The little star here tells us we are dealing with an ungrammatical construction.)

 So many morphemes in English have been around since the dawn of time. That is not to say though that new morphemes don’t appear in the language. One of my two big favourites are -(a)thon and -ista.

Some of you may be familiar with the story of the marathon. To advise the Athenians of the victory of the Greeks over the Persians back in the day, a warrior ran from Marathon to Athens, a distance of some 20 odd miles.  In the first modern Olympics held in Athens at the end of the 19th century, this feat was celebrated …. and turned into a competition. At this stage, the (modern) Greeks had not won a medal, and this was the final event. 12 runners set off from Marathon to run to Athens, and I think 6 of the 8 that finished were Greeks including the winner, – instant national hero!

Not only that but eventually the rebirth of the marathon had an influence on the English language. Not one to be delicate about the word structure  of other languages – we borrowed cerise  from French to make cherry but we assumed that the final s was a plural marker so lopped it off. We fused the Arabic for the to the word for intoxicating beverage- al+cohol.

With marathon, we did not feel much need to keep on with the mar(a) part, despite the fact the Greek does not seem to segment into two parts here, and we assigned a totally new meaning to -(a)thon.

Here’s a google corpus of -athon words

  • Welcome to Math-a-thon

  • Butt-Numb-A-Thon

  • 24 Hour Cancer Dance-a-thon

  • Our understanding of an -athon  type event is informed from the entire word the morpheme was modelled from. There must be some sense of endurance and abnormal length of activity.

    It is interesting that this morpheme which has been called an Americanism is quite widely employed compared to a similar looking morpheme with a more ‘legitimate pedigree’. You will all be familiar with biathlons, triathlons, pentathlons and decathlons. These forms too are from classical Greek. A google search however pulls out a great deal fewer novel  -athlon  forms than -athon terms.  There might be two reasons for this. One purely phonological the sequence of sounds  represented by the spelling ‘thl’  is not common in English. The other might be that at some level speakers are aware that the compounds above are made up of Greek number morpheme +  athlon,  a morpheme meaning ‘competition, game’. 

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