For long there has been an article (original article in Chinese) circulated on the Internet which propagates the idea that the English word China is a pejorative term and should instead be replaced with the demonym Zhongguo. The author believes that China is given its name because of its porcelain, or china. He proceeds to argue that we may as well call Italy Pizza or Germany Beer should we be called China. Neither is the adjectival term Chinese innocent. The suffix –ese is said to be derogatory and only used on the supposedly inferior races (in the eyes of westerners) such as Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese.
After posting my other article So many negative prefixes, I received very positive feedback and many readers apparently found the article interesting and useful. Indeed, these little affixes (prefixes and suffixes) can be puzzling when they are similar in meaning but nevertheless non-interchangeable. That makes people ask why they are what they are: is there a subtle rule beneath all the messy superficial distribution, or things just happen by chance?
Not long ago, a friend asked me whether there are rules governing the usage of those suffixes of nationality, such as –ese, –ian and –ish. I thought about it for a while, then I remembered that years ago I read a post on the Internet, saying that –ese is a derogatory ending used only on those countries that the western world thought to be inferior, so we have adjectives like Chinese, Vietnamese and Burmese. After all, many of the Asian countries do form their adjectives in –ese. But I had doubts, don’t the westerners just love Japanese stuff? And why Korean, Indian, Malaysian and Indonesian then? So I decided to look for the answer myself.
In English, we can use a number of prefixes on adjectives to form their opposites. The following pairs come to mind as examples:
In most cases, these prefixes are not interchangeable, so we do not have *unlegal or *apossible, for instance. Of course, fluent speakers have no problem in using the right prefix for the right word, as more than often, the negative adjectives are learned word by word. But that should not stop us from pausing and asking, “Are these prefixes randomly matched with the words?” The lesson from Why is probible not possible and possable not probable? tells us that while not everything has a reason, most things indeed do not come from nothing. So the question that we should really ask is “What are the differences between these prefixes?”
In English when we want to describe something as “capable of doing something”, there is a handy set of adjectives that we can use which end in either -able or -ible. Examples are numerous, to name a few, we have adorable, applicable, curable, observable, operable, portable, probable for -able, and divisible, edible, feasible, legible, permissible, plausible, possible for -ible.
These two suffixes carry exactly the same meaning, i.e. “capable of V-ing”, or more often “capable of being V-ed”, where V is a verb constituting the stem of the word. For instance, applicable describes something that is “capable of being applied“, and changeable describes something that is “capable of changing/being changed”. They are, however, not interchangeable, as illustrated by the non-existence of the words *probible and *possable. Why, then, do some words use -able and others -ible?