George RR Martin’s prose style – Affixes, compound and combination words

Abstract

George RR Martin’s phenomenally successful series of sword-and-dragons fantasy novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, is distinguished not only by its pseudo-medieval setting, subject matter, characterisation and plot lines, but by a systematic exclusion from his vocabulary of almost all words derived from Latin, Greek, French or other languages, or foreign loan words, or the ‘neo-classical’ coinages which entered the language from the 17th century onwards. Instead, his style shows a high frequency of words of Anglo-Saxon origin, a tendency which is particularly conspicuous in his use of compound and combination words.

First, I shall define the types of compound word available in English; then examine how Martin uses them, highlighting his reliance almost exclusively on forms with Anglo-Saxon roots; then conclude that the lexical choices he makes are as important as the subject matter of the stories in creating the novels’ brutal, archaic worldview.

THEORY

English, being a flexible, almost uninflected language, has instead of inflexion a large number of ways of combining words or particles to change meanings. Chief among these is the affix, phonemes added to the root or stem of a word to change its meaning. Added before a word affixes are prefixes, added after a word they are suffixes (these are the commonest two types of affix in English though Wikipedia has a beguiling table of ten types of positional categories of affix). Affixes can be derivational or inflectional, inflectional ones changing the grammatical function of an existing word without changing the root meaning eg adding an -s at the end of a verb makes it third person singular, or to a noun makes it a plural; derivational means the combination creates a completely new word eg ‘speech’ + the suffix ‘-less’ = ‘speechless’, a new word.

1 Prefix

A prefix is an affix which is placed before the root of a word. In the study of languages a prefix is also called a preformative because it alters the form of the words to which it is affixed. Being such a wonderfully mongrel language English takes prefixes from many other languages, just a few examples (This list of prefixes and the list of suffixes below are from an excellent article by Dr Lim Chin Lam  in The Star of Malaysia) [1]:

  • English: be-, in-, out-, over-, under-, un-
  • Latin: ab-, ad-, inter-, intra-, post-, pre-, re-, sub-, super-
  • Greek: a-, ana-, dia-, endo-, exo-, epi-, hyper-, hypo-
  • German: über-*

In English, all prefixes are derivational ie adding them to a stem derives a new word.  Examples of derivatives formed with the prefixes listed above are: incoming, underachieve, interrelate, relay, subhuman, dialogue, epilogue, überbabe.

Wikipedia has an impressive list of some 1,060 English prefixes. (It also has an entry for a completely separate category, a table of Number prefixes, listing over 80 examples.) (It is significant for my argument that Wikipedia divides the prefixes into two categories, native and neoclassical, following the work of the Hans Marchand.)

2 Suffix

Suffixes are affixes positioned at the ending of words or stems. Like prefixes, suffixes can be derivative (added to the stem to make a new word) but unlike prefixes suffixes can also be inflectional (adding -s to make a plural or -ed to make a past tense). English incorporates suffixes from multiple sources, for example:

  • English: -ful, -let, -some
  • Latin: -able, -ate, -ion, -ous, -ure
  • Greek: -ic, -ist, -osis
  • French: -enne, –eur, -euse, -ise, -trix

Examples of derivatives formed with the suffixes listed above would include: helpful, handsome, endurable, resonate, institution, carnivorous, plastic, metamorphosis, executrix.

Wikipedia has a list of some 609 English suffixes.

3 Combining words [2]

Then there are certain words or stems of words which, like prefixes and suffixes, can be used in combination with other words or word-stems but have this big difference from affixes – they can also be used in combination with other affixes or among themselves. These are called combining forms. To summarise, a combining form may join with

  1. an independent word (mini- + skirt)
  2. an affix (cephal- + -ic)
  3. or another combining form (photo- + -graphy)

Combining forms are thus distinct from affixes, which can be added to either a free word or a combining form but not solely to another affix. Combining forms are overwhelmingly of Latin or Greek origin and were imported into the language from the 16th century onwards as scholars revived ancient learning and revelled in the power of neo-classical morphemes to create huge numbers of (often technical) new terms. Using Marchand’s term we can categorise all the Latin and Greek formations as neoclassical.

Latin-derived

  • word beginnings: bi-, demi-, mini-, multi-, oleo-, omni-, petro-, quadri-, radio-, semi-
  • word endings: -colour, -form, -mony, -ped, -vorous

Greek-derived

  • word beginnings: amphi-, arch-, astro-, dys-, eu-, hemi-, hetero-, homo-, litho-, macro-, micro- oligo-, poly-
  • word endings: –arch, -cracy, -crat, -graph, –logue, –logy, -meter, -nomy, –path, -phagous, -phile, -phobe

Examples of combining forms doing what affixes can’t do ie combining with another combining form, would be: bi+ped, astro+nomy, micro+scopy, mono+logue, oli+garch. The result feels and sounds very technical, scientific, academic.

There are three types of combining forms:

  1. forms borrowed from Greek or Latin which are derivatives of independent nouns, adjectives, or verbs in those languages. These combining forms often replace the corresponding English word when used in the formation of learned/scientific/jargon coinages (eg cardio- to replace ‘heart’, -phile to replace ‘lover’) and generally appear only in combination with other combining forms of Greek or Latin origin (we say bibliophile not bookphile, to maintain the consistency of the learned style, the technical register of the word).
  2. a form extracted from an existing Greek or Latin free word and used as a bound form, typically maintaining the meaning of the free word or some facet of it. Eg heli-, mini-, para-, -aholic, -gate, -orama.
  3. the compounding form of a free-standing English word. Such a combining form usually has only a single, restricted sense of the free word (and may differ from the word phonetically). Eg -proof, -wide, -worthy, -land, -man.

Complicated though the analysis of combining forms can become, the basic idea is that they are a more flexible type of affix, overwhelmingly Greek or Latin in origin, and that they create almost a parallel version of English, for use among the learned professions, medicine, law, academia et al. A political interpretation might be that they serve to exclude the uninitiated from specialist areas of knowledge and are designed to maintain privilege among a learned elite.

4 Compound words 

English (like its parent German) allows its users to combine freestanding words to make new ones and English is very rich in these compound words. Compound words, in order for the results to be manageable, tend to combine two short, often monosyllabic, words. Typical English compound words would be:

  • afternoon, birthmark, blackberry, heartbeat, rainbow, shopkeeper, seaweed, sunshine.

Having defined the terms ‘affix’, ‘combining word’ and ‘compound word’, it’s time to explore the way they are deployed by George RR Martin.

GRRM’s PRACTICE

1 Prefix

Consider the common Latin or Greek prefixes listed by Dr Lam [note 2]:

  • Latin: ab-, ad-, inter-, intra-, post-, pre-, re-, sub-, super-
  • Greek: a-, ana-, dia-, endo-, exo-, epi-, hyper-, hypo-

Almost none of these are found in Martin’s work. There are hardly if any words starting ab, sub, super, post… Their absence speaks volumes.

There are obviously exceptions. ‘Re’ is common in words like return or reply, recite, restore. In ‘Feast For Crows’ I came across the word ‘intermittent’ which stood out like a sore thumb. Enemies have to ‘submit’. In chapters about the High Septon and his religious court words like ‘fornication’ and ‘adultery’ are freely used. But in hundreds of other pages there are only a handful of examples of neo-classical prefixes.

Instead, Martin uses almost exclusively English (ie Anglo-Saxon) prefixes. Common examples are ‘un-‘ and ‘be-‘  forms.

  • bedraggled, bedeck, betray, behead, behest, beneath,
  • uncertain, uneasy, unlucky, unmoved, unruly, unship, untaken

And sometimes Martin goes to the other extreme from using neoclassical prefixes, delving beyond common speech into archaic native forms: for example, he conspicuously deploys the archaic prefix ‘a-‘ to denote position: atop, abed, ahorse (the form survives in more common forms such as astern, adrift).

2 Suffix

Of the six hundred or so available English suffixes, Martin overwhelmingly uses forms which convey a deep sense of their Anglo-Saxon provenance. To readers with a feel for the language these usages convey a richness and historical depth to the individual words and the surrounding contexts. Notably common in his lexicon are:

  • -craft (from Old English –cræft “art or skill in”) type of skill eg statecraft, warcraft, witchcraft.
  • -dom (from the Old English -dōm meaning “state, condition, power, dominion, authority, property, right, office, quality) eg kingdom.
  • -en (from the Old English -en meaning “made of, consisting of, having the qualities of”) applied to nouns to form adjectives: oak > oaken, ash > ashen, earth > earthen, wood > wooden, frozen, broken.
  • -ful (from the Old English, to form adjectives from nouns, adjectives implying a thorough and certain possession of the quality of that noun) eg hurtful, sorrowful, bashful, beautiful, mournful.
  • hood (from the Old English -hād) a) the condition of being the thing the suffix is attached to eg childhood, parenthood, manhood b) a group sharing a condition or state eg knighthood, priesthood, brotherhood.
  • -less (from the Old English -lēas, from lēas meaning “devoid of”) lacking the quality of the stem eg breathless, loveless, helpless.
  • -ling (from Old English -ling meaning either a) “a younger, smaller or inferior version of what is denoted by the original noun” b) the derived sense indicating possession of or connection with a quality) eg duckling, wildling (cf Tolkien’s use of ‘halfling’ to describe the hobbits).
  • -ly (from the Old English -līċ “like”) converts a noun into an adjective (sick > sickly).
  • -ly (from the Old English -līċe) converts an adjective into an adverb (quick > quickly).
  • -ness (from the Old English -nis, -nes, “-ness”) a) add to adjectives to form the noun of the quality the adjective describes eg calmness, richness, kindness, darkness, coldness, fairness, wickedness, thickness.
  • -ship (from the Old English -sciepe, “state”) a property or state of being the thing to which the suffx is attached eg kingship, leadership, horsemanship, lordship, fellowship.
  • -some (from the Old English -sum, “-some, same as”) characterized by some specific condition or quality eg quarrelsome, handsome, fearsome, toothsome.
  • -ward(s) (from the Old English -weard, -weardes) a) forming adverbs denoting course or direction – northwards, backwards b) forming adjectives, as in “a backward look”.
  • -lit moonlit, sunlit
  • -light dawnlight, sunlight, moonlight, candlelight, lamplight.

3 Combining words

Insofar as combining words are generally Greek and Latin in origin they are rare in GRRM. Maester Colemon says “intercession” on page 691 of A Feast for Crows but then he is a maester, a learned man, and so it is in character. “Intermittent” is a standout usage earlier in the novel. “Fornication” is used in the chapter where princess Margaery is accused by the religious order of the septons: again it is deployed to convey technocratic and legalistic mindset of medieval religious inquisitors. In the final chapter of FfC, about the educated maesters of Oldtown, there are Latinate words like penetrate, complement, complaint. Against the overwhelming backdrop of Saxon vocabulary which characterises the novels, the rare use of technocratic neoclassical combining words is very conspicuous, and emphasises Martin’s craft in deploying them to accentuate the legalistic or learned character of the speaker or context of the setting.

Their presence in selected settings highlights the absence of the thousands of neoclassical combining words which are in common usage from these texts.

4 Word combinations English (like its parent German) allows its users to combine words to make new ones. The following compound words are found in the fourth Ice and Fire novel, ‘A Feast For Crows’. Given the subject matter of the novel, it is no surprise they show a tendency to use Anglo-Saxon or archaic source words to form compound words describing mostly medieval, warlike or feudal concepts:

  • aftertaste, applecake, barefoot, bathhouse, battleground, bearksin, bedchamber, bedwarmer, beeswax, birthright, bloodshed, breastplate, chainmail, cobblestone, collarbone, cookpot, cupbearer, deadfall, dockside, doorstep, doorway, downfall, drawbridge, driftwood, evenfall, facedown, featherbed, figurehead, fingertip, fingernail, firepit, fishpond, fishwife, flagship, foodstuff, footsore, footstep, freedman, freedwoman, gatehouse, gemstone,  grandson, greybeard, greyhound, guardsman, halfpenny, hallway, handmaiden, hardness, headlong, helpmate, henceforth, highborn, hilltop, hindquarters, hoarfrost, honeycomb, household, huntsman, kettledrum, lakeshore, lambswool, lifetime, limestone, longship, longsword, lowborn, lovesick, lukewarm, maidenhead, midday, moonstone, nakedness, oarsman, oathbreaker, offshoot, outlaw, overnight,  oxcart, piebald, pinecone, raindrop, roughspun,  saddlebag, sealskin, selfsame, sheepskin, sinkhole, snowdrift, stableboy, strawberry, stronghold, sunset, sweetbread, swordbelt, threadbare, turnpike, twoscore, underfoot, warhammer, waterline, waycastle, whalebone, wheelhouse, whetstone, whirlpool, whitecap, whitewash, wildfire, windburnt.

Some of the examples above are more obscure than others: there is a spectrum from the everyday (barefoot, rainbow, chestnut) to the rarely used (highborn, firepit, cookpot) to the possibly-made-up (waycastle, windburnt, evenfall). Crossing that line, the technique of word combination offers plentiful opportunities to invent new words for authors who have the context and the prose style which can accommodate them; and Martin uses this facility to coin scores of wonderful and evocative neologisms:

  • archmaester, bannermen (minor families loyal to a great lord), beastling, cookfire, crannogman, doeskin, dragonglass, dreamwine, firewine, foeman, godswood (holy wood where the magic weir trees grow), godsworn,  greenseer (wise man of the Children of the Forest), greensick (seasick), greensight (second sight of the greenseers), hardbread, innkeep, ironborn (inhabitant of the western Iron isles), lichyard, kingsmoot (meeting to decide a king), mansmell, pricklefish, ravencraft, riverlands, sailcloth, sellsword (mercenary), sellsail, shadowcat, shavepate, skinchanger (who can change into an animal), smallclothes,  smallfolk (ordinary people), sourleaf, sterncastle, stoneborn, stormland, strongwine, stumbletongue, sweetling (term of endearment), sweetmilk, undertunic, wallwalk, waterskin, waterhelm, weirwood (the holy trees), westermen, woodharp,

Some are variations on ideas which nearly but don’t quite exist in our world (firewine), but many go beyond to describe new ideas and new things which he has invented for the novels, from the relatively mundane (riverlands, westermen, smallclothes) to the evocative (ironborn, sellsword, ravencraft) to the genuinely visionary and inspired (weirwood, greensight, skinchanger).

Martin’s use of compound words is just one of the verbal techniques he uses to reinforce the otherness of his fantasy world. The more there are, the more frequently you encounter them on each page, the greater the sense of moving into his otherworld, the greater the sense of the completeness of the fantasy world. Westeros not only has its own geography and history, its own peoples and religions, it also has its own form of English which deploys multiple techniques to create an integrated sense of its otherness and unity.

Some examples

These examples are chosen to show the overwhelming Saxon character of GRRM’s prose, consisting as it does of short, mostly one-syllable words of old English origin. The AngloSaxon affixes and combination words don’t dominate; but they are there on every page, playing their part. And there are no words sourced from Latin, Greek or French, no no neoclassical affixes, no foreign combining forms. The result feels archaic.

“The white wolf raced through a black wood, beneath a pale cliff as tall as the sky. The moon ran with him, slipping through a tangle of bare branches overhead, across the starry sky.” (D&D52)

“Just ahead, the elk wove between the snowdrifts with his head down, his huge rack of antlers crusted with ice. The ranger sat astride his broad back, grim and silent. Coldhands was the name that the fat boy Sam had given him, for though the ranger’s face was pale, his hands were black and hard as iron, and cold as iron too. The rest of him was wrapped in layers of wool and boiled leather and ringmail, his features shadowed by his hooded cloak and a black woolen scarf about the lower half of his face.” (D&D69)

“The drumming seemed to be coming from the wolfswood beyond the Hunter’s Gate. They are just outside the walls. Theon made his way along the wallwalk, one more man amongst a score doing the same.” (After The Feast, p91)

“Other tidings were of greater interest. Robett Glover was in the city and had been trying to raise men, with little success. Lord Manderly had turned a deaf ear to his pleas. White Harbour was weary of war, he was reported to have said. That was bad. The Ryswells and the Dustins had surprised the ironmen on the Fever River and put their longships to the torch. That was worse.” (D&D 230)

In this example, there are words of Latin or French origin (city, success, report, surprise) but they are outnumbered by Old English words – deliberately archaic words (tidings, weary, plea), short stocky Saxon words (raise, deaf, ear, war, bad), Martin’s distinctive Saxon compound words (ironmen, longships) and archaic/poetic phraseology (put x to the torch). Neoclassical words are there – but outnumbered in feel, rhythm and pattern by the dominant native forms.

CONCLUSION

Systematically, George RR Martin selects from the enormous available range of English prefix- and suffix-words, combining words and compound words, only ones of pronounced, strong and rich Anglo-Saxon origin. Latinate words or affixes, present to some extent in most English prose, are mostly excluded or only deployed for effect in the context of legal or religious or courtly matters. In the 770 pages of Feast of Crows I noticed only one really Latinate word, ‘intermediate’. By contrast Anglo-Saxon words, adjectives, adverbs and compound words dominate the prose, perfectly matching or creating a perfect vehicle for, a story so dominated by its medieval, archaic subject matter.

Martin has responded to the criticism that there is excessive sex in the novels by replying that there is also excessive heraldry, excessive swordfighting, excessive scheming and so on:

“If I’m guilty of having gratuitous sex, then I’m also guilty of having gratuitous violence, and gratuitous feasting, and gratuitous description of clothes, and gratuitous heraldry…” [3]

My intention has been to show that, in a similar way, Martin is also ‘guilty’ of deploying a gratuitous (and rich, evocative and pleasurable) Anglo-Saxon vocabulary.

********************

References

[1] This list of prefixes and the list of suffixes below are from an excellent article by Dr Lim Chin Lam in The Star of Malaysia.

[2] The section on combining forms fuses thoughts from Dr Lam with the article on the subject in Dictionary.com

[3] George RR Martin interview in The Atlantic magazine

Throughout there is heavy reliance on the relevant articles on Wikipedia.

Checking of word derivation done with the Online Etymological Dictionary

The application of these definitions to the work of GRR Martin is entirely my own.

********************

Check out George RR Martin’s blog and his website.

A great fansite, Westeros.org, links through to scores of other GoT websites as well as hosting hundreds of FAQs about the series.

HBO TV have dramatised the books. Series 1 is out on dvd. Series 2 transmitted last year and was released on dvd in March. Series 3 will start transmitting on Sky Atlantic on Monday 1 April.

All quotes copyright George RR Martin.

Leave a comment

2 Comments

  1. rainmaninjapan

     /  December 9, 2015

    Not sure how accurate this is, as I read the books over a year ago (and subsequently forgot everything that wasn’t annoying about the prose).

    Just writing to say, this is quality content.

    Reply
  1. Some notes on George RR Martin’s prose style | Books & Boots

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