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What Is a Confix?

By F. Ruiz
Updated Jan 27, 2024
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In the field of linguistics, the term “confix” refers to a specific type of affix. Confixes are composed of at least one prefix and one suffix, which are placed on either side of a root word. When a confix is added to a root, a new meaning separate from the meaning of the root word by itself is created. The term “circumfix” is often used interchangeably with “confix.” Confixes are used extensively in Indonesian and Malay, and they appear to varying degrees in many other languages, such as Arabic, German and Japanese, to name a few.

“Confix” derives from Latin roots; con means “with” and fix means “attach” in this context. Unlike a prefix, which is attached to the front of a root, or a suffix, which is attached to the end, a confix is divided and attached to both ends. The fact that the separate parts of confixes appear on different sides of the root makes confixes discontinuous morphemes. Morphemes are the smallest units of a word that carry meaning. Though confixes are discontinuous, both of their halves must be present for the meaning to be formed.

Students of German often learn to use confixes without realizing that they are doing so. The perfect and passive participles of regular German verbs are formed by using the confix ge-____-t. For example, to form the passive participle of the verb fragen, which means “to ask,” one would attach ge-____-t to the root, frag, to yield gefragt. Dutch employs confixes in a similar way to German.

Older forms of the English language also used to employ confixes in forming present participles, but this use is no longer the norm. An archaic English confix was “a-____-ing.” Examples include sentences such as: “They went a-hunting” or the song lyric “The times they are a-changin'," a phrase that was made famous by singer-songwriter Bob Dylan during the 1960s.

Indonesian often employs confixes to form verbs from nouns. For example, one meaning of the word hantu is "ghost." When the confix meng-____-i is added, the new word menghantui can be a verb that means “to frighten or haunt.” In a similar way, confixes can be used to form adjectives from verbs, as with lihat and kelihatan, which can mean “see” and “visible,” respectively.

As might be apparent from these examples, confixes are extremely versatile. Examples can be found of them being used to form nouns from verbs in Hebrew. Czech and Hungarian employ confixes in certain situations to achieve superlative forms. Japanese employs some honorific confixes, and Berber often uses them to mark the feminine. Confixes also are used in negation in many dialects of Arabic and other languages, such as Guaraní.

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