The Article of the Month

by Robert Dilts.

Transderivational Morphology

Transderivational morphology is an NLP term which refers to the way in which the form or structure of a particular word directs our pathways of mental association; and thus influences the meaning and impact which that word has on us. Morphology is an area of linguistics that has to do with patterns and structures within particular words. (This is in contrast to syntax, which defines the patterns and relationships that take place between words.) For example, the difference between the words "happy," "happily," "unhappy," "happiest," "happiness," and "unhappiness," is their morphology, or structure. They are all derived from the same root word, but given different twists through the various affixes (prefixes and suffixes) which have been added to the base word.

In linguistics, morphological derivation is defined as "the process by which a new word is built from a base, usually through the addition of an affix." Derivation creates a new word by changing the category and/or the meaning of the base word to which it applies. The derivational affix "er," for instance, combines with a verb "X" to create a noun with the meaning "one who does X." The verbs "drive," "jump," "teach," "heal," "help," etc., can all be transformed into nouns by adding the suffix "er" -- i.e., driver, jumper, teacher, healer, helper. From an NLP perspective, the addition of the "er" suffix also begins to shift the word from being primarily focused at the behavior and capability level to the identity level.

Some suffixes create adjectives. Adding the suffix "ive" to certain words, for instance, creates and adjective meaning "performs or tends toward an indicated action" -- "responsive," "abusive," "active," "reclusive," etc.

Adding prefixes can also create new words. Combining the prefix "re" with a verb, for instance will make a new verb (instead of changing it to a noun), meaning "to X again" -- e.g., "redrive," "reteach," "reheal," etc. Attaching the prefix "un" to a word X creates a new word meaning "not X" ("unhealthy," "unfriendly," "unresponsive," etc.).

Thus, prefixes and suffixes can be added to practically any existing words in order to create new words. It is interesting to note, for instance, that the suffix "ize" (which is of Greek origin) was intentionally introduced into English by Thomas Nashe (1567-1601) in order to "remedy the surplus of monosyllabic words." Almost any noun or adjective can be made into a verb by adding "ize" (e.g., "hospitalize," "familiarize," "finalize," "prioritize"); meaning "cause to be or conform to or resemble." Many technical terms are coined this way (e.g., "oxidize") as well as verbs of ethnic derivation ("Americanize") and verbs derived from proper names ("mesmerize").

Trans-derivational morphology was initially suggested by Richard Bandler in the early 1980's as an extension of the Meta Model (during a similar period as many of the early developments with submodalities). Transderivational morphology implies the examination of the movement of a root word across several derivations. Robert Dilts and Todd Epstein worked with Bandler on the notion, and created several procedures for exploring and applying it.

In NLP, a transderivational search (Bandler and Grinder, 1976) is essentially the process of searching back through one's stored memories and mental representations to find the personal reference experiences from which a current understanding or mental map has been derived. In its existing NLP applications, 'transderivational morphology' primarily focuses on the psychological (or "neurolinguistic") effects that various prefixes and suffixes have on the way we understand and are influenced by particular words.

The philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson aptly referred to words as a "fossil poems"; implying that the history and "poetry" of a word is encoded in its structure. As author Julian Jaynes so poignantly pointed out:

Because in our brief lives we catch so little of the vastness of history, we tend too much to think of language as being solid as a dictionary, with a granite-like permanence, rather than as the rampant sea of metaphor which it is.
(The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, 1976).

Similar to the skeletons of animals, from which biological fossils are formed, a word's morphology carries a certain amount of information about the word's history, and often tells a story. Etymology is the name given to the study of the history of a linguistic form (such as a word or phrase). Exploring the etymology of a word involves tracing its development since its earliest recorded occurrence in the language where it is found, and its transmission from one language to another. This is often done by analyzing the word or phrase into its component parts, identifying related words, or word components ("morphemes") in other languages, or by tracing it and its components to a common ancestral form in an ancestral language.

As an example, the English term "addiction" is used to describe dependency on a particular drug or other substance. The term originally comes from the Latin word addictio which was "a formal award or assignment of a person or thing to another"; such as an award made by a magistrate or a debtor to his creditor. The Latin word comes from the combination of the prefix ad (meaning "to" or "toward") and the word dictus, meaning "say" or "speak" Thus, the term literally means "to say" or make a declaration. The implication of this is that the "addict" was verbally given over to another without his or her consent or choice. In fact, addiction is considered to be the opposite of freedom or choice.

Thus, the history of the development of a word is frequently embedded in its structure. Prefixes and suffixes, for instance, carry information about whether the root of the word is Greek, Latin, German, etc. Prefixes such as syn, trans, and com, for example, are Latin; as are the suffixes able, ive, al, and ation. Prefixes such as meta, neo and exo are Greek; and so are the suffixes ology, ist, ism, and ia. The suffix "ing," however, is of Norse origin; and "ful" and "ness" are Old English. Greek suffixes typically go with words that have Greek roots; such as: phobia (phobos = fear), paranoia (nous = mind), mania (menos = spirit), pneumonia (pneuma = air). Latin suffixes accompany base words that are Latin: infection (inficere = "to stain" or "to taint"; facere = "to do or make"), inflammation (flamme = "flame"), addiction (dictus = "to say or speak"). There are words, however, in which the suffixes shift. The word "organizationally," for instance, comes from "organ" + "ize" + "ation" + "al" + "ly". "Organ" and "ize" are Greek; but "ation" and "al" are Latin. The suffix "ly" is actually Old English.

Organ is an ancient Greek word meaning "tool," and "ize" is a Greek suffix meaning "to resemble." Thus, when something is "organized" it is "like a tool." The suffixes "ation" and "al" however, are Latin. Interestingly, the terms "organization" and "organizational" didn't come into use (according to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary) until the 15th Century, when Latin was the dominant language. The word "organizationally" was not used until 1881, when the English language was becoming more dominant.

It is also significant that the various word endings change the category to which the word belongs. Organ is a noun, organize is a verb, organization is a noun, organizational is an adjective, organizationally is an adverb.

Different Suffixes Can Change the Deeper Structure Category to which a Word Belongs

From the "neurolinguistic" perspective, the syntactic category into which a word falls also changes the path of mental association that we use to make sense of it. Neurologically, the coherent patterns of thought and and association that we use to understand our world and organize our behavior derive from "convergence zones" within the nervous system. These convergence zones mobilize and bring together clusters of activity from other parts of the system. The establishment of such points of convergence is considered a critical element in the processes of learning and communication.

Language appears to be a very highly developed way of forming convergence zones for clusters of other cognitive activity. Recent neurological studies indicate that a word serves as a point of convergence or confluence for other neural circuits. (These types of convergence zones are known as "attractors" in the language of self-organization theory.) The meaning and significance of a word to a particular individual is a function of the amount of neurology it mobilizes. The verbal labeling of an experience allows it to be associated and connected to other neural circuits. It influences the process of "transderivational search" that we use to give meaning to the word.

Nouns, for example, will trigger different forms of transderivational search than verbs. We are likely to associate to completely different personal reference experiences with the word "organ," for instance, than we would with "organize." The word "organ" might trigger a mental image of a part of the body (such as the lungs, liver, kidney, or heart), or of a musical instrument. We would probably make no such associations with the word "organize." Instead, one might visualize a mental movie of tidying one's desk or planning a social activity. Thus, the addition of a single suffix can completely redirect our whole path of association.

According to the notion of transderivational search, the slight shifts in surface structure lead to large changes in the deep structures from which the meaning of the word is derived.

Shifts in Linguistic Surface Structures Lead to Different Paths of Association at the Level of Deep Structure.

Like many of the linguistic patterns defined by NLP, the concept of transderivational morphology comes from exploring the intuitions of native speakers. We have many unconscious intuitions about suffixes and prefixes as native speakers of our language. Native speakers of English, for example, will recognize "peaceful," "happiness" and "contentment" as well-formed words referring to a related group of positive emotional states. Part of the construction of the words includes well-known suffixes in English: "ful," "ness" and "ment." If the suffixes are switched around, however, the words will sound strange. "Peaceness," "happiment" and "contentful" seem like they could or should have meaning, but they are unusual.

Try playing around with words like Communist, Capitalist, Freudian, Christian, programmer, and practitioner. Switch around the endings and notice how it affects you: e.g., Communian, Capitaler, Freudist, Christer, programmist, and practitian.

From an NLP perspective, various affixes (prefixes and suffixes) could be considered to operate as types of 'verbal submodalities'. In fact, shifts in affixes are often highly correlated with shifts in the submodalities of the non-verbal portion of the inner representations associated with the word. For example, adding "ing" to a word, often results in the addition of the submodality of movement to whatever inner representation a person has for that word. Take words like "hand," "sled," "flower," "bite," or "sleep," for instance. Our initial representation of the experiential 'deep structure' to which these words refer is most likely an image or sense of some static object or event. Adding "ing" to produce "handing," "sledding," "flowering," "biting" or "sleeping," typically immediately brings in or increases a sense of movement with respect to the inner representation.

Try this out with some other words; such as "rock" --> "rocking"; "smile" --> "smiling"; "e-mail" --> "e-mailing"; etc. Notice how adding the suffix alters your internal representations.

It is also interesting to do this exercise with respect to words that we do not typically associate with the ending "ing." Think of some words like "phobia," "cancer," "victim," "problem," etc. Add the suffix "ing" and notice how your perception of the experiences or phenomena to which these words refer changes (i.e., "phobing," "cancering," "victiming," "probleming"). It is probably different than the way you normally think about it. It may even prompt you to smile or laugh, because it seems incongruous or unusual.

One of the main applications of 'transderivational morphology', in fact, is to shift our internal response to key words that constrain or limit us, by playing with the structure or morphology of the word. In the following exercise, for instance, words associated with problem states are "defused" by substituting alternative prefixes and suffixes.

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