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Tmesis of prefixed verbs (whereby the prefix is separated from the simple verb) was an original feature of the Ancient Greek language, common in Homer (and later poetry), but not used in Attic prose. Such separable verbs are also part of the normal grammatical usage of some modern languages, such as Dutch and German.
Tmesis in Ancient Greek is something of a misnomer, since there is not necessarily a splitting of the prefix from the verb; rather the consensus now seems to be that the separate prefix or pre-verb reflects a stage in the language where the prefix had not yet joined onto the verb. There are many examples in Homer's epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, both of which preserve archaic features. One common and oft-cited example is κατὰ δάκρυα λείβων (kata dakrua leibōn; "shedding tears"), in which the pre-verb κατά kata "down" has not yet joined the verbal participle λείβων leibōn "shedding". In later Greek, these would combine to form the compound verb καταλείβων kataleibōn "shedding (in a downwards direction)".
Tmesis is found as a poetic or rhetorical device in classical Latin poetry, such as Ovid's Metamorphoses. Words such as circumdare ("to surround") are split apart with other words of the sentence in between, e.g. circum virum dant: "they surround the man". This device is used in this way to create a visual image of surrounding the man by means of the words on the line. In the work of the poet Ennius, the literal splitting of the word cerebrum creates a vivid image: saxo cere comminuit brum "he shattered his brain with a rock."
Tmesis can be found in some early Old Irish texts, such as Audacht Morainn. Old Irish verbs are found at the beginning of clauses (in a VSO word order) and often possess prepositional pre-verbal particles, e.g. ad-midethar "evaluates, estimates". Tmesis occurs when the pre-verbal particle is separated from the verbal stem and the verbal stem is placed in clause final position while the pre-verbal particle remains at the beginning of the clause. This results in an abnormal word order, e.g. ad- cruth caín -cichither "[the] fair form will be seen" (where ad-chichither is the future third-person singular passive of ad-cí "sees").
Examples of tmesis have been found in skaldic poetry. In addition to the use of kennings, skalds used tmesis to obscure the meaning of the poem. One use of tmesis was to divide the elements of personal names.
Many German verbs have a separable prefix that changes the meaning of the root verb, but that does not always remain attached to the root verb. German sentence structure normally places verbs in second position or final position. For separable prefix verbs, the prefix always appears in final position. If a particular sentence's structure places the entire verb in final position then the prefix and root verb appear together. If a sentence places the verb in second position then only the root verb will appear in second position; the separated prefix remains at the end of the sentence. For example, the separable verb anfangen ("to start") consists of the separable prefix an and the root fangen:
- Root verb in second position: Ich fange die Arbeit an. ("I start the work.")
- Root verb in final position: Morgens trinke ich heiße Schokolade, weil ich dann die Arbeit anfange. ("In the mornings I drink hot chocolate, because afterwards I begin the work.")
However, in many other German verbs the prefix (such as be- or ent-) is inseparable, always staying with the root verb.
Colloquial examples include the common "unbe-[bloody] - lievable" and variants of it; multiple English words are joined with the vulgar interfix -fucking-, and one of them is "unfuckingbelievable". The phrase A whole nother...(story / kettle of fish / ball game) is an example of tmesis in English. The word another is being split by the qualifier whole. The insertion is probably caused by the fact that the word consists of an indefinite article plus the word other, and it is still easily analysable as such. But the word is still so much a unit that some speakers will find it incomplete to say a whole other. And so, the word is reanalysed as a nother to keep the n, which allows for the use of a qualifier while retaining all the letters of the word.
In that sense, words such as apron and uncle may be seen as the result of tmesis of napron and nuncle.
English employs a large number of phrasal verbs, consisting of a core verb and a particle which could be an adverb or a preposition; while the phrasal verb is written as two words, the two words are analyzed semantically as a unit because the meaning of the phrasal verb is often unrelated (or only loosely related) to the meaning of the core verb. For example, turn off has a meaning unrelated to turn in Turn off the television set and the light.
Many English phrasal verbs are separable, in the sense that if they are transitive then the object is placed between the core verb and the particle if the object is a pronoun (and optionally if it is a short noun phrase, but not if it is a long noun phrase as in the example above). For example:
- Turn off the light OR Turn the light off (optional tmesis)
- Turn it off (mandatory tmesis)
This intervention of the object in the middle of the phrasal verb can be viewed as a form of tmesis even though the semantic unit being separated is written as two words even when not separated.
- Oxford University Press, "Oxford Dictionary: 'tmesis'", Oxford English Dictionary, Retrieved 19 August, 2014.
- Dictionary.com, "Dictionary.com: 'tmesis'", Dictionary.com, Retrieved 19 August, 2014.
- The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Oxford University Press (1992), p. 1044 ISBN 0-19-214183-X
- Cruttwell, Charles Thomas. A History of Roman Literature: From the Earliest Period to the Death of Marcus Aurelius.
- Russell, Paul (2014). An Introduction to the Celtic Languages. London: Routledge. p. 288.
- Ross, Margaret Clunies (2005). A History of Old Norse Poetry and Poetics. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer. pp. 109–110. ISBN 1-84384-034-0.