More on De- and Un-

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Wed Apr 7 00:34:33 UTC 2004

>Dear Larry and others interested in these prefixes:
>Here is a paragraph from "Slayer Slang," pp. 52-53, on the subject
>-- I can't improve on it at the moment (all typographical features
>Edna Andrews recently itemized the rules for un-, not throughout the
>history of English, but for current use.  For instance, "The most
>obvious points regarding verbs prefixed by un- are: (1) each verb is
>transitive (except for the obsolete unbe); (2) in most cases, the
>verb in question inonprefixed form may double as a noun," but these
>rules do not apply in the case of slayer slang's unlive.  And more
>profoundly, un- in slayer slang sometimes ignores the following
>expectation: "un- cannot prefix adjectives denoting the absence of a
>particular quality (cf. unafraid but not *unempty)." But the un- of
>undead adj (in sense 3) and related forms, such as Undead-American,
>unDead Sea Scrolls, as well as unlazy, does precisely that. And,
>finally, "A general invariant meaning for un- as a verbal prefix can
>be stated as follows: a cancellation of the original state such that
>the minimal change occurs -- a simple reversal.  In adjectives,
>un-reverses the lexical meaning of the adjective!
>   and has no implication that the opposite state has any validity
>within the given speech situation." Andrews's rule for verbs (for
>which a good example would be unravel -- something was raveled, then
>it isn't, and that's the only change indicated by the un-) is
>ironically true:  unlive represents an exaggeratedly "minimal"
>change:  When one unlives, one does nearly everything one does when
>alive, except actually be alive."
>Of course, as I point out in a note, Andrews can't be held
>responsible for recent examples like these:  her article was
>published in 1986 and based on evidence from dictionaries publihsed
>from the 1950s forward.  The only exception is undead, which was
>recorded to some degree at the time of her study.

Thanks, Michael.  Of course I have "undead" in my own files (I make
the argument that zombies and their ilk can be "undead" because we
expect them to be dead, while artificial flowers, in a cite i have,
are described as "unalive", since they're pretending to be alive),
but no unDead Sea Scrolls or the others.  I remember the Andrews
description of what unverbs do (since I was reading it while
preparing my own 1988 paper on unverbs), but I'd forgotten her
discussion of unadjectives, which I should look at again.  (I've
actually been working more on unnouns lately, but that's another
story.)  I appreciate your discussion of the topic.


More information about the Ads-l mailing list