English derivational morphology--not really dialectal

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Wed Sep 26 19:26:51 UTC 2007

At 2:26 PM -0400 9/26/07, Geoffrey S. Nathan wrote:
>It used to be standard wisdom that English prefixes did not change
>the lexical category of words they are attached to (e.g.
>un-available, pre-final, re-play etc.).  With the exception of the
>somewhat archaic (and quite unproductive) be-, as in 'betoken',
>'behead' etc.  Is this still generally believed?

I wrote a paper 20 years ago addressing this claim (as an instance of
the "Right-hand Head Rule" of Edwin Williams (1981) and others) that
cites a range of productive negative prefixes, as in attested
examples like

destale (a bagel)
desnow (a child)
non-skid (surfaces)
non-stop (flights)
no-win (situations)
no-strings (relationships)
dis-ear (a bull)

that turn adjectives or nouns into verbs, nouns or verbs into
adjectives, and so on.  "un-" used to do this (cf. unnerve, unearth,
unman, unsex) but for most speakers has been replaced in this
function by "de-" or "dis-".  Another non-productive category
changing prefix alongside "be-" is "eN-", forming verbs from nouns or
adjectives (encircle, embitter, enrich, enthrone, enslave); Williams
acknowledged these as "systematic exceptions" to his RHR, and Lieber
(1981) added the be- cases, but neither is as productive as the
negative/privative class.

>  I haven't followed work on category-changing morphology in a few
>years, but I would guess that it would cause a problem for those who
>believe that affixes are heads, and that's how they define the
>category of the word they create.
>The reason I'm asking is that a homework assignment from a textbook
>I'm using calls for morphological trees for 'antiTrotskyite'[1].  I
>think a case could be made for saying that 'anti-' converts a noun
>into an adjective ('He's very anti-Chomsky'--compare *'He's very

True--another negative one, although "pro-Chomsky" is obviously also possible.


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