Date: Thu, 19 Mar 1998 08:57:51 -0500
From: Laurence Horn laurence.horn[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]YALE.EDU
Subject: Re: arbitrariness of derivational morphology

At 5:17 PM -0500 3/18/98, RonButters wrote:
"Why can't CONTEMPT be made into a verb in English?" asked my Turkish student.
"And why can't DESPISE be made into a noun?" English is so very flexible when
it comes to interchanging categories--with and without derivational
morphology--one wonders why we can't say, "*David feels the sailor's
despise/despisation for him" or "*Giovanni contempts/contemptates Jacques."

Any answers--other than the usual language-is-arbitrary response?

I see others have made the point I was going to: the historical answer is
the verb "contemn" (attested from the 15th century, not that much after
"contempt" occurs, the latter actually defined in the OED as 'the action of
contemning or despising'), while "despisal" at least occasionally occurs.
I wonder if the demise of "contemn" was partly sparked by the near-homonymy
with "condemn", whose meaning is just close enough to cause problems. In
any case, this doesn't really answer Ron's question, since contemporary
speakers don't HAVE the verb "contemn" or the noun "despisal" in their
lexicons to block the zero-derivations. We DO have "despite", which was
the traditional nominal partner of the verb "despise", but again the
relevant meaning no longer occurs. In fact all we really have now for
"despite" is the much more recent preposition; the older forms, both noun
and verb (= 'despise'), despite their rich legacies, have vanished. Maybe
the noun "contempt" and the verb "despise", mismatched couple that they
appear to be, are all the lexicon needs.