Date: Fri, 13 Mar 1998 15:50:48 -0500
From: Larry Horn laurence.horn[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]YALE.EDU
Subject: Re: starting to unravel...

Not for the most part particularly ADSy, but...

At 10:18 AM -0500 3/12/98, Mark Mandel wrote:
Larry Horn laurence.horn[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]YALE.EDU writes:

The redundant use of negative pre- and suffix in words like

unboundless unguiltless unmatchless unshameless
undauntless unhelpless unmerciless

--each amounting to 'Xless' or 'unXful'--was apparently quite common in the
16th and 17th centuries, as of course is the redundant affixation of
unthaw, unloose(n), debone, dissever, etc.

I seem to recall reading that Whorf analyzed some of this latter set
differently, with a prefixal meaning of something like separation or
release rather than negation, specifically with "un-" in "unloose",
"unravel", and perhaps that "unthaw". (Can anyone give a citation for
this?) "Dis-", of course, carries a meaning of separation or scattering in
many words ("disseminate", "disperse"), and separation is certainly part of
the meaning of "dissever". And "debone" can be analyzed with a nominal root
rather than a verbal one, using "de-" 'cause [obj.] to be free of', as in
"debug", "delouse".

Whorf introduces his brief discussion of un-verbs (in "A Linguistic
Consideration of Thinking in Primitive Communities", pp. 70-71 of the
standard Carroll collection of his work, _Language, Thought, and Reality_)
as an instance of what he calls the "cryptotype", a "covert linguistic
class...a submerged, subtle, and elusive meaning, corresponding to no
actual word, yet shown by linguistic analysis to be funcitonally imporatnat
in the grammar." Other English examples he cites are the categories of
transitive verbs blocking completive UP. In this case, un- itself is (like
"up") a phenotype; the cryptotypes are the "transitive verbs of a covering,
enclosing, and surface-attaching meaning" to which un- may be attached for
the reversal thereof. I actually discovered this passage after working up
my own line on predicting which actions do and which don't allow un-verb
reversals; my account developed the notion of "entropy", the idea being
that the un-verb will always be interpreted as "helping entropy along".
Hence, (un)thawing chicken returns it to the "thawed" (unfrozen) state in
which it started out, while unfreezing will do the same (and thus reverse
the non-entropic act of freezing it). Not that different, as it turns out,
from what Whorf had in mind. And while "debone" and other "de-" verbs are
plausibly analyzed as denominals (see most recently R. A. Buck's paper
"Words that are their opposites: Noun to verb conversion in English", Word
48 (1997): 1-14), the various "un-" prefixation processes, I maintain,
preserve the category (adjective, verb, or noun) of their base. If this is
right, then "unpeel" (an orange) is a true redundant reversative, alongside
"unthaw", "unloose(n)", and "unravel", and the attested (if now archaic,
rare, or dialectal) "unbare", "undecipher", "unempt(y)", "unsolve",
"unrid", "unrip", "unstrip".

I prefer this transparent analysis to one that adds a
redundant negating "de-" to the denominal verb "bone", in part because the
zero verbalization of "bone" makes the latter analysis rather opaque.

In fact, I argue that redundant un-verbs (or the corresponding de-verbs)
are motivated precisely because the resultant form is always transparent
("helping entropy along", or source-oriented), even when the bare verb
(denominal or not) may be opaque (goal- OR source-oriented)--"Does 'string
the beans' mean putting the string on or taking it off? Better be on the
safe side and 'unstring' them".


Our supermarket, avoiding the perils of "depitted prunes", sells something
it labels "Prunes No Pits." And then there's Amelia Bedelia*, literalist
extraordinaire of fictional housekeepers, she who dresses the chicken in
overalls, trims the fat with lace and bits of ribbon, and ices the fish
with chocolate frosting. Reading an instruction to dust the furniture, she
exclaims, 'Did you ever hear tell of such a silly thing? At my house we
UNdust the furniture. But each to his own way'--as she happily proceeds
with her dusting, with the help of some fragrant talc she discovers in the

*Parish, Peggy (1963) Amelia Bedelia. New York: Harper & Row.