Fun With Morphology!

Causative Smallening

Friends and family members have recently said some morphologically interesting things, and I decided to take a quick second to put them down here, for posterity, because they're so freaking cool.

The context for the first was manipulating images for a slideshow. The sentence used was:

I smallened it

Everyone clearly understood it as "I made it smaller," and also knew that it was non-standard. But why?

Well, some adjectives can be made into inchoative verbs. This means if you have some adjective X you can make a verb that means 'to become X'. It's super easy: just add an -en to the word:

  • darken: to become dark
  • redden: to become red
  • liven: to become more alive/lively
  • quicken: to become quick.
  • leaven: to raise (from an older word in English we no longer have, ultimately from Latin levare 'raise')
  • toughen: to become tough
  • smarten (up): to become smart

These can also then be made transitive and are then causative verbs, meaning someone causes something to become X.

The thing is, it's normally taken to apply only to what linguists call a "closed set" which is a fancy way of saying you can only do it to some adjectives and not others. That is, it sounds weird to say "dumben it" (instead of "dumb it down") or "absurden the story" or "spicen the food."

And yet, we all have the grammatical competence to be able to (playfully) generalize to new instances, so everyone knew what "I smallened it" meant.


When linguists get to the morphology segment of Intro to Linguistics, we teach "bracketing" as a tool for recognizing the internal structure of words. It's literally drawing brackets around word-pieces (let's call them morphemes). For example:

  • [ nation ]
  • [[ nation ] al ]
  • [ inter [[ nation ] al ]]

Some kinds of ambiguity are then easy to explain, as in, the door is:

  • [ un [ [ lock ] able] ]  == unable to be locked ~ un-lockable
  • [ [ un [ lock ] ] able ] == able to be unlocked ~ unlock-able

Similarly, we can bracket words that go together in sentences:

  • [ [that ridiculous man ] [ looks [ dumb ] ] ]

Sometimes, though, things break free. A classic example is the suffix -ish, which for many people now can modify much more than adjectives:

  • It was a yellowish color.
  • I guess I was excited about it, ish

All of that was to get to a family member recently saying:

There's no point in waiting to leave, it's not going to get any not dark er

That is, it's not going to get any [ [ not [ dark ] ] er ], where -er is modifying the complex structure not dark.

Often, linguists will treat these kinds of examples as mistakes, play, or somehow not part of the object of study (and make pronouncements like "inchoatives derived from adjectives are a closed set" and sometimes even claim that words like smallen are "impossible"). I think it's important that we take these kinds of novel forms --- forms that sometimes challenge theory we've learned in grad school --- seriously. In part, because if you start listening for them, they happen all. the. time.

Happy listening!



©Taylor Jones 2017

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