The LINGUIST List is dedicated to providing information on language and language analysis, and to providing the discipline of linguistics with the infrastructure necessary to function in the digital world. LINGUIST is a free resource, run by linguistics students and faculty, and supported primarily by your donations. Please support LINGUIST List during the 2016 Fund Drive.
Ask-A-Linguist Message Details
|Question:||Can anyone help me to understand the procedure by which English came to develop illegitimate ''noun-participles'' as adjectives? I have in mind such formulae as the onelegged man, the longwinded sentence, the bearded lady, the wooded hillside and the ragged rhyme. All these modifiers seem to be constructed on the model by which verbs generate participial adjectives (the celebrated actress, the whispered conversation, the reviled prime minister). But they are derived from nouns rather than verbs and don't therefore make logical sense as participles. Are they syntactical impostors or is there some rational justification for them? Thank you for any light you can cast.|
|Reply:||It is an interesting historical question. I wouldn't myself use a term like "illegitimate", because to me this seems to be a valuable element in the armoury of present-day English grammar, but there certainly is a valid question about how such words arose historically. Presumably this will have happened after it had become usual for ordinary past participles, derived from verbs, to be used as adjectives rather than verbs, and this seems to have happened very roughly about 1800. (Denison in Cambridge History of the English Lg, vol. 4, pp. 229-30 has figures showing how phrases like "much excited" tended progressively to be replaced by "very excited", to the horror of some 19th c. grammarians.) My conjecture would be that, once that new usage was established, where a verb root coincided with a noun root it was possible for speakers to interpret an adjective that was historically of the form "Verb-ed" as instead having the form "Noun-ed": for instance (not the ideal example but the first that comes to mind) people might have been talking about "a grassed area", meaning an area that a gardener had grassed over, and younger people might take that as "a grass-Noun+ed area", in which case it would seem natural also to talk about, say, "a bearded chin" meaning not a chin that someone "had bearded" but simply a chin featuring a beard; and once that was established as a construction, it would be a logical move to allow a multi-word nominal phrase before the -ed, e.g. "a curly-bearded chin". I stress that what I have written after the point where I quoted Denison above is purely my conjecture, and I don't know where one could look to check; but it would be a very natural path of development, so that to my mind the usage you discuss is not at all surprising. Geoffrey Sampson|
|Reply From:||Geoffrey Richard Sampson click here to access email|