Field of Science

Confusing verbs

The first post on universal grammar generated several good questions. Here's an extended response to one of them:
You said that a 1990's theory was dead wrong because sometimes emotion verbs CAN be prefixed with -un. Then you give examples of adjectives, not verbs, that have been prefixed: unfeared, unliked, unloved. I know these words are also sometimes used as verbs, but in the prefixed versions they are clearly adjectives. 
The theory I'm discussing wanted to distinguish between emotion verbs which have experiencers as subjects (fear, like) and those who have experiencers as objects (frighten, confuse). The claim was that the latter set of verbs are "weird" in an important way, one effect of which is that they can't have past participles.

This brings up the obvious problem that "frighten" and "confuse" appear to have past participles: "frightened" and "confused". The author then argued that these are not actually past participles -- they're adjectives. The crucial test is that you can add "un" to an adjective but not a participle (or so it's claimed). Thus, it was relevant that you can say "unfrightened" and "unconfused", suggesting that these are adjectives, but you can't say "unfeared" or "unliked", suggesting that these are participles, not adjectives.

The problem mentioned in the previous post was that there are also subject-experiencer verbs that have participles which can take the "un" prefix, such as "unloved". There are also object-experiencer verbs that have participles which can't be "un" prefixed, like "un-angered" (at least, it sounds bad to me; try also "ungrudged", "unapplauded", or "unmourned"). So the "un" prefixation test doesn't reliably distinguish between the classes of verbs. This becomes apparent once you look through a large number of both types of verbs (here are complete lists of subject-experiencer and object-experiencer verbs in English).

There is a bigger problem, which is that the theory assumes a lack of homophones. That is, there could be two words pronounced like "frightened" -- one is a past participle and one is an adjective. The one that can be unprefixed is the adjective. So the fact that "unfrightened" exists as a word doesn't rule out the possibility that "frighten" has a past participle.

To be completely fair to the theory, the claim that object-experiencer verbs are "weird" (more specifically, that they require syntactic movement) could be still be right (though I don't think it is). The point here was that the specific test proposed ("un" prefixation) turned out to provide different results. It actually took some time for people to realize this, and you still see the theory cited. The point is that getting the right analysis of a language is very difficult, and typically many mistakes are made along the way.

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