After my recent blogiversarial lamentations that I’ve strayed away from my original intention of blogging about linguistics and languages and focusing more on politics and indigenous affairs, I feel re-inspired to write about linguistic curios a little more. So here’s a purely matter-of-fact, non-partisan linguistic post.

On the bus this morning, I noticed a sign on the back of the driver’s little compartment, that read something along the lines of:

  • Drinking alcohol is prohibited on this bus
  • Possession of an opened container
    of alcohol is prohibited on this bus

I’ll draw attention to the second point. Note that they don’t merely use an unmarked adjective ‘open’, but a perfect participle construction, a de-verbal adjective ‘opened’. It is of the generalised form verb-en.

The intended meaning is clear: any container that has ever been opened (after being initially sealed, that is), as opposed to merely being temporarily ‘open’ and thus closable, is prohibited. Sydney Buses are clearly precluding any protests from drunken juvenile delinquents claiming that their container of alcohol is not in fact ‘open’, after they’ve quickly re-lidded their bottle of spumante.

‘Open’ is one of those verbs that is so telic that it doesn’t even permit its own inverse: *unopen. This is a purely linguistic constraint though, since it’s perfectly pragmatically acceptable to perform the inverse action of ‘open’, namely, to ‘close’.

I don’t know if there’s a linguisticky term for these verbs, but I’m sure some of my more knowledgeable readers will know at least one.

As a test, these verbs often occur in the construction un-verb-en, but never un-verb. That is, it is possible to describe the state of something that hasn’t undergone the change of state; you can describe something as ‘unopened’, but it is (linguistically) impossible to say you will unopen something (in English at least). However, these verbs often have counterparts; verbs that encode the inverse action, even if the original verb cannot be inversed.

For instance break: it is entirely appropriate to say you broke my arm and the doctor mended/fixed my arm but it is impossible to say *the doctor unbroke my arm. Moreover, break will happily allow unbroken as in unbroken lines (on a road).

Doesn’t everyone think about these things on the bus?