March 28, 2008

Open and closed

In an earlier posting, I asked when closing begins and when stopping starts.  There was, of course, mail on the topic.  I'll comment on three responses, in three separate postings, beginning with the morphological asymmetry between the opposites open and closed.  Fernando Colina asked on 19 March:

So, why is it that stores display signs with Open in one side and Closed in the other? Wouldn't it be more logical to say Opened / Closed or Open / Close?

Well, a language is a system of practices, not a designed system, so some things are as they are just because of the way they developed over time; there are plenty of anomalies and irregularities in every language.  On the other hand, a language is a SYSTEM of practices, including many regularities.  It turns out that almost everything about open and closed is a matter of regularities; the special facts are the presence of an adjective open in the language and the absence of an adjective close (pronounced /kloz/; there is an adjective close /klos/, the opposite of far, as in "Don't Stand So Close to Me", but it's not relevant here).

I'll start with closed, which is, morphologically, the past participle (PSP) form of the verb CLOSE (also the past tense form, but it's the past participle that we're interested in here).  In fact, there are two possibly relevant verbs CLOSE here:

intransitive CLOSE, denoting a change of state, from not-closed to closed (The flower closed at dusk); change-of-state verbs are often called "inchoative" verbs; and

transitive CLOSE, denoting a causing (by some agent, usually but not always human) of this change of state (I closed the gate at dusk); such verbs are sometimes called "causative-inchoative" verbs, or more often just "causative" verbs.

This pairing of homophonous verbs -- inchoative intransitive and causative transitive -- is very general in English, extending even to new formations (Palo Alto will rapidly Manhattanize 'become like Manhattan', They are rapidly Manhattanizing Palo Alto 'causing it to become like Manhattan').

Now, the PSP of a state-change verb can be used as an adjective that denotes the property of being in that state, without any implication of change.  In particular, closed can be used as a "pure stative" adjective: The window is closed at the moment doesn't require that the window was ever open (it might have been built in a closed state), and The flower is closed doesn't require that the flower was ever open (it might not yet have opened, and maybe never will), and someone with a closed mind might never have had an open one (and might never have one).

Since there's no adjective close /kloz/ in English, the stative adjective closed gets to fill its slot in the pattern, serving as the opposite of the (morphologically simple) adjective open.

In addition, the PSP of a transitive verb (whether causative or not) is also used in the passive construction, as in The gate was closed by the guard at dusk.  This use denotes an event, not a state.

Put those last two things together, and you get the possibility of ambiguity, between a pure state reading for a PSP and a passive reading for it: The gate was closed at dusk 'The gate was in a closed state at dusk' (stative adjective) or 'Someone closed the gate at dusk' (passive).  The stative adjective use is historically older, with the passive use developed from it, but the two uses have coexisted for centuries.  The ambiguity is long-standing and widespread.

A further complexity is that the PSP of a transitive verb (whether causative or not) can also be used as an adjective with the semantics of the passive.  The point is subtle, but it's fairly easy to see for non-causatives (and it will become important in a little while, so I can't just disregard it).  Consider The point is disputed.  This could be understood as a passive, but its most natural interpretation is as asserting that the point has the property of having been (or being) disputed by some people (a sense that allows an affixal negative in un-: The point is undisputed 'No one disputes the point').  For causatives, this sort of interpretation is usually a special case of the pure stative reading, so that it's hard to appreciate that it's there.

On to open.  We start with the adjective lexeme OPEN, which is a pure stative; The window is open doesn't require that it was ever closed (it might have been built that way), and The restaurant is open doesn't require that it was ever closed (it could be one of those restaurants that are always open).  The adjective can serve as the base for deriving two verb lexemes, the inchoative OPEN 'become open' and the causative OPEN 'cause to become open'.  The story of the PSP opened then goes much as for the PSP closed, but with an important difference.  The PSP opened has a passive use, as in The gate was opened by the guard at dawn.  But the stative adjective use is hard to get: The gate is opened at the moment is decidedly odd.  Why?

Because English already has a way to express this meaning (and a way that's shorter and less complex than the PSP opened): the adjective open.  The PSP opened in this use is PRE-EMPTED (or, if you will, PREEMPTED) by the simple adjective open.  (Pre-emption is a perennial topic in morphology and lexical semantics.  A textbook example: English has no causative DIE alongside inchoative DIE because it's pre-empted by causative KILL; in a sense, KILL got there first, so there's no point in creating causative DIE.)

But... in special circumstances, the PSP opened could be used as an adjective -- with the semantics of the passive, as for disputed above.  In particular, The envelope is opened could be used if the envelope was not merely open (rather than closed or sealed), but gave evidences of having been opened, say by slitting with a letter opener.  This is a case where open might not be specific enough, so it doesn't automatically pre-empt opened.

We end up with an opposition between the stative adjectives open and closed (the former a simple adjective, the latter a PSP).  We don't use opened for the first because of pre-emption, and we don't use close /kloz/ for the second because there is no such adjective in English.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 28, 2008 03:17 PM