Descriptivism and change from below on Language Log

Browsing the website Language Log, I recently encountered the discussion of a phenomenon where constructions such as "still unwrapped" are used with the intended meaning of "not yet unwrapped". This discussion may serve to illustrate some interesting points concerning opinions on language descriptivist vs. prescriptivist attitudes and change from below.

Geoff Nunberg notes the usage in this post and wonders why this "glaring error" goes so easily unnoticed and Mark Liberman notes that the usage is widespread in this post, calling the incorrect usage "disturbingly natural". 

Nunberg then goes on to explain that OED’s Jesse Sheidlower and Ben Zimmer have pointed out that the usage is "extremely common" also in other sources than the internet. Ben zimmer apparently displays a descriptivist attitude in noting to Nunberg: "How many examples would you need to see before considering this to be a legitimate usage?" However, Nunberg does not agree: "’legitimate’ comes with a lot of ideological lint clinging to it, but my sense is still that this is an error, if a common and inviting one". Moreover, it is his "contention that few if any people are actually willing to stand up and defend their use of unpacked to mean ununpacked once the apparent illogicality of the construction is made clear. Note that by "apparent illogicality", I don’t mean according to the pseudo-logic that prescriptivists invoke to justify their condemnations of double negation and the like; this one is clearly inconsistent with the morphological rules of the speakers’ own grammars, unless they’re willing to countenance it as an idiosyncratic exception".

The descriptivist vs. prescriptivist point of view pertaining this "mistake" is taken up by the authors of Language Hat and commented on by Nunberg  in a post titled, interestingly "The condescension of descriptivism". Nunberg summarises the argument posed by language hat as follows:

Language hat argues that "the usage shouldn’t be ruled out as "a part of English" just because people who use the construction generally renounce it once its apparent illogicality is pointed out to them: "People who think language should be a certain way even though it’s not, even in their own usage, are perfectly willing to condemn their own usage and say "it’s wrong, I won’t do it again…" You can’t depend on users’ judgments in these matters, you have to look at the facts of usage, and based on what I’ve seen at the Log, one meaning of unpacked is ‘(still) packed"".

Nunberg, of course, disagrees and states that "It goes without saying that a comprehensive description of English should take note of this curious use of unpacked. But there are ways of doing this without seeming to recognize it as a fully naturalized citizen of English — that’s why we have usage notes, after all. Let’s not be so quick to throw out native speakers’ Sprachegefuehl. They have the sense they were born with."

From this discussion, it becomes clear that the tension between language description and language prescription, or rather, that which is perceived as incorrect language use, is as alive as ever…

Almost a year later the discussion is picked up again by language log when Liberman  notes a widespread usage of "still un-x-ed" constructions. Importantly, Liberman notes that, "One of the most interesting things about this usage is how widespread it is, even among excellent writers; how hard it is for readers to notice any problem with it; and yet, how often people conclude that it’s a mistake when it’s pointed out to them, even though there is no hectoring by "language mavens" on the question". 

The still un-x-ed construction is apparently an unaccepted construction, which is in widespread use, nonetheless. This construction (and other constructions with a non-negative use of the un-prefix) may perhaps serve to illustrate language change from below (remember how Language Log’s Mark Liberman identified it as feeling "disturbingly natural". It may also be interesting to see the influence of prescriptivist vs. descriptivist attitudes towards language in how widespread and accepted this use of un- may become. 

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