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Illegal Immigrants and Marine Biologists

Jose Antonio Vargas, Pulitzer prize-winning reporter and pro-immigrant activist, was here at Brown University last week giving a lecture. In 2011 he outed himself as a person who (as he discovered during his teenage years) immigrated from the Philippines without obtaining the legal right to remain. He has been campaigning to get news organizations to ditch the phrase illegal immigrant. He thinks it is inaccurate, improper, and demeaning. The putative point (discussed by Lawrence Downes here) is that no immigrant has the property of being illegal: Illegality is a property of acts, not of human beings.

I certainly agree that people who are in Mr. Vargas’s position through no fault of their own shouldn’t be regarded as criminals. But I regret to report that the linguistic objection to the phrase illegal immigrant is naïve, and flies in the face of well-known facts about syntax and word formation in English, and the Associated Press was basically right in its decision not to deprecate the phrase.

In a phrase like a hungry violinist the adjective hungry functions as a modifier of the noun violinist. The phrase denotes a violinist who is hungry, not someone who plays a hungry violin. But although this is the standard pattern, unfortunately there is an open class of exceptions where things are not so simple:

  • Although a bass voice is a voice in the range we call bass, a bass guitarist is not a guitarist who has that property, but rather a performer on a guitar designed to have that property.
  • Although physical evidence is evidence that’s physical, a physical chemist is not a chemist who’s physical, but a specialist in physical chemistry.
  • Although an incompetent practitioner is a practitioner with the property of being incompetent, a general practitioner is not a practitioner with the property of being general, but a doctor who is in general practice.

There are hundreds of phrases of this sort: atomic scientist (not a scientist who’s atomic), baroque flautist (not a flautist who’s baroque), model theorist (not a theorist who’s a model), nuclear physicist (not a physicist who’s nuclear), radio astronomer (radio-astronomy researcher), sex therapist (sex-therapy practitioner), transformational grammarian (transformational-grammar specialist), set theoretic (of or pertaining to set theory), etc.

Such phrases are theoretically problematic. Suffixes like -ist, -er, -ic, and -ian normally form new words from stems: guitar + -ist = guitarist; paint + -er = painter; acid + -ic = acidic; reptil + -ian = reptilian. These are clearly lexical word formation suffixes, not words; they shouldn’t combine with phrases. Yet in phrases like [[bass guitar]+ist], [[radio astronom]+er], [[set theoret]+ic], and [[transformational grammar]+ian], they seem to combine morphologically with the stem of the second word but (as the bracketing tries to suggest) semantically belong with the whole phrase. But theoretical linguists don’t just deny the facts; they buckle down to the task of trying to account for such phrases, while trying to avoid predicting other exotic interactions of morphology, syntax, and semantics that never show up.

Calling illegal immigrant unacceptable because the adjective illegal is modifying the human-denoting noun immigrant (rather than the abstract noun immigration) is no more sensible than objecting to marine biologist because the adjective marine is modifying the human-denoting noun biologist (rather than the abstract noun biology).

And complaining that an immigrant child cannot be illegal because she is a human being has all the force of complaining that a biologist cannot be marine because she dwells on land.

True, there’s no such thing as an illegal person; but there is such a thing as a person whose immigration was illegal. In illegal immigrant the semantically relevant bracketing is [[illegal immigr]+ant]: the modifier illegal applies to the stem that we see in the word immigration (as well as the word immigrant).

Theoretical linguists would love to find clear dividing lines between phrasal syntactic structure and lexical word formation, and amateur pedants yearn for regular and logical relationships between modifiers and heads. But both have to confront the world as it is. The English language is not necessarily going to turn out to be as regular and logical in structure as you might like.

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