From Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky ten days ago:

Opal and I are taking a quiz about religions of the world (it’s a long story) and we come to a question about atheists and whether or not they believe in supernatural forces. Opal was stumped. I asked helpfully “What does ‘supernatural’ mean?” “Extremely natural”, replied Opal promptly.

A reasonable guess, building on what Opal (who is 6-going-on-7) knows about the productive morphology of English, in particular compound-like combinations with the initial element super ‘extreme(ly)’. We all look for meaningful parts in expressions that are new to us, and past a certain age, children are especially attuned to analyzing such expressions.

Michael Quinion on super- combinations that originated in English:

Though a number of words have been imported from Latin with this prefix already attached, most have been formed in English, particularly because it has become a popular way of forming superlatives in recent decades.

The most common sense refers to something having greater influence, capability or power than another of its kind, or exhibiting some quality to a greater degree: superabundant, superbug, supercharger, supercomputer, superconductor, supercool, superfluid, superglue, superhero, superman, supermodel, superpower, superstar, superwoman.

Other examples suggest something extra large of its kind: supercontinent, supermarket, superstore, supertanker. Some imply a position or status above or beyond another: superstructure, supersonic, supernatural, superscript, superstratum, supertitles. In systematic classifications of the living world, it indicates a higher level, as in superfamily, superclass, and superorder. In chemistry, it is occasionally used to suggest an element is in greater proportion than usual: superoxide.

Note that though Quinion’s examples are mostly of super- combined with nouns, there’s also the adjective abundant and some second elements that could be adjectives or verbs as well as nouns.

The examples also miss out the truly productive super– + Adj cases, like superpretty and superstrong. These, like many compound words, typically come in three orthographic versions: solid (as above), hyphenated (super-pretty, super-strong), and separated (super pretty, super strong).

And they have the accentual pattern of Adv + Adj combinations, with heavy accents on both elements, but a heavier accent on the second (though such combinations have a variant with contrastive heavier accent on the first, just as in combinations like very Adj and extremely Adj).

[There are two notations for phonemic accent in these heavy + heavier combinations:

` + ´ (secondary + primary)

´ + ´ (primary + primary), with the first primary being weaker than the second as a matter of phonetic detail

There’s no substantive distinction here, but I’ll adopt the first for exposition.]

Quinion’s examples come in three accentual types:

(1) ` + ´ (secondary + primary): productive super- + Adj in general (superabundant, Adj superfluid and supercool and in fact super-natural ‘extremely natural’, as in “This granola is super-natural”)

(2) ´ + ˆ (primary + tertiary, sometimes transcribed as ´ + `), the “compound accent” pattern that’s the default for N + N compounds and a set of Adj + N combinations, like White House and happy hour: super- + N in general (superbug, supermarket, superfamily)

(3) ˆ + ´ (tertiary + primary), as in some prefixed forms coming into English from Latin (like superficial), and in some conventionalized prefixed forms like (in fact) supernatural ‘beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature, unnaturally or extraordinarily great’

The contrast of interest to us here is the one between the two patterns with heavier accent on the second element: (3) vs. (1). This is very subtle, and there’s variation in the phonetic strength of the first element, but the distinction is well-known from other contrasts in the accentuation of prefixes, for instance mis- and dis-, which come in pairs that differ in accent, juncture, and semantics: for example, mistake (“weak” mis-, unaccented, with the /s/ syllabified with the second syllable, so that the following /t/ is realized phonetically as unaspirated, and with somewhat opaque semantics) vs. mistranslate or mis-translate (“strong” mis-, accented, with the /s/ syllabified with the first syllable, so that the /t/ can be realized phonetically as aspirated, and with transparent semantics).

The upshot is that Opal was confronted with a “weak” combination, of type (3), but (being unfamiliar with it and going for semantic transparency) understood it as a “strong” combination, of type (1).

2 Responses to “supernatural”

  1. Sam Mikes Says:

    British Columbia recently changed its slogan from “Beautiful British Columbia” to “Super, Natural British Columbia”. I wish they had left off the comma.


  2. Sim Aberson Says:

    In meteorology, we have tropical cyclones (hurricanes) and extratropical cyclones (midlatitude cyclones). Extra- in this case means “outside.” Many people confuse it for “more than” tropical, and get scared when the forecast calls for a tropical cyclone to become extratropical.

    Of course, it doesn’t help that another classification is sub-tropical cyclones, those that form in the subtropics. No, they aren’t less than tropical.

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