Noun incorporation in Gayland

For some time now, I’ve been analyzing gay male porn flicks from several points of view: the construction of various gay identities, genre conventions, and so on. Every so often, points of linguistic interest turn up in the flicks; well, they are, after all, sources of data like any other, and I’m giving them very close attention, so I pick up things I might have missed in other data. A recent find, in a long-running analysis of Jeff Stryker flicks — on b/t (roughly, bottom/top relations between men), the Total Top role, functions of mess in depictions of (fantasy) gay sex, the organization of sex talk, etc. — is a striking bit of syntax from the Falcon Studios description of Stryker’s first movie, Bigger Than Life:

Jeff Quinn watches superstar Jeff Stryker showing his rock star charisma as he struts his stuff on stage with his big-haired band. And like his song says, he’s “Bigger Than Life!” The infatuated fan waits like a stagedoor Johnny hoping to realize his dream of meeting his hero, and better yet, getting starfucked by Stryker’s monster cock.

The datum is: get starfucked by Stryker’s monster cock. Could have been just fucked, but the writer went for the more colorful starfucked instead.

(Quinn gets his fantasy fulfilled, totally. They start off in front of that stage door and end up with Quinn bracing himself on a brick wall while Stryker prongs him from behind: photo #2 in “Standing for it”, here.)

Starfucked is a “synthetic compound” — a morphological construction that closely mirrors a syntactic construction involving a head V and an N argument for that verb. In this case, something like fucked by a star, with head V fucked and the N argument star, serving as something like an oblique object, denoting the Agent role in a fucking event (Quinn is the Patient in this event).

Two crucial points: First, synthetic compounds in English are pretty much limited to compounds of three forms:

N + Vprp (starfucking ‘fucking a star, stars’), N + Vpsp (starfucked ‘fucked by a star’), N + V-er-agent (starfucker ‘someone who fucks stars’)

Similar compounds in some other languages are much less limited. These languages — sometimes known as “polysynthetic” languages — allow very free compounding of a V base with an N base denoting  an argument of the V (“noun incorporation”); the result is simply a new V in the language, usable as an intransitive or (often) as a transitive as well. A paradigm for noun incorporation in a polysynthetic language (an Eskimo language, an Iroquian language, or the Paleosiberian language Chukchi, say), imitated in English, would go:

(1) V + NP argument (understood indefinitely or generically) in syntax: I chopped a tree

(2) V’ = N + V, serving as an intransitive syntactically: I tree-chopped

(3) V’ + NP argument (with denotation more specific than that of V) in syntax: I tree-chopped a big pine

English can’t generally go this far: though new synthetic compounds can be invented any time — and are — they are often seen by speakers as fresh lexical items and are not always accepted without some wrangling. In “polysynthetic languages”, on the other hand, new incorporations are routine, freely available. More important, synthetic compounds in English are limited to just a few formal types, while incorporations are simply verbs, taking all the forms available in the language.

To see this, note that the mock-English example in (2) does not have one of the three forms I listed above; chopped in tree-chopped isn’t the PSP but a finite form, the PST. So it’s one step past the synthetic compound, on to a back-formed verb to tree-chop, which is freely inflectible, just like an incorporation in a polysynthetic language. Speakers of English definitely see these back-formations as new lexical items, and there is considerable hostility to them (noted in many earlier postings on this blog). Some of them (babysit, lipread, sleepwalk) eventually gain the status of unremarkable lexical items, but typically this takes some time — time that simply isn’t needed for incorporations.

Second point: there’s some dispute about the conditions on English synthetic compounds: is the relevant generalization to be stated in terms of grammatical relations between constituents (Subject, DirectObject, ObliqueObject, Adverbial, etc.) or in terms of semantic roles of the referents of linguistic expressions (Agent, Patient, Instrument, etc.)? The usual answer is that it’s grammatical relations rather than semantic roles.

In addition, there’s some literature on the further details of the conditions. The usual position is (A) that any non-Subject N can in principle be the N in a synthetic compound, but that Subjects are barred (so that something like victim-vanishing when denoting an event in which victims vanish wouldn’t occur; *The police were troubled by all the victim-vanishing). And (B) that a given argument can be coded within a synthetic compound or as a syntactic argument of such a compound, but not both at once (*We were pie-eating some apple cobbler). Both proposals are surprisingly hard to evaluate.

Let’s go back to the starfucking example, with the business bit boldfaced:

The infatuated fan [Quinn] waits like a stagedoor Johnny hoping to realize his dream of meeting his hero, and better yet, getting starfucked by Stryker’s monster cock.

We’re dealing with a passive construction here (a “get-passive”), a fact that seriously complicates the analysis. The Subject argument and the Agent semantic role are closely (but far from invariably) associated, and a central property of passive constructions is that they break this association by treating what is otherwise a non-Subject argument not denoting an Agent as a Subject; that makes them difficult sources of evidence in disentangling grammatical relations from semantic roles. Even worse, by Stryker’s monster cock looks like an Instrument argument rather than an Agent (cf. getting starfucked by Stryker, with a clear Agent in the by-phrase); both Agent and Instrument Subjects can turn up in a passive by-phrase. Further complication: Stryker’s monster cock and Stryker are mereologically related, with the cock a proper part of the man as a whole. At this point I was tempted to throw up my hands on evaluating condition (A), but then I backtracked to an active counterpart of starfucked by Stryker’s monster cock, with two possibilities:

[his dream to have] Stryker’s monster cock starfuck him [Instrument Subject]

[his dream to have] Stryker starfuck him [Agent Subject]

(It’s crucial in all of this that Stryker is in fact a (porn)star.)

These are back-formation examples, not simple synthetic compounds, and that’s a point against them for some people. But it seems to me that the second clearly violates both (A) and B, and the first might as well. In any case, I find both of these acceptable, though flirting with pleonasm (for people who care passionately about uprooting pleonasm wherever it’s found — Omit Needless Words); the contribution of the star in starfuck is to reinforce Stryker’s status as a (porn)star, and otherwise the Instrument Subject is a bit more indirect in its reinforcement than the Agent Subject.

All in all, I find getting starfucked by Stryker’s monster cock acceptable, and even subtle in its discourse effects. (On mention vs. use: Maybe I should add that I find getting starfucked by Stryker’s monster cock — as, say, a fantasy proposal — not at all acceptable, much as I have liked getting fucked by other men.)

Searching around on {“would starfuck”}, I came up with the following in a blog discussion (“Re: I May Have To Reconsider Madonna” by Eric  10/26/12):

Lady Gaga is hideous, though still preferable to Madonna (NOW). I would starfuck her if I was horny, but she is ugly.

This also has back-formed starfuck with a Direct Object (her), but now the star represents the Direct Object of fuck (denoting a participant in the Patient role) rather than the Subject (denoting a participant in the Agent role); that is, this is parallel to things like tree-chopped a big pine. I find this variant acceptable as well, though my judgments may be heavily colored by my having read a good bit about polysynthetic languages. (And I admit that the anti-pleonasm crowd will dislike I will starfuck her [sc. Madonna] because it “says the same thing twice”. Compare: I have starfucked several famous movie actors.)

Summary: back-formation continues to supply English with more and more examples parallel to textbook noun incorporations, and some of these seem to violate proposed conditions on synthetic compounding in English. My inclination is to suggest rethinking these conditions as interpretational preferences rather than constraints on grammar, along the lines of studies of anaphoric islands and other cases of referent-finding.

3 Responses to “Noun incorporation in Gayland”

  1. Greg Says:

    Doesn’t your own example contradict the point about how “a given argument can be coded within a synthetic compound or as a syntactic argument of such a compound, but not both at once”? “starfucked by Stryker’s monster cock” encodes the agent within the compound and as a syntactic argument of the compound verb. Maybe there’s a distinction between “Stryker” and “Stryker’s monster cock” as syntactic constituents, but certainly “starfucked by Stryker” [who is a star] is grammatical as well.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      A partial version of this posting was posted by accident; I’m now about to post the whole thing. Yes, at least as I see things, my own example does indeed contradict the proposed conditions.

  2. Thomas Hardy Says:

    While this is an interesting analysis of “starfuck” as a synthetic compound, it seems that “starfuck” is a verb compound. So, instead of an interpretation of “starfuck” as “to fuck a star”, a more appropriate interpretation would be “to fuck like a star”. This type of verb compound is analogous to “rocketpunch”. “Rocketpunch” is a punch like a rocket, not the punching of a rocket. I think that this change would remove all the problems that a synthetic compound analysis brings.

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