All they will call you will be “escapees”

Well, maybe also “escapers”, or even “escapettes”, as in this One Big Happy cartoon from 8/17, which taps into a much-studied phenomenon in English morphology:


From my 1/9/15 posting “-ee” (warning: this goes, unavoidably, pretty deep into the technical weeds of syntax and semantics):

The great resource on [the English derivational suffix] –ee is a 1998 paper by Chris Barker in Language (74.695-727), “Episodic -ee in English: A thematic role constraint on new word formation” (stable URL here), which uses a database of “fifteen hundred naturally occurring tokens of some five hundred word types” to analyze the semantics of the suffix; it also has a full bibliography of relevant literature on the subject.

That posting then goes on to quote Wikipedia on ergativity at some length:

An ergative [more fully, ergative-absolutive] language maintains a syntactic or morphological equivalence (such as the same word order or grammatical case) for the object of a transitive verb and the single core argument of an intransitive verb, while treating the agent of a transitive verb differently.

This contrasts with nominative–accusative languages such as English, where the single argument of an intransitive verb and the agent of a transitive verb (both called the subject) are treated alike and kept distinct from the object of a transitive verb.

… English has derivational morphology that parallels ergativity in that it operates on intransitive verbs and objects of transitive verbs [that is, on absolutives]. With an intransitive verb, adding the suffix -ee to the verb produces a label for the person performing the action:

“John has retired” → “John is a retiree”
“John has escaped” → “John is an escapee”

However, with a transitive verb, adding ee does not produce a label for the person doing the action. Instead, it gives us a label for the person to whom the action is done:

“Mike employs Susie” → “Susie is an employee”
“Mike has appointed Susie” → “Susie is an appointee”

[the intransitive uses are chiefly US]

Back in my posting, it continues:

Chris Barker’s 1998 article, using a large database, concludes that the formation of nouns in –ee is moderately but genuinely productive, but that analyses based on the syntactic argument structure of the stem verb [as in the absolutive proposal from Wikipedia] are unsatisfactory (the hypothesis is suggestive, but doesn’t work in detail; in particular, there’s a big class of cases like amputee, in which the referent doesn’t correspond to a syntactic argument of the stem verb at all). Barker proposes three essentially semantic constraints [details in my posting]

In any case, back in the OBH cartoon in #1, the two kids and their father struggle with what turns out to be a genuinely complex and subtle phenomenon. (On the practical level, inquisitive students, including ESL students, who ask, in effect, “Why escapee? are usually told to just memorize that that’s the correct word, rather than escaper. It just is. Trying to explain any of the proposed generalizations that predict things is just a bridge too far.

The title. A play on a Woody Guthrie song. From Wikipedia:

(#2) Grave marker for the deportees

“Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” is a protest song with lyrics by Woody Guthrie and music by Martin Hoffman detailing the January 28, 1948 crash of a plane near Los Gatos Canyon, 20 miles (32 km) west of Coalinga in Fresno County, California … Guthrie was inspired to write the song by what he considered the racist mistreatment of the passengers before and after the accident. The crash resulted in the deaths of 32 people, 4 Americans and 28 migrant farm workers who were being deported from California back to Mexico.

The chorus:

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be “deportees”

You can listen to Guthrie performing the song here.

2 Responses to “All they will call you will be “escapees””

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I’m inclined (possibly incorrectly) to associate the English -ee suffix with the French -é(e), the most common way of forming the past participle; on which basis, both escapee = “one who has escaped” and employee = “one who is employed” make perfect sense.

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