Saturday: derivational verbs.
“He opens the second shutter, letting it concertina in the casement, and quietly raises the sash window.”
-Ian McEwan, Saturday, p. 2 (bold word is my emphasis)
Just having started Ian McEwan’s Saturday, I am enthralled by the author’s ability to bend, stretch, and transform language in the most unlikely ways.
In the sentence above, the author’s use of concertina is an example of linguistic derivation, the process of forming a new word based on an existing word. For example, the adjective happy can turn into both the noun happiness and the adjectiveunhappy by adding the affixes -ness and un-. Derivation is possible without any form change whatsoever, as in McEwan’s case: concertina, a noun describing a musical instrument in the accordion family, becomes a verb evoking the expand and collapse, inhale and exhale of the instrument.
McEwan’s derivation of concertina reminds me of Richard Serra’s Verb List Compilations: Actions to Relate to Oneself. On a sketchbook page spread, the (post-) minimalist artist scrawled a list of over one hundred procedures. To crease, to dapple, to flood, to weave… A lot of the words on Serra’s list can be changed into nouns and adjectives via derivation. To crease becomes a crease, to modulate becomesmodulation, to inlayed becomes inlayed.
Serra selected the verb forms for a reason: the words are no longer descriptors but actions. The artist once explained the process of writing these words “as a way of applying various activities to unspecified materials.”* We can imagine the actions even if we can’t imagine the specific material; the process takes precedence over the physical object. McEwan’s concertina works in a similar way. It’s about the action, the protagonist’s physical relationship between shoving the shutter open and the subsequent oscillation.
Richard Serra, Verb List Compilations: Actions to Relate to Oneself, 1967-1968
*quoted in Liz Kotz, Words to Be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art, p. 209.