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4.4: Morphology beyond affixes

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    • Catherine Anderson, Bronwyn Bjorkman, Derek Denis, Julianne Doner, Margaret Grant, Nathan Sanders, and Ai Taniguchi
    • eCampusOntario

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    There are some morphological patterns that don’t obviously involve affixes at all. In this section we discuss a few examples: internal change, suppletion, and reduplication.

    Internal change

    Internal change is one name for the type of change found in many irregular English noun plurals and verb past tenses.

    For example, for many speakers of English the plural of mouse is mice; the plural of goose is geese. The past tense of sit is sat, and the past tense of write is wrote

    These are all relics of what used to be a regular pattern in English. By regular we mean that they were phonologically predictable based on the general pattern of the language, and automatically applied to new words. For speakers of English today, changes like “mouse becomes mice when it’s plural” have to be memorized, and are therefore irregular.


    Suppletion is an even more irregular pattern, where a particular morphological form involves entirely replacing the form of a morpheme, and is always irregular—you can never predict what the result of suppletion will be, it always has to be memorized. For example, the past tense of the verb go is went—there is no amount of affixation or internal change that will get you from one to the other. This type of total replacement is also found in English in the comparatives and superlatives of good ~ better ~ best and bad ~ worse ~ worst, throughout the paradigm of the verb to be, and on some pronouns.

    If a language has suppletion (and not all languages do!) it is commonly found on some of the most frequent words in the language, just as we see in English. The reason for this is that children acquiring a language tend to assume patterns are regular and predictable until the weight of the evidence convinces them otherwise—and they’re more likely to get enough evidence to reach the conclusion that something is suppletive if a word is incredibly common. The relevance of frequency for certain types of patterns in language is something we’ll see again in Chapter 11 on Child Language Acquisition and Chapter 13 on Psycholinguistics and Neurolinguistics.

    Suppletion is a type of allomorphy, which we will learn more about in the next section of this chapter


    Finally, reduplication involves repeating part or all of a word as part of a morphological pattern. In Halq’eméylem, a Salish language spoken in British Columbia, one pattern of reduplicating a verb produces an adjective meaning that something or someone is likely or disposed to do the action. The examples below come from Shaw (2008), and the links go to pages on FirstVoices, an online platform for community-based language resources, where you can listen to recordings of the unreduplicated verbs pronounced.

    (1) a. kw’élh ‘to capsize’ [kʼʷə́ɬ] [kʼʷə́ɬkʼʷəɬ] ‘likely to capsize’
      b. qwà:l ‘to speak’ [qʷél] [qʷélqʷel] ‘talkative’

    This is not the only pattern of reduplication in Halq’eméylem; languages in the Salish family have many patterns of reduplication, which are associated with several patterns of meaning and grammatical function.

    English does have one pattern of reduplication, which can apply to phrases as well as words. This type of reduplication carries the meaning of something being a prototypical example of the type; it is often called salad-salad reduplication by linguists. For example, in my variety of English I can say: “Tuna salad is a salad, but it’s not a salad-salad.”—in other words, tuna salad isn’t a prototypical salad because it doesn’t involve lettuce or other leafy green vegetables.

    Morphological typology

    Looking at different languages, we can divide them typologically into different morphological types.

    At one end we have what are called isolating or analytic languages. No human language is perfectly* isolating—this would be a language where all words are morphologically simple. Chinese languages like Mandarin and Cantonese are highly isolating, because in these languages inflectional information is typically expressed by small function words (“particles”) rather than by affixes. However there are nonetheless many compound words in the language—compounds are words built out of more than one root, discussed more below in Section 5.7.

    English is less isolating than Mandarin, but still very analytic.

    The opposite of analytic is synthetic. Synthetic languages have a lot of morphological complexity in words, and are often characterized by having no (or very few) free roots.

    Languages that are more synthetic fall into different types. The main division is between agglutinative and fusional languages. In highly agglutinative languages, words are built from many easily separated affixes, each of which is associated with a consistent piece of meaning. Japanese is a somewhat agglutinative language, as in the following example where the verb has a string of suffixes corresponding to the English passive (“was verb-ed”) and causative (“made X verb”).

    (2)   Watasi-wa natto-o tabe-sase-rare-ta
        I-TOPIC natto-ACC eat-CAUS-PASS-PAST
        “I was made to eat natto.”

    By contrast, a fusional language is one where many inflectional meanings are combined into single affixes. The Romance languages are a good example of fusional languages: the suffix on a verb expresses tense, aspect, and subject agreement, and is difficult to break down into smaller affixes. For example, in the Spanish word estudiáramos, the root estud- means “study” and the suffix -iáramos expresses subject agreement (first person plural), tense (past), aspect (imperfective), and mood (subjunctive).

    Check your understanding

    Query \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Shaw, P. (2008). Inside Access: The Prosodic Role of Internal Morphological Constituency. In The Nature of the Word: Studies in Honor of Paul Kiparsky. ed. Kristin Hanson and Sharon Inkelas. The MIT Press.

    Affixation and Other Morphological Processes, from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    I wanted to take a moment to talk about some specific affixation and other morphological processes. I want to not just focus on English; I want to show you what happens in so many other languages. Some of these languages will look familiar to you, while others will be very different and new. That's the point: I want to showcase to you the variety that we have within language.

    When we start off with morphological processes, we always start with affixation. You probably have heard at some point of the terms prefix and suffix. A prefix goes before the root; a suffix goes after the root. They're very common, not just in English, but in all Indo-European languages; we love both prefixation and suffixation. We tend to use prefixation for derivational morphology; suffixation can be used both for derivational morphology and inflectional morphology, not just an English, but in most Indo-European languages.

    I'm showcasing here an example of suffixation from Spanish because I think it would be interesting for many of you to understand exactly what happens in Spanish, with respect to verbs. Most of you either are fluent in Spanish natively or learned, or you have learned about Spanish, so this should give you a new vision, as it were, with respect to verbs in Spanish.

    Realistically, in Spanish, and all the Romance languages, we have a root, followed by a series of suffixes that indicate what that verb is going through, the various types of inflection. When we talk about inflection, especially in the Romance languages, but even in other Indo-European languages, there is a big combination of roles into one affix. In this case, I have the verb tener that means 'to have', as in to possess something, to own something. You see that ten- is the root and for many, many forms of the verb it just stays as ten-.

    (Of course, if you know, Spanish, you know there is a stem change involved, but that's for a Spanish class, that's not morphology. Right now, let's just focus on the fact that you have a root, ten-.)

    You have a specific suffix that goes afterwards, and that suffix can tell you a lot of different information. If it ends in [-er]—Spanish is written fairly phonetically so I’m leaving it here in how it is written, because Spanish is written basically in IPA—that -er suffix [-eɾ] tells you is that it is the infinitive, the base form of the verb. Think of it as the form of the verb that you would look up in the dictionary;in English, that would be 'to have'. If we swap that -er for -emos, now we have conjugated that verb, but in this specific way. As we can see in the middle three examples, -mos shows up in all three of them. We notice that we have first person plural as an indicator for all three of them. First person is the speaker; second person is the audience; third person is somebody not involved in the conversation. Plural, so 'we'. 'We' is first person plural, in English, nosotros is the form in Spanish, and the -mos at the end of that inflection tells you it is first person plural. That vowel or lead-in to the -mos tells you so much more. It can tell you the tense, the aspect, and the mood Those are three elements of deixis; we'll come back to that when we go to pragmatics in the chapter on Meaning. But for now, know that -emos, that -e- refers to both present tense and indicative, meaning something that stated declared. -íamos, that -ía- is still indicative, but it is past tense and durative aspect, meaning ongoing. And the -dre- in the -dremos is future indicative.

    Those of you who speak Spanish especially native speakers of Spanish this is breaking down those puzzle pieces and understanding what they refer to. Think about, Spanish speakers, what tener, tenemos, teníamos, tendremos mean. They have multiple connotations, but each one of them have different roles, then tener is the infinitive ‘to have’. Tenemos is’ we have right now’, as a declarative statement. Teníamos would be ‘we used to have’ or something along those lines. Tendremos, ‘we will have’, or ‘we might have in the future’. Those are all different versions, and that inflection carries with it multiple levels of meaning. Then, just to show you a little bit more, if we want to do a past participle so a form of the verb that gets used a lot of compound forms it's the -ido, which tells you it is a past participle. I bet you didn't realize those inflections, those suffixes in Spanish carried so much meaning. This is just Spanish, and just one verb in Spanish. We see this throughout all human languages; if you have inflection, it carries a lot of meaning and, in this case, it's a suffix.

    But there's two more types of affixation that we do not see in most Indo-European languages, although there is a little caveat to one of them. We see we have infixation and we have circumfixation. Let's start with infixation; as you would expect infixation means in the root. I'm going to show you two different examples; one is a more traditional way of thinking about infixation. This is Bontoc, which is one of the Filipino languages; the Filipino languages are part of a larger family called Australio-Pacific. This is a huge language family that covers the languages all the way out to Rapa Nui and Polynesia (think Hawaii, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, even, New Zealand and the Maori language) and then covers all the languages throughout the Pacific Islands, through the northern coast of Australia, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, all of that area. They are the poster children for infixation; Indo-European languages love suffixation for inflection, but Australio-Pacific languages love infixation. If you speak Tagalog, Ilokano, or any other Filipino language, as well as the other Australio-Pacific languages, you know about this.

    For example, you want to take an adjective and you want to make it a verb, like ‘to be…’ that adjective to be strong, to be read what you do is you infix -um- right after the first consonant: fikas ‘strong’ becomes fumikas ‘to be strong’; kilad ‘red’, the color red becomes kumilad ‘to be read’. This is just one example; all of the Australio-Pacific languages love infixation, especially for any kind of inflection or derivation.

    There's a second kind that you only see in the Semitic languages; I have Hebrew here, but Arabic, Amharic and all of the Semitic languages, which is a branch of the Afro Asiatic language family, they all have some kind of continental root. The vowels are the different inflections and derivation of morphine this is radically different from just about anything else that we see in any other language family, it makes the Semitic languages stand out in a very unique way. For example, ktb, if you will, but I’m going to use the pronunciation, the IPA. [ktb] is the continental root for ‘to write’ in Hebrew; I believe it's also the same in Arabic and it might even be in Amharic. But we're going to stick to Hebrew. Depending on which vowels you put in and where you put them, that depends on how you conjugate the verb 'to write'. For example, 'katab' with two 2 [a] thrown in there, that is just a declarative statement, ‘write’. Compare that with [kutib], sticking an [u] and [i] in between those consonants, that means 'have been written' like ‘the letter has been written’, a perfect passive combination. If you use [a] and [u] and change where they go [aktub] this is 'be writing' like ‘my mother is writing a letter’. If you change that [a] to an [u], and the [u] to an [a] so flip the vowels same placement, that is the passive, something 'is being written', so ‘the letter is being written’. The vowels that you choose and where you choose to place them drastically change the meaning of what you're trying to say.

    This is arbitrariness. Why the Semitic languages do this and seemingly no other language that we know of does is very peculiar and interesting and amazing.

    The last type of application is called circumfixation and it means just that the inflection goes around the root. While it is not a very common way of doing inflection, it is something we see in the other Germanic languages—not English, although we used to, and that's a story for historical linguistics. German, Dutch, the Scandinavian languages, Icelandic, all of them, they all do some kind of circumfixation. Frequently, this is to form the past participle of the verb. To conjugate the verb to that ‘have loved’, ‘have kissed’, etc. Notice that it is not just the [ge-] in the front, the prefix, but also [-t] at the end, the suffix. It's a prefix and suffix combined; that is circumfixation.

    A couple more processes that we should bring up right now. Umlaut or morpheme-internal change; usually, this is a vowel, which is why umlaut is the term we frequently use. English certainly is an example of this, although it is not a productive element; it is something that used to be rife in Old English. The difference between man and men, goose and geese, hold and held. Certain plural formations and certain past tense formations show umlaut. Those vowel changes, that is what umlaut is. You may have heard the term 'umlaut' to refer to those two dots that go over a vowel (e.g. ü, ä), especially in Germanic languages; in fact umlaut is a German word, and that is why it tends to be referred to with respect to vowels that change. In Modern English, certainly for the last several hundred years, this is unpredictable; it is a relic, as it were. When we get to historical linguistics we'll talk more about this relic. In some cases, there are changes, but in most cases, they just have fossilized—they've stayed the same.

    Suppletion is the last one. Suppletion is when we have what we call a radical change of the morpheme. Another term for suppletion is merger and that really does describe what happens when you have two or more forms that merged together and form a single form. For example, if you want to impress some people and talk about language in a party setting (and who doesn't!), bring up this little factoid: if a language has the verb 'to be', it will be the most irregular form in the entire language, and if it has the verb 'to go' and pretty much every language does, it will be the second most irregular form in the entire language. That is because over the history of human language, there have frequently been multiple versions of 'to be', either as an actual verb on its own or idiomatic versions of it. These multiple forms get suppleted or merged together over time. If you've ever wondered why 'to be' has a present conjugation as I am, you are, he or she is, with the past tense conjugation is I was, you were, and wondering how those forms match, let alone how they match 'to be'? That's suppletion; that's merger. The forms merged together over time at some point in the history of English; there were separate verbs and they merge together. The same with 'to go' that has a past tense form of 'went'; again, there used to be two different verbs meaning ‘to go’ in Old English and they merged together. We'll come back to this when we get to historical linguistics. In fact, affixation as a whole is a huge area of historical linguistics that yields so much fruit with how a language has changed over time and how maybe it might change in the future.

    This page titled 4.4: Morphology beyond affixes is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Anderson, Bronwyn Bjorkman, Derek Denis, Julianne Doner, Margaret Grant, Nathan Sanders, and Ai Taniguchi (eCampusOntario) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.