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CoEDL Seminar: Exotic Words: A typology of splits, Greville Corbett, 25 Nov, 3.30pm, ANU

Australian National University, Shape

Date: 21 October 2016

Seminar: Exotic Words: A typology of splits

Speaker: Greville Corbett, Surrey Morphology Group, University of Surrey

When: 3.30-5.00pm, 25 November 2016

Where: Engma Room (5019), HC Coombs Building, ANU


Different forms of a word often express grammatical meaning through inflection in a perfectly transparent way: adding -s to a verb like talk or play gives the 3rd person singular present tense (s/he talkss/he plays), and adding -ed gives the past tense (s/he talked, s/he played). But sometimes the means are more obscure, as with the past tense of go, which seems to be a different word entirely, went. We say here that the word is ‘split’ between two distinct stems. While such words are striking in their irregularity, when we look carefully at inflectional systems we find that such splits are a pervasive feature. Far from being simple mirrors of grammatical meaning, inflectional paradigms are patchworks composed of sections of varying size and shape, some quite exotic.

Therefore, in trying to understand natural language, we need to get to grips with what is a possible word (lexeme). We find simple lexemes (like English play) that are internally homogeneous and externally consistent. On the other hand, there are others with splits in their internal structure or inconsistencies in their external behaviour. Taking a canonical approach, I first explore the characteristics of the most straightforward lexemes, in order to establish a point in the theoretical space from which we can calibrate the real examples we find. I then schematize the interesting phenomena which deviate from this idealization: these deviations include suppletion (as in go vs went), syncretism, deponency and defectiveness. Next I analyse the different ways in which lexemes are split into two or more segments by such phenomena. I set out a typology of possible splits, along four dimensions:

  1. structure: splits based on the composition/feature signature of the paradigm versus those based solely on morphological form;
  2. justification: splits which are motivated (following a boundary motivated from outside the paradigm) versus purely morphology-internal (‘morphomic’);
  3. regularity: regular (extending across the lexicon) versus irregular (lexically specified);
  4. relevance: externally relevant versus irrelevant.

I identify instances of these four dimensions separately: they are orthogonal to each other. Their interaction gives a substantial typology, and it proves to be surprisingly complete: the possibilities specified, including the most exotic, are all attested. Examples are taken from a range of languages, from Archi to Sanskrit. The typology also allows for the unexpected patterns of behaviour to overlap in particular lexemes, producing some remarkable examples. Such examples show that the notion ‘possible word’ is more challenging than has generally been realized.

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