The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Ling-Lunch 10/21 - Donca Steriade

Speaker: Donca Steriade (MIT)
Title: Constraint Interactions derive Morphomic Identity
Time: Thursday 10/21, 12:30—1:45pm
Location: 32-D461

Morphological paradigms sometimes display systematic identity (or syncretism) between cells that share no syntactic properties. Such phenomena are widespread enough to have generated new descriptive technologies: e.g. the rule of referral (Zwicky 1985, Stump 2001), the morphome (Aronoff 1992) and the thematic space (Bonami and Boyer 2001, for stem syncretism). All these devices were proposed in the belief that any pair of paradigm cells is as likely as any other to have identical exponents.

I show that syncretism is frequently predictable when phonology is factored in: cells that are on the surface strictly identical, without syntactic reason, are the ones that whose underlying representations single them out as being very similar, in some local respect. Familiar data showing this is the obligatory identity between English past tense and past participles when both end in t or d (sat/sat; rid/rid; built/built; burnt/burnt; said/said). There is variation, but no paradigm internal contrast between forms like burnt~burned or lit~lighted. Pairs not ending in t/d tend to be distinct in strong verbs (wrote/written; swelled/swollen; dove/dived) showing that it’s the local similarity between final alveolar stops that triggers syncretism. What we need then is a mechanism that generates global identity between forms that are underlyingly distinct but similar, i.e. hypothetical inputs like burnt/burned.

Most of this talk is about the Latin syncretism that inspired the morphome (Aronoff 1994; Matthews 1974) and the related hypothesis of an autonomous morphological component. The stem of many Latin deverbal derivatives (e.g. agent nouns like laudator ‘praiser’) is always identical to that of the passive-perfect participle (laudatus ‘praised’). I show that local similarity is the critical factor here too, in ways reminiscent of the English case. The Latin pattern is more revealing because stem syncretism violates here an otherwise general condition linking the referent of a deverbal derivative to the argument structure of verb forms containing the same stem as the derivative: if the latter are passive, the former must refer to a passive subject. The full picture suggests exactly the opposite of Aronoff’s conclusions: syncretism is not arbitrary, and cannot be analyzed in an autonomous component. Rather, it involves an interaction of phonological constraints seeking identity of similar forms with conflicting preferences on the proper exponence of syntactic structures.