The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

LingLunch 5/5 - Boer Fu (MIT)

Speaker: Boer Fu (MIT)
Title: The size of morphemes in Mandarin Chinese: perspectives from phonological learning
Time: Thursday, May 5th, 12:30pm – 1:50pm

Abstract: It is a long-held belief that every Mandarin Chinese syllable, transcribed by a character, is a meaning-bearing unit. It follows that any disyllabic word is combined of two meaning-bearing units, or two morphemes. I challenge this view by examining the process of phonological learning of tone 3 sandhi, in which a disyllabic word with the underlying /T3 T3/ surfaces as [T2 T3]. Using a novel AABB reduplication diagnostic, I show that many disyllabic words that are purported to have undergone tone 3 sandhi actually are learned as non-sandhi words by native speakers. I argue that compositionally opaque words are prone to being learned as identical to the surface form, because learners cannot establish meaningful morphological alternation for the first syllable. The results indicate that many individual syllables in disyllabic words are not meaning-bearing units at all, but are instead just parts of a disyllabic morpheme. It also points to the possibility that Chinese characters are not used to transcribe meaning, but merely tools to transcribe sounds.