Chapter 4: Syncretism


In this chapter we consider a motivation for morphological autonomy where some parts of the morphology fail to make a distinction required by syntax. This failure to make a syntactically relevant distinction is syncretism, where a single form has more than one grammatical function (Spencer 1991: 45; Trask 1997: 215). Baerman et al. (2005: 2) provide the following key properties:

a. a morphological distinction which is syntactically relevant (i.e. it is an inflectional distinction)
b. a failure to make this distinction under particular (morphological) conditions
c. a resulting dissociation between syntax and morphology

Some syncretisms can be accounted for using default inference (based on underspecification), where the form of a particular morphosyntactic combination is provided by default using path extension. We also show that there are examples of syncretism where default inference alone is not sufficient to account for the data (Section 4.3) and argue that referrals are required, where one part of the paradigm refers to another for the appropriate form or forms. We then demonstrate that both default inference using path extension and referrals are required to account for other instances of syncretism, such as the avoidance morphology of the Dalabon verbal paradigm, thereby confirming the need for both representational means (Section 4.4). We also show that the shape of the paths assumed for default inference provides the underlying basic structure of paradigms which are cross-linguistically more prevalent, while referrals allow us to state more language-specific properties, without obscuring the more general tendencies. Similarly, a combination of both stem indices and default inference is required for the Dhaasanac verb paradigms presented in Section 4.5.

Associated Theories: 

There are two fragments associated with this chapter. These are:

  • a fragment of the verb morphology of Dalabon, a language of the Gunwinyguan family, spoken in central Arnhem Land, Australia, by a dwindling population.
  • a fragment of the verb morphology of Dhaasanac, a Cushitic language spoken in Ethiopia.
    The Dalabon fragment illustrates the interaction of underspecification and referrals to pick out whole sets of cells in the paradigm, and the Dhaasanac fragment illustrates systematicity of morphological patterning which cannot readily be defined in terms of a natural class of morphosyntactic feature.
  • X
    Enter your Network Morphology username.
    Enter the password that accompanies your username.