What’s In A Name?

This article is part of a series entitled Redividing Linguistics. See also:

  1. Morphology and Syntax: What’s In A Name?
  2. Syntax and Semantics: The Search For Meaning
  3. Semantics and Pragmatics: The Reality Interface

Morphology investigates formation rules within words. Defined as “the study of words and their structure,” (Fromkin, 25) morphology studies how a language’s smallest units of meaning, called morphemes, can be combined in systematic ways to form larger words. For example, the root “happy” combines with the prefixes and suffixes (i.e., affixes) “un-“, “-ness”, and “-es” to form the complex word “unhappinesses”. (56)

Syntax studies “how words are combined with each other to form grammatical sentences in a similar rule-governed way.” (89) For example, the determiner phrase “The daughter of Lear” — which itself contains the noun phrase “daughter of Lear” and the prepositional phrase “of Lear” — combines with the verb phrase “loved him” to create the properly formed sentence “The daughter of Lear loved him.” (172)

What if the distinction between these two proved to be elusive and ill-defined?

What is a word?

Morphology lives within words; syntax lives across them. The boundary between morphology and syntax depends on the definition of word.

“Even speakers of unwritten languages have a feeling for which sequences of sounds are words and which sequences are not,” (26) observe the writers of Linguistics. We seem to know what words are. Can we formulate a precise technical definition which coincides with our intuition?

Spaces. Perhaps words are those units which are separated by spaces when written. This proposal quickly fails. Speakers of unwritten languages too, indeed, harbor intuitions about which sequences of sounds are words. Even written English defies this proposal. Sequences typically considered to be single words can be separated by spaces (looking glass), by dashes (jack-in-the-box), or by nothing at all (girlfriend) (26). The use of spaces is an arbitrary typographic convention.

Meaning. Fromkin, et. al write “When a speaker hears a word in his language, he has an immediate association with a particular meaning,” (25). Linguistics, here, seems to define a sequence of sounds as a word only if it triggers an association with meaning. This definition excludes entities which do not carry meaning. It includes everything which does, though, and this could lead us to too broad a definition. Defining words by meaning is sufficient to distinguish bound morphemes (morphemes which must be affixed to other words) such as -er, -ed, -est, or -s — which do not trigger associations with meaning — from both free morphemes (morphemes which can stand on their own) such as dog, house, or walk, and complex words (combinations of multiple free or bound morphemes) such as walker, schoolmaster, or unhappinesses — which do. This definition would fail to distinguish, though, between, on the one hand, free morphemes and complex words, and, on the other, sequences of free morphemes or complex words (such as “walker of dogs”) which themselves as a whole trigger associations with meaning. Is “walker of dogs” one word, or many? Defining the word through reference to meaning might force us to answer one.

Interchangeability. Words could be defined as the smallest units which can be used and interchanged independently. The writers of Linguistics cite certain compounds’ lack of independence as evidence for their status as single words in Southern Paiute: “There is much evidence that the verbs in the third column are, in fact, single words…. Although Southern Paiute sentences allow some freedom of word order, verbs with incorporated objects must always occur in the fixed object-verb order shown above.” (62) Defining the word through independent use and interchangeability would indeed exclude both bound morphemes (-ment, re-, anti-) — which can’t be used independently — and noun or determiner phrases (walker of dogs, the daughter of Lear, front page) — which can, but whose constituent parts can be interchanged (lover of dogs, the daughter of John). It would also include traditionally accepted words such as dog, walker, and daughter. This definition, however, might also inappropriately include certain special sequences bound by convention, even when we do, again, typically regard their constituents as independent words. For example, the English phrases “wreak havoc” and “wax eloquent” feature words which are almost never used equivalently in other contexts. Should we consider these phrases as single words? Should wreak- and wax- be considered mere bound morphemes? Defining the word through interchangeability might command us to do so.

Words are intuitively clear. They’re difficult, however, to define technically.

The reader might object here. “Though the boundary between morphology and syntax may be poorly defined,” he could argue, “these fields still perform different functions. Some boundary must be drawn for pragmatic reasons.” Here, I’ll refute this claim.

Worlds collide

Word can be difficult to define. An independent problem, however, emerges: given any particular definition of the word — let’s assume, for example, that it’s intuitively defined — the meanings expressible by constructions then governed by morphological and syntactic rules, respectively, might differ in no meaningful way. Morphology and syntax perform indistinguishable roles.

Indeed, morphology sometimes overruns syntax. In Lakhota, a Siouan language spoken in South Dakota, an extensive system of affixes permits verbs to subsume both subject and object into a single word. Wapàjaja means “I washed him”, Mayàpajaja means “You washed me”, and the list continues (50). Which rules, exactly, govern the formation of these single-word sentences? The rules for word formation (morphology) produce complete sentences without consulting the rules for sentence formation (syntax). Morphology has invaded syntax’s jurisdiction!

Single-word sentences actually give rise to situations in which morphology and syntax diverge. Indeed, languages featuring single-word sentences can convey these particular meanings using constructions formed by either morphological or syntactic rules. We end up with two equivalent ways of expressing one meaning, which each follow different rule sets, and whose formation rules even expressly contradict each other! In Chickasaw and SLQ Zapotec, compound single-word sentences parallel standard multi-word sentences in maintaining the language’s usual basic word order (subject-object-verb and verb-subject-object, respectively). In Tolkapaya and Swahili, however, single-word sentences feature word order different than that of usual multi-word sentences. (83) Morphology and syntax here pull in opposite directions.

Conversely, syntactic rules often influence morphological formation. Russian, for example, features a sophisticated system of case marking, whereby affixes following nouns specify the role these nouns play in their larger sentences. The Russian phrase Гамлет отдал Горацию череп — transliterated as Gamlet otdal Goraciju cerep, glossed as Hamlet-nominative gave-masculine.singular.past Horatio-dative the skull-accusative, and translated as Hamlet gave Horatio the skull — features extensive case-markers, and can be permuted in many ways while retaining its meaning (113). Though the thematic roles associated with a verb — its subject, object, and indirect object, to name the relevant examples — are syntactic notions, they carry significant morphological consequences.

In a parallel fashion, syntactic influence on morphological rules can also furnish interesting divergences. In English, for example, case marking can often happen either through morphological affixation or through syntactic word assembly, especially in the genitive case. The phrases “your friend’s mother’s dog’s collar” (72) and “the collar of the dog of the mother of the friend of you” have similar meanings, but they’re constructed in very different ways (and again, with opposite word order!). Though the first phrase’s chain of genitives is a syntactic structure, it can also expressed using morphological affixation (to be precise, in this case, cliticization). Morphology and syntax here, again, both overlap and diverge.

Given some particular definition of word, morphology and syntax accordingly divide. The meanings expressible by constructions over which these distinct rule sets then respectively preside, however, will overlap significantly. Morphology and syntax, though distinct, perform similar functions. We might as well call them Rule Set 1 and Rule Set 2.

Morphology and syntax play roles which need not be distinguished in kind. They’re both rule sets for structure. What else does language involve?

Reference: Fromkin, V, et. al. (2000). Linguistics: An introduction to linguistic theory. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s