LINGUIST List 12.11

Sun Jan 7 2001

Review: Packard: The Morphology of Chinese

Editor for this issue: Andrew Carnie <>

What follows is another discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect these discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in. If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for discussion." (This means that the publisher has sent us a review copy.) Then contact Andrew Carnie at


  1. Richard Sproat, Review of Packard 2000

Message 1: Review of Packard 2000

Date: Tue, 19 Dec 2000 16:02:02 -0500
From: Richard Sproat <>
Subject: Review of Packard 2000

Jerome L. Packard (2000) The Morphology of Chinese: A
Linguistic and Cognitive Approach. Cambridge University
Press, xvi, 335 pp. ISBN 0-521-771129

Reviewed by: Richard Sproat, AT&T Labs -- Research, Florham
Park, NJ, USA.

The phrase "Morphology of Chinese" may seem to many to be
almost an oxymoron: not only does Chinese at first glance
appear to have very little of what that could be called
"morphology", but the very notion of "word" in Chinese is
often called into question, stemming in part from the fact
that Chinese orthography does not mark word boundaries.

Packard's work on Chinese morphology, which spans more than
a decade, argues against that view, and shows that there is
a great deal more structure to Chinese morphology than meets
the eye. The present book continues in that
tradition. However, far from being merely a synthesis of
Packard's previous writings, this book presents a wealth of
new material, including studies of various types of Chinese
word constructions at a level of detail found nowhere
else. This book is the most comprehensive single treatment
of Chinese morphology available in English, or possibly in
any language.

One point that needs to be clarified at the outset is that
by "Chinese", Packard means Standard Chinese, or in other
words Mandarin. This is a conventional enough equation, but
it is as well to note that other Chinese languages are not
treated at all.

The book is divided into eight chapters. Chapter 1 comprises
a brief introduction and a motivation for the rest of the
work, discussing a few of the common misconceptions about
Chinese. A particularly poignant example from page 3: "Time
and again, when I tell people that I work in Chinese
linguistics, I get a response like: `Oh, Chinese makes
sentences by putting characters together, right?', as if,
unlike the rest of the world's languages, Chinese enables
spoken communication by the oral exchange of little visual
icons." In my work on Chinese speech synthesis I've had
occasion to hear or read plenty of similar nonsense about
Chinese, so Packard has my sympathies.

Chapter 2 turns to "Defining the word in Chinese". The
chapter begins by going through some standard notions of
word --- orthographic, sociological, lexical, semantic,
phonological, morphological, syntactic --- and ends with the
notion of "psycholinguistic word", defined to be the "`word'
level of linguistic analysis that is ... salient and highly
relevant to the operation of the language processor
(p. 13). The discussion then turns to the definition of word
in Chinese, and in particular the notion of word --
syntactic word -- that Packard uses as the basis for
defining the topic of the rest of this work. Packard
mentions in passing that the definition of Chinese word has
important implications for computational systems that deal
with Chinese text, and must thus segment it into words. This
is true, and it might be interesting to consider the extant
proposed standards (GB 1993; Huang et al 1997; Xia, 1999),
in light of Packard's proposals.

Chapter 3 turns to the consideration of the "inner
constituents" of Chinese words, what they are, and how they
relate to each other. After considering various
alternatives, including the idea that Chinese word structure
may actually be derived by purely syntactic principles,
Packard arrives at the conclusion that the best description
of the components of Chinese words is in terms of "form
class", or grammatical "part of speech". Thus "chu1-ban3"
(emit-edition) `publish' may be considered to be a
(bimorphemic) verb with the structure [V N]_V. (I'll use
numeric indicators of tone and "_" and "^" to denote,
respectively, subscripts and superscripts.) Packard develops
this idea by noting that clearly unambiguous morphemes tend
to retain their form class identities: "zhi3" `paper' is a
noun in whatever word it occurs in. The constancy of such
morphemes allows for the formulation of the Headedness
Principle, which is central to the rest of the discussion:
nouns have their head on the right, and verbs have their
head on the left. With ambiguous morphemes -- e.g. "zheng4"
`proof' (N) or `prove' (V) -- one finds, as one might
expect, that the form class appropriate for a particular
usage in a given word depends upon the position in that word
and the part of speech of the word: "zheng4" in
constructions [X-zheng4]_N tends to have the noun reading,
whereas in [zheng4-X]_V it tends to have the verb
reading. Nonetheless, exceptions to the Headedness Principle
do occur: so "cai3-pai2" (color-rehearse) `dress-rehearse'
is a verb despite its [N-V] structure. These are to be
allowed by the grammar, but are predicted to have
exceptional properties, a point we return to below. Another
important property of Chinese morphology is the large number
of bound morphemes, or in other words morphemes that cannot
occur as free-standing words; for example "shi2" `rock'
occurs in lots of derived words -- "shi2-tou" (rock-AFF)
`stone', "shi2-you2" (rock-oil) `petroleum', "bao3-shi2"
(treasure-rock) `gem' -- but never alone; previous claims
that the bound-free distinction is vague or fluid are
countered by noting that differences in boundness of a given
morpheme invariably relate to differences in meaning, or
differences of register. Of course, bound and free roots are
not the only types of morphemes that Chinese possesses, and
Packard argues that Chinese also has a (modest) set of
word-forming and grammatical affixes.

Chapter 4 provides an exhaustive taxonomy of the types of
Chinese words, with a nice set of examples of each type. Two
construction types are also discussed in some detail:
resultative verbs, and verb-object compounds such as
"chu1-ban3" (emit-edition) `publish'. Both of these
constructions have been the topic of much controversy in
Chinese linguistics, but verb-object (VO) compounds have
been particularly controversial since they seem to be able
to behave like phrases and words at the same time. Packard
argues, somewhat along the lines of Huang (1984), that VO
compounds may be either words or phrases depending upon the
construction one finds them in, but that once a VO
construction becomes a word via lexicalization, it is
basically a word, and admits of only limited phrasal
reanalysis. (Note though that, as Packard shows, the object
from the verb-object construction can even prepose, so it is
not entirely clear in what sense the reanalysis is
"limited".) This dual status is not as odd as it may seem,
and Packard invites us to compare it with such well-known
psychological phenomena as the Necker cube. The chapter ends
with a statistical analysis of Chinese word classes, with
the statistics overwhelmingly supporting the Headedness
Principle as a general tendency.

The core of the book is Chapter 5, which offers an X-bar
analysis of Chinese words. After reviewing previous
proposals for X-bar analyses of morphology (especially work
of Selkirk and Sadock) Packard arrives at the following
simple ruleset for Chinese, where X^(-0) are free, X^(-1)
are bound, X^W are word-forming affixes and G are
grammatical affixes:

 X^(-0) -> X^(-0,-1,W), X^(-0,-1,W)

 X^(-0) -> X^(-0), G

In addition it is stipulated that you can only get one X^W
at any level, or in other words that *X^W,X^W is
ill-formed. Furthermore, only X^(-0) and X^(-1) can serve as
the base of words since for X^W "the superscript is a letter
and not a numeral" and therefore "can never be `incremented'
to the point where they can serve the traditional function
of `stem'". Similarly, "for grammatical affixes, the fact
that the category designation is `G' and not `X' indicates
that these items can never function as the heads of words"
since "there are no words of the form *[X^(-0) G]_G" (page
165). This of course does have the flavor of hackery, though
a more charitable interpretation would be that Packard is
making use of a type system that he does not otherwise
elaborate on. The X-bar system that Packard develops is
recursive at the X^(-0) level, which allows for various
kinds of branching structures, many of which occur, and some
of which do not. Much of the rest of the chapter is devoted
to a catalog of various cases, replete with a nice
collection of examples of each. As Packard notes some of the
gaps are probably accidental, and indeed it is not hard to
see how one might fill a few of these. So while Packard did
not find examples of [X^(-1) [X^W X^(-1)]] (page 181) one
can certainly construct plausible examples:
[shi2-[lao3-hu3]] (stone PREF-tiger) `stone tiger', where
"shi2" and "hu3" are both bound, and "lao3" is apparently a
word-forming prefix. The chapter ends with a discussion of
various notions of morphological "head", as applied to
Chinese, and with an interesting application of the X-bar
model to English morphology.

Chapter 6 starts with a discussion of lexicalization,
exceptions to the Headedness Principle, and the availability
of word-internal information to various (including
morphological) processes. Words may be lexicalized to
various degrees ranging from purely "conventional"
lexicalization -- e.g. "chi1-fan4" (eat-rice) `eat (a meal)'
- where the constructions are fairly compositional
semantically, and completely regular morphologically but
which, through usage, have come to be treated as words;
through "asemantic lexicalization" ("wen4-shi4" (ask-world)
`to be published'); through complete lexicalization
("shao1-mai4" (burn-sell) `(type of)
dumpling'). Lexicalization is related to Packard's earlier
proposals for a stratum-ordered lexicon for Chinese, which
he briefly introduces here: roughly speaking, the more
lexicalized the construction, the deeper the stratum. (Note
though that in contrast to his extensive exemplification of
other proposals, he does not offer much in the way of
support for this linkage.) Exceptions to the Headedness
Principle range from neologisms and phonetic loans
(e.g. from English), to zero-derived words (e.g. the V-V
noun "mai3-mai4" (buy-sell) `business'), to cases like N-V
verbs that simply fail to observe the general trends. With
respect to the latter, Packard reiterates a claim of earlier
work that the N-V structure of verbs like "cai3-pai2"
(color-rehearse) `dress rehearse', prevents them from
undergoing A-not-A question formation (*"cai3-bu4-cai3-pai2"
(color-not-color-rehearse) `dress rehearse?'). Packard then
argues that various kinds of information -- phonological,
morphological, syntactic, and semantic can be rendered
unavailable by the effects of lexicalization. The final
section of the chapter deals with the formation of new words
in Chinese, and includes an interesting discussion of
Chinese "abbreviations" (Chinese "suo1-xie3" or `shrunken
writing'), which turn out to be an important source of new
morphemes (or, if one prefers, new meanings for old
morphemes): so "tuo1" `entrust' in "GONG1-ban4
TUO1-er2-suo3" (public-run entrust-child-place) `public run
day-care center', via the abbreviation "gong1-tuo1" `public
run day-care center', has now come to mean "day care center"
as evidenced by the verb "ru4-tuo1" (enter-entrust) `enter a
day care center'. But most new morphemes formed in this way
are only available within other words, meaning that most new
morphemes in Chinese are bound.

Chapter 7 discusses the question of what is meant by "the
lexicon". Packard reviews psycholinguistic evidence in
speech and written language comprehension and production,
and concludes that the evidence supports the notion that
what is accessed in "lexical access" is words rather than,
for example, morphemes. What, then, is listed in the
lexicon? Apart from bound roots, and words with
idiosyncratic meanings, Packard makes the specific proposal
that any word that is familiar to a speaker is listed,
whether it is regular in its construction or not; the only
systematic exceptions to this are words formed with
grammatical affixes, which are not stored because they are
completely regular. The chapter ends with a brief discussion
of the relation between the writing system of Chinese and
the Chinese lexicon: is a Chinese speaker's knowledge of
Chinese morphology in any way influenced by their knowledge
of the written form of the language? While Packard argues
that there is a relationship, he nonetheless is unequivocal
in his adoption of the the Bloomfieldian view that spoken
language is primary and written language only secondary. In
particular, he argues against the view that the entries in
the mental lexicon (of literate speakers) *contain*
orthographic entries, as opposed to merely positing
*connections* between orthographic information and the
legitimate (semantic, phonological, grammatical) information
in lexical entries. This view is likely to be widely
accepted, but as the author of a recent work that proposes
the alternative view -- Sproat (2000), where orthographic
information is considered to be a part of lexical entries --
I must point out that it is not the only coherent
view. Orthography is clearly learned later and furthermore
with explicit instruction, but from this it does not follow
that orthographic knowledge cannot become part of what a
literate speaker knows about words, and therefore part of
the lexical entries of those words.

Chapter 8 provides a concise summary of the work, and what
we can conclude from it.

If I had to point to the single most important feature of
this book, it would be the large number of examples with
which Packard exemplifies his claims about the structure of
Chinese words. Thus, although the book's primary goal is
theoretical, it also serves as a useful descriptive taxonomy
of a large range of morphological constructions. Only a few
constructions are not discussed at all; so for example
morphologically complex adjectives (or "stative verbs") such
as "fen3-hong2" (powder-red) `pink' are missing, and it is
not entirely clear what Packard's theory should say about
these. Some of the claims, such as the putative
non-availability of A-not-A reduplications in N-V verbs, and
arguments for phonological opacity have been discussed
elsewhere -- in particular, see Sproat and Shih (1993) --
and anyone considering developing Packard's ideas further
would do well to look at this earlier literature.

I applaud Packard's use of Chinese characters throughout the
book, alongside pinyin transcriptions (though personal taste
would have led me to use traditional characters, rather than
the simplified ones that he uses).

I always like to end with a note on production quality. On
the whole the quality is quite good, and I only noted one
table whose left edge was cut off, and a few formatting
characters that made their way into the text.


GB. 1993. Contemporary Chinese language word-segmentation
specification for information processing. GB/T 13715-92

Huang, Chu-Ren; Chen, Keh-Jiann; Chang, Lili; and Chen,
Feng-yi. 1997. Segmentation standard for Chinese natural
language processing. International Journal of Computational
Linguistics and Chinese Language Processing. 2(2), 47-62.

Huang, James. 1984. Phrase structure, lexical integrity, and
Chinese compounds. Journal of the Chinese Language Teachers
Association. 19(2), 53-78.

Sproat, Richard. 2000. A Computational Theory of Writing
Systems. Cambridge University Press.

Sproat, Richard; and Shih, Chilin. 1993. Why Mandarin
morphology is not stratum-ordered. Yearbook of
Morphology. 185-217.

Xia, Fei. 1999. Segmentation guideline. Chinese Treebank


Richard Sproat works in the Human/Computer Interaction
Research department at AT&T Labs -- Research. His research
interests include computational linguistics, speech
synthesis and recognition, writing systems, morphology and
Chinese linguistics.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue