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LINGUIST List 25.2129

Wed May 14 2014

Review: Morphology: Bobaljik (2012)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <jsalmonslinguistlist.org>

Date: 13-Nov-2013
From: M Ryan Bochnak <bochnakberkeley.edu>
Subject: Universals in Comparative Morphology
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-4601.html

AUTHOR: Jonathan D. Bobaljik
TITLE: Universals in Comparative Morphology
SUBTITLE: Suppletion, Superlatives, and the Structure of Words
SERIES TITLE: Current Studies in Linguistics
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: M Ryan Bochnak, University of California, Berkeley

This monograph proposes several morphological universals in the realm of
suppletion in adjectival gradation structures based on a typological survey of
302 languages. Bobaljik (henceforth B) sets out to address two main goals. The
first is the development of a formal generative typology of suppletion in the
domain of adjectival comparison, taking up the challenge posed by Baker &
McCloskey (2007) and Baker (2009) of unifying the results of both formal
generative research and large-scale typological studies. The second stated
goal is to contribute to the search for morphological primitives in natural
language. The central generalization B seeks an explanation for is the fact
that in paradigms of absolute-comparative-superlative grades of adjectives,
the patterns AAA, ABB and ABC are found in natural language (where A, B, C
represent distinct suppletive forms of a single adjective root), while the
patterns *ABA and *AAB are ''virtually unattested'' (p. 2).

This research monograph is directed at and suitable for quite a wide-ranging
audience. The typological generalizations, accompanied with appendices
containing the relevant paradigms from the languages included in the survey,
will appeal to typologists and researchers interested in cross-linguistic
morphological patterns. Morphologists (and syntacticians) will find interest
in the development of a formal theory that aims to capture cross-linguistic
generalizations, couched within the realizational framework of Distributed
Morphology (DM). Those formal theoretical details, however, are presented in a
clear and straightforward manner, presupposing only a basic background in
generative syntactic theory. While it is not designed as a textbook, the book
could be used in an advanced morphology course as a case study on how data
from a particular empirical domain (comparatives) come to bear on the choice
of theory. Semanticists working on gradability will also find value in this
book, as the morphosyntactic results have implications for the structures that
form the input to the interpretive module of grammar.

Chapter 1 ''Introduction'' outlines the proposed morphological universals in
the domain of comparative suppletion, and the main theoretical background. B
identifies three main theoretical assumptions that form the basis of the
analysis: late insertion; underspecification and elsewhere ordering; and
locality. B argues that the proposed universals follow from these key
assumptions, together with the Containment Hypothesis (CH): ''The
representation of the superlative properly contains that of the comparative''
(p. 4). That is, a structure along the lines of *[[ADJ] SPRL] is unavailable
in natural language. Surface forms that appear to be evidence for such a
structure (e.g. English small-est), are argued to universally contain a
comparative morpheme (which may be phonologically null), and have a structure
of [[[ADJ] CMPR] SPRL]. This chapter also outlines B's methodology in
constructing the cross-linguistic databases upon which the typological
generalizations are based. Strikingly, the suppletion facts appear mostly
limited to languages in a ''Greater European Sprachbund,'' i.e., languages
historically originating from Europe and its close neighbors. (An important
exception is Cherokee.) To mitigate against the possibility of borrowing
and/or common inheritance as a source for the patterns observed, B uses
cognate sets rather than individual languages for counting attested patterns.
For example, English good-better-best and German gut-besser-(am) besten count
as only one example of a suppletive triple.

Chapter 2 ''Comparative Suppletion'' discusses the first proposed universal,
the Comparative-Superlative Generalization (CSG), which comes in two parts:
CSG1: If the comparative degree of an adjective is suppletive, then the
superlative is also suppletive (with respect to the positive); and CSG2: If
the superlative degree of an adjective is suppletive, then the comparative is
also suppletive (with respect to the positive). That is, there are three
possible patterns for positive-comparative-superlative paradigms: AAA (no
suppletion), ABB (suppletion in comparative and superlative grades, where
these share a common base), and ABC (suppletion in comparative and superlative
grades, where all three grades have distinct bases). (Putative counterexamples
are discussed in later chapters.) B argues that the data constitute evidence
for UG, by way of a ''poverty of the stimulus''-style argument. The data from
individual languages seem too sparse to be significant; it is only in the
broader cross-linguistic context that the force of the generalizations is
revealed. B proposes rules of exponence together with Elsewhere Condition
reasoning to account for the AAB suppletion pattern. For example, for the
Czech triple špatny-horší-nejhorší `bad-worse-worst' can be analyzed with the
following rules of exponence: SPRL -> nej-; CMPR ->-ší; BAD ->hor- /_]CMPR];
BAD -> špatn- (p. 33). Given CH, the superlative necessarily embeds the
comparative, so the form hor- is predicted to occur in both the comparative
and superlative. Elsewhere reasoning predicts that the form špatn- occurs in
all other contexts, since the more specific rules must apply first. Such a
system explains the ABB pattern, and excludes *ABA and *AAB patterns. ABC
patterns can be explained by adding another rule of exponence that derives a
third form in the more specific environment _]CMPR]SPRL].

In chapter 3 ''The Containment Hypothesis'', B introduces morphological and
semantic evidence in favor of CH. First, many languages transparently display
containment in their superlative forms, e.g., Persian: X-tær `X-CMPR' and
X-tær-in `X-CMPR-SPRL', where X is an adjective base. An apparent
counterexample of this affix ordering comes from some Fennic languages, where
the superlative appears closer to the adjective root than the comparative
morphology. B analyzes such cases as exemplifying a branching affix structure,
which would not render such data true counterexamples of CH. B also discusses
two more generalizations in relation to CH. First, the Root Suppletion
Generalization: adjectival root suppletion is limited to synthetic
comparatives. This generalization falls out automatically as a corollary of
the locality condition that a morpheme (or feature) may only condition
allomorphy of a root if a maximal projection (or cyclic node) does not
intervene. Thus, in periphrastic comparatives, the comparative morpheme is not
local enough to trigger allomorphy on the adjective. Second, the Synthetic
Superlative Generalization (SSG): no language has morphological superlatives,
but only periphrastic comparatives. Under CH, a morphological superlative is
derived by successive operations of Merger, which together with the common
assumption that Merger cannot skip intervening heads, derives the SSG. An
apparent counterexample from Armenian is tentatively analyzed as containing a
null comparative affix, with the optional comparative marker 'aveli' involving
reinforcement, rather than carrying the comparative semantics itself. B also
makes the observation that a suppletive root in a synthetic comparative may or
may not appear in a suppletive form in a periphrastic superlative (e.g.,
Modern Greek vs. Russian). The first case involves Merge of the adjective root
and the CMPR morpheme, which is then embedded under SPRL. The second involves
Merge between CMPR and SPRL, to the exclusion of the adjective root, in which
case CMPR is not in a local enough relation to trigger allomorphy on the root.

Chapter 4 ''The Comparative-Superlative Generalization: The Data'' discusses
the empirical basis of the CSG, which holds for over 100 distinct triples in
the sample. The generalization is shown to hold for qualitative adjectives
(e.g., good-better-best), adverbs (well-better-best), and quantifiers
(many-more-most). A possible counterexample, displaying the *ABA pattern,
comes from Basque, which possesses the triple on--hobe--on-en
('good'-'better'-'best') in southern dialects. B proposes a possible solution,
which rests on the observation that the superlative suffix -en in Basque is
also a genitive marker. Thus, the form ''on-en'' is simply a genitive-marked
adjective and not a true superlative, and does not contain a comparative
morpheme, thus no suppletion is expected. For adverbs, B points out that
languages differ as to whether comparative adverbs (e.g. worse) have a
structure of [[[ADJ] CMPR] ADVERB] or [[[ADJ] ADVERB] CMPR]. Karelian and
Georgian are examples of the first type, while Basque is an example of the
second type. If a language uses the second structure, we would not expect
suppletion of the adjective root, since the comparative morpheme is not local
enough. However, the adverbializing morpheme in the language may itself
trigger suppletion, in which case we do expect the suppletive root to be
carried over to comparative adverbs as well. For a language like English,
however, both structures are live possibilities, since there is no overt
morphological evidence that points in either direction. In the realm of
quantifiers, a couple of problematic cases arise, including Armenian, where B
argues, like in Basque, that the offending superlative is not a true
superlative morpheme that contains a comparative, and hence not subject to the
CSG in the first place.

Chapter 5 ''Theoretical Refinements'' concerns itself with the theoretical
machinery needed to rule in the ABC pattern, while ruling out the *AAB
pattern. To derive the ABC pattern, the grammar needs to make reference to a
rule that conditions the insertion of the C-variant in the specific
environment _]CMPR]SPRL, distinct from the rule that conditions the B-variant
in the environment _]CMPR. But this by itself does not rule out the unattested
*AAB pattern. B discusses two options for dealing with this problem: Fusion,
or the Vocabulary Insertion Principle (VIP) (Radkevich 2010). Both rules
control where the phonological spell-out of complex ''portmanteau'' morphemes
are inserted in the derivation. Nevertheless, such a system still does not
rule out the *AAB pattern, for one could imagine a set of exponence rules
where the spell-out of ADJ+CMPR has a suppletive form in the environment
_]SPRL, but is non-suppletive otherwise. B suggests that there is an extra
principle that prevents the existence of a context-sensitive exponence rule
without a corresponding context-free rule. B also discusses the application of
Merger between CMPR and ADJ in English, which appears to result in a paradox.
Namely, whether Merger applies determines which adjectives take the
comparative suffix -er and which appear with periphrastic more (e.g. smart-er
vs. more intelligent). Merger applies before vocabulary insertion; however,
the conditioning environment of -er vs. more appears to be phonological (i.e.,
only monosyllabic adjectives and disyllabic adjectives ending in -y take -er).
Given the architecture of DM, B is forced to say that, synchronically, Merger
is not phonologically conditioned, and that adjectives where Merger applies
must be marked with a diacritic in the lexicon. B points to experimental
evidence by Graziano-King (1999) in favor of this view.

In chapter 6 ''Getting Better: Comparison and Deadjectival Verbs'', B
introduces a new generalization that mirrors the CSG: The
Comparative-Change-of-State Generalization (C∆G): ''If the comparative degree
of an adjective is suppletive, then the corresponding change-of-state verb is
also suppletive (i.e., with respect to the positive adjective)'' (p. 171). An
example of this generalization from English is the triple bad-worse-worsen. B
proposes that the theory developed to account for the CSG can be used to
explain the C∆G as well. Specifically, the structure of such change of state
verbs ('degree achievements' of Dowty (1979) and Kennedy & Levin (2008)) is
[[[ADJ] CMPR] V∆], where V∆ is a change-of-state verbalizing head. As was the
case for the CSG, some languages show this morphological derivation overtly
(e.g., Latin bonus--mel-ior--mel-ior-are 'good-better-to better), while for
others a null comparative morpheme must be posited (e.g., most English cases,
though note the non-suppletive triple low-lower-to lower). In this sense, the
verbalizing morphology is structurally parallel to superlative morphology, and
indeed there are other common aspects of these morphemes, e.g., their
inability to license than-phrases. B notes that the generalization is based on
comparatively less data, since reference grammars typically do not contain
very much information on de-adjectival verbs. Much of the chapter is devoted
to semantic considerations that also point to the conclusion that a
comparative semantics is implicated in the change of state verbs, following
Kennedy & Levin (2008). Importantly, where B departs from Kennedy & Levin by
arguing that the comparative morpheme must be structurally present in the
representation of degree achievement verbs. One apparent counterexample is the
English form ''badden'', which is expected not to exist since the comparative
form of ''bad'' is suppletive (bad-worse-worsen). Indeed, my word processor
identifies this word as misspelled as I type this. As B notes, to the extent
it is acceptable, this verb has a specialized semantics that has to do with
one's image or personality, where being ''bad'' is taken as a positive
attribute. But under this meaning of ''bad'', the suppletive forms are not
used in the comparative either (cf. bad-badder-baddest), and so this apparent
counterexample turns out not to be exceptional after all.

Chapter 7 ''Complexity, Bundling, and Lesslessness'' concludes the book, with
B raising the important question of ''How should the Containment Hypothesis be
expressed formally, and why should it hold?'' (p. 210). His tentative answer
resides in a complexity condition borrowed from Kayne (2005): ''UG imposes a
maximum of one interpretable syntactic feature per lexical or functional
element'' (p. 212). B in fact is not committed to the strict ''maximum of
one'' part of this condition, and instead favors a more conservative version
relative to some measure of semantic complexity. In any case, under this view,
the features CMPR and SPRL, with meanings roughly paraphrased as ''>'' and
''than all others'', respectively, cannot be bundled together in the same
morpheme, ruling out the possibility of representations like *[[ADJ] SPRL] to
derive superlatives (and likewise *[[ADJ] V∆] for degree achievement verbs). B
notes that something similar must be going on to restrict person feature
combinations that are attested in natural language, for which B claims there
is no language-external, functionalist explanation for the inventory of
features and the range of (un-)attested combinations thereof. The advantage of
stating the generalizations observed in this book in terms of an
independently-motivated complexity condition, B argues, is that CH then does
not need to be stated directly in UG: a structure like *[[ADJ] SPRL] will
simply be uninterpretable. Further evidence for the the complexity condition
comes from another universal generalization, Lesslessness: No language has a
synthetic comparative of inferiority (p. 214). Interestingly, this is the only
universal proposed in this book that has no apparent counterexamples in the
database. The complexity condition-based explanation is that UG can't
lexicalize in a single morpheme CMPR plus a polarity switch feature.

This book is an excellent example of research at the intersection of detailed
typological and formal research. At 302 languages considered, the scope of B's
study is impressive, and larger than Stassen's (2011) chapter on comparative
constructions in WALS at 167 languages. The range of data considered is
particularly laudable in view of the lamentable situation, pointed out several
times throughout the book, that it is common for reference grammars to lack
detailed information on comparatives and superlatives.

While B puts forth several generalizations as candidates for linguistic
universals, of course a few apparent counterexamples show up in the data. B
takes these challenges seriously, without simply sweeping them under the rug,
and offers solutions and re-analyses of the problematic data. Although in most
cases the arguments seem plausible enough to convince the reader that the
apparent counterexamples should not be considered exceptional, certain
solutions remain quite tentative (which B himself admits). For instance, to
account for Bulgarian and Macedonian many-more-most paradigm (p. 131-2), B
must posit a null comparative morpheme to account for an apparent *ABA
pattern, and assign the clitic po-, which appears in the comparative form of
adjectives, the role of reinforcement. Although B points out that Bulgarian
and Macedonian are unique within Slavic for losing comparative morphology,
thus providing a historical explanation for the pattern, it is not clear
whether a child learning the language has the right kind of evidence to posit
this null morpheme instead of assigning this role to po-, and this case
remains somewhat problematic.

An important issue is whether certain languages should really be considered to
have a superlative morpheme. B notes that a common strategy for creating a
superlative meaning is to combine a comparative with a definite article
(chapter 3, pp. 53-5). What is often unclear from grammatical descriptions is
whether this strategy has been fully grammaticalized as a dedicated
superlative morpheme in these languages, or whether such a construction comes
close enough to a superlative semantics without actually involving a semantic
superlative operator. B himself is unsure whether such a distinction is
meaningful to his study (p. 54), though I believe the distinction is
important. What it comes down to is whether a superlative semantics is
asserted or merely entailed by using such a construction. If a superlative
semantics is indeed asserted in this construction, then there is evidence for
the existence of a SPRL morpheme in the language, and such languages should be
submitted for scrutiny under the proposed universals. If not, then the
language cannot be said to have a true superlative morpheme, and such
languages cannot be used to provide evidence or counterevidence for the
proposed universals (or, these languages may be taken to trivially satisfy
them). To answer these questions for each language requires much more research
on the semantics of these constructions in the individual languages, which of
course is outside the scope of this project. In any case, this issue by itself
does not detract from the major findings of this book; there are still many
languages that unambiguously display the relevant properties described in the

The book is also intended to serve as an argument in favor of the
realizational framework of Distributed Morphology. While B does indeed show
that DM has all the right tools to account for the generalizations, the book
lacks a sustained argument for where competing theories go wrong. For example,
within a discussion of how DM can account for the ABB and ABC patterns while
ruling out *AAB and *ABA patterns in chapter 5, B states that ''[t]heories
that deny [a hierarchical arrangement of features] (notably word-and-paradigm
theories …) are, it seems, unable to accommodate generalizations of this
sort'' (pp. 149-50), but there is no further explanation of how these theories
cannot account for the facts. This claim would be more convincing if some
expansion on this point was offered. On the last page of the conclusion (p.
225), B does briefly identify aspects of competing theories that make it
difficult for them to explain the generalizations discussed, but the argument
that the apparatus of DM is necessary to capture the generalizations is
somewhat weakened by the limited evaluation of alternative theories.

The empirical generalizations of the book raise important questions for future
research, particularly for theories of the semantics of comparatives and
related constructions. As B notes, standard semantic theories, which are based
mostly on data from English and German, posit that comparative and superlative
morphology stand in complementary distribution, as part a paradigm of degree
morphemes that target a single degree argument of the adjective (e.g., Heim
2000, Hackl 2009). In light of the data and analysis in this book, the
superlative must contain the comparative, and semantic theories should be
revised accordingly, along the lines of Stateva (2002) and Szabolcsi (2012).
Likewise, in the case of degree achievement verbs, Kennedy & Levin (2008)
incorporate a comparative semantics in the derivational morphology that
creates verbs from their corresponding adjectives, but B's proposals require a
decompositional analysis, whereby the comparative morpheme must be part of the
derivation. B furthermore indicates in chapter 4 that recourse to the POS
morpheme is problematic for the proposed theory, since the Elsewhere Condition
would fail to trigger suppletion in the _]CMPR environment. The POS morpheme
is posited under the degree analysis of gradable predicates to bind the degree
variable and introduce the standard. Famously, overt POS is unattested
cross-linguistically, and if B's proposal is correct, this would amount to
further evidence against its existence, and perhaps in favor of a theory
whereby POS is viewed instead as a type shifter without a syntactic correlate,
as argued recently by Grano (2012).

This book furthermore serves as an invitation to investigate comparatives and
superlatives in understudied languages in greater depth. The number of
languages considered is limited to those for which detailed enough
descriptions of the relevant paradigms are available. B notes in footnote 10
(p. 16) that languages of the Americas are particularly underrepresented in
his survey, due to lack of information in descriptive grammars on comparative
constructions. The importance of further fieldwork in this area is twofold.
First, further investigation may reveal new counterexamples to the
morphological universals proposed here. While these may very well be
unexceptional, as B argues for several apparent counterexamples throughout the
book, if it turns out that there are systematic exceptions to the proposed
universals, the new data would call for alternative generalizations that the
formal theory will have to account for. Second, on the flip side, more
detailed fieldwork may provide further evidence that certain apparent
counterexamples should not be considered exceptional after all. Such was the
case for Karelian, discussed in chapter 4 (pp. 126-31), where further
fieldwork revealed that the grammatical descriptions that identified an
apparent *ABA pattern were flawed. Indeed, a typological study such as this
one is only as good as the descriptions of languages from which the data are
drawn, and comparatives in particular are a domain which often gets overlooked
in language documentation. Echoing the sentiments of the previous paragraph,
semantic theories of comparatives and degree constructions can also benefit
from such work. Recent studies such as Beck et al. 2009, Bochnak 2013,
Bogal-Allbritten 2013, Francez & Koontz-Garboden 2013 have begun to bring in
data from understudied languages to bear on semantic theories of gradability
and comparison, but much of the cross-linguistic richness in this domain still
remains untapped.

In sum, B indeed succeeds in attaining his stated goals: he develops of a
formal generative typology of suppletion in comparative and superlative
constructions; and he contributes to research on the search for morphological
primitives. With respect to the first goal, he proposes several morphological
universals, as well as a theory that not only accounts for the attested
patterns, but also explains why the unattested patterns should not exist. With
respect to the second goal, B hypothesizes that a superlative meaning of
''more than all others'' is too complex to be lexicalized in a single
morpheme, and must be decomposed into distinct comparative and superlative
morphemes. An important question that arises in this respect is how many and
what types of semantic features can be encoded in a single morpheme. This book
thus provides an excellent resource on both the typology of comparative
constructions and the theoretical apparatus of DM, and furthermore raises
several important questions for future research on the morphology and
semantics of comparative constructions cross-linguistically.

Baker, Mark. 2009. Formal generative typology. In Bernd Heine & Heiko Narrog
(eds.), The Oxford handbook of linguistic analysis, 285-312. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

Baker, Mark & James McCloskey. 2007. On the relationship of typology to
theoretical syntax. Linguistic Typology 11, 285-296.

Beck, Sigrid, Sveta Krasikova, Daniel Fleischer, Remus Gergel, Stefan
Hofstetter, Christiane Savelsberg, John Vanderelst & Elisabeth Villalta. 2009.
Crosslinguistic variation in comparative constructions. In Jeroen van
Craenenbroeck & Johan Rooryck (eds.), Linguistic Variation Yearbook 9, 1-66.
Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Bochnak, M. Ryan. 2013. Cross-linguistic variation in the semantics of
comparatives. PhD thesis, University of Chicago.

Bogal-Allbritten, Elizabeth. 2013. Decomposing notions of adjectival
transitivity in Navajo. Natural Language Semantics 21, 277-314.

Dowty, David. 1979. Word meaning and Montague Grammar. Dordrecht: Reidel.

Francez, Itamar & Andrew Koontz-Garboden. 2013. Semantic variation and the
grammar of property concepts. Ms. University of Chicago & University of

Grano, Thomas. 2012. Mandarin hen and universal markedness in gradable
adjectives. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 30(2), 513-565.

Graziano-King, Janine. 1999. Acquisition of comparative forms in English. PhD
thesis, CUNY.

Hackl, Martin. 2009. On the grammar and processing of proportional
quantifiers: Most versus more than half. Natural Language Semantics 17, 63-98.

Heim, Irene. 2000. Degree operators and scope. In Brendan Jackson & Tanya
Matthews (eds.), Proceedings of Semantics and Linguistic Theory 10, 40-64.
Ithaca, NY: CLC Publications.

Kayne, Richard. 2005. Movement and silence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kennedy, Christopher. 2007. Modes of comparison. In Malcolm Elliott, James
Kirby, Osamu Sawada, Eleni Staraki & Suwon Yoon (eds.), Proceedings of CLS 43,
141-165. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society.

Kennedy, Christopher & Beth Levin. 2008. Measure of change: The adjectival
core of degree achievements. In Louise McNally & Christopher Kennedy (eds.),
Adjectives and adverbs: Syntax, semantics, and discourse, 156-182. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.

Kiparsky, Paul. 2008. Universals constrain change, change results in
typological generalizations. In Jeff Good (ed.), Linguistic universals and
language change, 23-53. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Radkevich, Nina. 2010. On location: The structure and case of adpositions. PhD
thesis, University of Connecticut, Storrs.

Stassen, Leon. 2011. Comparative Constructions. In Matthew S. Dryer & Martin
Haspelmath, (eds.) The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Munich: Max
Planck Digital Library, chapter 121. Available online at
http://wals.info/chapter/121 Accessed on 2013-11-07.

Stateva, Penka. 2002. How different are different degree constructions? PhD
thesis, University of Connecticut, Storrs.

Szabolcsi, Anna. 2012. Compositionality without word boundaries: (the) more
and (the) most. In Anca Chereches (ed.), Proceedings of Semantics and
Linguistic Theory 22, 1-25. Ithaca, NY: CLC Publications.

Ryan Bochnak is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor
in the Department of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. He
received his PhD from the University of Chicago in 2013 with his dissertation
'Cross-linguistic variation in the semantics of comparatives.' His research
interests lie mainly in formal semantics, especially on the topics of
gradability and comparison, as well as the manifestation of scalarity across
syntactic categories and semantic domains, including tense and aspect. He has
conducted fieldwork in Luganda (Bantu) and Washo (isolate/Hokan) to inform his
theoretical research.
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