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Review of  Suppletion in Verb Paradigms

Reviewer: Andrew D. Carstairs-McCarthy
Book Title: Suppletion in Verb Paradigms
Book Author: Ljuba N. Veselinova
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 18.209

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AUTHOR: Veselinova, Ljuba N.
TITLE: Suppletion in Verb Paradigms
SUBTITLE: Bits and Pieces of the Puzzle
SERIES: Typological Studies in Language 67
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2006

Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy, School of Classics and Linguistics, University
of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand


This book discusses verbal suppletion for tense, aspect, and number. It
also discusses suppletion in the imperative mood, although not mood in
general. It does so on the basis of two samples of languages: one (the
'small sample') of 94 languages, and the other (the 'WALS sample') of 193
languages, consisting of the original 94 plus 99 languages from the World
Atlas of Linguistic Structures. It thus goes well beyond the study of
verbal suppletion by Rudes (1980).

Chapter 1 looks at the phenomenon of suppletion in general, and previous
studies of it. Chapter 2 describes how the language samples were arrived
at, and how a system of weighting was used to compensate for possible
over-representation of large language families. Chapter 3 discusses the
notion 'paradigm' from the point of view of Bybee (1985).

The empirical findings are presented in chapter 4 (tense and aspect from a
synchronic perspective), chapter 5 (the same from a diachronic
perspective), chapter 6 (imperatives) and chapter 7 (verbal number). There
is a short concluding chapter. In the appendices are lists of the
languages in the two samples, tables indicating which kinds of suppletion
appear in which languages, and tables indicating what meanings the
suppletive verbs have. There are also maps illustrating where particular
suppletive phenomena are concentrated.


This book helps to confirm that suppletion is by no means a rare or
marginal phenomenon, and that it cannot be safely ignored by grammatical
theorists. What is most useful about the book is the sheer volume of
information it summarizes. The appendices (including the maps) and the
bibliography will make it an indispensable tool for future workers on this

Veselinova sees herself as following mainly in the footsteps of Bybee
(1985), but apart from that she is not theoretically adventurous. This is
both a strength and a weakness. It is helpful in a book of this kind to
have the facts presented relatively 'straight', without too many
theoretical preconceptions. On the other hand, I was frustrated by
Veselinova's failure to ask what seemed to me obvious questions arising
from her presentation on two topics: tense and aspect, and

In her sample she finds more suppletion based on tense than on aspect.
This is 'contrary to what is commonly known', as she oddly puts it; that
is, it is contrary to what Bybee's views on the relative 'relevance' of
aspect and tense lead us to expect. But could this be due simply to the
fact that more languages in the sample exhibit tense than aspect? In
particular, what sorts of suppletion occur in languages that exhibit both
tense and aspect? These seem obvious questions to ask, and they should
have been easy enough for Veselinova to answer, one would think, on the
basis of her data. But all she says is (page 74): 'I am afraid that at
this stage I cannot offer a good explanation for this result.' Her modesty
is laudable, but she has perhaps given up too easily.

A particularly interesting finding is that verbs exhibiting tense-aspect
suppletion are organized in a semantic hierarchy that Veselinova represents
thus (page 92): be, come, go > say, do, see > give/(take), sit, die, eat >
become, have. What this means is that, for example, if in some language a
verb meaning 'die' exhibits tense or aspect suppletion, then at least one
verb in the set 'say, do, see' will exhibit it also, and so will at least
one verb in the set 'be, come, go'. Now, there appears to be a link with
grammaticalization here: as Veselinova puts it (page 92), 'the first items
to show suppletion in a language are those which are most prone to evolve
as grammatical markers'. But it is important not to overstate the
connection. It is certainly true that verbs meaning BE, COME and GO often
become auxiliaries or verbal affixes. But the same is true of verbs
meaning WISH, OWE and NEED, for example. Yet these meanings do not appear
in Veselinova's list at Table A3 (pages 197-199) of the verbal meanings
that are associated with suppletion. It is not that fewer languages in her
sample have suppletive verbs meaning WISH than suppletive verbs meaning GO;
it is that no languages at all do. To some extent this must be an accident
(one thinks of Latin, not in Veselinova's sample, where /welle/ 'to wish'
has a stem /wel-~wol-~wul-/ everywhere except in the 2nd singular present
indicative /wi:s/). Even so, what Veselinova's sample shows is that the
intriguing partial overlap between proneness to suppletion and proneness to
grammaticalization is indeed only partial. Why? Veselinova does not ask.

Veselinova's coverage of relevant literature seems pretty thorough.
However, it is strange in 2006 to see a discussion of stem alternations in
Romance (pages 208-11) that does not cite the extensive work of Martin
Maiden (1992, 2005 and elsewhere) on the robustness of morphosyntactically
arbitrary alternation patterns between stems that are at least weakly
suppletive. Equally strange is Veselinova's apparent unawareness of the
Surrey Morphology Group (, which has a
database on syncretism.

A final criticism relates to accuracy of transcription. Although the book
is beautifully produced (as Benjamin's books always are), it is not very
carefully proof-read, and I noticed a number of errors and inconsistencies
in the data. For example, Veselinova cites Modern Greek forms meaning 'I
saw' (page 69), 'I am' (page 77), and 'you come' (page 137). If her policy
is to transliterate the Greek orthography, these should appear as something
like , and respectively. If on the other hand she
wants to offer a phonemic rendering, they should appear as /idha/ ('dh'
standing in for the interdental fricative symbol), /ime/ and /erxese/.
What she in fact offers (with hyphens for morpheme boundaries) is a
mishmash: 'e-id-a', 'imai' with a macron on the first 'i', and 'erx-ese'.
The Greekless reader is thus led to believe, wrongly, that 'I saw' has
three syllables, that the initial vowels in 'I saw' and 'I am' are
different, and that the final vowels in 'I am' and 'you come' are
different. I recognize that anyone dealing with scores of languages, as
Veselinova is, cannot be expected to be familiar with all their
phonologies. However, in the light of examples such as this, I strongly
urge anyone using Veselinova's linguistic data to check her sources rather
than rely on her representations of it.

I do not want to end this review on a negative note, however. This book is
the fruit of much solid and useful work. Having read it, I have a much
clearer idea than before of where suppletion typically does and does not
crop up, within the domain that Veselinova investigates. And its incidence
is by no means haphazard.


Booij, Geert & Jaap van Marle, eds. (2005) Yearbook of Morphology 2004.
Dordrecht: Springer.

Bybee, Joan (1985) Morphology. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Maiden, Martin (1992) Irregularity as a determinant of morphological
change. Journal of Linguistics 28, 285-312.

Maiden, Martin (2005) Morphological autonomy and diachrony. In Booij & van
Marle (2005), 137-175.

Rudes, Blair (1980) On the nature of verbal suppletion. Linguistics 18,

Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy teaches linguistics at the University of
Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. His main research interests are
morphology and language evolution. His most recent books are The Origins
of Complex Language (1999) and An Introduction to English Morphology (2002).