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Review of  Causes and Consequences of Word Structure

Reviewer: Kevin Mendousse
Book Title: Causes and Consequences of Word Structure
Book Author: Jennifer B. Hay
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Issue Number: 16.1515

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Date: Wed, 11 May 2005 10:48:04 +1200
From: "Kevin Mendousse (ARTS SELL)"
Subject: Causes and Consequences of Word Structure

AUTHOR: Hay, Jennifer
TITLE: Causes and Consequences of Word Structure
SERIES: Outstanding Dissertations in Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Routledge
YEAR: 2003

Dr Kevin Mendousse
The University of Auckland, NZ and Université de Paris-Sorbonne (FDC), FR


As acknowledged in the author's preface, CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES OF WORD
STRUCTURE originated as a PhD dissertation. As such, its purpose is to
make a scholarly, scientific contribution to its field of inquiry and it
is therefore primarily intended for the initiated linguist rather than for
the novice reader.

Within a few paragraphs of Hay's opening statement that her book is "a
book about morphology" (p. 3), the problematic is set within the
theoretical framework of morphological decomposition and invokes the
pressing need to uncover the factors determining the likelihood that a
morphologically complex form will be decomposed during access, some forms
being inherently more decomposable than others. While linguistic
morphology has traditionally tended to focus on affixes and on accounting
for (un)expected (dis)similarities in their behaviour, the author argues
here for a different level of morphological abstraction following on from
her experimental findings, which strongly suggest that predictions about
the behaviour of specific affixes are best made when the focus is on the
behaviour of individual words rather than on that of individual affixes.

Recognising that the recognition of words in processing a speech signal is
a prerequisite to the listener's higher task of reconstructing the
originally intended message, CHAPTER 1 "Introduction" (pp. 3-20) goes on
to review major models of speech perception and morphological processing,
along with various lexical and prelexical effects triggered by such
factors as phonological transparency, temporality and relative frequency
(lexical effects), metrical structure, possible word constraint and
probabilistic phonotactics (prelexical effects). It further analyses the
consequences of such effects for both words and affixes, and provides
several clarifying disclaimers, including its acknowledgement that all
experiments and claims put forward are strictly limited to the
derivational morphology of English. The chapter concludes with a brief
outline of the remainder of the book.

CHAPTER 2 "Phonotactics and Morphology in Speech Perception" (pp. 21-37)
moves on to demonstrate that the use of phonotactics by English speakers
for speech segmentation purposes has direct bearing on morphological
processing. The discussion is initiated with a brief review of the growing
body of evidence for the role of phonotactic patterns in speech
perception, including data from neural network models. The author then
offers a close examination of the results obtained from two experiments:
experiment 1 was designed to implement a simple recurrent network,
initially trained with monomorphemic words to use phonotactics for
spotting word boundaries and then tested on a corpus of multimorphemic
words; experiment 2 seeks to investigate the degree to which subjects
exploit phonotactic probabilities in the morphological parsing of nonsense

Following up on these results, which indicate that the learning of word
segmentation on the basis of phonotactics is likely to affect
morphological decomposition and that phonotactic patterns can be used
online for the decomposition of nonsense words into morphemes, CHAPTER
3 "Phonotactics and the Lexicon" (pp. 39-70) evaluates the consequences of
this for the processing and the representation of real words. The author
reports on the findings of a third experiment in which subjects displayed
significant preference for words with low probability junctural
phonotactics when asked to make intuitive judgements about the
morphological complexity of real words. She goes on to present evidence
demonstrating the long-term effects of this within the lexicon, namely
that prefixed words that do not contain phonotactic information signalling
a boundary are prone to a reduced perception of "prefixedness", a loss of
semantic transparency, a proliferation of meaning and an overtaking of
their base's lexical frequency. No such effects were however found by the
author in the case of suffixes, a predictable fact apparently due to the
left-to-right nature of lexical access.

In CHAPTER 4 "Relative Frequency and Morphological Decomposition" (pp. 71-
95), Hay moves away from prelexical to lexical processing in order to
explore the role of lexical frequency, arguing that the more relevant
frequency effect on morphological decomposition is one of relative
frequency between the derived form and its base rather than one of
absolute frequency of the derived form as traditionally held by models of
morphological access and productivity. The chapter outlines the general
assumptions found in the literature about the role of surface frequency,
along with some results relating to the role of the frequency of the base.
The author then turns to topical models of morphological access, showing
that, where such models predict a role of lexical frequency with regard to
decomposition, it is one of relative lexical frequency. Finally, she
describes two experiments that attest to the fact that maximally
decomposable forms are those which are much less frequent than their
parts, and conversely: experiment 4 shows that subjects are more likely to
rate forms with higher frequency bases as more complex than matched
counterparts with relatively lower frequency ones; experiment 5 reveals
that prefixed forms with high frequency bases are more likely to attract a
pitch accent to the prefix.

CHAPTER 5 "Relative Frequency and the Lexicon" (pp. 97-122) turns to a
synchronic examination of the English lexicon to establish the claim that
if mechanisms of speech perception and production tend to make complex
words more robustly decomposed than others, then evidence of this should
be readily available in the lexicon. The author begins with a discussion
of the overall frequency distributions of both prefixed and suffixed forms
before experimentally investigating the role of frequency in such forms.
Results based on the numbers and types of definitions appearing in
Webster's 1913 Unabridged Dictionary suggest that relative frequency does
indeed affect semantic transparency as well as polysemy, since derived
forms that are more frequent than their bases have a tendency to drift
away from the meaning of their bases as well as to proliferate in meaning.
Polysemy is also shown to be related to absolute frequency, with higher
frequency derived forms being less semantically transparent than lower
frequency ones. A discussion of some methodological consequences of these
results for current experimental work on morphological access concludes
the chapter.

CHAPTER 6 "Relative Frequency and Phonetic Implementation" (pp. 123-137)
draws on chapter 3's calculations over lexica and its speculation that
many phonological violations across suffixal boundaries may, in fact, be
resolved in the phonetic implementation because phoneme transitions across
suffix boundaries are more likely to be more malleable than those toward
the beginning of the word, which are more vital to word recognition. It
describes an experiment designed to test the effect of the decomposability
of suffixed words upon phonetic implementation. More specifically, the
author investigates the implementation of /t/ when it occurs in a
consonant cluster that straddles a morpheme boundary. The relative
frequency of the derived form and base is found to be relevant to
morphological decomposition, as is the strength of a morpheme boundary to
the phonetics.

CHAPTER 7 "Morphological Productivity" (pp. 139-152) extends the study to
include a discussion of morphological productivity. It provides a brief
account of the most widely used metric P (which measures the category-
conditioned degree of productivity) for quantifying morphological
productivity, along with some of its reported advantages and shortcomings.
It also illustrates ways in which morphological productivity has been
modelled in the past. Distinguishing between the proponents of the scalar
view and those of the absolute view, the author then goes on to examine
the relationship of phonotactics and relative lexical frequency to
morphological productivity by drawing on frequency counts taken from the
CELEX lexical database (which includes counts from the COBUILD corpus) for
forms that have productive affixes and monomorphemic bases. Arguing that
productivity is a continuum that arises as a function of decomposed words
in the lexicon, the author finally settles for the scalar view of
productivity: the more an affix is represented by highly decomposable
forms, the more likely it is to be productive.

CHAPTER 8 "Affix Ordering" (pp. 153-184) engages with the hotly debated
problem of stacking restrictions amongst the derivational affixes of
English where only a very small proportion of the numerous combinations is
actually realised. Early attempts to account for apparent restrictions on
affix ordering have often invoked some form of the Affix-Ordering
Generalisation, which divides affixes into two levels L1 and L2, with L1
affixation occurring prior to L2 so that no L1 affix can attach outside L2
affixes. The stated problem is that such accounts of affix ordering are
overly restrictive and draw the line at the wrong level of abstraction,
while more recent work, which has dismissed altogether the idea of
ordering restrictions (beyond selectional restrictions), misses a number
of important generalisations. The claim put forward here is that both the
range of generalisations about English stacking restrictions, along with
their large body of systematic word-based exceptions, are best captured in
terms of parsability. Taking the reader through a series of hypotheses, a
critical discussion of affix classes, a case study of the denominal
suffix -al and two experiments designed to test subjects' intuitions
about the likelihood of -al suffixation to a range of -ment final forms to
ascertain whether their preferences about non-words reflect the
decomposability of the base, Hay explores the idea that affix-ordering
constraints are related to the perception and storage of morphologically
complex forms. She demonstrates that her maxim "an affix which can be
easily parsed out should not occur inside an affix which can not [sic]"
(p. 184), when combined with an understanding of the role of frequency in
morphological decomposition, provides a better account of affix-ordering
restrictions in English. The discussion finally extends to prefixes which,
although less likely to co-occur, are involved in bracketing paradoxes
contended to be cases in which a highly parsable prefix appears to have
attached before a marginally parsable suffix.

The book, which set out to explore possible effects of speech perception
strategies on morphological structure, comes to an end in CHAPTER
9 "Conclusion" (pp. 185-189), where the main findings are succinctly
summarised. These include the role and use of probabilistic phonotactics
for word segmentation, the relevance to and phonetic consequences of
relative lexical frequency on morphological decomposition, the
relationship underlying decomposability and morphological productivity,
and finally the intricate link between affix ordering and decomposability.


Overall, Hay's text is equally informed and informative, and provides the
reader with a truly insightful account of morphological decomposition and
of how fundamentals of speech processing are responsible for determining
the likelihood that a morphologically complex form will be decomposed
during access. The originality of this contribution to linguistic
morphology lies in its problematic which, because it brings together
questions that are usually considered well outside the field of morphology
(How do listeners process an incoming speech signal? How do infants learn
to spot boundaries between words and begin to build a lexicon?), sheds new
light on the kind of abstraction needed.

The proposed level of abstraction enables significant progress to be made
on linguistic questions that have not generally been studied together. In
particular, Hay's investigation of the causes and consequences of word
structure demonstrates that a better understanding of morphological
decomposability yields tremendous explanatory power, from fine phonetic
details through to predicting how affixes can be used when neologizing and
how they may co-occur. Importantly, her research shows that a thorough
understanding of these phenomena requires a sophisticated knowledge of the
morphological behaviour of individual words rather than of individual

Hay's findings provide elements of answers to two problems recently
regarded by Aitchison (2003) as central to the psychology of language and
to the understanding of how humans cope with words. First (p. 127), is the
mental lexicon one of words stored as single items ready for retrieval or
is it one of disassembled morphemes pieced back together when needed?
Second (p. 151), how and why does the meaning of words change?

The strongest point in this excellent piece of scientific research is
undoubtedly the author's outstanding ability to draw on the previous
literature to put forward innovative hypotheses, and to then test such
hypotheses herself through the careful and creative design of experiments.
The descriptions and explanations are always to the point and self-
contained, the writing clear and effective, despite the presence of
numerous typographical mistakes and occasional grammatical errors.

Evidently, the author has an exceptional ability to communicate sometimes
difficult concepts in terms that "speak" to the reader, while encouraging
reflection through a discussion that is interesting, relevant and often
thought-provoking. This, combined with repeated reader-friendly summaries,
theoretically well-grounded hypotheses and claims consistently backed up
with statistical evidence, provides the key to the text's extraordinary

An added advantage lies in the fact that, because the book does not assume
the reader has any prior knowledge of statistics, it is relatively free of
mathematical jargon. The author's scholarship is thus readily available to
the intended readership as well as to the linguistic community at large.
The drawback, however, is that this lack of a description of the
mathematical apparatus would make it difficult for the reader ill-versed
in parametric and non-parametric measures of evaluation to gauge
effectively the significance of the findings or to follow up actively on
the research.

As per the disclaimer in chapter 1, the book argues that speech
segmentation strategies used by English speakers exert influence on
English morphology but it does not examine the consequences of this claim
for other languages. A crosslinguistic study to include data from other
natural languages would therefore be a very interesting investigation to
pursue in order to ascertain the language-specific or universal bearings
of Hay's findings.


Aitchison, J. (2003), Words in the Mind - An Introduction to the Mental
Lexicon. Oxford; Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. First published 1987.


Dr Kevin Mendousse is a lecturer in French at the University of Auckland
(NZ) and holds a PhD in linguistics from the Université de Paris-Sorbonne
(FR), where he taught English phonetics and phonology as well as grammar
and translation. He is a member of that university's linguistics research
laboratory Formes-Discours-Cognition (FDC), which has accreditation from
the French Ministry of Education and Research. His current research
interests include phonetics, (morpho)phonology, and, more generally,

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