Review of The Syntax-Morphology Interface
|AUTHORS: Baerman, Matthew; Brown, Dunstan; Corbett, Greville G.
TITLE: The Syntax-Morphology Interface
SUBTITLE: A Study of Syncretism
SERIES: Cambridge Studies in Linguistics, 109
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
Reviewed by Matthew L. Juge, Department of Modern Languages, Texas State
This monograph, which is aimed at professional linguists working primarily
in formal synchronic morphology, addresses the issue of syncretism, the
phenomenon whereby one form serves where two or more might be expected, as
in English, where ''cut~cut~cut'' contrasts with ''drive~drove~driven''. The
authors explore the notion of syncretism, its history within linguistics,
and how it is manifested cross-linguistically. They then move on to
critically evaluate previous attempts at formalizing syncretism.
Subsequently they propose their own analysis in the framework of Network
Morphology. Finally they offer a brief conclusion. The book also features
associated online materials.
The authors start from the premise that syncretism is a problem at the
interface between syntax and morphology. In the introduction they lay out
the scope of their investigation along a number of parameters, including
what counts as syncretism and their typological methodology. The authors do
not, however, address objections to the methodology of typological
sampling, such as those raised by Newmeyer (1998: Ch. 6), who argues that
uncertainty about the nature of areal influence, problems in sample
construction, and difficulties in establishing significance renders
typological research an uncertain affair. Chapter 1 also explains how the
book relates to data available online in the thirty-language Surrey
In Chapter 2, drawing heavily on Slavic data along with data from a variety
of other languages, the authors present types of syncretic paradigms,
starting with ''simple syncretism'', where ''two or more cells with different
values for a feature are merged'' (p. 13). They contrast this with other
types of syncretism, such as nested syncretism, which involves compounding
simple syncretism in different contexts. They proceed to address the issue
of comparison across paradigm types by offering an example of the
interactions of person with morphological classes and feature values such
as case, person, gender, number, tense-aspect-mood, voice, and negation.
They next examine morphological characteristics of syncretism, focusing on
regularity (whether the pattern appears in multiple contexts),
directionality (whether the pattern of a syncretism depends on the values
of other forms involved), and unmarkedness (whether the syncretism is
related to morphologically unmarked forms). In exploring the typology of
interpretation of syncretism, the authors identify neutralization, which
they characterize as ''the irrelevance of the feature in question for
syntax'' (p. 30). They also discuss uninflectedness, which ''involves total
absence of distinctions for a given feature'' (p. 32). Having examined these
two, they offer this formal definition of canonical syncretism (p. 34):
i. There is, in certain contexts, a loss of distinctions between some but
not all values of a particular feature F. This loss may depend on the
presence of a particular combination of values of one or more other
features (the context).
ii. Other syntactic objects distinguish those values of feature F, and they
are therefore syntactically relevant.
In the conclusion of Chapter 2, the authors emphasize the patterned nature
of syncretism and provide a hint of what challenges a satisfactory analysis
Chapter 3 goes into substantially more detail, offering nearly 90 pages of
discussion of syncretism in cross-linguistic typological perspective. The
authors consider a range of features typical to nominal and verbal elements
with analysis not only of Indo-European languages but also of languages
from other families based on data from their own databases and the ''World
Atlas of Language Structures'', along with supplementation by specific
languages to illustrate particular points. In this chapter they explore the
idea that case syncretism may reveal an underlying semantic network, which
is part of their examination of the relationship between syncretism and
semantics. For each feature the authors systematically consider types and
patterns of syncretism within that feature.
Chapter 4 proceeds with an examination of the factors involved in
establishing a satisfactory formal representation of syncretism. Starting
somewhat abstractly, the authors move to an analysis of several earlier
attempts to formalize syncretism, whose strengths and weaknesses they then
discuss before finally pointing towards their approach.
They lay out their formal analysis in Chapter 5 using Network Morphology.
They provide a brief discussion of this framework and then apply their
model in some detail to three case studies. Finally Chapter 6 offers a very
The authors are generally quite thorough in their presentation and
analysis. One peculiarity, however, presents itself early on, viz. the
small role of syntax in the discussion. In light of the book's title, it
seems odd that the term ''syntax'' does not appear in the index and an
informal count shows six instances of it. Perhaps some explanation for the
lack of emphasis on syntax would have been appropriate towards the
beginning of the book.
To a large extent the book's argument does not depend upon contradicting or
developing the ideas of other scholars so much as gathering data and
providing a framework for interpreting that data. This is especially so in
Chapter 3, the longest in the book, although I do not mean to suggest that
the authors disregard the work of other scholars. Quite to the contrary.
The next two chapters, however, feature more of the traditional pattern of
presenting ideas proposed by others, evaluating and critiquing them, and
setting forth an alternative. That alternative depends on Network
Morphology, to which they provide an introduction for the uninitiated.
Unfortunately, however, they do not explain the system that they use to
represent the networks used in their analysis. They present analyses in
DATR, but do not explain whether this name is an acronym, how this notation
relates to other methods of formal representation, or the history of this
system. One of the keys to their analysis is that, unlike some other
approaches, they do not treat affixes as having lexical entries, which they
argue would require encoding the range of irregularity into the affixes
themselves. The Network Morphology framework, with its system of default
inheritance, avoids such difficulties.
The authors could have provided more rationale for their choice of Network
Morphology for their analysis. While they make it clear that some other
formalizations are inadequate, they do not explain why other well-developed
frameworks employing inheritance, such as Head-Driven Phrase Structure
Grammar (HPSG) or Construction Grammar, are inadequate to the task. This
may be related to a broader fact about linguistic theories, namely that,
given the complexity of language, it is difficult if not impossible to
sufficiently specify aspects of a given theory so as to apply it to new
data and be reasonably certain about the outcome.
While their formalization does appear to model the data better than the
others that they analyze for the cases that they present, the dense text
sometimes makes the argument difficult to follow, primarily because a
number of passages offer rather few examples that the reader can use to
evaluate their claims. For instance, the Dalabon case study in Chapter 5
includes only one example with both a lexical stem and affixes, although
the other two case studies, especially the Russian one, are better in this
regard. At 222 pages, the book is certainly not overly long and could
benefit from further exemplification as well as more detailed sketches of
the morphosyntactic systems of the languages analyzed to better
contextualize the data presented. Some of this material, however, is
included in the associated online material.
In addressing how syncretic patterns might be formalized, the authors seem
to assume, as most of their readers might as well, that such formalization
is inherently worthwhile. It would be interesting to have a discussion of
how their model might apply to language processing—either by humans or
machines—or to pedagogy. Another direction left largely unexplored is
diachrony, which presumably could be examined in the case of some languages
examined here, such as Latin and Russian. This aspect of their approach is
amplified by their explicit discounting of what they call ''accidental
homophony'', or syncretism resulting from phonological patterns. As an
example, they provide Russian, where /a/ and /o/ are both realized as schwa
when unstressed in word-final position, thus leading to phonologically
different forms that are phonetically identical. However it seems clear
that this type of pattern may be a precursor to what they call ''systematic
homophony'', or canonical syncretism.
As syncretism can be thought of as a kind of overlap between parts of the
system, it would be interesting to see how the authors would analyze what I
have termed overlapping suppletion (Juge 1999). This is the phenomenon
whereby forms of one lexeme are ''shared'' by another lexeme, as in the verbs
meaning ''to go'' and ''to be'' in the Ibero-Romance languages (Spanish,
Portuguese, and Galician) and in the verbs meaning ''to go'' and ''to come'' in
the Rhaeto-Romance (RR) languages. Here several paradigms can overlap
across two lexemes. For example Spanish ''fue'' can mean 'she was' or 'she
went', while Surmeiran (RR) ''ia vign'' can mean 'I go' or 'I come'.
Though the title refers to the syntax-morphology interface, the
phonology-morphology interface is also sometimes at issue, as mentioned
above. In some cases the authors do not appear to have thoroughly worked
out how these parts of the grammar interact. Consider their brief
introduction to default inheritance in Chapter 5. They show a diagram of
five English verbs, ''love'', ''do'', ''mow'', ''sew'', and ''be'', the last three of
which they identify as members of the EN_VERB category. A quick search for
the phrases ''had mowed'' and ''had mown'' on Google™ returned 23,700 and 571
results, respectively. The verb ''be'', furthermore, has different vowels in
the base form and in the participle in some dialects. Both of these facts
suggest that the authors have not adequately considered dialect variation.
The category of ''-en'' verbs is further complicated by the existence of
verbs like ''drive'' and ''rise'' on the one hand and ''give'' on the other, the
first two showing different vowels in the base and participial forms, and
the latter showing the same vowel in both.
Syncretism opens the door for a variety of questions about the nature of
lexemes and paradigms that the authors touch on only briefly. Addressing
issues like these would place their study in a broader context, making it
appeal to a wider audience.
These concerns raise the question of how this research differs from puzzle
solving and whether formalizing these patterns illustrates the nature of
the model or better explains the data. In more general terms, we might ask
what the difference is between accounting for the data and explaining it.
4. ONLINE MATERIAL
At the book refers the reader to a number of associated web sites. These
materials vary in user-friendliness. The extensive annotated bibliography,
listing 100 references on syncretism, is of immediate potential use. The
more technical offerings would be more helpful with further explanation.
The two databases have the potential to be quite useful.
5. MINOR ISSUES
In this section I pick a few nits that affect the usability of the book.
Occasionally the authors use unexpected terminology without explanation.
For example, they use the term ''two-place verb'' to denote not transitive
verbs but rather verbs with both subject and object marking.
Unfortunately, aside from the occasional typo, there are a few surprising
errors in the book. Perhaps most notable is the fact that Jerzy
Kuryłowicz's surname is misspelled two different ways, one appearing in the
text twice and the other once in the index of authors (it is spelled
correctly in the references). One chart (p. 24) identifies the Latin noun
''stella'' 'star' as belonging to the second declension, rather than the
first, while another chart (p. 46) labels singular forms as plural and an
ablative form as locative. Some of these errors make the book harder to
use, as when the reader is referred to §1.4.2 rather than §1.3.2 (p. 19) or
when insufficient labeling of the words in the Ingush phrase 'big village'
prevents the reader from knowing which is the noun and which the adjective
(p. 53). Overall, these problems do not greatly distract the reader.
I recommend this book for formal morphologists interested in modeling
specific morphological problems like syncretism. Such researchers will also
likely benefit from the associated online materials. Those drawn to the
book by the title's reference to the interaction between syntax and
morphology will find little discussion on that topic. For linguists
interested in language universals and linguistic typology in the broader
sense, the narrow focus of the book may render it less appealing.
Historical linguists interested in the development of irregularity will
find relatively little along those lines here. However, the questions
raised by the book, both explicitly and implicitly, suggest fruitful
directions for future research. Finally, the generally meticulous research
method employed by the authors serves as an example of the care with which
linguists aspire to treat data.
Juge, Matthew L. 1999. On the rise of suppletion in verbal paradigms. In
Chang, Steve S., Lily Liaw, and Josef Ruppenhofer, editors. Proceedings of
the twenty-fifth annual meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society.
Berkeley: BLS. 183-194.
Newmeyer, Frederick J. 1998. Language form and language function.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Matthew L. Juge is an Assistant Professor of Historical Linguistics in the
Department of Modern Languages at Texas State University-San Marcos. His
interests include the development of morphosyntax (especially verb
systems), semantic change, typology, language contact, the relationship
between diachrony and synchrony, and language attitudes.