LINGUIST List 12.844

Mon Mar 26 2001

Review: Packard, Morphology of Chinese (2nd rev)

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  • Karen S. Chung, 2nd review of Packard: Chinese Morphology

    Message 1: 2nd review of Packard: Chinese Morphology

    Date: Mon, 26 Mar 2001 21:44:58 +0800
    From: Karen S. Chung <>
    Subject: 2nd review of Packard: Chinese Morphology

    Jerome L. Packard. 2000. _The Morphology of Chinese: A Linguistic and Cognitive Approach_. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, xvi, 335 pp. ISBN 0-521-77112-9

    Reviewed by: Karen Steffen Chung, National Taiwan University

    _The Morphology of Chinese_ (hereafter, _Morphology_) is a most welcome addition to the literature of linguistic studies on the Chinese language. Chinese morphology has in the past been somewhat neglected; perhaps books like this one and Packard's earlier (1998) _New Approaches to Chinese Word Formation: Morphology, Phonology and the Lexicon in Ancient and Modern Chinese_, an impressive collection of papers on Chinese word formation, are signs that Chinese morphology is beginning to come into its own and receive due attention.

    Richard Sproat recently posted a very informative review of _Morphology_ (, providing a clear summary of its main content. Rather than attempting to reproduce what has already been so ably done, I will assume Sproat's comments as background information on the book, and concentrate on aspects of the study that struck me personally for whatever reason.

    Sproat's remark that Chinese morphology "...may seem to many to be almost an oxymoron" echoes Packard's opening comments in his Introduction, and also my own experience of popular reactions to this area of study. Yet the bare-bones structure of Chinese makes it particularly interesting as an object of morphological research. Beyond the well known absence of inflection in Chinese, Chinese also has few morphemes that have developed a distinct external form for the exclusive use of, for example, affixation. So does Chinese have affixation? It is harder to be sure in Chinese, and you must look closely at things like _structure_, _function_ and _productivity_ rather than, for example, phonetically reduced bound forms. And Packard does this in this book.

    Packard concentrates his explorations on two word types, bisyllabic nouns and verbs (1). This limits the study, yet also gives it desirable focus, an opportunity to look at specific word types in depth rather than trying to do everything at once. Perhaps classification and analysis of the two word types could have been separated more than they are in the book; sometimes important distinctions between the two seem to be glossed over. But the book paves the way for similar future studies, and there is plenty left to study.

    Packard's terminology overall is clear and functional. There are, however, a few frequently-used terms which are not explicitly defined, the most important one being 'gestalt word' (Chapter 4 is entitled "Gestalt Chinese Words"). It becomes clear in the course of the book that this is essentially what a Chinese would call a _ci2_, a (possibly polysyllabic) 'word', as opposed to a _zi4_, or single-syllable morpheme corresponding to a written Chinese character. I have not seen the term 'gestalt word' used elsewhere, and found it a bit hard to get used to. A clear definition of what it is early in the book would have been appreciated.

    The distinction between free vs. bound morphemes features prominently in Packard's classifications, e.g. on p. 91 he divides verbs into: verb word + verb bound root (e.g. _jie2shu4_ 'to conclude'), verb bound root + verb word (_xiang3shou4_ 'to enjoy'), verb bound root + verb bound root (_bian4bie2_ 'to differentiate'), and so on. But I wonder if it is necessary to set up so many categories based merely on whether a morpheme is bound or not. One reader may have had the same doubt, since Packard addresses this on p. 167: '...the most compelling reason to include such information as part of the lexical entry is that the value of a lexical entry on those variables serves to restrict the recursive properties of lexical items in a principled way.' This means, in essence, that a free root (X-0 [raised -0]) or 'word' 'is the only morphological system primitive that is allowed to expand', including into 'a string that includes itself' (p. 168). It seems to me that a high price has been paid in terms of numbers of categories if the main goal of distinguishing free 'root words' from 'bound roots', plus word-forming affixes and grammatical affixes, is to state that a free root word is the only element in the system that can expand and allows recursion.

    Furthermore, it is often difficult to say definitively whether a morpheme is free or bound, since there is a good deal of overlap and numerous ambiguous cases. Packard addresses this issue in part on p. 68, saying that a morpheme is classified as 'free' or 'bound' *according to a specific usage*, and not all possible meanings of a morpheme. However, the 'free' or 'bound' nature of a morpheme simply is not that clear-cut in Chinese, and it also varies over time and according to geographical area.

    The large number of categories based on 'free' and 'bound' properties seems to have come at the expense of leaving out other important information about the words. As regards verbs, for example, something I expected to find in Packard's system and did not was a classification of action, copular and purely stative verbs; and, for the action verbs, whether they are transitive or intransitive - all of which seem to me to be more fundamental and useful distinctions than whether the morpheme elements are free or bound. Packard does, however, offer an interesting discussion on theta role structure on p. 250ff. And his distinctions between _xu1ci2_, function or grammatical words, and _shi2ci2_, content words_ (p. 71ff) , are useful in contrasting grammatical suffixes like the agentive _zhe3_ 'one who...' as opposed to the more lexical _yuan2_ 'member, person [who...]'.

    Headedness is another key concept which Packard rightly pays close attention to. Packard (citing Zwicky) distinguishes between the 'semantic head' and 'structural head' of a word formation. 'Semantic head' he defines as 'a more general instance of what the entire word means', e.g. _che1_ 'vehicle' is the head of _qi4che1_ 'automobile', since a 'car' is a specific type of the larger category of 'vehicle'. Packard describes 'structural head' as 'a head defined by reference to grammatical rather than semantic values', as in _yun2cai3_ [cloud + color] [p. 195], which is a kind of 'cloud' even though the 'cloud' part is on the left'. (2)

    This brings us to Packard's Headedness Principle, which states that '(bisyllabic) noun words have nominal constituents on the right and verb words have verbal constituents on the left.' (p. 39). I find here a discrepancy between the name of the principle and its content. The first problem is that we do not seem to agree on what a 'head' is. Packard defines a 'canonical head' as "a function of the form class of a word...: verbs have their canonical head on the left, and nouns have their canonical head on the right." (p. 194). I propose, rather, that a 'head' (1) is the morpheme which corresponds to the form class (i.e. part of speech) of the word or construction as a whole; (2) is the superordinate element modified by the subordinate element(s) in the formation, if there is/are such; and (3) may or may not appear in the surface form of a word or construction.'

    Saying, as Packard does, that a verbal formation tends to have a verbal element on the left is not the same as saying that it is left-headed. If the verb on the left is followed by a noun, the relationship is normally verb + object and not verb + modifying material, thus no head can be identified. If the second element is also a verb, the relationship is likely to be (though not always) a _coordinate_ one, in which both elements perform the same verbal function on a basis of equality, as in the case of coordinate formations like _xi3huan1_ [to feel joy + to feel pleasure] 'to like', and neither can be said to modify or be subordinate to the other. This kind of formation is usually considered 'headless'; or one could say _both_ elements are heads.

    Packard seems to be partly influenced by the occurrence of verbs on the left in VO type constructions, such as _chu1ban3_ [to put out + edition] 'to publish'. We will set aside for the moment whether these constructions are 'words' (and I think they are); the problem with these items is that they require a separate analysis from pure transitive verbs with no object element, because they are derived from phrases complete with objects, and are naturally going to have the verb on the left; Chinese is basically an SVO language. (3) This does _not_ mean that objectless transitive verbs usually have their head on the left - and indeed they do not; they are generally right-headed or headless. VO formations are a red herring that detracts away from the true nature of headedness in Chinese.

    The 'verbs have their head on the left' rule also means that Packard needs to treat adverb + verb formations, of which there are an enormous number in Chinese, as 'exceptions' to his Headedness Principle. The verbal head of adverb + verb formations such as _mo4du2_ [silent + to read] 'to read silently', _gong1ren4_ [publicly + to admit] 'to acknowledge publicly', and _lian2shu3_ [jointly + to sign] 'to jointly sign (e.g. a petition)' , is on the _right_; and this is a widespread pattern rather than a 'relatively small' set of exceptions (p. 63). Chinese is a dyed-in-the-wool right-headed language in all parts of speech, with few exceptions - when, that is, there is a head at all. It would seem that Packard's 'Headedness Principle' requires rethinking.

    Packard lists nouns such as _xian1zhi1_ [first + to know] 'prophet' as, again, 'exceptions' to the Headedness Principle (p. 62, Chapter 3, "Chinese Word Components"), failing to analyze them as a separate category of _exocentric_ words with their own rules. This type of noun is in fact derived from a _phrase_ with an omitted noun head: it means, literally, '[one who] knows first', the 'one' being the noun head, which is absent in the surface form, but would occur on the _right_ of the expression if it did appear. There are numerous places in the book where the reader would benefit from having endocentric forms, like _zhi1shi4_ [knowledge + acquaintance] 'knowledge' and _zhi1xi1_ [to know + to be familiar with] 'to know, be informed of something' (both headless, or with two heads), distinguished from exocentric ones like _zhi1ke4_ (Packard glosses this as [know + guest], though here _zhi1_ means 'to administer') [to administer + guests] '*person* in charge at a reception' (an outdated expression). This distinction is important, since the endocentric formations may be either nouns or verbs, but the exocentric ones are usually nouns. This is comparable to how it would be useful to keep VO formations out of verb analysis at the first level of analysis.

    I found Chapter 5, "X-bar Analysis of Chinese Words", difficult to read. First of all, it branches off (pardon the pun) into words with more than two syllables, contrary to what Packard concentrates on in the rest of the study. It feels as though a leap has been made into a whole new game, without the rules having been properly explained beforehand. And being a non-formalist (who nevertheless is ready to read anything of value and interest, regardless of 'framework' or lack thereof), I felt the need to do some review work on X-bar theory before proceeding (4), since Packard does not provide clear explanatory background in the chapter. Such information may be considered too basic for this kind of work; yet concessions like this to non-formalists could perhaps serve to broaden the appeal of the book.

    In spite of the large amount of time and effort I invested in this chapter, I must say I ended up agreeing with reader Xu Liejiong who asked: 'since the present proposal is, on the surface, little more than a framework that specifies different ways of concatenating various types of morphemes, what do we lose if it is not presented using X-bar notation?' (p. 135). Packard says (in one of his two defenses) that it captures the insight that 'at a basic level, the primitives that are manipulated (i.e. Xn [raised capital N]) and the rules used to manipulate them (i.e. phrase structure rules) are the same as those that account for the properties of syntax...' (p. 136). While I largely agree with the insight, I do not agree that X-bar notation is a very useful or convincing way to present it; I rather found it to be an extra piece of baggage that did not really clarify the relationship between 'word' and 'syntax'. This relationship is adequately expressed, in my view, with a classification based on the coordinate or subordinate relations between the elements of a formation, especially when only two-morpheme structures are involved. Also, p. 196-215 give numerous examples - many rather creative - of X-bar analysis of English words, which I found very interesting in its own right. But is this amount of space for English examples justified in a book on Chinese morphology? Overall, I found the chapter a complex digression away from the main story of how words are put together in Chinese, though I readily concede the personal prejudices I brought to the reading of this chapter, in spite of efforts to reach beyond them.

    Throughout his book, Packard offers a wide array of colorful Chinese examples, with apropos English glosses which are often very clever - one I especially like is 'bait and switch' for the idiom _gua4 yang2tou2, mai4 gou3rou4_ ('to hang a sheep's head and sell dog meat', p. 113, Chapter 4). In the chapter on lexicalization, Chapter 6, Packard traces the derivation of a superficially perplexing word, _wei2mian4_ [miniature + flour] (p.277), which, having undergone a series of concatenations and abbreviations, means 'mini-van' (a vehicle shaped like a loaf of bread, thus the 'flour'). It is an entertaining example of some of the amazing twists and turns a Chinese word may take before settling down in a form with a possibly startling exterior, typically via layers of abbreviation. Packard also gives good examples of meaning shift and specialization of morphemes (p.280), e.g. how _tie3_ 'iron' has come to be used to mean something 'sure, inflexible, or guaranteed', as in _tie3fan4wan3_ 'iron rice bowl, guaranteed employment', and how it has been further extended to create expressions like _da3tie3_, which originally meant 'to forge [hit] iron', but now can mean 'abolish guaranteed jobs'.

    In Chapter 7, Packard unfolds a discussion of what kinds of lexical information are stored in the brain, and in what form. Packard concludes (p. 303) that 'All Chinese morphemes, whether bound or free, are listed in the mental lexicon, but only the free morphemes are available for direct lexical access. All complex words known to the speaker are also listed, in precompiled form, with the exception of grammatical words, which are constructed on-line. In addition, the word-formation rules...which represent the knowledge of word structure, are also part of the Chinese speaker's lexicon.' Though my basis for judgment is mainly personal introspection and observation of the speech of others, I generally agree with this, though I am really not ready to go along with Packard's 'grammatical word' analysis (e.g. I _don't_ accept _chi1guo4le_ '[I/someone] have/has eaten' as a word, as Packard does [p. 192]); Packard's views on grammatical words, however, are one way of interpreting the data, and are internally consistent.

    Some of the information in the book applies less to Taiwan or Singapore Mandarin, e.g. the connection between lexicalization and the neutral tone (Chapter 7, p. 238ff), since the southern varieties of Mandarin tend to have few neutral tones except in a small set of high-frequency function words. This is an observation and not a criticism, since what Packard is offering is a consistent description of standard Beijing-based Mandarin, rather than trying to cover local varieties as well.

    Chapter 8, the concluding chapter, offers a neat and efficient wrap-up of the main points covered in the text, and is a useful summary for reference, though it is concentrated and could not replace a careful working through of the book.

    Occasional 'words from our sponsor' were a bit jarring to this non-formalist, e.g. on p. 19: '...the word is biologically hard-wired and psychologically real, and has a tendency in natural language to 'weaken' the status of individual component morphemes, undermining their ability to function as free forms.' There are those of us who think that the extension of the 'hard-wiring' computer metaphor brings inappropriate analogies into our understanding of how the brain acquires, stores, and processes linguistic and other information. Fortunately remarks like these are only made in passing and one's personal views on UG theory don't need to enter into one's evaluation of the study as a whole.

    Proofreading was obviously done very meticulously; almost no typos were spotted in a close reading of the book. There is one odd form that occurs a number of times on p. 23-24: _suo3xie3_ [to ask for + to write] 'to abbreviate'; the first morpheme should be _suo1_ 'to contract, shrink', and it is cited correctly in other parts of the book. And there is no apostrophe in _cangai_ 'to participate in reform' (p. 274, p. 278), to chunk it as _can'gai_, but this is extremely minor.

    The page design, with its wide outer margins, is comfortable for the reader, and provides lots of space for penciled notes. I, like Sproat, am grateful for the use of Chinese characters throughout the text, though I would also have preferred the traditional characters - simplified characters are of course now used by the majority of Chinese numberwise, but the traditional ones are perhaps more international. Pinyin was a good choice of Romanization systems, and many readers will certainly appreciate Packard's inclusion of tone marks, which many writers omit.

    Though I don't necessarily agree with Packard in every case about what should be considered a 'word' in Chinese, I do agree with his conclusion, that 'the _word_ constitutes a real rather than epiphenomenal [Webster's: 'a phenomenon that occurs with and seems to result from another but has no reciprocal effect or subsequent influence] construct' ...'In the end it may also turn out to have been merely a convenient abstraction, but for now, the existence of the _word_ is about as real as it gets.' [p.316-317]. A study to define, analyze and categorize Chinese 'words' was in order and this one certainly promises to stimulate lots of constructive discussion and further investigation.

    While I have highlighted a number of points on which I disagree with Packard, I am really very happy that he wrote this book and that I have had the opportunity both to read it and share my reactions to it with others. Margins crammed with notes are evidence that _Morphology_ both activated my taste buds and offered me plenty of food for thought. It was a nourishing and satisfying banquet. This book has unquestionably pushed the study of Chinese morphology ahead, and I look forward to more like it.


    (1) Though curiously P cites one adverb, _ya1 ge[n]r1_ 'completely, not in the least' as an example more than once [p. 222, 261]; also, Chapter 5 examines polysyllabic words.

    (2) In my view, _cai3_ is in fact the structural or syntactic head of this compound, giving a breakdown of something like 'colors (made) of clouds'. But users of Chinese may vary in their analysis of formations like this.

    (3) In the case of verbs like _dong4yuan2_ [move + personnel] 'to mobilize', the N object has been reanalyzed as a verb element, and the verb can take a further object; but this in my opinion does not make _dong4_ the head of construction. In its original incarnation, _dong4yuan2_ (similar formations likewise) is a verb + noun object, and thus does not have a head. It is a fossilized expression in its reanalysis as a verb; and therefore it does not make sense to say that the first element is now the head. The whole has become verbal; _yuan2_ is denominalized and now part of the verbal whole, i.e. it is no longer a true object or noun. This may be in conflict with Packard's principle (p. 27) that 'the identity of a gestalt word as a verb never results in the _right_-hand member being reanalyzed as a verb.'

    (4) Thanks to Steve Schaufele for his online 'lecturettes'.


    Chung, Karen Steffen. "Verb + Noun Function-Describing Compounds" in _Bulletin of the College of Liberal Arts_, National Taiwan University, No. 41, June 1994, pp. 181-221.

    Chung, Karen Steffen. _Chinese Complex Verbs_. Dissertation. Leiden University (in progress).

    Schaufele, Steven. Lecturettes #8, 9, 10 : "Intro To X-Bar Theory", "'Universal Base', Functional Heads", "The Demise Of Ps-Rules"

    Karen Steffen Chung teaches English and linguistics in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures of National Taiwan University in Taipei.