LINGUIST List 16.1387

Mon May 02 2005

Review: Morphology/Semantics: Lieber (2004)

Editor for this issue: Megan Zdrojkowski <>


        1.    Karen Chung, Morphology and Lexical Semantics

Message 1: Morphology and Lexical Semantics
Date: 01-May-2005
From: Karen Chung <>
Subject: Morphology and Lexical Semantics

AUTHOR: Lieber, Rochelle
TITLE: Morphology and Lexical Semantics
SERIES: Cambridge Studies in Linguistics 104
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2004
Announced at

Karen Chung, Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, National
Taiwan University


This work is one of a growing number of contributions to the development
of morphology as a mature subfield of linguistics. Many works on
morphology collect and catalog word types and word formation patterns, a
necessary and useful starting point. But more is required: more thought
needs to be given to what morphology *is*, what it means, and its role and
significance in individual languages and in human language in general.
Lieber's approach in this book is to study in depth the meanings,
productivity, polysemy, and other aspects of selected affixes in English,
such as -er (driver), -ee (amputee), -ant/-ent (accountant, dependent),
and -ist (guitarist).

The seven chapters of this book are titled:
1. Features;
2. Co-indexation;
3. The semantics of verb formation;
4. Extending the system - location;
5. Extending the system - quantity;
6. Combinability and the correspondence between form and meaning;
7. Where to go from here.

There is also a substantial introduction in which Lieber states the core
questions she is most concerned with (p. 2):

1. The polysemy question, e.g. why can the affix -er sometimes create
agent nouns (writer), and sometimes patient nouns (loaner), and what is
their unitary core meaning, if any?

2. The multiple-affix question: Why does English often have several
affixes that perform the same function or create the same kind of derived
word, e.g. -ize and -ify for causative verbs, -er and -ant for agent nouns?

3. The zero-derivation question: How do we account for word formation in
which there is semantic change without any concomitant formal change, e.g.
in so-called conversion or zero-derivation?

4. The semantic mismatch question: Why is the correspondence between form
and meaning in word formation sometimes not one-to-one, why are there
sometimes morphemes that seem to mean nothing at all (-in- in
_longitudinal_), and why is there sometimes "derivational redundancy",
e.g. _dramatical_, and why does the sense of a morpheme sometimes seem to
be subtracted from the overall meaning of the word, e.g. _realistic_ does
not mean 'pertaining to a realist'?

After a survey of the literature, Lieber proposes her own system for
analysis and classification of the meanings of the components of complex
words. She begins with a "skeleton", which is "the decompositional part of
the representation... , and with it she seeks "to isolate all and only
those aspects of meaning which have consequences for the syntax." (p. 10).
The "skeleton" is relatively rigid and formal. To this is added
the "body", which adds "information concerning material composition,
shape, color, dimensionality" and so forth. She says her "main claim is
that the semantics of word formation involves the creation of a single
referential unit out of two distinct semantic skeletons that have been
placed in a relationship of either juxtaposition or subordination to one
another" (p. 10).

Lieber further proposes that each basic category of morphemes is
characterized by a binary-featured value (p. 23), e.g. [+/- material]
(concrete vs. abstract); this is her category
of "substances/things/essences". Another such category is [+/- dynamic],
which distinguishes "states" from "events/processes" (p. 24). She has a
category that distinguishes a number of "significant" verb classes, which
she abbreviates [IEPS]: "Inferable Eventual Position or State". Some
examples of how these parameters are used to analyze and classify words:
_chair_ is [+material], _happy_ is [-dynamic] (being a state rather than
an action), and _snore_ is [+dynamic] (p. 25). _Descend_ is [+dynamic,
+IEPS], while _walk_ is [+dynamic, -IEPS] (p. 30).

Categories developed in subsequent chapters include [+/-location] (ch. 4),
e.g. _in_, _on_, _to_ are [+location]; and "quantity", subdivided into [+/-
B] for "bounded" and [+/-CI] for "composed of individuals". She uses [-
location] to classify "privative" affixes such as _de-_ (_debug_) and _-
less_ (_shoeless_) (p. 109). Some examples of the "quantity" parameter:
the singular count nouns _person, pig, fact_ are [+B, -CI], the mass nouns
_furniture, water_ are [-B, -CI], the group nouns _committee, herd_ are
[+B, +CI], and the plural nouns _cattle, sheep_ are [-B, +CI]. In the same
way, she says [B] and [CI] can be used to distinguish between temporally
punctual (_explode, jump_; [+dynamic, +B]) and durative (_walk, eat,
build_; [+dynamic, -B]) situations. An example of how this applies to
affixation: punctual situations with an irreversible outcome normally
cannot take the prefix _re-_ (p. 145ff). She says further that "only a
featural system such as the one to be proposed in this book will give rise
to the right level of underdetermination of meaning to account for affixal
polysemy." (p. 11).

Lieber's answer to the question: "what do -er, -ee, -ant/-ent, and -ist
mean, and why do they receive the range of overlapping interpretations
that they do?" (p. 35-6), is: "they make exactly the same fundamental
semantic contribution to their bases. Specifically, all form concrete
dynamic nouns: the skeletal contribution of these affixes will be nothing
more than the features [+material, dynamic] and an associated "R"
argument, that is, the highest reference argument of the semantic
features. " (p. 37). I personally am not sure how useful this is; but
another part of the presentation I found quite interesting: -ee suffixed
nouns generally are patients and not agents, which is understandable,
since the origin of the suffix is the French past participle ending, used
in passives, suggesting that something *has been done to* someone. Yet
some are agentive, like _escapee_ and _standee_. However, in both cases,
the person involved has been submitted to something against their will,
i.e. they have lost control over their situation (p. 20), thus they are in
effect still "patients".

An interesting insight on -ize and -ify: "... these verb-forming affixes
place a condition of *volitionality* on any argument with which they might
be co-indexed" (p. 83), e.g. "milk cannot homogenize by itself" (p. 85).
And on conversion (e.g. _to hand_, _to table_): "... conversion should not
be equated formally with affixation... lexicalized conversion verbs are
simply nouns that get *relisted* in the mental lexicon as verbs." (p. 94).
[Emphasis added in both quotes above.] Lieber goes on, referring
specifically to English, to state that "Conversion is, to be sure,
productive, but it is not systematic." (p. 95). This made me wonder if
there were languages in which conversion *is* systematic; my first
reaction was that Chinese may be such a language. Another finding I agree
with: "... the more productive an existing affix is, the more it is
available for paradigmatic extension." (p. 96).

Lieber says that she does "not mean to say that all derivation affixes in
English must fall into" one of her total of nine categories (p. 38); and
that "these features are only the most basic of semantic features, and we
must expect to express other syntactically relevant semantic
distinctions..." (p. 38). So this book seems to be offering an initial
proposal for others to further test and develop, rather than a cut-and-
dried theoretical framework.


At times, especially at the beginning, I found myself following the
arguments Lieber was developing with a good dose of skepticism, such as
the -er/-ee/-ist/-ent/-ant one. I wondered if her somewhat complex and
unexpected system of parameters and classification was actually going to
be useful in getting to the core meanings of morphemes whose surface
patterns may sometimes seem contradictory, or at least lacking a clear
relation to each other, especially in the case of -er: consider the
diverse referents of _thinker, printer, hearer, thriller, loaner,
carpetbagger, fiver, diner_ (p. 17).

I found the arguments in the second half of the work easier to follow,
more intuitive and more convincing. Some were very down-to-earth, and I
especially appreciated these; e.g. on p. 166, regarding constraints on
recursion or piling up of affixes, Lieber says: "The evidence we have
looked at so far suggests that the restriction on affixation is not a
semantic one, but rather a pragmatic one.... We need to be informative
when we coin new words; new words need to be useful and to be useful they
must be clear. Redundancy is therefore not ruled out - but neither is it
particularly favored. Redundancy or even repetition is permitted in
deriving words as long as what results is informative. To add extra
affixes is otherwise linguistically perverse." Lieber gives the German
example of _Ur-ur-gross-mutter_ and the English _to re-rewrite_ and _to
over-overcompensate_ as examples in which affixal recursion is allowed.

With this in mind, I started watching out for examples in Mandarin and
English and quickly found the Mandarin term _fan3fan3fen1lie4fa3_ (anti-
anti-secession law), which is frequently heard in the Taiwan media these
days; and the 'ante' has even been upped to
_fan3fan3fan3fen1lie4fa3_ 'anti-anti-anti-secession law' (there was one
Google hit with four _fan3_, but that apparently is the outer limit for
this expression in Mandarin at present). English has e.g. _anti-anti-anti-
bully argument_ and _anti-anti-anti-American_, which are not too hard to
decode. Google in fact turned up thousands of "anti-anti-anti-" hits, plus
numerous others with many more than three _anti_s. As for other long,
pieced-together derivations, "overcategorizationitis" turned up on the BBC
(World Today, 10 March 05) with a slight chuckle by the news reader who
had apparently coined it on the spot. I found the lack of dogma
and "overlyformalizedsystemitis" on this issue refreshing in this work,
and it was fun collecting my own examples.

I was at times slightly put off by some of the abbreviations and acronyms,
like [IEPS] ("Inferable Eventual Position or State"), and had to use the
index to find the first occurrence of some of them to refresh my memory as
to what they meant. _LCS_ (p. 78) and _ornative_ (p. 82) are not listed,
but the index is a good one overall and issues such as these didn't cause
too many problems. I also found the concept of "co-indexation" a bit hard
to get a firm hold on, and looked back to the beginning of chapter 2 a
number of times for help. Lieber describes it thus: "Co-indexation...
allows us to integrate the referential properties of an affix with that of
its base. ... Co-indexation is a device we need in order to tie together
the arguments that come with different parts of a complex word to yield
only those arguments that are syntactically active." (p. 45). I found this
quite abstract, and things didn't start falling in place better until I'd
almost finished the book.

Some comments on style: One gets the feeling that although Lieber clearly
loves her work and does it superbly and wholeheartedly, she also would
really like to be writing a novel (if she hasn't already started!). This
sense emerges from sentences in the text such as these: "The reader will
remember that at that point I suggested that, in spite of some rather
flamboyant polysemy, these affixes be characterized as forming collective
nouns, and offered a promissory note to return to their analysis when we
had sufficient ammunition in our arsenal to tackle quantitative meanings.
We have that ammunition now, and it is time to redeem the promissory
note." (p. 145). Lieber's colorful metaphors can make for lively reading,
but they can also at times detract just a bit from the morphological
matter at hand. Some expressions made me smile or do a double-take, e.g.
her use of _Jackendovian_ (p. 79) as the adjective form of _Jackendoff_,
reminiscent of _Shaw/Shavian_. Self-referential phrases, of which there
are many, were sometimes slightly jarring, e.g. "... within the framework
that I have been developing in this book" (p. 81), "I suggest that a
system like mine is on the right track" (p. 34).

A "small" point on typography: a very tiny font is used in some of the
logical symbols (e.g. p. 78ff), a potential problem for anyone who is even
somewhat vision challenged.

The criticisms offered here are mostly quite minor, and intended only as
areas for possible reconsideration in a future edition - and I do wish the
author a wide circulation and many reprints. We need more books like this.

I don't know if I personally am convinced enough by the framework offered
in this work to adopt it wholesale, but the book is full of interesting
and valuable observations and insights. For anyone serious about filling
out the subfield of morphology - something it most definitely needs - this
book will offer food for thought, and is a good investment of research


Karen Chung teaches English and phonetics at National Taiwan University.
Her dissertation is entitled _Mandarin Compound Verbs_ (Leiden University,
2004); see