LINGUIST List 23.2840

Tue Jun 26 2012

Review: Syntax: De Belder (2011)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 26-Jun-2012
From: Mercedes Tubino-Blanco <>
Subject: Roots and Affixes
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AUTHOR: De Belder, MarijkeTITLE: Roots and AffixesSUBTITLE: Eliminating Lexical Categories from SyntaxSERIES: LOT dissertation seriesYEAR: 2011PUBLISHER: Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics / Landelijke -- LOT

Mercedes Tubino, Department of English, University of Seville (Spain)


This monograph develops a new syntactic/morphological model that stems from therevision of the two main current models, Distributed Morphology (DM, Halle &Marantz 1993) and the Exo Skeletal Model (Borer 2003). Like its twopredecessors, this is a Late Insertion Morphological model that assumes thatlexical material enters any derivation only after the narrow syntax part of thederivation is concluded. De Belder’s doctoral thesis goes a step further inseparating the functional from the lexical part of any derivation in that it:(i) eliminates categorial heads (n, v, a) from syntax under the assumption thatlexical categories are not language primitives; (ii) defends a view in whichwhat corresponds with lexical material (known as Root Terminal Nodes in DM(Harley 2009) and l-morphemes (Harley & Noyer 1999, 2000)) is empty of anycontent in syntax.

Chapter 1 introduces the book’s research questions as well as the theoreticaland empirical basis assumed throughout the monograph. De Belder first raises thedouble question of whether features of lexical vocabulary items (VIs) andcategorial heads -- two elements generally assumed in DM -- are really active innarrow syntax. The aim of her thesis is to answer this question negatively. Sheargues that lexical vocabulary items cannot contain features linking them withparticular syntactic contexts. For instance, she gives the example of the VI'dog', which she claims cannot contain such features due to its count andnon-count uses: (2) Three dogs (count use, p. 20) vs. (3) There is dog in thesoup (non-count use, p. 20). She claims that, while both examples involve thesame VI, ‘dog’, the syntactic context is what determines its meaning as count ornon-count. On the other hand, she argues that categorial functional heads do notexist in syntax, contra other approaches such as DM. She claims thatderivational affixes, many of which are traditionally seen as the phoneticrealization of categorial positions, are in fact instantiations of Root TerminalNodes. For De Belder, the categorial interpretation of words as nouns, verbs oradjectives is a by-product of functional structure dominating roots, not theresult of categorial heads merged above such roots. For this author, there is afundamental difference between lexical and functional material; only the formeris malleable and subject to coercion. She will base many of her contrasts onthis fact.

In Chapter 2, De Belder develops a theory of the syntax of roots, which is arevision of previous late insertion accounts. This chapter is the result of herjoint work with Jeroen van Craenenbroeck (2011). She adopts Borer's view thatroots are void of syntactic features, so they cannot select for particularcategories (contra DM's approaches such as Harley & Noyer 2000). De Belderdefends the view that roots are defined structurally and that all VIs, includingthose corresponding to root positions, are subject to competition (e.g. they areall subject to the Subset Principle, as in Halle 1997), although in the case oflexical VIs, their insertion finally occurs by free choice. This differs fromboth traditional and revised DM approaches. For instance, Halle & Marantz (1993)claim that only VIs that are inserted in functional positions are subject tocompetition, whereas the insertion in root positions is done by free choice.Recent DM approaches (e.g. Siddiqi 2009) argue in favor of competition of VIs tooccupy root positions, but they also assume that lexical VIs contain features.De Belder rejects these accounts on these grounds, although she adopts a late(as opposed to early) insertion approach. In the first part of this chapter, sheargues that only a late insertion approach to morphology can explain why we mayfind functional VIs occupying root positions, e.g., (7) Martha is mijn tweedeik, 'Martha is my best friend, lit. Martha is my second I' (p. 42). Theseexamples also show that roots are defined structurally and not because of theirinherent properties (e.g. the first person pronoun, ik 'I', does not carryperson features with it when used as a root). In the second part of the chapter,De Belder puts forward the syntactic model that will be used throughout thebook, which involves a revision of previous syntactic models on Merge (Chomsky2000 and subsequent work). She follows Zwart (2009) in noticing that previousaccounts on Merge involve an asymmetry; whereas primary Merge involves selectingtwo elements from numeration at once, subsequent Merge operations involveselecting one object at once. She proposes a system based on Unary Merge inwhich Primary Merge consists of one object selected from Numeration that iscombined with an empty derivation (i.e. the empty set). She argues that thisempty syntactic position is what corresponds with root positions. This impliesthat each root in a syntactic structure implies a new derivation, although thespecific details of this mechanism are not discussed until Chapter 5. In thelast part of the chapter, De Belder proposes a modification of the SubsetPrinciple to ensure the insertion of functional VIs in root positions throughcompetition. This happens if we assume that the phonological exponent of a VIresults from multiplying the featural content of the syntactic position it willoccupy by the features the VI contains (any multiplication by zero will voidthe featural content of the VI, so any features originally contained in thefunctional VI will not block their insertion in root nodes). She finishes thechapter by addressing potential problems and other accounts (e.g. Harley 2009;Pfau 2009) she terms as 'late insertion approaches with a limited type of earlyinsertion'.

In Chapter 3 De Belder shows that functional structure is sufficient to definecategories. She first presents a case study on the countability of nouns to showthat fine-grained distinctions in the nominal domain are determinedsyntactically. That is, she shows that the fact that the same VI (e.g. water)may be used as count and non-count is the result of syntactic features and theircorresponding functional projections rather than inherent properties of the VIs.The relevant syntactic features accounting for the different readings of nounsare [Num] and [Size]. Thus, a VI receives a 'mass' reading if it is inserted ina syntactic position void of either feature; a VI receives a 'kind' reading if[Num] is contained in its insertion site, and if both [Num] and [Size] arecontained in its insertion site, then a VI receives a 'unit' reading. She alsoargues that a syntactic position containing [Size] only is not possible.Possible restrictions associated with a count or non-count interpretation ofsome VIs are placed on extralinguistic (e.g. conceptual) knowledge. In thesecond part of the chapter, De Belder discusses the case of semi-lexical VIsthat may have both a functional and a lexical use, such as the Dutch word ‘heel’('whole'), which may function as both an adjective and a universal quantifier.She argues that their different denotation is derived from the terminal nodesthis VI may realize as the complement of an adjectival projection, if it is anadjective. As a quantifier, it originates in Sizeº, moves up to Numº and ends upin Dº. As a lexical VI, it gets its interpretation entirely from theEncyclopedia (their denotation is learned and arbitrary), and as a functionalVI, it gets its interpretation from the functional features it realizes in syntax.

In Chapter 4, De Belder discusses why categorial heads do not exist asprimitives of language. Derivational affixes have been long assumed to realizecategorial heads. De Belder, however, discusses the possibility that theyrealize ‘something else’ and argues that her approach is more advantageous,especially when it comes to affixes associated with more than one category. Inthe first part of the chapter, De Belder puts forward a theory of homonyms,which she identifies as affixes with the same phonetic realization that arelisted as separate vocabulary items. She presents three empirical tests todistinguish between homonyms and different instances of the same affix based onallomorphy, based on whether the different instances of the affix have the samesynonyms and co-occurrence. She illustrates the section with the Dutch suffix-er, which she concludes is the same affix when it is a deverbal and a denominalagentive suffix, but not in the case of pluralctional -er, which is a case ofhomonymy. In the second part of the chapter, De Belder argues thatmulticategorial affixes cannot be the realization of categories, hencecategories are not primitives of grammar. She argues that the fact that hermodel does not rule out examples such as ‘*to ugliness’ is not a problem for theclaim that categories do not exist in grammar because approaches that assumecategorial heads have the same problem, since the conversion mechanism thatexplains cases such as ‘to proposition’, a derived noun used as a verb, alsofails to rule out ‘*to ugliness’. She concludes that her model is advantageousbecause even though both proposals are equally inadequate in explaining theungrammaticality of ‘*to ugliness’, hers is simpler by doing away withmechanisms such as conversion.

In Chapter 5, De Belder provides an alternative approach to derivational wordformation. She argues that since the meaning of derivational affixes is lexical,they realize lexical positions (i.e. they realize roots), but like other VIsthat realize root nodes, derivational affixes may be semi-lexical too (i.e.lexical VIs that realize functional nodes). She presents the case study of Dutchcollective mass nouns (e.g. ondergoed ‘underwear’) to illustrate this point. Sheargues that these nouns are derivational word forms that resist plural (a signthat they realize functional positions), whereas their collective reading isderived from the lexical meaning of the affixes. In this chapter, De Belder alsoproposes that derived words are concatenated root nodes, where the base VIrealizes the lowest root node and the affixes realize the highest ones.According to De Belder, root nodes are defined by the absence of any syntacticfeatures (they are empty derivations that are merged with objects fromNumeration in Unary Merge fashion). Since two concatenated root nodes cannotresult from this mechanism, De Belder proposes that words are the result of (i)Merge of an object (F, according to De Belder) from Numeration with the emptyset/derivation; (ii) The newly merged complex object is returned to Numeration;(iii) Merge of the complex object from Numeration with the empty set/derivation,and so on. Each instantiation of the empty set in a derivation will correspondto a ‘lexical’ VI. The remainder of the chapter consists of differentinstantiations of the model.

In Chapter 6, the author discusses the theoretical repercussions of her proposedmodel and briefly addresses further issues associated with her proposal. Forinstance, she suggests that what we know as lexical categories are in factdefined by groups of features such as [Size] or [Num], in the case of nouns. Shebriefly suggests that this can be extended to verbs, which would be the resultof cognitively recognizing information about time, modality, and aspect inconjunction with argument introducing projections. Another issue briefly treatedin this chapter is, for instance, the elimination of the distinction betweeninflection, derivation, and compounding, which should now be viewed as thedistinction between functional and root terminal nodes.


De Belder’s monograph makes an outstanding contribution to syntactic andmorphological theory, as well as to the analysis of the Dutch nominal domain,with plenty of examples illustrating all the issues treated, especiallyregarding the derivation of Dutch nominal word-forms. The author raisesimportant questions regarding many assumptions existent in present morphologicaltheory and effectively challenges them as she searches for a simplifiedapparatus that would more effectively account for morphological processes inlanguage, such as derivation and the existence of derivational affixes.

I did have some concerns regarding certain issues, both in content andpresentation. First, the monograph would benefit from a revised organization,since the reader is constantly referred to later sections for information thatmay as well have been discussed all at once. The presentation of the theoreticalmodel proposed is especially problematic, as De Belder covers some parts inChapter 2, and leaves the rest for Chapter 5. Although the reader is referred toChapter 5 for further information on how the model works, a full description ofthe model right at the beginning would make the proposal clearer and save thereader some unnecessary questions.

Second, the proposal is supported throughout with interesting and new data aswell as illustrations of different phenomena affecting the nominal domain.However, this discussion would be stronger if examples were provided fromlanguages other than Dutch (it just includes a few additional examples fromEnglish). Also, while the proposal defended in this thesis is intended as atheoretical model for grammar, the discussion is limited to the nominal domain,while its application to the verbal domain is only suggested, but not addressed,at the end of the book.

The model proposes as one of its main points the elimination of categories aspart of grammar. However, traditional cases of nominalization or verbalizationare not specifically, but just vaguely, addressed in the present model, whichmay leave the reader wondering how they would be resolved.

The main problem I see with this model is the fact that the insertion ofVocabulary Items in root nodes (corresponding with elements void of anyphonological, syntactic or semantic information in this model) is completelyunrestricted, as the author herself admits. She suggests that the restriction onVIs is to be placed on extralinguistic/conceptual knowledge and convention, anexplanation that seems unsatisfactory; while the concept associated withVocabulary Items is clearly extralinguistic, Vocabulary Items themselves arelinguistic representations. Their association with particular syntacticpositions needs to be restricted somehow.

Finally, the monograph would have benefited from more careful proof-reading, asthe text contains a considerable number of misspellings that may be distractingto the reader.

In sum, De Belder makes an excellent contribution to syntactic and morphologicaltheory, challenging many ideas widely assumed (i.e. the existence of syntacticcategories as a primitive of grammar). She effectively challenges theseassumptions by showing the reader that a simplified model may be equallyexplanatory, hence more advantageous than other models that need to resort tomore complicated apparatus to explain the same phenomena.


Borer, Hagit. 2003. Exo-Skeletal vs. endo-skeletal explanations. In John Mooreand Maria Polinsky (eds.), The Nature of Explanation in Linguistic Theory.Chicago: CSLI and University of Chicago Press.

Chomsky, Noam. 2000. Minimalist inquiries: the framework. In Roger Martin, DavidMichaels and Juan Uriagereka (eds.), Step by Step: Essays on Minimalist Syntaxin Honor of Howard Lasnik. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

De Belder, Marijke, & Jeroen van Craenenbroeck. 2011. How to merge a root. Ms.,HUBrussel & Utrecht University.

Halle, Morris, & Alec Marantz. 1993. Distributed Morphology and the pieces ofinflection. In Kenneth Hale and Samuel Jay Keyser (eds.), The view from building20. Cambridge: MIT Press, 111-176.

Harley, Heidi. 2009. Roots: Identity, Insertion, Idiosyncracies. Talk presentedat the Root Bound workshop, USC, February 21, 2009.

Harley, Heidi and Rolf Noyer. 1998. State-of-the-Article: DistributedMorphology. Glot International 4.4: 3-9.

Harley, Heidi and Rolf Noyer. 2000. Formal versus encyclopedic properties ofvocabulary. Evidence from nominalisations. In B. Peters (ed.), TheLexicon-Encyclopedia Interface. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 349-374.

Pfau, Roland. 2009. Grammar as processor. A Distributed Morphology account ofspontaneous speech errors. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Siddiqi, Daniel. 2009. Syntax within the word: economy, allomorphy and argumentselection in Distributed Morphology. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.


Mercedes Tubino has a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Arizona. She presently teaches English at the University of Seville (Spain). Her primary research interests include syntactic theory, morphology, lexico-semantics, Second Language Acquisition, and Hispanic and Amerindian linguistics.

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