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Review of  The Oxford Handbook of Inflection

Reviewer: Alexandra Galani
Book Title: The Oxford Handbook of Inflection
Book Author: Matthew Baerman
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 29.3608

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“The Oxford Handbook of Inflection”, edited by Matthew Baerman, is a collection of twenty-four chapters on various inflectional morphological phenomena. The book is divided into six parts. It includes lists of abbreviations, contributors, references as well as author, language and subject indexes.

In Chapter 1, “Introduction”, Matthew Baerman briefly states that inflection has been seen as either a distinct morphological component or a system the properties of which are not too divergent from those which characterise language as a whole. The way inflection is distinguished from derivation also leads to different treatments (i.e. inflection as an independent component or not). He summarises the book’s structure and the phenomena discussed in the volume, making clear that the discussion is theory-neutral.

Part I: Building Blocks

Chapter 2, entitled “The morpheme: Its name and use” by Stephen R. Anderson, discusses the origins of the term “morpheme” and the properties attributed to it. Saussure (1916 [1974]) has been the first to capture its notion as an irreducible, minimal sign. This view contradicts Baudouin de Courtenay (1895 [1972]) for whom a morpheme subsumes roots and affixes. On the contrary, basic lexical items are not seen as morphemes according to Meillet and Vendryès (1924). Anderson also refers to how morphemes are seen in Bloomfield (1933) and briefly sketches some of the problems these treatments face. He further calls into question whether there is a one-to-one correspondence between meaning and form by presenting evidence from languages which exhibit patterns of circumfixation, multiple exponence, empty, superfluous, zero, overlapping and cumulative morphs as well as subtraction and metathesis (i.e. in Batsbi, Spanish, Indonesian). The treatments of morphemes in Halle (1973), Aronoff (1976), Selkirk (1982) and Halle and Marantz (1993) are also briefly presented.

In Chapter 3 “Features in inflection”, Greville G. Corbett brings evidence from Russian and Latvian to discuss how morphological features (i.e. tense, number, voice, gender, case, inflectional class) may determine inflectional morphological paradigms. He briefly shows how these features explain cases of syncretism, defectiveness and deponency. He also notes that historical changes may also influence the morphological system of a language synchronically.

Jochen Trommel and Eva Zimmermann in Chapter 4, entitled “Inflectional exponence”, discuss the different types of exponence (additive, transformational, templatic) and the relation between them. Examples from Hungarian, Jamsay and Alabama are brought to exemplify additive exponence. Exponence patterns cannot always be clearly identified as they show characteristics also shared by other components: i.e. tonal features in Jamsay. Additionally, there are cases, such as phonological lengthening (i.e. in Alabama), which can be also analysed as transformational exponence. Examples from Modern High German, Aka, Hausa, Indonesian, Mokilese, Tohono O’odham, Taubergrund German and Saanich are brought to exemplify transformational exponence, whereas templatic expositional patterns are discussed in languages such as Cupeno and Central Sierra Miwok. Non-additive exponence has been treated in the literature as “a consequence of phonological rules or constraints which are restricted to specific morphological contexts” (p. 61) or under the Concatenativist Hypothesis (Lieber 1992; Stonham 2006; Bye and Svenonius 2012). Finally, they discuss the problems the Strict Segmental Adfixation Hypothesis creates due to the rich infixal patterns exhibited in languages, such as Tagalog, Ilokano, Alabama, Quileute, Chaca, Bukusu and Huave. They conclude that the development of empirical research methods is a fertile ground for future investigation.

Part II: Paradigms and their variants

In Chapter 6, entitled “Inflectional paradigms”, James P. Blevins first discusses the pieces of inflection which are organised in paradigms (i.e. units which represent case, number, gender, tense, aspect, mood, voice) and sub-paradigms (e.g. dual versus plural, grammatical versus semantic cases). He explains that there are no specific criteria which serve as ways to organise paradigms. Rather paradigm organization depends on the theoretical view one takes of them (e.g. A-morphous morphology (Anderson 1992), Paradigm Function Morphology (Stump 2001). He also discusses the constraints that may be applied to the their organisation. He shows what the Paradigm Economy Principle (Carstairs 1983) has to say about paradigmatic relations as far as German gender features and Finnish partitives are concerned. Finally, he further explains how information represented in a paradigmatic cell may reduce morphological uncertainty (i.e. allomorphy) in other cells. To that extent, entropy in information theory could well explain such allomorphic patterns.

In Chapter 6, Gregory Stump presents “Inflection classes” in a clear and concise way. Their main characteristics are described through data in Icelandic. He shows that lexemes with the same morphological representation may belong to different classes. Moreover, apart from the main inflectional classes, languages organise their nominal or verbal forms in segregated inflectional classes, metaconjugations, heteroclisis, and heteroclisis with deponency. Inflectional class membership is assigned by stem alternations or by the exponents’ inventories marked on the stem. Nevertheless, membership may also be determined upon phonological features (i.e. Monu), syntactico-semantic properties (e.g. in Muna), or voice (e.g. in Sanskrit). New classes may emerge and old ones may disappear due to sound changes (i.e. Vedic) or the reanalysis of elements (i.e. Indo-European). The discussion is rounded off by reference to a theoretical question: should inflectional class representation be treated as labels or principal parts?

Matthew Baerman, in Chapter 7 “Paradigmatic deviations”, discusses cases of syncretism in Murrinh-Patha, Caybaba, Matses, Skoy, Chipaya, Dhaasanac, Kaluli, Uduk, Ayutla, Mixe and Polish. On the other hand, deponency patterns are discussed in languages such as Latin, Serbo-Croatian and Gulmancema. Finally, defectiveness phenomena are met in Russian, Turkish, Finnish, Chickasaw, Tuareg and Witsuwet’en. The frequent occurrence of these deviations in such a great number of languages shows that they are morphological phenomena which must be taken into account when theoretical models are formulated.

Chapter 8, entitled “Phonology” by Gunnar Ólafur Hansson, sheds light onto the morphology-phonology interface. The author first offers a review of the mechanisms by which morphological structures may affect phonological patterns in various theoretical models: i.e. morphology precedes phonology so that phonology computes the morphological output versus the two structures (phonology and morphology) computed in parallel. Reference is made to Lexical Phonology (Kiparksy 1982a, b; Kaisse and McMachon 2011) and Optimality Theory (McCarthy and Prince 1995, Smith 2011). Examples from Palestinian Arabic, Turkish and Shona are brought. Levelling and Paradigm Uniformity, paradigm anti-homophony effects, phonotactics, paradigm gaps and alternations, as well as phonologically conditioned allomorphy, are discussed through exemplification in Palestinian, Damascus and Moroccan Arabic, Norwegian, Spanish, Russian, Icelandic, Basque, Kaititj and Haitian Creole. The author points out that research on the morphology-phonology interface still has much to offer.

In Chapter 9, entitled “Periphrasis and inflection” by Andrew Spencer and Gergana Popova, the features which may be expressed periphrastically in verbs, nouns and adjectives are first briefly discussed. Then they look at the canonical types of intersective periphrases –such as periphrasis in Latin when passive and perfective are both represented. Moreover, there are non-canonical cases of intersective periphrases: in Classical Greek in the mediopassive, when verb stems end in a consonant, the third person plural is expressed periphrastically by the use of the participle and the verb “to be”. On both cases, the periphrastic forms occupy a cell in the inflectional paradigm, so periphrases realise the content of that cell. They note that it is not always clear how to distinguish periphrases from purely morphological, syntactic and clitic constructions. They review Ackerman and Stump’s (2004) criteria and conclude that it is not easy to define clear-cut characteristics.

Part III: Change

In Chapter 10, entitled “Diachrony”, Claire Bowern examines different types of morphological changes: suffixes’ allomorphic patterns due to sound changes, stem alternations due to semantic ones, grammatical “trapping” (where a morpheme or a clitic is not preserved in all phonologically conditioned environments), morphological alternations due to boundary placement changes (i.e. case marking fossilisation in adverbials), loss or creation of morphological categories due to language contact, diachronic changes or grammaticalisation. The order of morphemes or even their semantic meaning may be also altered. The discussion is rounded off by reference to the role inflectional morphology may play in language classification.

In Chapter 11, entitled “Contact-induced change” by Maarten Kossmann, morphological changes due to language contact are investigated. More specifically, concomitant borrowing (present in languages such as Ghomaran Berber, Tasawaq, Michif and Tuareg), additive borrowing (that is, material introducing or changing the categories expressed in morphology) and substitutive borrowing (that is, material that comes in place of existing forms which nonetheless causes no further changes) are presented. Evidence is brought from various languages, such as Megleno-Romanian, Cappadician Greek, Turkish, Copper Island Aleut, Standard Tajik, Belanda Bor and many others.

Part IV: Computation

In Chapter 12, “Modelling inflectional Structure”, Dunstan Brown exemplifies how one can compute inflectional morphology via DATR (Evans and Gazdar 1996). He points out that such a computational analysis can evaluate the theoretical claims and morphological analysis of a language’s inflectional system. He first clarifies which features need to be taken into account and then he refers to the computation methods (finite state morphology and inheritance-based modelling of morphology). He briefly accounts for the verbal morphology in Turkish and nominal morphology in Polish. The discussion is rounded off by a sketch analysis of inflectional classes, stem classes and deponency patterns, phenomena which cause difficulties in morphological analyses.

Chapter 13, entitled “Machine learning of inflection” by Katya Pertsova, looks into the input and constraints computational learning models need to be fed with. Memory resources, storage economy and error patterns are facts that need to be taken into account. She suggests that there are specific learning techniques that need to be avoided in inflection learning (i.e. lists and patterns’ memorisation). On the other hand, finite-state automata are widely used in models. Finally, learning biases, such as simplicity, locality and the conjunctive bias, can account for irregular patterns.

In Chapter 14, “Machine translation” by Ondřej Bojar, first looks at how morphological richness is measured. She explains that inflectional morphological differences between source and target language -in addition to the target language’s vocabulary size- increase the complexity in machine learning systems. There are rule-based and corpus-based systems. Learning is based on parallel corpora (source and target language), machine translation pipeline (statistical phrase-based system applied to data-driven paradigms) and phrase-based machine learning. Inflectionally rich languages cause a word alignment problem when translating languages which do not share the same morphological patterns or the morphological realizations are covert. Another problem has to do with the way a dictionary is compiled, especially when information is extracted from morphologically rich language data. Machine translation evaluation and tuning are in the heart of current systems. The chapter’s final part discusses the ways machine translation systems handle rich morphology.

Part V: Psycholinguistics

In Chapter 15, entitled “Inflectional morphology in language acquisition”, Sabine Stoll looks at the strategies and mechanisms by which children acquire morphological structures. She first explains that productivity of specific features needs to be determined through experimental set-ups (i.e. nonce words, use of specific markers for different items, entropy). A child’s behaviour as adult-like as well as a comparison between inflectional markers used by children and adults may serve as elements to test productivity. Cross-linguistic comparisons of inflectional morphology acquisition are a lot harder to test. Moreover, it is challenging to investigate how children cope with complex morphological diversity (e.g. noun or verb preference, acquisition of large paradigms). The rest of the chapter discusses the acquisition of number, case and noun classes in nominal morphology, as well as tense, aspect and passives in verbal morphology. It is shown that children are sensitive to input frequency, functional needs and the use of morphological markers in specific constructions. Acquisition is not only sensitive cross-linguistically but also within the language. Stored lexical chunks are more easily acquired (contrary to the operation of abstract rules).

Chapter 16, entitled “Disorders” by Matthew Walenski, presents a comprehensive review of the neurocognitive theories of inflection, namely dual systems models (emphasis is given to the declarative/procedural model (Ullman et al 1997)) and the single mechanisms models. He explains that the two approaches make the same predictions for the processing of regular and irregular inflectional morphology for patients with focal brain damage but they differ in the functional roles attributed to specific brain regions. For both approaches, semantic memory is related to irregular forms, but the treatment of regular forms (especially for patients with frontal/basal-ganglia damage) is different. More specifically, disorders (such as Alzheimers, semantic dementia, Herpes Simplex Encephalitis) affect the temporal lobe and semantic memory whereas Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Tourette’s Syndrome the frontal/basal-ganglia circuits and motor function. The production of inflectional forms of patients with Williams syndrome is similar to the one by patients with a semantic memory disorder, whereas for patients with autism and Schizophrenia similar to frontal/basal-ganglia disorders.

Part VI: Sketches on individual systems

Chapter 17, entitled “Verbal inflection in Iha: a multipilicity of alignments” by Mark Donohue, looks at the verbal inflectional patterns in the language. Inflection is met in a nominative, an undergoer, an accusative and an intransitive argument category. A set of verbal suffixes may also represent beneficiaries. Final suffixes represent agreement/tense-aspect. Their presence in monovalent or bivalent verbs does not affect them. Prefixes, on the other hand, represent agreement for local persons and their selection depends on the presence of features such as person and monovalent verbs which take patientive arguments. When the verb takes a beneficiary argument, a different set of verbal suffixes is selected. Furthermore, the suppletive verb “give” changes its stem depending on the person and number of the object. Finally, there are three conjugational classes where valency or agency does not play a role. Conjugational markers are overt and differentiate the person and number of objects marked on the verbal form in cases where number morphology is poor.

In Chapter 18, “Inflection in Pulaar”, a primarily suffixing language, Fiona Mc Laughlin provides a sketch of the inflectional features represented. Reduplication is not very productive, whereas stem alternations (i.e. singular/plural noun pairs) are present. Gender, case, number, voice-aspect-polarity, and salience are the inflectional features in the language. She looks at noun class agreement in adjectives, cardinals, third person pronouns. Case is not inflectionally marked on nouns, whereas there is a singular/plural distinction. Voice, aspect and polarity are marked cumulatively. There are five noun classes in the language and the paradigm includes singular, plural and singular augmentative forms.

Chapter 19 looks at “Lithuanian inflection”. Axle Holvoet notes that inflectional features are mainly marked on suffixes, although prefixation also occurs in verbal morphology. A nasal infix marks inchoative verbs. A stem’s vocalic expansion marks declension classes in which different sets of endings are used. Verbs are synthetically marked for tense and mood. Participles (marked for tense and voice) and converbs are also present in the system. Verbs are divided into conjugational classes. Reflexive forms in Lithuanian present an interesting case as it is not clear whether they should be treated as clitics or affixes. Moreover, evidential structures or forms are found in the language. Finally, there is much debate in the literature whether aspect is a lexical or a grammatical category.

Chapter 20 is a sketch of the “Chamorro inflection” by Thomas Stolz. Chamorro is a morphologically rich, concatenative and agglutinative language. Stolz discusses the three major word classes, the prefixes, infixes and suffixes available in the inflectional system as well as their functions. Reduplication is also present. The chapter concludes with a brief comparison between Chamorro and Tagalog.

In Chapter 21, entitled “Inflection in Murrimj-Patha”, Rachel Nordlinger first offers a brief summary of the language’s main characteristics, i.e. it is a polysynthetic, head-marking language. Nominals appear mostly uninflected for case, whereas verbs are morphologically complex forms. Predicates are formed by lexical stems which are combined by thirty-eight paradigms of classifier stems. Subject person and number as well as object person and number are inflectional markers on verbs. Moreover, the reflexive/reciprocal marker appears in a verbal form. Tense-aspect-mood markers appear on classifier stems. As far as nominal inflection is concerned, there are two case markers –the agentive and the instrumental. Nominals can also be used as predicates.

Chapter 22 is on “Aymara inflection”. Matt Coler provides a sketch of the nominal and verbal inflection in this agglutinative suffix-only, morphologically rich, language. Morpheme-final vowel deletion is one of the most unusual characteristics of Ayamara. Inflectional and derivational suffixes are intermixed. Possession, number, location and case are the relevant features to nominal inflection. Case markers also appear in verbal morphology. There are four possessive suffixes and three suffixes which represent location. As far as case is concerned, there are thirteen cases. Person/tense, number and mood are represented in verbal forms. Verbal derivation precedes inflection. Finally, only the counterfactual mood is expressed in the language, whereas the suffixes in which imperatives are represented, coincide with the second and third person possessive suffixes.

In Chapter 23, Nicholas Evans looks at “Inflection in Nen”. He first offers the general typological, phonological and morphophonemic characteristics of the language alongside basic information about the exponence patterns distributed across prefixes, suffixes, stems and pronouns. Pronouns and nouns are similar in their morphological behaviour, whereas verbal morphology is the most complex. Verbs are divided into two categories, the prefixing (person/number is represented in prefixes) and the ambifixing (person/number is represented in prefixes and suffixes). Aspect is the feature according to which verbal suffixes are organised and they are further subdivided in terms of their thematic and desinences.

In Chapter 24, entitled “Stem-internal and affixal morphology in Shilluk”, Bert Remijesn, Cynthia L. Miller- Naudé, and Leoma G. Gilley discuss the patterns of stem-internal alternations due to vowel length, tone and advance tongue route features in verbs. Exponence patterns may also affect stem-final consonant in nouns. They pay attention to affixal exponence in transitive verbs and nouns. The chapter concludes with notes on the development of stem-internal morphology in Western Nilotic, the language family Shilluk belongs to.


The volume covers a wide range of inflectional phenomena in various languages and language families. It tackles inflection from different perspectives, from theoretical to applied. The chapters are well-organised and referenced, and there are also good cross-references throughout the volume. The analyses are mostly well-supported by data. All chapters exemplify the complexity and richness of inflectional morphology. The discussion in some chapters (i.e. the ones in Part IV: Computation) may seem somehow hard to follow but this is due to the fact that it requires knowledge from other disciplines or it might be slightly technical.
The book will be of interest to researchers working on theoretical issues around inflectional morphology or academics in search of data for courses/assignments. It is also a very good source of references for those who need information about inflectional patterns in various languages. Moreover, it is very helpful to those who would like to be introduced to new areas, such as computational and psycholinguistic analyses of inflectional morphology. Finally, areas for future research are highlighted in some parts of the volume.


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Anderson, S. R. (1992). A-morphous morphology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Aronoff, M. (1976). Word formation in generative grammar. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Saussure, F. de ([1916] 1967). Cours de linguistique générale. Paris : Payot. [prepared by Tullio de Mauro].

Baudouin de Courtenay, Jan. (1895 [1972]). An attempt at a theory of phonetic alternations. In Edward Stankiewicz (ed.), A Baudouin de Courtenay anthology, 144-212. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Bloomfield, L. (1933). Language. New York: Henry Holt.

Bye, P. and P. Svenonius. (2012). “Non-concatenative morphology as epiphenomenon”. In J. Trommer (ed.), The Morphology and Phonology of Exponence. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 427–495.
Carstairs, A. (1983). “Paradigm economy”. Journal of Linguistics 19: 115–125.
Evans, R. and G. Gazdar. (1996). “DATR: A language for lexical knowledge representation”. Computational Linguistics 22: 167-216.

Halle, M. (1973). “Prolegomena to a theory of word-formation”. Linguistic Inquiry 4: 4-16.

Halle, M. and A. Marantz. (1993). “Distributed morphology and the pieces of inflection”. In K. Hale and S. J. Keyser (eds.) The view from Building 20: Essays in honor of Sylvain Bromberger. Cambridge: MIT Press. pp.111-176.

Kaisse, E. M. and A. McMahon. (2011). Lexical phonology and the lexical syndrome. In M. van Oostendorp et al, (eds.), The Blackwell Companion to phonology, vol. 4. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. pp.2236-2257.

Kiparsky, P. (1982). “From Cyclic to Lexical Phonology. The structure of phonological representations”. In H. van der Hulst and N. Smith (eds.), The structure of phonological requirements, vol. I. Dordrecht: Foris Publications. pp.131–75.

Kiparsky, P. (1982). “Lexical morphology and phonology.” In In-Seok Yang (ed.), Linguistics in the Morning Calm. Seoul: Hanshin. pp. 3-91.

Lieber, R. (1992). Deconstructing morphology: Word formation in syntactic theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Meillet, A and Vendryes, J. (1924). Traité de grammaire comparée des langues classiques. Paris : Honoré Champion.

McCarthy, J. and A. Prince. (1994). “The emergence of the unmarked: optimality in prosodic morphology. In M. Gonzàlez, (ed.), Proceedings of the North East Linguistic Society 24. Amherst, MA: Graduate Linguistic Student Association. pp. 333–379

Selkirk, E. (1982). The syntax of words. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Smith, J. (2011). “Category-specific effects.” In M. van Oostendorp, C. J. Ewen, B. Hume and K. Rice (eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Phonology. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. pp.2439-2463.

Stonham, J. (2006). “Metathesis”. In K. Brown (ed.), Elsevier Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics 8. Oxford: Elsevier. pp. 92-9.

Stump, G. (2001). Inflectional Morphology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ullman, M.T., S. Corkin, M. Coppola, G. Hickok, J. H. Growdon, W. J. Koroshetz and S. Pinker. (1997). “A Neural Dissociation within Language: Evidence that the mental dictionary is part of declarative memory, and that grammatical rules are processed by the procedural system”. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 9: 266-276.
Alexandra Galani is a Senior Teaching Fellow at the University of Ioannina (Greece). Her main research interests are in morphology, its interfaces and language acquisition.

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