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Review of  The Morpheme

Reviewer: Jeffrey Punske
Book Title: The Morpheme
Book Author: David Embick
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Issue Number: 30.2558

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This volume was first published in 2015 in hardcover by De Gruyter Mouton. It is now available in softcover and as an ebook. The hardcover and softcover book are identical. The volume contains eight substantive chapters of various lengths (the shortest, Chapter 8, “Concluding Remarks”, being just under two pages). The book is organized with non-linear dependencies among the chapters. A flow chart of these dependencies is provided on page ix, but the simplest summary is that Chapter 3 is independent from much of the rest of the text until Chapter 7.

Chapter 1: “Morphemes in the Grammar” lays the foundation for the rest of the text and provides some clarity concerning the core assumptions about Distributed Morphology and asserts that the assumptions of the author may be distinct from those ofother scholars working within the framework. Like the rest of the text, the chapter assumes some familiarity with contemporary Minimalist approaches to syntax. Previous familiarity with Distributed Morphology or other morphological frameworks is also beneficial in unpacking some of the discussion, because, while all of the assumptions are clearly illustrated, the surrounding controversies, contexts, and general impact of these assumptions are not always as clear. One standout of this chapter is the discussion of the lexicon found in Section 1.4.1. There, Embick briefly traces the history of the notion of the lexicon, and also clarifies what elements of a formal lexicon are still operative within Distributed Morphology and how.

Chapter 2: “Functional Morphemes” builds off the Chomskyan syntax concept of ‘features’ to develop and explain the role and function of functional heads and morphemes in Distributed Morphology. As an introduction to the core approaches to morphemes within Distributed Morphology, this chapter is a success. Embick assumes that “the grammar contains a universal set of synsem [(syntantic-semantic)] features” (p. 32). One potential deficiency of this chapter is the lack of reference to relevant work by Wiltschko and Ritter (particularly Wiltschko 2014 and Ritter and Wiltschko 2014) which probes the question of the universality of synsem features associated with particular functional heads from a cross-linguistic perspective. Embick also clearly develops a framework of features and how they will operate in the text. Critically, for the discussion in the book, features are assumed to be bivalent and not privative as the default.

This chapter also further develops the contrast between functional morphemes and Roots (first introduced in the previous chapter). Here, Embick develops a theory of Roots wherein the underlying phonological representation is a core element. As Embick observes, it is not the only possibility and Root may be represented through indices; however, such an approach is more compatible with Late Insertion of Roots and evidence of suppletion. See Harley (2014) for relevant discussion of such. The discussion of Roots in this chapter also includes sections on their categorization, their semantics and (lack of) synsem features, and their morphological feature make up.

Chapter 3: “Structures and Linear Order” provides introduction and explanation for the concepts related to “wordhood” in Distributed Morphology including the syntactic processes underlying the general informal concept of a word (head movement which constructs a complex head), the ideas of ‘m-word’ and ‘subword’, and the mapping between linear order and syntactic structure. Like the previous chapters, all of the core concepts are clearly grounded. As noted previously, this chapter is somewhat independent from the following chapters. This chapter moves quickly in places and would benefit from some more attention in some areas. For instance, the discussion of the No Tangling Condition could have benefitted from more focus.

Chapter 4: “Vocabulary Insertion: An Introduction” develops the core ideas of Vocabulary Insertion. Here, Embick reminds the reader of the divergence between functional morphemes which enter the derivation without phonological information and Roots which enter the derivation with such information. Of all the chapters in the book, this is the one organized most like a textbook chapter, including as it does a helpful illustration (Latin) in section 4.6 of the key points and some highlighted and defined key terms in the summary section. The bulk of the chapter is focused on the phonological valuing of functional morphology. Key concepts in Distributed Morphology such as Ordering, the Subset Principle, Blocking, and Terminal Insertion are discussed.

Chapter 5: “Syncretism and (Under)Specification” offers an introduction to syncretism in Distributed Morphology, with some reference to how this terminology varies across different theoretic approaches. Fundamental to this chapter is the distinction between syncretism which is driven by the Subset Principle, underspecification, and featural identity and (accidental) homophony, which is overlap of the phonological form but not in the synsem identity. As inthe proceeding chapter, the concepts of this chapter are illustrated with case studies. This chapter contains examples from Hupa, Mongolic (Oirat and Khalkha), Barbaren᷈o Chumash, and Anêm.

Chapter 6: “Further Topics in the Analysis of Syncretism” expands the discussion of syncretism beyond underspecification to include the critical Distributed Morphology concept of the Impoverishment Rule, wherein a particular feature may be deleted in a particular context. In this chapter, Embick provides a formal definition of Impoverishment Rules and then illustrates their use with several examples including examples from Spanish, Ugaritic, and Amele (among several others).

Chapter 7: “Contextual Allomorphy and Blocking” provides a nice summation of the chapters that came before it grounded in what remains one of the most salient questions in Distributed Morphology: what drives contextual allomorphy. Embick offers three conditions on allomorphy in this chapter: cyclic locality, concatenation, and insertion ordering (inside-out). He illustrates each of these with a case study. For cyclic locality, he offers looks at allomorphy in English nominalization based largely on his 2010 monograph. I myself have taken a more recent, divergent view on the source of the allomorphy in this particular case (Punske 2016). I only offer this because it left me wanting an additional illustrative example of cyclic locality, which I agree with Embick is operative generally for contextual allomorphy. Illustrative cases for linear locality, insertion order and blocking are also provided. Overall, the chapter is very clear and makes numerous explicit references to the chapters that came before it. It is a satisfying synthesis of the book that does a very good job of summarizing the current state of the field.


In the Preface, Embick offers three goals for the book: first, for the book to serve as part of a component of a course (or set of courses) in morphology; second, for it to “serve as a clear statement of some of the central themes in Distributed Morphology…” (p. xi); third, for it to link ideas in DM and other frameworks. Thus, the fairest evaluation would be relative to each of these three goals.

It is clear that the first two goals are met and perhaps exceeded. As a text in a graduate-level morphology class which focuses on the Distributed Morphology framework, this text is ideally suited. As a statement of the “central themes in Distributed Morphology”, the book is also a success. It is particularly good at grounding its discussion, making clear its formalisms, and laying its assumptions bare.

To the first goal, the book has a clear use in the graduate-level classroom. The text is clearly written and explained, but advanced. However, it must be stated that it is not a textbook on morphology, so students will be expected to enter the text with a significant background in the basics of morphological analysis and skills. Depending on the structure of the program it is likely most appropriately used towards the end of a semester, as part of a 2nd semester/quarter morphology course (“Advanced Morphology”) or as a supplement for graduate students. I intend to assign the book to my graduate students in a cross-listed graduate/undergraduate-level morphology course in Spring 2020.

The second goal is also clearly met: the core themes of Distributed Morphology are clearly laid out and explained throughout the text. Though, at times the scope of the discussion does seem constrained. As an illustration, in section 6.5 the informal constraint “Minimize Vocabulary” is introduced to try to constrain (accidental) homophony. While this constraint and its informal status are clearly laid out, the broader thread of constraints on vocabulary minimization is not mentioned and this feels like a missed opportunity. Though qualitatively different than “Minimize Vocabulary” in both effect and design, discussing Halle’s (1997) constraint limiting the number of features found in the Vocabulary and Siddiqi’s (2009) “Minimize Exponence” would capture broader ends within the framework.

As for the third goal, many of the connections are not as transparent as they could be and need to be made by the reader. For instance, in '', Embick develops a view of Roots which holds “that Roots are represented in a way that does not involve synsem features, period” (p. 49). This is further formalized into two positions “No Synsem Specification on Roots” and “No Root Decomposition”. This view could be overtly contrasted with Nanosyntax (see Starke 2009 or Baunaz and Lander 2018 for primer) or Haugen and Siddiqi (2013) who incorporate some Nanosyntax principles into their Distributed Morphology approach.

Overall, the book is clear and well organized. It presents a coherent and fairly standard view of Distributed Morphology, though it does trend away from controversies within the framework. This is fair given the overall goals of the text, but it does mean that many significant views within Distributed Morphology are not represented. Still, this book belongs in the library of anyone whose work intersects with Distributed Morphology, because as a technical introduction, it is certainly unmatched.


Baunaz, Lena and Eric Lander. 2018. Nanosyntax: The basics. In Exploring Nanosyntax, ed by Lena Baunaz, Liliane Haegeman, Karen De Clercq, and Eric Lander, 3-56. Oxford: University of Oxford Press.

Embick, David. 2010. Localism versus Globalism in Morphology and Phonology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Halle, Morris. 1997. Distributed Morphology: Impoverishment and fission. MIT working papers in linguistics 30: 425-449.

Harley, Heidi. 2014. On the identity of roots. Theoretical Linguistics 40: 225-276.

Haugen, Jason and Daniel Siddiqi. 2013. Roots and the derivation. Linguistic Inquiry 14: 493-517.

Punske, Jeffrey. 2016. Cyclicity versus movement: English nominalization and syntactic approaches to morpho-phonological regularity. Canadian Journal of Linguistics 61: 68-97.

Ritter, Elizabeth and Martina Wiltschko. 2014. “The composition of INFL.” Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 32(4): 1331-1386.

Siddiqi, Daniel. 2009. Syntax within the word: Economy, allomorphy, and argument selection in Distributed Morphology. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.

Starke, Michal. 2009. Nanosyntax: A short primer on a new approach to language. In Nordlyd: Tromsø University working papers on language and linguistics 36, ed. by Peter Svenonius, Gillian Ramchand, Michal Starke, and Tarald Taraldsen, 1–6. Tromsø: University of Tromsø

Wiltschko, Martina. 2014. The Universal Structure of Categories: Towards a Formal Typology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jeffrey Punske is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, with dual research specializations 1) in morpho-syntax in the Distributed Morphology framework; 2) in linguistics teaching and pedagogy. He has previously served at Kutztown University and the University of Oklahoma. He earned his PhD from the Department of Linguistics at the University of Arizona in 2012.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9781501516214
Pages: 262
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