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Review of  Introducción a la morfofonología contemporánea

Reviewer: Alejandrina Cristia
Book Title: Introducción a la morfofonología contemporánea
Book Author: Rosa Ana Martín Vegas
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Issue Number: 18.100

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AUTHOR: Vegas, Rosa Ana Martín
TITLE: Introducción a la morfofonología contemporánea
SERIES: LINCOM Handbooks in Linguistics 21
YEAR: 2005
ISBN: 3895864633

Alejandrina Cristia, Linguistics, Purdue University

The object of morphophonology is doubly complex: first, it is in nature both phonological and morphological; second, as all linguistic phenomena, it lives in the minds of the language users but also in the history of language itself. Morphophonology is, therefore, a complex field, which must pay close attention to other disciplines while attempting to develop explanations for its own phenomena.

And yet, since Kilbury (1976) there has been no attempt to summarize the history of the contributions to the field. Further, the field has suffered from the divorce of diachrony and synchrony, as well as a pigeon-holed view of morphological, phonological and lexical studies.

In this context, _Introduccion a la morfofonologia contemporanea_ embarks on a double enterprise: to define and characterize morphophonological phenomena in all its complexity, and to describe the history of linguistic research related to this field. This double objective is reflected in the structure of the book, which is divided in two chapters.

In the first chapter there are four main sections. The Introduction briefly presents some examples of phonological, morphological, lexical and morphophonological alternations, and provides a working definition of morphophonology. In the second section, the issue of how to define which alternations may be classified as phonological, morphological, morphophonological or lexical is addressed. The third section deals with how phonology and morphology interact, whereas the fourth one explores the factors and processes that attempt to account for how morphophonological alternations arise historically and extend within the system of a language.

The second chapter is historical, presenting a summary of research that bears on morphophonology, starting from Panini and ending with recent empirical and psycholinguistic studies. Special attention is donned to generative theories addressing phonology and morphology, to the Natural Theory of Dressler (1985, et passim) and the morphological/phonological/lexical theory of Bybee (2003, inter alia). The final section of the second chapter argues for a model that combines the latter two frameworks with the goal of better addressing morphophonological phenomena.

Finally, the book includes an extensive bibliography, with varied and updated references.


The organization of the book is clear, although the inclusion of summaries at the end of the chapters would have been useful, as would have been a thematic and a names indices, given that theories and authors are referred to and that the same phenomena are revisited in different sections.

As to the contents, Martin Vegas' _Introduccion a la morfofonologia contemporanea_ stands out for the ambitiousness of its goals. It constitutes the first attempt at a complete introduction to the history of linguistic thought pertaining to morphophonology in three decades and, to my knowledge, the most comprehensive such attempt in Spanish. The second chapter of the book, dealing with the history of the field, is certainly worthy of attention for those first learning about morphophonology. It provides an excellent starting point, as the author manages to summarize the leading contributions, as well as the criticisms leveled against some of them.

There are a few aspects, however, that suggest the book has conflicting objectives. On the one hand, the author presents it as a theoretical study of Spanish Morphophonology in the first line of the Introduction, but, judging from the title and other statements in the Introduction, the book is also aimed at providing an introduction to morphophonological phenomena from a current perspective. This disconnect might have affected both chapters of the book.

For instance, the use of examples in the second, historical, chapter of the book might have been different if the goal was to provide a critical account of several theories. In this case, theories could have been assessed on the same corpus, in order to determine their strengths and weaknesses. Thus, the same few examples could have been taken up once and again within each of the frameworks reviewed, and it could have been evaluated how each fared in terms of coverage of data and parsimoniousness.

Two more aspects could have been improved in this analysis of theories. For some of the theories, it appears that the author did not take into account how they define their object. For example, in a subsection dealing with criteria used to classify alternations, it is said that '[e]l estructuralismo utiliza criterios de orden formal centrados en términos como la neutralización y la alofonía; el generativismo habla de orden de reglas, opacidad, reglas de acortamiento, dominio de aplicación de las reglas; y la T[eoría] N[atural], de criterios funcionales semióticos' (page 17). It will be evident, even from this short quote, that traditional generative theory is probably inadequate for defining morphophonology, but it could be argued that this framework does not define its object in such a manner as to be able to deal with the complex interaction present in morphophonological phenomena (though see Ackema and Neeleman, 2005, for a recent discussion of how different modules may interact).

Conversely, subsections that outline pieces of criticism leveled against a theory are present for all theories, except the two that the author will ultimately choose to build her own proposal upon. Indeed, if this chapter wanted to be a critical analysis of all linguistic currents (cf. the Introduction and the back cover), the drawbacks of these two frameworks should not have been omitted. For instance, Dressler's Natural Theory rests on the crucial assumption, shared by Martin Vegas (e.g., pp. 144, 207), that all linguistic change is in the way of 'naturalness', that is, from more 'marked' to more 'unmarked' (cf. Lahiri, 2000). The consideration of alternations as always responding to naturalness criteria has been argued against both in phonology (Lass, 1973; Buckley, 2000) and in morphology and morphophonology (Haspelmath, 2003, 2006).

The disconnect between goals might likewise have affected the first chapter, aimed at clearly defining phenomena that should be within the purview of morphophonology. This chapter details the many factors (phonological, morphological, lexical, pragmatic) that impact on language. However, if the book were an introduction to the topic, it would have been advisable not only to mention these factors but also to lay out pristine examples that show the contributions and limitations of these factors and how some of them are relevant from a diachronic perspective and not a synchronic one, or vice versa. For this reason, it would have been advisable to determine a corpus of examples and explain the diverse pressures they have responded to. Instead, cases that show an interaction of these factors spread out across the text, and, in fact, the same few examples are used in favor of different arguments, and in every instance one feels like pointing out other factors that were left without consideration. For instance, the example of palatalization of a preceding velar stop by a front vowel, historically related to the English alternation electri[k]-electri[s]ity (cf. Chomsky and Halle, 1968), recurs several times. First, it is used to illustrate how morphophonological phenomena are both morphologically and phonologically conditioned in section 1.2.2. Thus, the velar stop is palatalized in _boceras_ 'big mouth', as compared to _boca_ 'mouth', and _porcino_ 'porcine', compared to _puerco_ 'pig'; it is not palatalized, however, in _porquero_ 'pig man'. But then one might wonder, is this really morphologically conditioned, or is it lexically conditioned?

This case is taken up again in the second chapter, section 2.7, where it is argued that in a case like _tabaquismo_ 'smoking', not *tabacismo, it was more important to keep transparent the relationship with the original noun, _tabaco_ 'tobacco', rather than with other nouns that also take the suffix –ismo but undergo palatalization, as in _academicismo_ and _catolicismo_. But the same could be said of _academicismo_: why do we use this form and not *academiquismo, which is more transparent with respect to the lexical base? Could this be related to the time in which the derived form was coined? And in all of these cases, is the phonetic environment that conditions palatalization relevant either in acquisition or in the adult's grammar? In fact, the experiments mentioned in a footnote in section 2.8.2 may lead one to believe that phonetically conditioned alternations with such restricted application as palatalization of the velar here would not have any synchronic reality. But, if so, why would less lexical transparency be tolerated in one case but not in the other?

The answer might lie in one of the perspectives that was not dealt with in the book, and yet would seem highly relevant; that is, the area of sociolinguistics (e.g. Labov, 1994, 2001, passim). No mention is made of this area of research or of its results insofar they pertain to language change and maintenance. Instead, a pair of forms such as _cansado – cansao_ 'tired' are dealt with as a rate-of-speech variation, in spite of the fact that the latter is never used in some varieties of Latin-American Spanish while the former always is and the opposite occurs in other varieties of Iberian Spanish. If morphophonology deals with morphologized phonological phenomena (as stated in pp. 52-3, 89, inter alia), and this process is to be grounded on the individual's reanalysis of his or her linguistic input (e.g. pp. 209-210), it would have been worthwhile to incorporate a framework dealing with how these individual reanalyses become more widespread and, in time, part of a dialect. If not, it may appear that language is a monolithic entity, in which some processes are either lexical or morphological, automatic or consciously chosen, for one and all speakers of the language.

Nonetheless, Martin Vegas' book rests as a unique contribution to linguistics for its comprehensive coverage of many theories pertaining to and detailed discussion of the many complexities of morphophonological processes.


Ackema, P. and Neeleman, A. (2004). Beyond morphology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Buckley, E. (2000). ''On the naturalness of unnatural rules''. Proceedings from the Second Workshop on American Indigenous Languages. UCSB Working Papers in Linguistics, vol. 9.

Bybee, J. (2001). Phonology and Language Use. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Chomsky, N. and Halle, M. (1968). Sound Pattern of English. Cambridge, USA: MIT Press.

Dressler, W. (1985). ''On the predictiveness of Natural Morphology'', in Journal of Linguistics, 21, pp. 321-338.

Kilbury, J. (1976). The development of morphophonemic theory. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Kiparsky P. (1982). From cyclic phonology to lexical phonology. In Harry van der Hulst and Norval Smith (eds.), The Structure of Phonological Representations: Part I, 131-265. Dordrecht: Foris.

Lahiri, A. (ed.) (2000). Analogy, Levelling, Markedness: Principles of Change in Phonology and Morphology. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Labov, W. (1994). Principles of Linguistic Change. Vol. 1: Internal Factors. Oxford, UK and Cambridge, USA: Blackwell.

Labov, W. (2001). Principles of Linguistic Change. Vol. 2: Social Factors. Oxford, UK and Cambridge, USA: Blackwell.

Lass, R. (1973). ''How Intrinsic is Content? Markedness, Sound Change, and 'Family Universals''', in Goyvaerts, D. L. and Pullum, G. K. (Eds.) Essays on the Sound Pattern of English. Belgium: Story-Scientia Ghent.

Haspelmath, M. (2003). ''Against Iconicity and Markedness''. Presented at Stanford University on March 6, 2003 (downloadable at

Haspelmath, M. (2006). ''Against markedness (and what to replace it with)''. Journal of Linguistics. 42: 25-70.

Alejandrina Cristia is pursuing an MA in Linguistics at Purdue University.
Her research interests include phonology, acquisition and syntax.