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THEORY: Morphomes (was Re: Chicken and egg; sound and form)

From:David J. Peterson <dedalvs@...>
Date:Thursday, May 18, 2006, 20:18
Yahya wrote:
(Still haven't gained a clear notion of the
linguistic meaning of "morphome"!  Heggarty gives
the example of "l...d" as a morphome that subsumes
both "lead" and "led".  Google does point up other
meanings for "morphome" in computational biology
and in environmental engineering.)

It might be useful to note that Heggarty totally misused
the term "morphome".  Saying that "led" is comprised
of two morphomes, "lead" and "past tense", simply looks
like a spelling error, to me, in that he may have meant
"morpheme".  But here what he meant was "meanings",
but, perhaps, didn't want to use the term.  The word
"morphome" is *not* synonymous with "meaning".

A morphome is a word form, or a part of a word form
(a base, or an affix) that can be identified as a phonological
whole.  So /-s/ in "cats" is a morphome.  The same
morphome is used in "sleeps", "Milt's" and "huntsman".
This is where the definition of "morphome" differs from
"morpheme".  For "morpheme", the /-s/ in each of those
words would be different; for "morphome", it's the same.
It simply picks out a recurrent phonological whole (be it
"free" or "bound") that's used for some morphological
purpose in a language.  So "cat" is a morphome, /-s/ is
a morphome, but "ca" from "cat" isn't.  "Cats", then, is
comprised of two morphomes, as is "sleeps", and both
of these words are comprised of three morphomes: "cat",
"sleep" and /-s/.

It's important to note that:

(a) There is no theory behind the term morphome.  It was
kind of a cover term that Aronoff came up with when he
found himself wanting to use the term "morpheme" (or
at least that's my impression), and those working in WP
picked it up from him and have been using it ever since.
Here's a citation to the Aronoff paper:

Aronoff, M. (1994). Morphology by itself. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

(b) Since so few people work in WP, there hasn't been a
great flood of research in it, like OT, such that there's so
little to do that someone will sit down and work out a
definition of morphome, and a theory to go with it.

(c) The authors I've read that work in WP all have a different
notion of exactly how it works (the reason that WP is a
cover term, and not a unified theory, like MP), and make
different assumptions about various things.  For that
reason, it's unlikely that any two authors will use the
term "morphome" in the same way.

I use the word "morphome" in just the way I described
above.  I find it useful, both in thinking about language
and in conlanging, because the idea of a morphome can
be used to emulate natural languages in ways that
wouldn't be obvious.

For example, in English, ever noticed just how many words
end in one of the following?

/-i/ (i.e., "-y")

Some examples of each:

"kitten", "mitten", "bitten", "cotton", "blacken", "fashion"...
"spindle", "little", "libel", "riddle", "mingle", "rascal"...
"brother", "smother", "reader", "bigger", "liver"...
"happy", "funny", "cutesy", "alley", "valley", "rally", "doggy"...

If you take a look at these words, you'll notice that some
appear to be affixes that have actual meanings associated
with them (i.e., "morphemes", in the old sense), such as
the /-er/ in "bigger", the /-en/ in "bitten", perhaps the
/-le/ in "little" and "spindle" (an old diminutive?), the /-er/
in "reader", perhaps the /-y/ in "happy" and "funny" (general
adjective), and the /-y/ in "doggy".  Some of them look
like they might, or may have, like the /-en/ in "kitten" and
"mitten" (old diminutive?), and maybe the /-y/'s in "alley"
and "valley" (perhaps the latter an old diminutive of "vale"?).
And some just can have no meaning at all attached to them,
like the /-on/ in "cotton", the /-le/ in "mingle", the /-al/ in
"rascal", the /-y/ in "rally", the /-er/ in "brother".

By taking a morpheme-based account of it, some of these
are morphemes, some are iffy, and some are clearly not.
By thinking of just the endings as morphomic suffixes,
however, you can come up with the generalization that
are a ton of words in English that end this way, whether
the suffixes are indicative of a meaning or not.  This is part
of what shapes the phonological character of English.
Perhaps they can be used to tell where a word boundary
is, but maybe they're just nothing more than a convenient
way to end a word that English makes use of a lot.

Related to conlanging, if you've got a phonology, and
phonotactic constraints, it's easy to come up with totally
random sequences of sounds.  So say you have...


p t k ?
m n
l r
w j
a e i o u

Then any of these is just as likely:


And perhaps each of these words could appear in the language.
But by utilizing familiar endings or beginnings or vowel
sequences or templates (i.e., different morphomic affixes or
patterns) for a healthy handful of different words that don't
share anything in common (lexical class, meaning, etc.), the
language can develop a kind of phonological character.

For example, given the above inventory, say /-o?/ just happens
to be a common ending that doesn't necessarily mean anything:

mano? "cup"
elo? "to help"
toko? "happy"

And these are combined with a bunch of other words that don't
look anything like it, or maybe that instantiate other familiar
patterns, and pretty soon the vocabulary begins to look more
like the vocabulary of a natural language rather than something
generated by a random vocabulary generator (though, of course,
such a generator could be used to produce words just like this,
with everything but the /-o?/ being randomized).

Anyway, that's my understanding of "morphome", and how I
use the concept.  You know, there is, in theory, a homepage
for WP morphology, but it wasn't updated in a long time, and
all the links were broken.  Let me check on it...

Oh, good, it looks like it's being updated again!  In theory, this
is where one should be able to find answers to questions like,
"What is a morphome?"  You can't, currently, but hopefully
they'll get around to it:

"A male love inevivi i'ala'i oku i ue pokulu'ume o heki a."
"No eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn."

-Jim Morrison


Dirk Elzinga <dirk.elzinga@...>
Patrick Littell <puchitao@...>