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A Greenbergian Tidbit

From:Ed Heil <ejh@...>
Date:Sunday, February 18, 2001, 21:19
I was reading a little book of old essays by Greenberg, and came across
this interesting tidbit.  I thought it was quite interesting, and probably
true, although invoking Skinner in linguistics went severely out of
fashion decades ago...

When you are training a person or an animal, and you are trying to train
them to do one of a set of responses B after a stimulus A, it is very
feasible for A to be many and B to be few but very difficult for the
reverse to be true.

For example, it's easy to train a dog to jump after you either wink,
blink, or nod, but it's difficult to train a dog to either jump, bark, or
wag after you wink.

If we generalize this to series of behaviors, we can understand why in
general suffixing is much more common than prefixing in language.

If it's easier to go from (large group of possibilities) -> (small group
of possibilities), it's probably easier to go from (free morpheme) ->
(bound morpheme) and therefore easier to suffix than to prefix.

Not an absolute, but a tendency.

(The observation about suffixing being more common than prefixing in
general comes from Sapir, according to Greenberg.)