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Re: Unilang: the Morphology

From:Marcus Smith <smithma@...>
Date:Sunday, April 22, 2001, 18:14
Andreas wrote:
>Marcus Smith wrote: >>>I am, of course, operating on the theory that a 'word' is an speech unit >>>that can be pronounced by itself and is "complete". According to this >>>definition, the reduced forms of the English copula (-'m, -'re, -'s) >>>aren't >>>proper words - you won't say [z] in isolation if asked what the 3rd sg >>>present of 'to be' is. If that Russian {s} is pronounced as part of the >>>preceeding or following word, I won't consider it a 'word' on its own, but >>>rather as an affix. >> >>So, English possessive -'s is an affix that attaches to any part of speech >>what-so-ever, providing that the phrase containing the word is headed by a >>noun, and that the noun is the possessor of another noun? > >Something like that, yes. It would perhaps be better to desribe it as >attaching to the end of a phrase functioning as a noun in relation to the >rest of the sentence. If we consider it a 'word' we have pretty much >abolished the distinction between 'word' and 'morpheme'.
Two completely different responses came to my head immediately. 1) There is nothing necessarily wrong with the abolishment of the word/morpheme distinction. A "morpheme" is a purely theoretical notion that can be redefined anytime linguists (as a whole) feel the need to do so. "Word" has a pre-theoretical meaning, but that meaning runs afoul of all kinds of problems so that it is unworkable in a formalized context. The relatively popular theory Distributed Morphology claims that words do not exist -- only morphemes do, so abolishing the distinction between 'word' and 'morpheme' is an idea that some linguists are taking seriously. 2) Possessive -'s and plural -s behave differently, and these differences need to be captured somehow. Calling possessive -'s a phrasal affix will cause more problems than it solves (not necessarily for English, but certainly cross-linguistically). The best thing to do is call it a clitic. As a clitic, it is a word (in a syntactic sense); but it lacks the prosodic requirements of a word (in a phonological sense), so the clitic will lean on (attach to) whatever word happens to precede it.
>>A serious problem in linguistics that few people have addressed is that >>there is no decent definition of what a "word" is. Phonological definitions >>run afoul of the syntactic data, and vice versa. > >I didn't claim my defintion was perfect, but it seems workable to me. Any >better suggestion?
I don't know if this is better, but I would suggest not ignoring the syntactic side of words. Syntax overtly manipulates words but not affixes. (I have a professor or two who would probably skewer me for saying that.) If something can appear in different positions relative to other relevant words, it should probably be considered a word (or clitic) even if it can't stand on it own. Marcus Smith "Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatsoever abysses Nature leads, or you shall learn nothing." -- Thomas Huxley