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Like the rules of syntax, which make sure that the words inside our sentences are put together in the right order, the rules of morphology do the same with the morphemes that make up those words. Just as the ungrammatical sentence in (1) is excluded thanks to a particular syntactic constraint on the relationship between verbs and their arguments (i.e., the Theta Criterion), the impossible word in (2) is blocked by a similar morphological constraint.

     (1)    *Kimmy danced the street

     (2)    *joyment

Specifically, morphemes have selectional restrictions. Even though the word “joy” is a valid root in English, and “-ment” is a common suffix, the word as a whole crumbles because the bound morpheme “-ment” needs to attach to a verb, as in “enjoyment.” The suffix in (2) selects for verbs, but all it gets is a noun.

We can spell out the constraint, which makes sure that morphemes’ selectional restrictions are always met, as the Sisterhood Condition. Basically, this says that whatever needs a particular morpheme has, that morpheme has to get what it’s looking for from the morpheme that it’s directly attached to, right away. A suffix like “-ment” can’t stick itself onto something like “joy” and just wait around, hoping for a prefix like “en-” to come and give it the verb it’s looking for. It’s just too impatient for that sort of thing.

The Sisterhood Condition is what gives words their structure. Since we know that a prefix like “en-” has to attach to the noun “joy” and turn it into a verb before the suffix “-ment” can go about its business, we represent the order in which the affixes attach to the root using the word structure tree below.

Starting from the bottom, you can see that the prefix attached first, turning the noun into a verb just in time for the suffix to latch on and turn it right back into a noun. And this jibes with what we know about the word’s meaning, too: roughly speaking, “en-” turns the emotion “joy” into the act of experiencing that emotion, then “-ment” turns that into the state resulting from that act. Its structure and meaning match up perfectly!

But selectional restrictions aren’t the only needs that a morpheme can have. Take, for example, the comparative suffix “-er.” This morpheme attaches to adjectives to form what are known as synthetic comparatives, as in (3).

     (3a)    harder

     (3b)    better

     (3c)    faster

     (3d)    luckier

But analytic comparatives exist, too; they employ the free-standing form “more.”

     (4a)    more colourful

     (4b)    more independent

     (4c)    more explosive

And you might have noticed that the suffix “-er” only seems to be able to handle hooking up to words which have one or two syllables; any more, and we have to use “more”!

What might be surprising is that the various restrictions that morphemes have can actually conflict with each other. When this happens, we run into what’s called a bracketing paradox. Consider the word “unhappier.” We know that “-er” usually attaches to smaller words, so it looks like it gets first dibs on the root “happy.”

You can see that the category never changes; each affix takes an adjective and turns it into another adjective. There’s a bit of a problem, though, when we consider the word’s meaning. We know that its structure should match up with its semantics, but “unhappier” doesn’t mean “not happier,” it means “more unhappy.” It really seems like the suffix that means “more” should attach last — after we’ve already formed the word “unhappy.” Its structure should really look like this:

So which one’s right? A number of possible answers to this paradox have been given, and it’s still an open question as to which one’s best. To get a sense of what these look proposed solutions look like, though, let’s consider one here. If morphology really is like syntax, and we know that words can move around inside a sentence, maybe morphemes can too! How does this help? Take a look at the tree below.

In this structure, the requirements of each affix are met: first, “-er” attaches to “happy,” which lines up with what we know about how the comparative suffix usually works; then, “un-” hooks onto the structure; finally, “-er” moves up into a spot which gives the word the meaning we all know and love, leaving behind a trace of where it used to be.

Movement within words might seem like a weird idea, but it solves other problems, too. Like, in the compound word “nuclear physicist,” it looks like the suffix “-ist” directly attaches to the root “physic(s)” to give us “someone who studies physics.” But, that would mean a nuclear physicist is someone who’s nuclear and who studies physics! And, it doesn’t mean that at all! It means “someone who studies nuclear physics.” It really looks like that “ist” has got to attach to the whole thing, all at once. If we add movement to the mix, the suffix can start off low and attach directly to the root, then move up high to give us the correct interpretation!

As the saying goes, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”



So how about it? What do you all think? Let us know below, and we’ll be happy to talk with you about all the ways morphology can manifest in our words. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say, and we want to hear what interests you!

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