‘The Role of Autonomous Morphology in Language Change’ (Workshop, ICHL XX, Osaka, July 2011)

John Charles Smith johncharles.smith at stcatz.ox.ac.uk
Mon Nov 22 12:32:30 UTC 2010

Dear Colleagues,

We (Martin Maiden and John Charles Smith) are organizing a Workshop on ‘The Role of Autonomous Morphology in Language Change’ at the Twentieth International Conference on Historical Linguistics (ICHL XX), to be held in Osaka between 25 and 30 July 2011.  Several papers have already been promised; but we would clearly like to open the Workshop to as many interested colleagues as possible, hence this announcement to the HistLing List.  If you want to submit an abstract for consideration, please do so by 15 January 2011, using the on-line submission form at www.ichl2011.com and specifying that you wish your abstract to be considered for presentation at the Workshop.  If your abstract is not accepted for the Workshop, it will still be considered for inclusion in the general conference sessions.

A brief description of the background to the Workshop and the issues we aim to discuss is appended at the end of this posting.  If you have any queries, please don’t hesitate to contact the organizers:

martin.maiden [at] mod-langs.ox.ac.uk
johncharles.smith [at] stcatz.ox.ac.uk

With all good wishes,

John Charles Smith
Martin Maiden
John Charles Smith
Official Fellow and Tutor, St Catherine's College, Oxford, OX1 3UJ, UK
Deputy Director, Research Centre for Romance Linguistics, University of Oxford
tel. +44 1865 271700 (College) / 271748 (direct) / 271768 (fax)


Mark Aronoff’s seminal work Morphology By Itself (1994) brought analytical rigour to the identification of a class of phenomena of which many linguists — and perhaps especially historical linguists working on the inflectional morphology of ‘fusional’ languages — already sensed the existence.  Some aspects of morphology are demonstrably autonomous in that they are not (synchronically) determined by any phonological, syntactic or semantic factor.  They pertain, that is, to a ‘morphomic level’ located between phonology and syntax yet independent of either.  Among Aronoff’s most striking illustrations were the so-called Latin ‘third stem’ (an irreducibly heterogeneous set of paradigm cells within the inflectional paradigm of the Latin verb always shares the same stem-shape, regardless of the phonological identity of the stem) and the English ‘past participle’ (again, both phonologically and functionally heterogeneous). In the conclusion to his book, Aronoff called for linguists to begin a wider search for morphomic phenomena among the world’s languages, and evidence that they exist in many languages (at least of the ‘fusional’ type) emerges in, for example, Nübling (2000), Stump (2001:169-211), Baerman et al. (2005:183-86).
     Most work on ‘morphology by itself’ has had a synchronic perspective.  However, in a series of studies dealing with the historical development of Romance languages, Maiden (e.g., 2005, 2009a,b) identifies a number of ‘morphomic’ phenomena within inflectional morphology whose significance is twofold. 
• First, they provide powerful evidence in favour of the psychological reality of apparently morphomic phenomena.  To the extent that Aronoff’s prime examples are synchronic, they are liable to the accusation that they are the historically accidental remnants of some earlier état de langue in which the alleged ‘morphome’ was still extramorphologically motivated, and that the survival of such remnants is a matter simply of ‘inertia’, their distributional regularities not necessarily being ‘psychologically real’ to speakers. Maiden’s diachronic examples involve morphological changes which are argued to presuppose speakers’ awareness of ‘morphomic’ distributional patterns. 
• Second, not only do the Romance examples provide valuable diagnostics for the existence of morphomes, but they in turn suggest that the replication of morphomic structure is a powerful driver of inflectional morphological change.  Indeed, a good deal of the Romance evidence suggests that speakers have no particular preference for clearly extramorphologically motivated patterns of allomorphy over morphomic ones.
     The study of the diachrony of autonomous morphological phenomena raises some major questions which deserve exploration and explanation across a wide range of languages, and we suggest that among the issues which might be addressed are:

• How can we be sure that allegedly morphomic phenomena in diachrony are genuinely such? 
This issue is particularly important if, precisely, diachrony is used as a diagnostic of ‘morphomehood’.  The vestigial persistence of the original extramorphological conditioning often leads linguists to deny the ‘morphomic’ status of certain phenomena.

• In what ways do morphomes emerge diachronically? 
Common scenarios seem to be the continuing effects of defunct sound change, and functional splits, but can other factors be involved, such as language contact, or the effects of frequency in the lexical diffusion of morphological change?
• How and why does autonomously morphological structure persist diachronically?
This question is tantamount to asking why morphomes exist at all.  One possible conclusion is that the maintenance and reinforcement of morphomic patterns over time simply serves to make the relationship between lexemes and their form paradigms maximally predictable.

• How and why do morphomes die out?
The question is closely related in its implications to the foregoing.  There is some evidence that morphomes ‘die’ not necessarily because speakers seek to ‘realign’ them with extramorphological properties, but through the destructive effects of sound change.  The death of one morphome often involves the birth of another, rather than greater transparency in the form-meaning relationship.

• Is there a discrete boundary between the autonomously morphological and the extramorphologically motivated? 
The question may seem to imply a contradiction, but evidence has recently emerged from the history of Romance languages for changes which seem inexplicable unless we admit an autonomously morphological motivation ‘abetted’, but underdetermined, by extramorphological factors such as phonological environment.

• Can morphomes be sociolinguistically variable?
There is evidence emerging (see Smith forthcoming) that morphomes, just like syntactic, phonological, semantic and lexical, phenomena, may be subject to sociolinguistic variation.

Scholarly interest in issues of autonomous morphology can be seen in the recent (October 2010) conference in Coimbra on ‘Perspectives on the Morphome’, and the two recent workshops (2008 and 2010) in Oxford on ‘Autonomous Morphology in Diachrony’. The focus of the Coimbra gathering was principally synchronic, while the Oxford meetings have been almost exclusively concerned with Romance languages and attended almost exclusively by Romanists.  The time is clearly ripe for a broad cross-linguistic, diachronically orientated, discussion of the place of autonomous morphology in diachrony, and of the relevance of diachrony for our understanding of morphomic phenomena generally.  This is what we seek to achieve in the proposed Workshop.


Aronoff, Mark. 1994. Morphology By Itself. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Baerman, Matthew, Dunstan Brown & Greville Corbett. 2005. The Syntax-Morphology Interface. A study of syncretism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Maiden, Martin. 2005. ‘Morphological autonomy and diachrony’, Yearbook of Morphology 2004, 137-75.

Maiden, Martin. 2009a. ‘From pure phonology to pure morphology. The reshaping of the Romance verb’. Recherches linguistiques de Vincennes 38:45-82.

Maiden, Martin. 2009b. ‘Where does heteroclisis come from? Evidence from Romanian dialects’. Morphology 19:59-86.  

Nübling, Damaris. 2000. Prinzipien der Irregularisierung. Eine kontrastive Analyse von zehn Verben in zehn germanischen Sprachen. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Smith, John Charles. Forthcoming. ‘Variable analyses of a verbal inflection in (mainly) Canadian French’, in Maria Goldbach, Marc-Olivier Hinzelin, Martin Maiden & John Charles Smith (eds.).  Morphological Autonomy: perspectives from Romance inflectional morphology.  Oxford: Oxford Unversity Press.

Stump, Gregory. 2001. Inflectional morphology. A theory of paradigm structure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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