18.68, Sum: Usurpative Etymology of Suppletive Forms

Thu Jan 11 03:25:18 UTC 2007

LINGUIST List: Vol-18-68. Wed Jan 10 2007. ISSN: 1068 - 4875.

Subject: 18.68, Sum: Usurpative Etymology of Suppletive Forms

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Date: 10-Jan-2007
From: Konrad Szczesniak < konrad.szczesniak at gmail.com >
Subject: Usurpative Etymology of Suppletive Forms 

-------------------------Message 1 ---------------------------------- 
Date: Wed, 10 Jan 2007 22:14:15
From: Konrad Szczesniak < konrad.szczesniak at gmail.com >
Subject: Usurpative Etymology of Suppletive Forms 

Query for this summary posted in LINGUIST Issue: 17.2948                                           

Regarding Query: http://linguistlist.org/issues/17/17-2948.html#1

Dear Colleagues,

This is a long overdue summary of the responses to our query on 
suppletion from almost four months ago. The query originally focused on 
the distinction between 'usurpative' and 'fusional' suppletion. Usurpative 
suppletion was interpreted as including (in an otherwise regular paradigm) 
forms usurped from other lexemes. On the other hand, 'fusional' suppletion 
was assumed to involve combining forms from more than one lexeme, 
resulting in the complete absorption of the donating lexemes.

The literature and the examples sent in by many LL subscribers showed that 
instead of being a clearcut dichotomy, the above distinction is more of a 
continuum. It has also become clear that despite over a century of studies, 
suppletion is still a challenging question. The origins and the exact 
mechanisms of the formation of suppletive forms are unclear. It has also 
been controversial how suppletion should be defined, and what phenomena 
should be considered part of it.

Although the definition of suppletion is often restricted to inflectional 
suppletion, with verbal suppletion being the most studied case, derivational 
suppletion is also argued to be possible. However, it should be noted here 
that derivational suppletion is a controversial category. When cases of 
derivational suppletion are found, they come from derivational types that 
are typically adduced to illustrate the fuzzy borderline between derivation 
and inflection, like morphological means for marking gender. Common 
examples are gender pairs like 'byk / korova' (Russian 'ox / cow') or 'baran / 
owca' (Polish 'ram / sheep'). Unfortunately, gender marking is among a 
number of problematic processes (including adjectival/participial 
morphology, etc.) straddling the line between inflection and derivation. In 
other words, even when derivational suppletion is shown to exist, 
paradoxically the examples given seem to prove the inflectional nature of 

We are not aware of cases of suppletion for 'fully' derivational processes like 
nominalization or antonymy; what's more, we would like to venture that 
suppletion is impossible in true derivation. It is ruled out by the defining 
feature of derivation, ie. semantic opacity which makes it impossible to 
propose uniform derivational paradigms. For example, most verbs which 
convey the idea of repeated action are formed by adding the prefix re-, as 
in 'restate', 'reheat', 'retell', 'rewrite', 'redo' or 'replay'; here it would possible 
to think of suppletive forms like 'echo', 'duplicate' or 'copy'. The problem 
with these examples is that it is not altogether clear that re- forms belong 
under a uniform semantic paradigm which would justify searching it for 
'suppletive inclusions'. Because derivation always involves some semantic 
opacity, the idea of repetition is not the only semantic feature which sets 
derived verbs apart from their original forms. For example, 'rewrite' does 
not mean write (the same letter) again. Similar (or perhaps even more) 
semantic inconsistency is notorious in antonymy. Because of such 
irregularities, no 'derivational paradigms' are available for accommodating 
suppletive forms.

Other problems arise regarding definitions of suppletion based on 
etymology. According to Rudes (1980), not all types of extreme irregularity 
are suppletive enough. For example, the Polish pair 'ciac / tne' (to cut, 
infinitive / 1SG) is termed 'pseudo-suppletive', because the two forms are 
etymologically related. This approach is motivated by the assumption that 
suppletion is exemplified by cases where a paradigm contains a ''foreign 
body'' coming from other lexemes. This position is dismissed by Mel'?uk 
(1994) and Veselinova (2006, the most recent large-scale study of 
suppletion and a review of previous work), offering a practical reason for 
dismissing etymological considerations in defining suppletion: ''a definition 
based on etymology makes a typologically oriented study practically 
impossible as historical information of this kind is not available for many of 
the world languages (Martin Haspelmath, p.c.).''

Thus, Veselinova identifies three sources of suppletion: 1.) 
grammaticalization; 2.) lexicalization, and 3.) the loss of regular 
morphological processes involving forms of a single lexeme, resulting in 
the desintegration of its paradigm. Veselinova shows that suppletive forms 
tend to occur in lexemes which are becoming grammaticalized, or in 
lexemes subject to semantic change dynamics.

Interestingly, the three sources converge on what they affect; suppletion 
tends to affect high-frequency lexemes like 'be', 'go', 'sit', 'take', or 'say'. In 
languages with verbal suppletion, it is these verbs that universally exhibit 
suppletive forms. However, as Veselinova notes, the question of frequency is 
quite mysterious. It is not a sufficient condition for suppletion, as there are 
frequent verbs without suppletive forms (e.g. 'think'), whereas some less 
frequent verbs (like 'put' in Slavic languages) are prolific hosts of suppletion.

A review of examples of suppletion raises cause-or-effect doubts regarding 
the role of donating lexemes - does suppletion really result in the 
absorption of donating lexemes or is suppletion facilitated by their loss of 
autonomous lexeme status? The scenario of the development is addressed 
in Rudes (1980). He observes that ''[t]he mechanisms by which suppletive 
verbs come into existence have never been well understood , principally 
because no case of incipient suppletion has ever been noted and studied in 
detail. In most languages, those suppletive verbs which exist are of ancient 
date and there are no records of their creation.'' But Rudes demonstrates 
what might be a case of suppletion formation underway: the fusion of two 
Romanian verbs 'a vrea' and 'a voi', the former being irregular and the latter 
a regular donor of forms which enter the paradigm of 'a vrea'. Rudes shows 
that while some forms of the irregular 'a vrea' are still usable, they are 
gradually losing out in frequency and are being supplanted by the regular 
forms from the 'a voi' paradigm. Although still separate, the two paradigms 
are hypothesized to fuse at some point. According to Rudes, irregularity 
exposed to acquisitional pressures (children do not acquire low-frequency 
forms which are eventually replaced by regular forms from other 
paradigms) may facilitate the formation of suppletive paradigms.

Other major questions that remain to be answered include why some 
languages exhibit suppletion while others seem ''immune'' to it. Sometimes, 
the answer is obvious: for example, in languages like Chinese, there is little 
to supplete; there are no inflectional paradigms to supply with ''foreign 
matter''. But on the other hand, one needs to explain the conspicuous 
absence of suppletion in many cases of inflected languages (for example, 
no suppletion for number in Polish).

Finally, an interesting leftover question is whether 'kill / die' should be 
considered a suppletive pair. In many languages, the two are unrelated 
verbs which were famously demonstrated by Fodor (1975) to be 
syntactically separate beings without a derivational link, an observation 
confirmed by the intuitions of native speakers of lanaguages where the two 
are separate. However, in some languages (like Basque), the two are 
expressed by two related forms participating in the causative alternation, 
indicating that some kind of causative-inchoative relation must hold 
between them and therefore categorizing them as suppletive is perhaps not 
entirely unjustified.

We would like to thank Ante Aikio, Susan Fischer, Matt Juge, John Koontz, 
Mary Marino, Marc Picard, Blair Rudes, Hayim Y. Sheynin, Herb Stahlke, Péter 
Szigetvári, Ljuba Veselinova, and Ghil`ad Zuckermann for examples and 
their comments. 

Konrad Szczesniak
Silesian University
Sosnowiec, Poland

Marcus Callies
Philipps-Universität Marburg
Marburg, Germany


Fodor, J. A. 1970. Three reasons for not deriving 'kill' from 'cause to die'. 
Linguistic Inquiry 1: 429-438.
Mel'?uk, I. 1994. Suppletion: Toward a logical analysis of the concept. 
Studies in Language 18(2): 339-410. 
Rudes, B. 1980. On the nature of verbal suppletion. Linguistics 18: 655-76.
Veselinova, L. N. 2006. Suppletion in Verb Paradigms. Amsterdam: John 
Benjamins Publishing Company 

Linguistic Field(s): Typology

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