Analogical Levelling and Optimisation: the Treatment of Pointless Lexical Allomorphy in Greek
by Helen Sims-Williams (University of Surrey)
Ancient Greek verbal morphology involved extensive allomorphy of lexical morphemes, most of which was phonologically and semantically arbitrary, lexically idiosyncratic, and functionally redundant. This was subsequently reduced through analogical levelling, which eliminates alternations in favour of a single phonological expression of underlying meaning. This reduction of arbitrary complexity is often observed in the development of morphological systems, which has inspired a common view of morphological change as being guided by universal preferences, nudging languages along paths which will lead them to a more optimal status. This paper applies data from the history of Greek to two questions about analogical levelling and the role of ‘optimisation’. Firstly, is levelling motivated by a universal preference for a one-to-one alignment of meaning and form? Secondly, is the direction of levelling determined by universal preferences for particular ways of marking morphosyntactic distinctions? I will argue that the answer to both questions is no: the developments observed here are remarkably well predicted by language-specific, formal properties of paradigms, without the need to invoke universal preferences. These facts are best accommodated if speaker competence includes detailed probabilistic information about the predictive structure of paradigms, which has important implications for morphological theory, as well as historical linguistics.