Understanding the loss of inflection

by Helen Sims-Williams (University of Surrey)

The role of inflection is one of the most conspicuous ways that languages differ from each other. While English speakers only have to learn four or five forms of the verb, speakers of Georgian have to deal with paradigms containing hundreds of forms. In return for their efforts, they gain the ability to express complex propositions compactly: the single word vuc’er requires five words in its English translation ‘I am writing to him’.

Surrey Morphology Group
Loss of Inflection: a research project by the Surrey Morphology Group

The extent of inflectional morphology also distinguishes different historical stages of the same language – during its recorded history English has dramatically reduced the inflection it inherited from Proto-Germanic, leaving only a few relics, like the distinction between pronominal I/me, she/her, he/him.

The inflectional poverty of modern English may come as a relief to the many people who learn it as a second language, but its meagre remaining stock of inflection is zealously guarded by purists. Barack Obama was ‘roundly criticized’ for using a subject pronoun in phrases like “a very personal decision for Michelle and I” – a use described by Hock in his Principles of Historical Linguistics (1991: 629) as ‘the ultimate horror’ (admittedly in scare quotes), and which even led one blogger to comment “believe it or not, this was a contributing factor to my voting decision”.

As such complaints attest, the loss of inflection is often understood by the public as a sign of decay. And this is how it is often understood by linguists, too, though the decay is usually portrayed as phonological rather than moral. Sound change erodes inflectional affixes, particularly at the end of words, leading to the introduction of alternative forms of marking: pronouns are brought in to mark verbal subjects, fixed word order evolves to distinguish subjects and objects, and so on. This in turn makes the already disappearing affixes functionally redundant, hastening their loss. This account of the diachronic progression from fusional to analytic structure has remained unchanged in its essentials since the 19th century.

While sound changes have certainly contributed to the loss of inflection in many languages, this can’t be the whole story. Phonological change occurs in all languages, but not all languages lose their inflection. The fourteen noun cases of Estonian are still going strong, despite widespread loss of final syllables affecting case suffixes, and Indo-Iranian languages have been actively creating new cases through the grammaticalisation of derivational morphology and independent words.

Thanks to an explosion in research on grammaticalisation in the last 50 years, we now understand quite a bit about how inflectional systems develop. But the loss of inflection, which has momentously shaped the structure of so many languages, is relatively poorly understood: we still don’t know how or why languages abandon inflection in favour of other marking strategies.

New research project on the Loss of Inflection by the Surrey Morphology Group

This is the subject of the Surrey Morphology Group’s new AHRC-funded project, ‘Loss of Inflection’. In order to understand the possible pathways of the loss of inflection, we will be conducting four in-depth case studies, in collaboration with experts on specific language histories. We are also creating a cross-linguistic database, documenting examples of the loss of inflection from genealogically and geographically diverse languages. This will be made available on our website for anyone to use (so watch this space).

In summer 2017 we will be holding a workshop at the International Conference on Historical Linguistics in San Antonio, Texas. We are accepting submissions until December 1st, and hope to see members of the PhilSoc there!

For more information, visit our website: http://www.smg.surrey.ac.uk/projects/loss-of-inflection

3 thoughts on “Understanding the loss of inflection

  1. and Indo-Iranian languages have been actively creating new cases through the grammaticalisation of derivational morphology and independent words

    The same holds for Hungarian, which has a lot more cases today than it did 1000 years ago and shows no sign of slowing down the reinterpretation of postpositions as case endings.

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    1. This seems to be the case with most/all Uralic, in fact. Similar tendencies across the board, including Finnish and Estonian, compared to the case inventory of Proto-Uralic.

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  2. Is the Irish language one of the ones you intend looking at? There is a modern trend in it to lose the genitive case which may be relevant to your study.

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