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”. Continue reading “Understanding the loss of inflection”

TPS 114(2) – Abstract 4

The grammaticalisation of possessive person marking: a typological approach

by Marlou van Rijn (University of Amsterdam)

This study focuses on the grammaticalization of agreement markers from possessive pronouns, which has two different dimensions: loss of referentiality (function) and loss of morpho-phonological independence (form). I examine the referential potential and formal expression type of possessive person markers in a worldwide sample of 39 languages with an alienability distinction. Referential potential is measured independently of expression type by applying a new typology of person markers. First, I demonstrate that inalienable possessive marking is at least as referential and formally independent as alienable possessive marking, and often less referential and less independent. Unlike explanations in terms of frequency and iconicity, I argue that this asymmetry is essentially semantics-based: the presence of a possessive relationship is inherent to the meaning of the inalienable noun, which is therefore in less need of expressive marking than alienable nouns. Second, I show that loss of referentiality correlates with loss in form, but in a relative rather than an absolute sense: in individual languages, higher referential markers never show a greater degree of bonding with the possessee than lower referential markers. These results suggest that function and form evolve in the same direction, but need not evolve at the same pace.

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TPS 114(2) – Abstract 1

Axial parts, phi-features and degrammaticalization: the Case of Italian presso/pressi in diachrony

by Ludovico Franco (Universidade Nova de Lisboa)

In this paper, I will provide a possible syntactic characterization of (a subset) of so-called degrammaticalization processes, based on the case of the diachronic evolution of presso/pressi (near/at, in) in Italian. Moreover, with an empirical study on the Opera del Vocabolario Italiano (OVI) corpus, I will support Svenonius’s idea of Axial Part as an independent category in the lexicon (and not a mere spatial subset of relational nouns), providing a new kind of evidence i.e. of the diachronic type, to this claim.

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