Original Paper

Natural Language & Linguistic Theory

, Volume 26, Issue 4, pp 775-793

First online:

System-congruity and violable constraints in German weak declension

  • Andrew Carstairs-McCarthyAffiliated withDepartment of Linguistics, University of Canterbury Email author 

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Among the patterns of declension exhibited by German nouns and adjectives, there are some that are traditionally labelled ‘weak’. It is argued here that the behaviour of ‘weak’ noun and adjective forms can be best understood if their inflectional suffixes are regarded not as expressing morphosyntactic properties such as gender and case but rather as the outcome of conflicting ranked constraints governing what an optimal noun or adjective should look like in different contexts. For example, an attributive adjective should carry a suffix; a nominative singular form should carry no suffix; and the default inflectional affix is -en. These language-particular constraints reflect some of the ‘system-defining structural properties’ attributed to German by the late Wolfgang Ullrich Wurzel.


German Inflection Noun phrase Optimality theory Natural morphology