, Volume 26, Issue 4, pp 775-793
Date: 16 Sep 2008

System-congruity and violable constraints in German weak declension

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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.

This paper has been long in the making. It was originally intended as a contribution to a memorial volume for the late Wolfgang Ullrich (‘Gustav’) Wurzel. This explains some aspects of the presentation. I am grateful to all those who replied in 2003 to a Linguist List inquiry about noun phrase inflection in German. I am also grateful to a University of Canterbury seminar audience, and particularly to Heidi Quinn, for comments on an earlier version in 2004, and especially to Junko Itô and three anonymous referees for comments on the version originally submitted to NLLT. Faults that remain are my own responsibility.