Two paths to polysynthesis

Evidence from West Circassian nominalizations
  • Ksenia ErshovaEmail author


West Circassian displays prominent polysynthetic morphology both in the verbal and nominal domains and both syntactic categories are subject to the same morphological ordering constraints. I argue that despite these similarities, nominal and verbal wordforms in West Circassian are in fact constructed via two distinct word formation processes: while the verbal root and any accompanying functional morphology are pronounced as a single phonological word by virtue of forming a single complex syntactic head via head displacement, the nominal head and its modifiers are pronounced as a single word due to rules of syntax-to-prosody mapping. Such a division of labor provides an account for why only nouns, and not verbs, exhibit productive noun incorporation in the language: West Circassian noun incorporation is prosodic, rather than syntactic. The evidence for the existence of these two avenues of word formation comes from a systematic violation of morpheme ordering observed in verbal nominalizations. In terms of broader theoretical impact, the proposed analysis provides insight into what factors shape a polysynthetic language: while it is tempting to reduce polysynthetic morphology to either simple head displacement or just a consequence of mapping complex syntactic structure to a single phonological word without any head displacement, the West Circassian data show that neither of these mechanisms can be dispensed with.


Polysynthesis Head displacement Prosodification Wordhood Phases Noun incorporation West Circassian 



The author thanks the speakers of West Circassian for sharing their language, especially Svetlana K. Alishaeva, Saida Gisheva, Susana K. Khatkova, and Zarema Meretukova. I am grateful to Jason Merchant, Neil Myler, Boris Harizanov, Maziar Toosavardani, the audiences at the Morphology and Syntax Workshop at the University of Chicago and LSA 2018 for comments and discussion, Greg Kobele for comments on previous versions of this work, and especially Karlos Arregi. The trip to the village Neshukay in July 2014 was organized by the Higher School of Economics and the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow. I am grateful to the participants of the 2014 expedition, especially Yury Lander. I would also like to thank three anonymous reviewers and the editor Daniel Harbour for very useful comments and suggestions. This project was partially funded by the Graduate Research Aid Initiative in Linguistics from the University of Chicago and the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies Dissertation Research Grant. All mistakes and shortcomings are my own.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of ChicagoChicagoUSA

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