pp 1–34 | Cite as

The plural interpretability of German linking elements

  • Roland Schäfer
  • Elizabeth Pankratz


In this paper, we take a closer theoretical and empirical look at the linking elements in German N1+N2 compounds which are identical to the plural marker of N1 (such as -er with umlaut, as in Häus-er-meer ‘sea of houses’). Various perspectives on the actual extent of plural interpretability of these pluralic linking elements are expressed in the literature. We aim to clarify this question by empirically examining to what extent there may be a relationship between plural form and meaning which informs in which sorts of compounds pluralic linking elements appear. Specifically, we investigate whether pluralic linking elements occur especially frequently in compounds where a plural meaning of the first constituent is induced either externally (through plural inflection of the entire compound) or internally (through a relation between the constituents such that N2 forces N1 to be conceptually plural, as in the example above). The results of a corpus study using the DECOW16A corpus and a split-100 experiment show that in the internal but not external plural meaning conditions, a pluralic linking element is preferred over a non-pluralic one, though there is considerable inter-speaker variability, and limitations imposed by other constraints on linking element distribution also play a role. However, we show the overall tendency that German language users do use pluralic linking elements as cues to the plural interpretation of N1+N2 compounds. Our interpretation does not reference a specific morphological framework. Instead, we view our data as strengthening the general approach of probabilistic morphology.


Compounds Linking elements German Probabilistic morphology Usage data Split-100 task 



We would like to thank (in alphabetical order) Jennifer Dailey-O’Cain, Matthias B. Döring, Jordan Lachler, and Ulrike Sayatz for valuable discussions and comments. Furthermore, we thank Ulrike for helping us recruit the participants for the experiment. Luise Rißmann did sterling work helping with the annotation of the concordances and supervising a majority of the experiments. We are, of course, fully responsible for all residual inadequacies, errors, and omissions.

Compliance with ethical standards

The split-100 rating experiment reported in this paper was completely anonymised. Participants signed standard consent forms and were given the option of asking questions about the nature of the experiment before and after they took part in it. They were granted the right to revoke their signed declaration of consent (through anonymised personal codes), which none of them did. Participants received no payment, but they were awarded credit in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a first-semester class in German linguistics at Freie Universität Berlin. The participants could specify their gender on a voluntary basis and they were given no pre-formulated options.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Deutsche und niederländische PhilologieFreie Universität BerlinBerlinGermany
  2. 2.Deutsche Sprache und LinguistikHumboldt Universität zu BerlinBerlinGermany

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