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The morphome in constructive and abstractive models of morphology


Although the definition and usage of the term ‘morphome’ differs in the academic literature, the original definition of a morphome by Aronoff (1994) is that it is a function which determines the distribution of form within the inflectional paradigm and beyond. More importantly, however, morphomes suppose the existence of what Aronoff terms ‘a morphomic level’ which embodies an empirical claim about the structure of language: ‘the mapping from morphosyntax to phonological realization is not direct but passes through an intermediate level’ (Aronoff in Morphology by itself, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1994:25). This is a strong claim concerning all types of morphological exponence. In this article, after an analysis of Aronoff’s model of morphology, I draw upon the distinction which Blevins (J. Linguist. 42:531–573, 2006) makes between constructive and abstractive models of morphology. I note that the introduction of a morphomic level merely constitutes an incorporation of a partial paradigmatic dimension into a constructive model of morphology. With reference to a semantically and phonologically unmotivated distribution of allomorphy in Romance I argue that although the introduction of the morphomic level is beneficial, since it can formalise systematic and ‘psychologically real’ homonymies in synchronic grammars in a way which is not merely coincidental, a constructive morphomic theory of morphology does not present significant advantages over abstractive theories as regards the formalisation of the synchronic facts and presents disadvantages as regards the motivation of diachronic tendencies which this particular distribution of allomorphy shows cross-linguistically. I argue that these historical tendencies support a more paradigmatic theory of morphology inherent in abstractive models, which consider the word as the basic unit of analysis and word formation a matter of analogical deduction based on the predictable capacity of stored exemplar paradigms and principal parts.

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  1. 1.

    Aronoff is open to the possibility of a common functional property uniting these two cells (1994:176), see Iatriadou et al. (2001), and references therein, for a possible semantic and functional motivation.

  2. 2.

    The term ‘realisation rule’ is a variation of the idea of Zwicky (1985) of a morphological realisation, which Beard (1995) calls the morphological spelling component. These are basically stipulations regarding how to create morphosyntactic word forms.

  3. 3.

    These involve the spelling out of the exponents of morphosyntactic features, the realisation of parts of words and even whole word-form syncretisms.

  4. 4.

    The morphomic rules are of two sub-types: stem-formation rules and stem-indexing rules: stem-formation rules are essentially instructions regarding how to form complex stems and could be likened to Aronoff’s realisations rules if taken in isolation. Stump (2001:181) gives a clear explanation of these rules as the following: ‘[their] job is to express generalisations of the type “if such-and-such member of lexeme L’s stem inventory has the phonological form X, then such-and-such other member of L’s inventory has the phonological form Y” ’. The result of all the stem-formation rules is a list of stems, in the form of a stem-inventory, which corresponds to the number of stems which realise each lexeme (Stump 2001:183). These stems interact with the realisation rules to produce the correct base form depending on the set of morphosyntactic properties, i.e. depending on the cell of the paradigm. This is usually indirect via stem indexes which are the other type of morphomic rules and which basically assign an index to a stem. In this way, a particular stem can be indexed to be triggered by a number of different morphosyntactic features.

  5. 5.

    In more recent developments of this model, however ‘implicative rules’ have been introduced which deduce the realisation of one cell in a lexeme’s paradigm from that of another cell; these rules could be employed to explain the consistency of the common root.

  6. 6.

    Or pretérito y tiempos afines.

  7. 7.

    Firstly, Proto-Romance underwent a process, already incipient in Latin, whereby the glide [w], a marker of the perfective forms, was lost between vowels. Thus PORTĀVISTĪ > *portasti, AUDĪVĪ > *audi. Secondly some tenses in which the perfectum stem was used undertook a different morphosyntactic function not expressing perfective (or perfect) aspect; finally many perfectum stems were replaced by the (default) imperfectum stems.

  8. 8.

    I list the verbs which display SPR in the Spanish PYTA tenses; in order to appreciate the allomorphic differences between the SPR and the allomorphy in the rest of the paradigm I provide for each lexeme the forms of the 3sg preterite, the 3sg present indicative, and the infinitive: condujoconduceconducir ‘drive’; cupocabecaber ‘fit’; dijodicedecir ‘say’; estuvoestáestar ‘be’; fueesser ‘be’; fuevair ‘go’; hizohacehacer ‘do’; hubohahaber ‘have’ (auxiliary verb); pudopuedepoder ‘be able’; pusoponeponer ‘put’; quisoquierequerer ‘want’; suposabesaber ‘know’; trajotraetraer ‘bring’; tuvotienetener ‘have’; vinovienevenir ‘come’.

  9. 9.

    In Medieval Spanish there also existed another PYTA tense, the future subjunctive, which was a continuant of both the Latin future perfect indicative and the perfect subjunctive paradigms. This tense was used in the in the protasis of conditional sentences, usually to highlight that the situation was hypothetical and possible. From the fourteenth century onwards the use of this verb form declined and although many grammarians recommended its use at the onset of the twentieth century, in present day Spanish it is no longer used in spoken speech. In written documents its use is limited to legal documents and formulaic phrases.

  10. 10.

    Imperfect subjunctive is the term used in traditional grammar, but no aspectual distinction is encoded.

  11. 11.

    I list the verbs which display a non-alternating SPR in the Portuguese PYTA tenses; in order to appreciate the allomorphic differences between the SPR and the allomorphy in the rest of the paradigm I have provided for each lexeme the forms of the 3sg preterite, the 3sg present indicative, and the infinitive: deudar ‘give’; dissedizdizer ‘say’; quisquerquerer ‘want’; houvehaver ‘have’; soubesabesaber ‘know’; trouxetraztrazer ‘bring’.

  12. 12.

    In order to appreciate the allomorphic differences between the general SPR, the SPR in the 3sg preterite and the allomorphy in the rest of the paradigm I have provided for each lexeme the forms of the 3sg preterite, the 3pl preterite and the 3sg present indicative followed by the infinitive: fezfizeramfazfazer ‘do’; esteveestiveramestáestar ‘be’; tevetiveramtemter ‘have’; veiovieramvemvir ‘come’.

  13. 13.

    The verbs are ser ‘be’ and ir ‘go’ which are syncretic in the PYTA tenses. In order to appreciate the allomorphic differences between the general SPR, the SPR in the 1sg preterite and the allomorphy in the rest of the paradigm I have provided for each lexeme the forms of the 1sg preterite, the 3sg preterite and the 3sg present indicative followed by the infinitive: fuifoiéser ‘be’; fuifoivaiir ‘go’.

  14. 14.

    PYTA cells can be rhizotonic or arhizotonic ('tuve ‘he had’, 'tuvo ‘he had’ vs. tu' viste ‘you had’, tu' vimos ‘we had’ tu' vieron ‘they had’, tu' viera ‘had-imperfect subjunctive’) and, in Spanish, the SPR can be followed by a variety of desinences: a glide (estuvieron ‘they were’, estuviese ‘to be-imperfect subjunctive’); a high vowel (estuvimos ‘we were’, estuviste ‘you were-sg’, estuvistéis ‘you were-pl’) and front and back mid-vowels (estuve ‘I was’, estuvo ‘he was’). Such a set of phonological characteristics are neither common to all the PYTA tenses nor an exclusive property of these tenses.

  15. 15.

    Thus in the sentences no pensaba que pudiera hacerlo ‘I didn’t think he’d be able to do it’/‘I didn’t think he’d manage to do it’ and no quería que lo supiera ‘I didn’t want him to find out’/‘I didn’t want him to know’ the imperfect subjunctive forms pudiera and supiera, of the verbs poder ‘be able’ and saber ‘know’, can be understood both as having perfective aspect and imperfect aspect (as illustrated by the different translations in English). Likewise the past subjunctive forms can correspond semantically to the preterite, imperfect and even conditional forms when in negative constructions with the verb creer ‘to believe’, in which the past subjunctive is obligatory. Thus, the phrase no creí que llegase / llegara a las 6 corresponds to the following translations ‘I didn’t think he got here/was getting here/would get here at 6’. Note that when the verb is not negated the past subjunctive is not licensed and thus the following options are possible: creí que llegó a las 6 ‘I thought he got here at 6’, creí que llegaba a las 6 ‘I thought he was getting here at 6’, creí que llegaría a las 6 ‘I thought he would get here at 6’.

  16. 16.

    One anonymous reviewer suggested that the preterite and past subjunctive may be related semantically on the basis of both constituting ‘remote past tenses’ in accordance with the findings of Iatriadou (2000) that, in a number of languages, what is designated ‘past tense’ denotes remoteness in time or reality. Thus, the preterite would be a matter of remoteness from the topic time (e.g. de niño viví en Italia ‘when I was a child I lived in Italy’) and the past subjunctive remoteness from the topic world (si estuviera en Italia, sería más feliz ‘if I were in Italy, I would be happier’) which results in counterfactuality, a usage of the past subjunctive. The problem with such an analysis is that (a) the distinctive characteristic of preterites in Romance is aspectual, they are no more remote regarding the past than the imperfect indicative, and (b) counterfactual statements only correspond to one of many varied semantic and syntactic uses of the past subjunctive in Spanish (see examples in following footnotes).

  17. 17.

    Thus, in Spanish one can say the following (the imperfect subjunctive verb forms are in bold): ahora mismo quisiera quedarme aquí ‘I want to stay here right now’; quería que lo hiciera ahora mismo’ ‘He wanted me to do it right now’; si lo viese ahora mismo, lo mataría ‘If I saw him right now, I would kill him’.

  18. 18.

    Thus, in Spanish one can say the following (the imperfect subjunctive verb form is in bold): ojalá que viniera mañana ‘I wish he would come tomorrow’.

  19. 19.

    This usage is widely attested in standard varieties of Spanish in the phrases más valiera ‘it would be better’ and más quisieras ‘you wish’; and also the verbs poder ‘be able’, querer ‘want’ and deber ‘ought’ and to a lesser extent parecer ‘seem’ as demonstrated in the following examples taken from Nueva Gramática (2010:1804); again the imperfect subjunctive forms are given in bold: pudiera/podía ser como dices ‘it could be as you say’; debieran/deberían ustedes prestar más atención ‘you ought to pay more attention’; el deporte de Allende Los Andes pareciera tener la marca registrada. The sport on the other side of the Andes would seem to have the brand name registered.’ Indeed, in varieties of Spanish of South America this use of the imperfect subjunctive can be extended to the apodosis of conditional clauses (comprara un carro si tuviera dinero ‘I would buy a car if I had money’ (Nueva Gramática 2010:1807)) and in some varieties it can even be extended to non conditional clauses (¿Qué hiciera usted en ese caso ‘What would you do in that situation?’ (Nueva Gramática 2010:1807)). This latter use is also found in literary registers of the Spanish of Spain (Fuera de desear que supieras comportarte ‘one would like to think that you knew how to behave’ (taken from Alcoba 1998)).

  20. 20.

    E.g. in the sentence: Como yo hiciera un gesto de duda, insistió (Nueva Gramática 2010:1806) ‘Since I had made an action of uncertainty, he insisted’.

  21. 21.

    In what follows I give a number of examples which illustrate this point; all examples are taken from Alcoba (1998) in which the author gives the past subjunctive form in capitals and provides the other tenses which are acceptable in each sentence and which the use of the imperfect subjunctive subsumes: La Comunidad Europea aún no ha definido su postura sobre los dos millones de toneladas que deberán entrar este año y que España pretende retrasar, como HICIERA [hizo/ha hecho] el día anterior. (El País, 21.8.1988: 37)—‘The European Union still has not clarified its stance on the two million tonnes which should enter the country this year and which Spain is trying to delay, as it did/has done the day before; El que FUERA [fue/era/ha sido] un brillante ministro de Cultura es ahora un gris ministro de educación.—‘He who was/used to be/has been an excellent minister of culture is now a grey minister of education’; Lola estaba como transida por el temor que le PRODUJERA [había producido/produjo/producía] (Cela: Duarte, 76)—‘Lola was beset with the fear which it had caused/caused/was causing her’; Un cáncer de duodeno acabó con la vida de quien OSTENTASE [ostentó/ostentaba(había ostentatado/ha ostentado] hasta ayer el imperio japonés (Cadena SER, Noticas de las 14h., 7.1.89)—‘Cancer of the duodenum ended the life of him who, until yesterday, was/used to be/had been/has been in control of the Japanese empire.’

  22. 22.

    There also exists another principle, the principle of convergence which states the following: Convergence: [the set of paradigmatic cells in the morphome] ‘tend over time to acquire certain common phonological characteristics across all verbs in which they occur—a development akin to classic analogical levelling of the “one meaning—one form” type, except here there is no “meaning” outside the morphomic pattern itself.’

  23. 23.

    This is a matter of debate for the 1sg and 3sg preterite forms which are rhizotonic and which end in -e, that is, estive and esteve. In Standard Portuguese /ε/cannot appear in unstressed position and so it could be argued that all forms share the same stem. In my analysis I have derived these forms via realisation rules whereby the rhizotonic root is concatenated with the vowel -e since even if these forms were built on the same stem as the other PYTA forms it is still necessary to stipulate that unlike all the other forms they do not undergo any type of affixation of markers of tense and mood or person and number.

  24. 24.

    The same is also considered by some to be the case for the PYTA tenses in Old Occitan and Gascon (Occitan Anglade 1921:272, Bourciez 1927:3; however, see Footnote 45 and Sect. 5.4 for my interpretation of these data). See Wheeler (2012) for an alternative explanation as to the origins of the mid-open vowel in Spanish and Portuguese.

  25. 25.

    Here it is assumed that it is a matter of phonology as to when the ending is realised as coda -r (partir, partirmos, partirdes) or with an epenthetic /e/ (partires, partirem).

  26. 26.

    The only exception here are the verbs ser ‘be’ and ir ‘go’ whose 3sg form is fue in each case.

  27. 27.

    It could be argued, however, that for 2nd and 3rd conjugation verbs the marker is -i, classed in the present analysis as a thematic vowel, since for 2nd conjugation verbs the difference between the 1pl present indicative and preterite is represented by a difference of ‘thematic’ vowel (-e- ∼ -i-: comemos ‘we eat’: comimos ’we ate’).

  28. 28.

    For example in Spanish the F_pyta function stipulates that the same SPR is present in all of the PYTA cells and the same stem (SPR+je) is present in a subset of these cells, however, exclusively in the preterite (morphome function F_preterite) it needs to be stipulated that the this stem is SPR+i for 2sg, 1pl, 2pl.

  29. 29.

    In my formalisation I have classed it as a rule of exponence on the basis of a comparison with the 1sg preterite marker for 2nd and 3rd conjugation verbs, -i. This formative seems to be the result of a stem formation rule since the resulting stem, e.g. bebi-, is also used as the base tp which the -ó of the 3sg preterite is attached. This is not the case for SPR and 1st conjugation verbs, in which the 3sg is formed via concatenation of -ó to the bare root.

  30. 30.

    Thus, for Spanish SPR and 2nd and 3rd conjugation verbs, the cumulative marker for 3pl and preterite is -ro. This could be formalised either as a stem formation rule whereby -ro is concatenated to the stem formed by SPR/root+[je] or as a rule of exponence whereby -ro spells out the features 3pl and preterite. The latter should be preferred since it is already stipulated in F_pyta that the stem for the 3pl and imperfect subjunctive is SPR/root+[je].

  31. 31.

    It may be noted that Bybee’s theory of morphology seems both abstractive and constructive in the sense that it proposes storage of whole words forms over which speakers can abstract and thus form notions which would correspond to terms such as ‘root’ or ‘person and number markers’; whilst, at the same time, it views word-formation as the identification of the base and the addition of other inflectional material. Thus upon examination of a number of experimental studies Bybee (2001:111–112) concludes that: ‘The evidence suggests that there are two ways of processing regular, morphologically complex forms. One is through direct, whole word access, and it occurs with higher-frequency forms. The other is through accessing a base and adding appropriate affixes. Given a highly networked representation for morphological classes such as nouns and verbs, these two avenues of access are not really very different, since even low-frequency regulars are highly associated with other verbs that have the appropriate forms stored in memory.’

  32. 32.

    For Spanish there would also exist a sub-exemplar paradigm for those SPR verbs whose root ends in the voiceless velar fricative [x] and whose thematic vowel for the 3pl preterite and imperfect subjunctive forms is not [je] but /e/: dijeron ‘they said’ vs. pusieron ‘they put’. Note that this only applies to SPR verbs.

  33. 33.

    In the morphomic formalisation of the PYTA forms of SPR verbs above it was assumed that there is a mapping from all cells of the preterite to a morphomic function, F_preterite, which directs all cells of this tense to the same set of morphophonological rules, one of which stipulates that the exponent of the 3pl preterite of all verbs is -ro.

  34. 34.

    The conditional was a continuant of either/both the future perfect and/or the future perfect subjunctive (see Maiden 2009b for more details).

  35. 35.

    More specifically Maiden (2009b) notes that the conditional, unlike the preterite and pluperfect does not refer to the past and any possible link between the tenses on the basis of notions of anteriority or perfectivity is deemed as extremely tenuous. He argues that the primary characteristic of the preterite tense in Romanian is not to express anteriority but rather to express a completed action in the past. The pluperfect, however, is a tense which intrinsically narrates an event which is anterior to another referred past action and can never be used in place of the preterite. Likewise, the conditional does not usually express anteriority with respect to the future, except in specific constructions (see also Ivănescu (1980, 155s.). As regards aspect, Maiden notes that whilst the preterite is clearly perfective, the conditional and pluperfect are neutral in this respect.

  36. 36.

    The diphthong in the 3sg being reduced to /o/ and the diphthong in the 1sg being reduced to /e/ in old Castilian whilst in old Galician-Portuguese, the diphthongs were changed to [ej] and [ow] respectively.

  37. 37.

    El Cuarto de los Valles (Menéndez García 1963).

  38. 38.

    Meres (Grossi Fernández 1962), Cabranes (Canellada 1944), Cándamo (Díaz González 1986), Vegadeo (Fernández Vior 1997), El Franco (García García 1983), Valledor (Muñiz 1978), Santianes de Pravia (García Valdés 1979), Villacidayo (Millán Urdiales 1966), Tudanca (Penny 1978).

  39. 39.

    Sisterna (Fernández 1960), Teberga (García Arias 1974), Cabo Peñas (Díaz Castañón 1966), Lena (Neira Martínez 1955), Babia y Laciana (Álvarez Álvarez 1949), Somiedo (Cano González 1981), Parres (Vallina Alonso 1985).

  40. 40.

    Alto Aller (Rodríguez Castellano 1952), Ancares (Fernández González 1981), certain varieties of Tras-os-Montes (Moura Santos 1967) and Mirandes (Nunes 1930).

  41. 41.

    This is captured in the following quote from Nunes (1930:319) (whose data are corroborated by Leite de Vasconcellos, J. (1900:110–115)): ‘Na fronteira de Tras-os-Montes, Norte e Centro como aliás o practica também o dialecto mirandês, igualmente por analogia com a mesma pessoa [1sg pret.], mantém o e na 2a do mesmo número e 1a e 2a do plural dizendo salteste, saltemos e saltestes, e, como conseqüência, nos tempos derivados do mesmo tema, assim: saltera, saltese, salter.’

  42. 42.

    Mediaeval varieties of Occitan, and a selection of modern varieties, some of which are referred to as Gascon, present two conditionals; the first is common to other varieties of Romance and is derived from periphrases of the infinitive and the continuants of the Latin verb HABEBAM, the second conditional is derived from the Latin pluperfect indicative.

  43. 43.

    The preterite exclusively indicates past time, perfect aspect and indicative mood whilst the past subjunctive is neutral regarding aspect and indicates subjunctive mood. The second conditional has a variety of uses: it expresses potential and counterfactual conditions, as was true in medieval times (Jensen 1994; Henrichsen 1955; Quint 1997) and can, depending on the variety, express futurity in the past (Esher 2012:106–107, 2013:105–106) and therefore its usage overlaps with that of the first conditional, although its stem form does not. Thus, although some PYTA tenses posses certain common functional features there is no single and semantic generalisation which is exclusive to these tenses.

  44. 44.

    The presence of /e/ in the theme vowel is common in other southern Gallo Romance varieties and is considered by some authors (for old Occitan Anglade 1921:272, Bourciez 1927:3) to be due to analogy with the forms estei and dei, continuants of the Latin perfects STETĪ and DEDĪ. This desinential /e/ then entered the preterite forms of late Latin perfects of the type perdĕdi > perdèi, vendĕdi > vendèi. In the dialects in question, however, the presence of the /e/ seems to be etymological in the case of the 1sg preterite in which ai > ei as demonstrated by those eastern varieties (25) in which the theme vowel is /a/ in all persons except this person of the preterite. This particular sound change is also corroborated by the 1sg present indicative of the verb aver ‘to have’, ei < *ayo < HABEŌ; as well as the future form cantarèi and words which are continuants of late Latin -ai- and which display -ei- in Gascon: heit ‘fact’ < FACTUM and leit ‘milk’ < LACTE (Bourciez 1927:39). Therefore it seems clear in these varieties that thematic vowel /e/ in the PYTA tenses is due to the analogical extension of the /e/ from the 1sg preterite. This hypothesis is further corroborated by Lespy’s late 19th century Grammaire béarnaise (1880: 346) which gives the forms cantey, cantas, canta, cantem, cantetz, cantan in which the /e/ has only managed to pass into the 1pl and 2pl preterite.

  45. 45.

    I am indebted to Louise Esher for making me aware of the data in this source which corroborate that of Ronjat. I originally was under the impression that it was a typographical error in the latter.

  46. 46.

    It must be noted however, that in Bybee’s theory the fundamental tenet of the lexical organisation of whole word forms is that form is subordinate to meaning.


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The author would like to thank the editor of Morphology along with two anonymous reviewers for their extremely helpful and thoughtful comments on a previous version of this paper. The author is also extremely indebted to Max Wheeler for help with the format and editing of the article in addition to discussion on the content.

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Appendix:  Paradigms for the regular Spanish and Portuguese 1st conjugation verbs cantar ‘sing’

Appendix:  Paradigms for the regular Spanish and Portuguese 1st conjugation verbs cantar ‘sing’





Paradigms for the regular Spanish 2nd- and 3rd-conjugation verbs comer ‘eat’ and partir ‘divide’.


Paradigms for the regular Portuguese 2nd- and 3rd-conjugation verbs comer ‘eat’ and partir ‘divide’.


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O’Neill, P. The morphome in constructive and abstractive models of morphology. Morphology 24, 25–70 (2014).

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  • Morphome
  • Abstractive theories of morphology
  • Constructive theories of morphology
  • Verb morphology
  • Romance languages
  • Diachronic
  • Spanish
  • Portuguese