The semantics of transposition


Although morphologists typically agree on the definition of ‘transposition’ as word formation that changes syntactic category but does not affect the semantics of the base, I will argue that the implementation and application of the definition of ‘transposition’ gives rise to radically different treatments and radically different inventories of affixes or processes that count as transpositional. I will first explore two treatments of transposition in the literature, that of Beard (1995) and Spencer (2010, 2013), and then provide a detailed analysis of transposition within the framework of lexical semantic representation developed in Lieber (2004, 2007, 2009, 2010, forthcoming). I will argue that within a theory that is explicit about lexical semantic representations, there are actually very few affixes or processes that can be considered transpositional, the best candidate in English being conversion from noun to verb.

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  1. 1.

    Marchand also uses the term ‘transposition’, but not in the sense intended here. Indeed his use seems to come closer to the way we would use the term ‘conversion’ today: “Transposition is the use of a word in another than its normal function” (1967: 16). As an example of transposition in his sense, Marchand gives the word stone in stone wall, which is a noun used as a modifier rather than a head, where an adjective might normally be expected in English. I will have nothing further to say about ‘transposition’ in this sense here. Haspelmath (1996: 43) uses the term ‘transposition’ as well, in a sense he attributes to a European tradition beginning with Bally (1932). In his sense, transposition “…is entirely synonymous with word-class change…” (1996: 63). Again, I will have nothing to say in what follows about transposition in this sense.

  2. 2.

    In some cases, such as that of N to V conversion or formation of relational adjectives, Beard also allows the semantic representation to follow from a combination of the added transpositional feature and the semantics of the base form.

  3. 3.

    Beard does not enumerate which food words would be given this semantic representation, just that it would be appropriate for a word denoting a food item.

  4. 4.

    Spencer calls these ‘semantic roles’, but I will refer to them just as ‘roles’ here to distinguish them from semantic representations in my sense.

  5. 5.

    Spencer describes three types of relational adjective in the Uralic language Selkup, however, that he analyzes as transpositional (2013: 397–99). Although the three types differ in meaning, one being a purely relational adjective, one being a similitudinal adjective and the third being locational, he argues that the additional meaning follows from the nominal base, rather than being added as part of the adjective-forming process.

  6. 6.

    That is, I will not exclude affixation processes like -ation or -ity in which some derived items are semantically or phonologically opaque or idiosyncratic. Rather when I discuss items derived with those affixes (or affixes like them), I will look at specific examples that are reasonably transparent.

  7. 7.

    Note that this is somewhat different than the analysis provided in (Lieber 2004: 82–83). I have used a simplified skeleton here for the sake of clarity; the precise details of the more complex representation of the causative in that work are not particularly relevant to the argument I am making here.

  8. 8.

    Note that I do not intend to argue here that conversion is a process of derivation on a par with affixation (for example, zero affixation), just that the effects of conversion, however it is to be analyzed, are semantically indeterminate.

  9. 9.

    Of course, as has been pointed out many times before, what semantic category any given conversion verb will fall into can to some extent be predicted on the basis of the semantics of the base and the context in which the verb is used. The point here is that conversion as a process is not associated with a single stable skeleton.

  10. 10.

    Note, however, that as Bauer et al. (2013) point out, most affixes can be attached to multiple categories of bases. For example, -ness is frequently found attached to nouns, compounds of various sorts, and even phrases.

  11. 11.

    See Bauer et al. (2013, Chapter 10) for discussion of this point.

  12. 12.

    I omit the categories of path and measure, as there are generally very few examples of this reading for any type of nominalization.


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Lieber, R. The semantics of transposition. Morphology 25, 353–369 (2015).

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  • Semantics
  • Transposition
  • Derivation
  • Word formation
  • English