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Prosodic words in cyclic derivation: the strange case of Murrinhpatha compound verbs


Lexical compounding generally works by adjoining a second lexeme either directly to the stem of the first lexeme (as in [sabre-[tooth]]-s), or to the whole inflected form of the first lexeme (as in [milk-[teeth]]). Murrinhpatha presents a third distinct type, where the adjoined lexeme is attached to a prosodic edge, which may occur either before or after various inflectional affixes, rather than attaching to a fixed morphosyntactic host. “Prosodic compounding” of this type has not been previously attested in natural language. However, I argue that in Stratal Phonology (Bermúdez-Otero 2016), where prosodic constituents are formed and reformed on distinct morphological strata, we may formulate a motivated account in which prosodic compounding fills a typological gap. This account of Murrinhpatha verb morphology offers a structurally motivated alternative to previous accounts that posit a purely stipulative morphotactic template.

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  1. 1.

    A reviewer points out that phonetically lengthened vowels can also be associated with stem morphology, independent of bimoraic PWord satisfaction (Higuchi and Haraguchi 2006; Sugahara and Turk 2004). However the lengthening observed in Murrinhpatha is more likely to be a moraic PWord effect, given its convergence with evidence from penultimate stress positioning.

  2. 2.

    Earlier, impressionistic accounts of Murrinhpatha stress further propose a variety of secondary stress marks, but these are not supported by acoustic evidence, and the different accounts vary in which syllables they claim to bear secondary stress (Clemens 2013; Mansfield 2014; Street and Mollinjin 1981; Walsh 1976, pp. 106–124). The proposal of predictable penultimate stress, on the other hand, is based on a robust pattern of pitch peaks confirmed in Praat (Boersma and Weenink 2012; Mansfield 2018).

  3. 3.

    The main alternatives involve reduced segmentation, exchanging /-ŋan-ŋku/-1pl.obj-pc.obj for /-ŋanku/-1pc.obj, and /-ŋa-ɾu/-1pl.obl-pc.obl for /-ŋaɾu/-1pc.obl, etc. In this analysis, the dual suffix becomes adjacent to the pronominal it co-indexes, but since it is prosodically external, it breaks the function/prosody pattern. Less segmented analyses have been used, without extensive discussion, in previous work on the Murrinhpatha verb (e.g. Blythe 2009; Forshaw 2016; Mansfield 2014; Nordlinger 2010; Walsh 1976).

  4. 4.

    In some contexts there is also a category specifically for dual, same-sex classificatory siblings (Blythe 2013). However this is omitted from the discussion as it has no bearing on prosodic structure.

  5. 5.

    In Murrinhpatha’s sister language Ngan’gi, reflexive/reciprocal valency is encoded by adding an oblique pronominal suffix (Reid 1990, p. 133). I hypothesise that this was also the case in an earlier form of Murrinhpatha, before the /-na/ 3sg.m.obl became conventionalised into the general rr suffix /-nu/.

  6. 6.

    There are several hundred corpus examples of internal inflectional suffixes, which are sufficiently consistent in their sequencing to support a general statement of fixedness. However, as noted, in dual rr verbs, the dual suffix may attach to either verb or to the rr suffix. This is perhaps not surprising, given that dual in this instance co-indexes simultaneously the subject-marking verb stem, and the rr pseudo-pronominal. In either order, the two suffixes are prosodically internal.

  7. 7.

    The exact number of finite verbs in Murrinhpatha depends somewhat on the analysis applied. The count cited here follows the analysis in Mansfield (2018, 2016b).

  8. 8.

    Adam Albright (p.c.) points out that the prosodic compounding account may also be seen as more natural from an acquisitional point of view, since its principles can be learnt from simpler verb forms. The purely stipulative template, by contrast, can only be deduced from highly complex verb forms, which are presumably acquired late.

  9. 9.

    Cyclicity of phrase-level phonology is not explicitly discussed by Bermùdez-Otero, and is not pertinent to the current analysis.

  10. 10.

    Bermúdez-Otero argues that roots, unlike stems, are not independently stored in the mental lexicon, and that the degree to which speakers are able to access roots as linguistic units varies across languages (Bermúdez-Otero 2013, 2016).

  11. 11.

    A competing analysis of the Axininca data proposes that the /t/ is part of the verb stem, rather than epenthetic (Staroverov 2015). It is not clear whether this analysis retains any basis for positing PWord formation on the stem level.























noun phrase






paucal (specific)


paucal (broad)


prosodic phrase


plural (broad)


plural (specific)






prosodic word






stem level




word level


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This paper has benefitted from valuable comments by Adam Albright, Brett Baker, William Forshaw, Rachel Nordlinger, David Osgarby, Jane Simpson, and two anonymous reviewers. All my Murrinhpatha research is deeply indebted to the people of Wadeye, northern Australia, who taught me their language.

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Mansfield, J. Prosodic words in cyclic derivation: the strange case of Murrinhpatha compound verbs. Morphology 27, 359–382 (2017).

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  • Prosodic morphology
  • Stratal phonology
  • Compounding
  • Opacity
  • Cyclicity
  • Templatic morphology
  • Australian languages