Shanti Ulfsbjorninn – Introduction to Affixation

This course introduces students to core issues in morpho-phonological theory by investing a single and surprisingly mysterious question: what makes an affix an affix? The question problematizes the contrast between Non-Free-Standing Items (NFIs) (prefixes, infixes, suffixes, clitics, featural affixes…) and Free-Standing Items (FSIs).

It is almost always taken for granted that certain exponents are NFIs. However, there is no hard-and-fast universal correlation between the syntactic objects that are exponed with NFIs and those that are free-standing. This means that the affixal/NFI status of affixes has to be encoded somehow in the ‘morphology’ or the items themselves. The course then aims to demonstrate that there is no current satisfactory encoding of an exponent’s NFI status.

Marking the NFIs directly with a diacritic (such as a dash): /pre-/, /-ed/ or /-s/ or a feature: [+prefix], [+suffix] is clearly not much of a solution. Also it introduces non-interpretative diacritics to phonological forms, which ought to be regarded with suspicion. Next to be considered is a prosodic solution (based on the common understanding of clitics). This will be considered and rejected as it cannot be extended to all NFIs. An item’s prosodic status is neither necessary nor sufficient in predicting an item’s NFI status.

The course will then consider a novel approach involving splitting roots from non-roots inspired by featural affixation and the representational possibilities of exponents (from an autosegmental/Strict CV perspective). This approach is only tentatively presented and should really be seen as a call for a research program.

The course will end with a case study based on Baker’s polysynthesis parameter and the potential benefits of this new analysis for a Minimalist/Distributed Morphology architecture of grammar. Students will see that it may be possible to reframe this syntactic macro-parameter in phonological terms within the vocabulary items themselves. Hence providing further support to the Borer-Chomsky Conjecture.

Though this course does touch on ‘big’ and ‘current’ issues in generative grammar, however, the data presented are very basic and so suitable for introductory students. Introductory students can expect to gain an overview of cross-linguistic affixation strategies, some of which will probably be new to them. More Intermediate students should pick up on the deeper significance this deconstruction of ‘affixation’ has on our frameworks and architectural proposals.


Baker, Mark.2008. The macroparameter in a microparametric world. In: Biberauer (ed.), The Limits of Syntactic Variation, 351-374. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Borer, H. 2017. Preface to I-Subjects (and an overview of the parametric model in Borer 1983). Lingbuzz/003778.

Creemers, A., Don, J. & P. Fenger. 2018. Some affixes are roots, others are heads. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory, 36(1):45-84. Lingbuzz/003258.

Lowenstamm, J. 2010. Derivational Affixes as Roots: Phasal spell‐out meets English stress shift. In Alexiadou, A., Borer, H. & F. Schäfer (eds.), The Syntax of Roots and the Roots of Syntax. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Also:

Newell, H. under review. English Lexical Levels are not Lexical, but Phonological. (ms.) UQAM.

Zimmermann, E. 2017. Morphological Length and Prosodically Defective Morphemes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.