Shanti Ulfsbjorninn – A typology of morphological segment-zero alternations

In this course, I will attempt to sketch a typology of morphological segment-zero alternations. This phenomenon will be explained by the various combinations of floating segments and empty structure that can be present in vocabulary items. The case studies will be reanalyzed so that the morphological aspects of the analyses (inc. class features) will be entirely replaced by phonological properties of URs.

Languages of the world abound with paradigms that involve segment-zero alternations which cannot be explained using the regular phonology of the language (general deletion or epenthesis). These forms can create serious complications for non-lexicalist, decompositional models of morphology such as Distributed Morphology.

The large number of these analyses produces cases where the derivation is at odds with otherwise relatively well-understood grammatical principles related to visibility, locality and modularity. Either because the derivation is anti-modular, as the phonology has to make specific reference to non-phonological features. Or, the analysis clashes with what we otherwise assume about (for example), inside/outside sensitivity or visibility of certain types of phonological features. Also these analyses often require the use of arbitrary class features.

Class features do not have a clear place in the Minimalist conception of language as “[…] an optimal solution to legibility conditions” (Chomsky 2000). The vocabulary of each component should be not only module specific but also module appropriate. All the features of the phonological component ought to be related to the external interpretation (the ‘SM’ interface). Class features do not fit in this architecture because they are neither features of meaning nor of external interpretation. In fact, class features look like derivational/selectional indexes or diacritics guiding the mapping between morphemes and exponents, acting purely for a surface teleological reason (to obtain the right pairings).

In order to solve these problems, students will be exposed to a family of representational solutions (based on the possible shapes of vocabulary items), where the surface variants are generated exclusively in the phonology. This eliminates the morphological complications of many analyses and, in many cases, abolishes the need for class features completely.

Topics will include general allomorphy in Ik and C-20 Bantu, class-driven allomorphy in Italian and Basque, compounding and ‘weak roots’ in Rotuman and Malagasy, definite article allomorphy in Galician and Jèrriais and case-driven allomorphy in Korean and Palula.


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Ulfsbjorninn, S. to appear. Segment-Zero Alternations in Galician Definite Article Allomorphy: Floating consonants at the left-edge of morphemes. Acta Linguistica Academica.

Ulfsbjorninn, S. under review. Floating Melody and Empty Structure in Rotuman. Lingbuzz/004628.

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