Aug 072019

This is a post about listedness: the nature of the idiosyncratic information that is listed in the grammar.

In traditional, lexicalist approaches, the listed atoms were lexical items. A lexical item contained, at minimum, a phonological form, a semantic interpretation, and some syntactic information. The syntactic information included syntactic category, subcategorization and/or c-selection properties, and potentially other stuff too.

However, as all right-thinking linguists now know, lexicalism is wrong. That is because lexicalism is founded on the hypothesis that the minimal unit of idiosyncratic meaning aligns with the minimal unit of listed sound (and that – allowing for potential exceptions for “idioms” – the two in turn align with what can act as a syntactic terminal). This is a substantive, empirically-contentful hypothesis, and it is one that has turned out to be overwhelmingly false. (Illustrative examples will be given later in this post.) Thus, no lexicalism for you!

What replaces the traditional ‘lexicon’, then? One line of thought, the one associated with Distributed Morphology (DM), divides the listed information in the grammar into three lists:

  1. the Narrow Lexicon: contains the list of possible syntactic atoms
  2. the Vocabulary: the list of insertion rules, i.e., pairings of contexts (made up of morphological features) with phonological material; insofar as there is “listed sound” in the traditional DM model, it consists in what’s on the righthand side of these insertion rules – pieces of phonological material that the morphological component makes reference to
  3. the Encyclopedia: the repository of idiosyncratic meaning

There is much, much more to say about all of these, of course; for example:

  • The entries in (2) are normally thought to stand in a specificity‑based relation to one another, so that when a given morphological context is compatible with multiple insertion rules, the most specific among these wins out. This, of course, raises questions about the mathematical nature of this ordering. Is it total? (I.e., are every two insertion rules guaranteed to stand in an asymmetric relation with respect to specificity?) And if not, what happens in the case of ties?
  • Does (1) contain just one ‘root’ object corresponding to what we used to think of as “lexical root” (with the differentiation between different roots emerging as a “negotiation” between (2) and (3)), or are roots already individuated in the syntax (in which case, (1) contains a list of roots)?
  • What is the nature of the items in (3), and what does the context for their insertion look like? Is it reserved for meanings of ‘roots’, or all are meanings (“grammatical” meanings and “lexical” ones) stored in there?

Relatedly, we could ask: what is the fate of a morpheme in this brave, non‑lexicalist world? Traditionally, the morpheme was thought to be the minimal, non‑decomposable pairing between sound and meaning. (E.g. /dɔgz/ – whether or not it was a “word” – was assumed to consist of two morphemes, /dɔg/ and /z/, because these were the units in this expression whose meanings could not be computed from meanings of their parts). If you’ve been following along, you know that this definition of ‘morpheme’ died along with lexicalism itself, since this definition too assumes that units of idiosyncratic meaning align with units of listed sound (more on this below). So is there any useful notion of ‘morpheme’ within this view of the grammar? Terminologically, DM seems to use ‘morpheme’ to refer more or less to syntactic terminal (or to whatever a syntactic terminal has been mapped onto by the time we’re looking at a morphological, rather than syntactic, structure). But this is both somewhat redundant (we already have ‘syntactic terminal’, not to mention membership in list (1), to refer to such entities), and insufficient. As will be shown below, there is a natural entity for the term ‘morpheme’ to refer to even in this non‑lexicalist theory, and for which no other term exists (as far as I can tell).

We’re now at the point where looking at some representative data would be instructive. What follows is pretty much cribbed from various passages in Heidi Harley’s (magnificent) textbook English Words (Blackwell, 2006).

First, consider the following:

  1. a) horrify, horrible, horrific
    b) terrify, terrible, terrific

Clearly, there are entities – let’s call them ‘roots’ – corresponding to horr(i)- and terr(i)-, whose contribution (in meaning and sound) to the expressions horrify/horrible and terrify/terrible, respectively, is a systematic and predictable one. But while horr(i)- seems to again make the same systematic and predictable contribution in meaning and sound to the expression horrific, this is markedly not so when it comes to the relation between terr(i)- and terrific, meaning‑wise.

If ‘morpheme’ was the minimal unit of sound-meaning correspondence, we’d find ourselves in the intuitively problematic position of saying that terrific is a morpheme (since its meaning is non‑compositional), while horrific is not. This is of course just an example of a much broader phenomenon, namely idiomaticity. Given the aforementioned criterion of “non‑compositional sound-meaning pairing,” we’d also find ourselves having to say that kick the bucket is a ‘morpheme’. The point of the example in (4) is that this is not restricted to what is classified as an ‘idiom’ traditionally (read: in a lexicalist view); the same patterns arise “word-internally” (whatever that means).

So we need a term for an expression having a non‑compositional meaning, and the term ‘morpheme’ is intuitively ill‑suited for this task. The term ‘idiom’ would do fine, I think, except that people also have intuitive unease (for whatever reason) with the idea that /dɔg/ is an ‘idiom’ (even though it, too, is an expression whose meaning is not the result of the composition of meanings of its parts). We can therefore use a different term for “expression having a non‑compositional meaning”: listeme. Thus, we could say that dog, horr(i)-, terr(i)-, terrific, and kick the bucket are all listemes.

This doesn’t yet specify precisely the theoretical nature of a listeme, though. It is a pairing of a(n idiosyncratic) meaning with something; but with what? A piece of syntax? A piece of phonology? In this regard, examples like kick the bucket (as well as terrific, once you’ve accepted the syntax-all-the-way-down view) are instructive: it would be misleading to say that what the idiosyncratic meaning is paired with is a piece of phonology, since this is demonstrably false – cf. kicked the bucket, kicking the bucket, and so on. At least in this example, then, it is obvious that what the idiosyncratic meaning is paired with is a piece of syntax. And since roots are necessarily individuated in the syntax (or whatever you want to call that-portion-of-the-derivation-before-the-PF-LF-split), there is no obstacle to adopting this view uniformly. I.e., dog, horr(i)-, terr(i)-, and terrific are also pairings of idiosyncratic meaning with a piece of syntactic structure; they end up (indirectly) associated with different pieces of phonology by virtue of the respective pieces of syntax including different roots, which are, in turn, associated with different pieces of phonology (more on this below).

What is the relation between listemes and morphemes? As the examples above show, listemes can sometimes be (what we’d intuitively classify as) morphemes. This is the case for /dɔg/, plural /z/, horr(i)-, and terr(i)-. But this is not the case for terrific and kick the bucket. The reason for this should, by this point, be evident: if the units of idiosyncratic meaning do not systematically align with the units of listed sound (the founding observation of non‑lexicalism), it is empirically impossible for listemes (units of idiosyncratic meaning) to systematically align with the units of listed sound. And the latter is what a morpheme really is.

Now, if you were raised in the traditional, Saussurian view of ‘morpheme’ as the minimal sound-meaning pairing (as I myself was), you might be asking yourself right about now something along the lines of, “What on earth does it mean for a unit of sound to be ‘listed’ if the criterion for listedness is not meaning-related?!”

Before giving an answer, I’d like to show some data (again, courtesy of Harley) showing that the move in this direction is mandated not only on the conceptual grounds just outlined, but on empirical grounds as well:

  1. a) complete, completion
    b) compete, *competion (cf. competition)
  2. in cahoots

Consider: what is the status of the element cahoot in (6), and of the ‑ti (or ‑it) piece that differentiates *competion from competition? These are pieces of sound that are not associated with any meaning. (Obviously, the expression in cahoots has a meaning; but cahoot does not seem to have a meaning outside of this context. The exact same thing seems to hold of the relation between this ‑ti/‑it piece and competition, with the possible exception that this ‑ti/‑it piece may not be a root, while cahoot almost certainly is.) This seems to underscore empirically the point that was made a moment ago on conceptual grounds: there is such a thing as ‘a piece of listed phonology’, where its idiosyncrasy is not determined the traditional, lexicalist way (=having a meaning that is not composed of the meanings of its parts).

A related point can be made on the basis of data like the following:

  1. a) receive, deceive, conceive, perceive
    b) reception, deception, conception, perception

Obviously, there is a piece of listed sound that undergoes the ‑ceive/‑cept alternation; we don’t want to treat the pattern in (7a‑b) as a coincidence. But there is no meaning associated with that piece of listed sound itself. (The same is true for several tri‑consonantal roots in Semitic, as Aronoff 2007 and Harley 2014 discuss.) So ‑ceive/‑cept cannot be a sound-meaning correspondence; what is it, then?

Here is an attempt at a set of working definitions. First:

  1. Let the morphological terms of an expression be the parts of its phonological content that can productively participate in other complex expressions.

In an expression like /dɔgz/, the morphological terms are /dɔg/ and /z/. In an expression like competition, the morphological terms are compet-, ‑it, and ‑ion. (I’m being non-comittal about the precise locus of morphological boundaries in the competition example, since all that’s relevant here is that there are these three units, not where they begin and end with perfect phonological precision.) Expressions like /dɔg/ or /ðə/ (the) are single morphological terms.

An immediate methodological question now arises, which is: how can we know that, e.g., /dɔg/ is not in fact composed of smaller morphological terms – say /dɔ/ and /g/ – without making reference to meaning? What I’d like to stress is that even if this is methodologically impossible (i.e., meaning is an indispensable heuristic in determining the decomposition of an expression into morphological terms), this cannot be the ontological content of morphological termhood. The reasons for this have already been given – see the discussion of in cahoots, competition, and ‑ceive/‑cept, above. These examples also show that meaning is not the only tool in the methodological toolbox for determining what’s a morphological term. The reason we know that cahoot and ‑ti/‑it are morphological terms is because, when we’re done peeling off the things that have been identified as morphological terms using a meaning-based methodology, what remains must – by (8) – be a morphological term as well.

We can now give a definition of morpheme based on the above:

  1. morpheme is any expression that does not have morphological terms smaller than itself.

A morpheme, in contrast to a listeme, can be thought of as a piece of phonology (see (8)). And a vocabulary item (see (2)) can now be thought of as an association between a morphosyntactic context and a… morpheme. (The earlier discussion, involving ordering-by-specificity, applies equally here.)

We can now complete something of a parallelism between “spellout” to PF and to LF. Here’s what I mean:

  1. a) the mapping of syntax to PF involves the insertion of morphemes based on the available vocabulary items, which are pairings between a morphosyntactic context and a morpheme.
    b) the mapping of syntax to LF involves the insertion of ≪X≫s based on the available listemes, which are pairings between a morphosyntactic context and an ≪X≫.

What are these ≪X≫s, then? Obviously, they would have to be something like the available semantic terms – the inventory of semantic primitives that the LF-side insertion rules can pair with morphosyntactic contexts. It is not the point of the current post to adjudicate the issue of semantic terms. Suffice it to say that there is a relatively common impression among outsiders that much of formal semantics lacks anything in the way of a restrictive metatheory, and so the theory of semantic terms is not where it should be. But it’s not like nobody’s thinking about this issue, and since I declared this to be outside the purview of the current post, you – dear reader – have full license to assume that the last few lines of prose are simply false, and there is a fully worked out restrictive metatheory of semantic terms out there that I just happen to not know about. (But do tell me about it in the comments!) The point is, (10a‑b) tells you exactly where such a theory would fit into the wider theory of grammar.

Whether we do or don’t currently have a theory of these ≪X≫s, I want to stress that we have arrived at the picture in (10) independent of that question. And so I’d like to close by pointing out something else about (10): it is, as far as I can tell, a fully symmetric conception of spellout to PF and LF. That is: meanings are inserted in a context-sensitive manner (where the context consists of some morphosyntax), and phonology is inserted in a context-sensitive manner (where the context consists of some morphosyntax). I think this parallelism, if it is indeed theoretically and empirically tenable, is a good thing.

Finally, while I used DM as a jumping-off point for my discussion of non‑lexicalist theories, I don’t think much of what I said here ends up depending on the choice between DM and, say, Nanosyntax. In fact, as far as I can tell, Nanosyntax has bitten this parallelism bullet (cf. (10a‑b)) from the get-go, and so, at least in that respect, has this part of the picture exactly right (in contrast to portions of the DM canon).

I’d like to thank Asia Pietraszko for help in the writing of this post.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x