SpecGram Vol CLX, No 1 Contents Opening Salvo—Two Mor Phoamists—SpecGram Morphomista Rebels

What is a Morphome?

By David J. Peterson
Consulting Editor of Speculative Grammarian

Hi! This is Consulting Editor David J. Peterson. You know, we have a lot of fun here at Speculative Grammarian, but in devoting an entire issue to the controversial yet provocative term “morphome”, we felt it was important to include a straightforward, down-to-Earth explanation of exactly what a “morphome” is. We knew there was bound to be confusion, so we felt it would be a good idea to just head all of it off at the pass, and include this piece right at the beginning of the issue. So! If you don’t know what a morphome is, or if you feel you do but still have questions, read the article that follows. If you read it and still have questions, feel free to read it again, or to have the page translated into Russian.

Anyway, let’s sprinkle the biscuits and water the bulldog, shall we?

A Brief History of Morphomes

The term “morphome” was coined (or created or discovered) by linguist Mark Aronoff some time during the year 1994. Wait, that’s not right... Let’s say it was introduced by Mark Aronoff in 1994 in his book Morphology by Itself: Stems and Inflectional Classes. As a matter of fact, we have a shot of Mark that may have been taken at the precise moment that the idea of a “morphome” occurred to him:

Mark Aronoff

Since that momentous occasion, practically dozens of morphologists have been puzzling over it. Sometimes it seems like no two morphologists define “morphome” the same wayand even those who do end up using (or analyzing) actual morphomes differently.

While it would be intellectually irresponsible of SpecGram to attempt to define the term “morphome” once and for all, I can, at this point, say one thing with absolute certainty: the definition of “morphome” is not “morpheme” (and, honestly, I can’t see why anyone would suggest such a thing, as the words are spelled differently. That’s like suggesting that “defense” and “defence” mean the same thing!).

Now that that’s been settled, we can move on to what morphomes do.

Morphomes: An Explication

Aronoff (2006) provides a corking example that helps elucidate the illusory nature of the wily morphome. I’ll do my best to replicate it here.

Say you’ve got these data...

Present Tense Past Tense
stand stood
withstand withstood
understand understood

Now, a morphemic analysis of these data would involve a lot of magic wand waving, discontinuous whatnot, or Distributive Morphological hijinks (“It’s all syntax! It’s all syntax! I’m in love with Katie Holmes!”, etc.). Aronoff dispenses with all that, and instead proposes a morphomic analysis.

First, one has to accept that the meaning of “stand” is unrelated to either “understand” or “withstand” (i.e. there is no standard derivational process involved here as there is with “download” and “redownload”). If these three aren’t semantically related, then they can’t be analyzed as “stand” plus prefix. In addition, one must accept that this isn’t a standard morphological processthat is, “a” doesn’t regularly become “oo” in the past tense for all words (e.g. the past tense of “crap” isn’t “croop”). Furthermore, one must accept that this isn’t what would happen with new compounds involving “stand”. For example, let’s say that we coin a new verb “to music stand”, which means “to bludgeon over the head with a music stand”. If today I music stand Alec Morantz, for example, tomorrow I will not have music stood him yesterday (i.e. today). No indeed, I would have music standed him, and I think this generally holds true for all such compounds.

Okay! If you’re still with me so far (and I do recognize that those thinking of the etymologies of “withstand” and “understand” may not be, but remember the Linguist’s Motto: “Synchronic is chronic!”), then there’s only one final step. First, the “stand/stood” sequence can’t be a morpheme (or, at least, it can’t be the same morpheme in all three words). Second, the ablaut can’t even rightly be called a morphological process, since its application is so limited. Thus, we can conclude that “stand/stood” is a morphome!

Oh, and by that, of course, I mean the phonological “stand/stood” alternation present in all three forms. Or... Okay, not the alternation: The stem. But the stem has no meaning, and it’s different from the actual lexeme “stand”...in which it’s present.

Okay, forget that example. I’ve got a great example that should make everything clear.

An Actually Great Example of a Morphome

Okay, let’s say you have a language called...Morfomidan. Morfomidan has seven cases (nominative, accusative, ergative, accusative 2, subtractive, fecundive and anavocative), and probably thirty-eight noun classes, and each of these noun classes has five different forms (except for class 27, reserved for animals that can no longer fly, which has six). Anyway, when nouns are tetralized (there are nine different numbers: singular, dual, trial, tetral, plural, paucal, medial, grandal and supersize-al), something very strange happens with certain nouns. Here are some examples (contrasting the tetral with the medial)1:

Regular Nouns Medial Tetral
banana testestett testestestt
stone jacket testessett testessestt
burnt strudel testetett testetestt
broken flashdrive testettett testettestt
Irregular Nouns Medial Tetral
bolt filter testessett testestestt
lint testesstett testesttestt
plastic testessett testestestt
captive audience testesstett testesttestt

As you can see once you strip off the noun class circumfix2, the morphomic stem /tess/ alternates regularly with /test/ in the tetral. None of the irregular forms are related semantically, yet they all illustrate the same pattern. Thus, one might refer to /tess/ as a morphomic stem. Remember that this is an element that operates only within the morphology, and not generally in the phonology (for proof of which, note that the alternation is not present in the borrowing “stone jacket”).

That’s All Folks!

Congratulations! You are now an expert on Aronoff’s morphome. You should now be able to enjoy the rest of this special issue dedicated to the morphome without any trouble. So, happy readingor, as we would say in Morfomidan, ttesttesttesstestesstessesesest testtessetests testsetsessttett blork!

1 Oh, this might be a bit confusing, I just realized. Once you know that the /-est/ and /-et/ endings become [-st] and [-t] after stems that end with vowels, though, that should clear everything up.

2 All nouns in this table except for “lint” belong to the same noun class (the class 18 circumfix on “lint”, though, is, of course, irregular).

Opening SalvoTwo Mor PhoamistsSpecGram Morphomista Rebels
SpecGram Vol CLX, No 1 Contents