More <i>foam</i> Please: Getting morphology from polysemy without it having to have ever been there—Horst Q. Wurmmacher and Optatia Tarnhelm SpecGram Vol CLX, No 1 Contents Cathartic Grecian Maxomes—Anne Thrax


By Tiberius Bertrom, Ph.D.
The Academy of Northwestern State University College and Technical Institute

In 1994, the morphologist Mark Aronoff introduced us to the concept of the morphome, which might be defined as follows:

morphome (n.) a unit of linguistic representation known only to the morphologist

The introduction of this theoretical construct by Aronoff can (and should) be seen as a challenge to the rest of our discipline. The explanatory power and necessity of the morphome to the linguistic subfield of morphology can no longer be questioned,1 so as researchers, we are left with a series of interesting questions: What is the theoretical equivalent of the morphome in syntax? Semantics? Phonetics? Pragmatics? In short, how can we define the new, and, as yet, poorly understood subfield of linguistics known as linguomogy?

Phonetics and Phonology: The Phonome

The role that the phonome plays in phonetics and phonology seems obvious enough. Consider the case of near mergers.2 It has been claimed that in Russian, for example, word-final devoicing is not complete. The traditional facts are summarized in the table below:

time, occasionраз/raz/[ras]
races (рас/ras/[ras]

That is, voiced phonemes devoice in word-final position. If Russian speakers are asked about the two words, they will avow that the words are pronounced identically. And, in spectrographic analysis, the words are, apparently, indistinguishable. And yet, despite all of this, if Russian speakers are forced to choose between the two lexemes when hearing recordings of native Russian speakers pronouncing first one and then the other, they are able to distinguish between them with greater than chance frequency.3

Some phoneticians have argued that examples such as this one provide evidence of the existence of near mergers, rather than complete mergers. In a near merger, two words remain distinct, but the distinction is undetectable by native speakers. In fact, the distinction can only be detected by trained phoneticians who subscribe to the idea of a near merger.

Thus, we now know the true difference between words like раз and рас above. Indeed, the distinction is phonomic. The word раз does not end with the phoneme /z/, but ends with the phonome /z/ (written, conventionally, as /ſ/). And, of course, the same distinction holds for the rest of the voiced consonants of Russian, and for other cases involving so-called near mergers generally.

Syntax: The Syntome

The syntome has enjoyed regular use in generative syntax from the very beginning. Indeed, syntax itself might be better characterized as the study of linguistic units known only to the syntactician.

More specifically, though, the syntome is an unnamed element that must exist for syntactic reasons. There have been any number of syntomes utilized by syntacticians over the years (AGR nodes; Q features that need checking; the EPP, etc.). The course of their evolution can be characterized as follows:

  1. Syntactician O’Brien (hereafter SOB) has a fine syntactic framework with which he has beaten down scores of data, forcing them into submission.
  2. Despite the manly virulence of his framework, SOB discovers a datum which, no matter how hard he hollers and howls, simply will not submit.
  3. Not to be deterred, SOB is determined to force the datum to succumb. He reasons that the minimal difference in meaning between this new datum and another similar one that has already been explained is indicative of a structural difference between the two. That structural difference is a syntome.
  4. Applying the syntome to the tree, the datum is now explained. SOB’s next step is to find a name for the syntome.
  5. Consulting an alphabetical list of nodes proposed thus far in the literature, SOB settles on the name WTF (short for “wide type function”), giving him WTF, WTF’ and WTFP.
  6. Next, SOB invents a language that sounds reasonably obscure (Tlorgbé, a Gbollo-Fayan language spoken in Wiriwiri, Australia), and creates some data to which an analysis using his new WTF node is well suited, in order to provide some independent empirical evidence of the node’s existence.
  7. Finally, SOB authors a paper which he presents at the LSA. A month or so later, Syntactician O’Toole publishes a paper with an analysis that makes use of SOB’s WTF node, and, once that has happened, the previously unknown syntome has achieved more or less permanent status in the field.

The cycle detailed above would, of course, be replicated over and over again with or without the term “syntome”, but now that we have it, perhaps we can better understand and explain this peculiar behavior engaged in by syntacticians the world over.

Semantics and Pragmatics: The Lexome

The lexome (synonymous, in many contexts, with the term “word”) is the glue that holds the field of linguistics together. Its definition is known only to those who work within the subdisciplines of semantics and pragmatics, and they have long been sworn to secrecy. Any number of uninitiated linguists have hazarded guesses as to the meaning of the word “lexome”. Some examples are listed below:

Such definitions are further complicated by the existence of sign languages.

The truth of the matter is that no one, save a select few, knows what the meaning of “lexome” isand if it were revealed, the very fabric of linguistic understanding itself would be rent in twain. Rather, each linguist operates under the assumption that the meaning is understood, and works with language data with a particular meaning in mind. This allows research to move forward and linguists to broaden our understanding of language and the mind (provided the foundational assumption that linguists know what they’re talking about holds).


Now that we better understand how the theoretical concept of a morphome applies to other subdisciplines in linguistics, it is our hope to see research in the budding fields of phonomics, syntomics and lexomics (the latter of which, of course, shall be forever hidden to us, lest we wish to put ourselves out of work permanently). In fifty years’ time, we expect that our understanding of linguomogy shall have increased tenfold, expanding at a rate of approximately 0.2 linguomes per year.

1 There have been a number of attempts to question the explanatory power and/or necessity of the morphome, but, as it turns out, the morphome is so poorly understood, that all such attempts have proved fruitless. Linguists the world over have come to the mutual conclusion, then, that the explanatory power and necessity of the morphome can no longer be questioned.

2 Cf. something by William Labov (you know the one we’re talking about).

3 This is where a reference would go if this article were appearing in a lesser journal. SpecGram readers, of course, understand that researchers are to be trusted, and that their time should not be wasted by hunting down stray references to back up a small point in an otherwise ground-breaking article.

More foam Please: Getting morphology from polysemy without it having to have ever been thereHorst Q. Wurmmacher and Optatia Tarnhelm
Cathartic Grecian MaxomesAnne Thrax
SpecGram Vol CLX, No 1 Contents