Monday, June 22, 2015

I admit it

I admit it: until very recently when I heard “morphology” I reached for my pillow.  I knew that I was supposed to find it all very interesting, but like cod liver oil, knowing this did not make ingesting it any more pleasant. Moreover, I even developed a spiel that led to the conclusion that I did not have to be interested in it for it was at right angles to those questions that gripped me (and you all know what these are, viz. PP and DP and Empiricism/Rationalism, and FL and UG etc.). Morphology was not as obviously relevant to these questions because much of it dealt with finite (often small) exception-full paradigms. So many rules, so many exceptions, so many data points. Is there really a PoS problem here? Not obviously. So, yes morphology exists and is abundant, but does language really need morphology or is it just an excrescence? At any rate, despite some questions at a very general level (here and here), I was able to divert my gaze and convince myself that I had reason to do so. Then along came Omer thrusting Bobaljik into my hands and I am here to admit that I was completely wrong and that this stuff is great. You may know all about it, but partly as penance, let me say how and why I was wrong and why this stuff is very interesting even for someone with my interests.

Those of you that are better read than I am already know about Jonathan Bobaljik’s (JB) work on the morphology of superlatives. He has a book (here) and a bunch of papers (e.g. here).[1] I want to talk a little about one discovery that he has made that provides a novel (as JB himself notes) take on the classic PoS argument. It should be part of anyone’s bag of PoS examples that gets trotted out when you want to impress family, friends, students, and/or colleagues. It’s simple and very compelling. I have road tested it, and it works, even with those that know nothing about linguistics.

The argument is very simple. The fact concerns morphological patterns one finds when one examines morphological exceptions. In other words, it rests on the discovery that exceptions can be regular. A bunch of languages (though by no means all) can form comparatives and superlatives from base adjectival forms with affixes. English is a good example of one such language. It provides trios such as big, bigg-er, bigg-est and tall, tall-er, tall-est. Note that in these two examples, big and tall are part of the comparative er form and the superlative ­est form. This is the standard pattern in languages that do this kind of thing. Interestingly, there are exceptions. So in English we also find trios like good bett-er, be-st and bad, worse, wor-st where the comparative and superlative forms are not based on the same base as the simple adjectival form. In other words, the comparative and superlative are suppletive. There’s lots of technical ways of describing this, but for my purposes, this suffices.  Here’s what JB established (of course, based on the work of others that JB copiously cites): that if the comparative is suppletive, then so is the superlative. More graphically, if we take the trio of forms as Adj/Comp/Super, we find AAA patterns, ABB patterns and even ABC patterns but we find no ABA patterns and very very few (maybe no?) AAB patterns.[2] JB’s question is why not? And a very good questions this is.

JB argues that this follows from how superlatives are constructed and how suppletion reflects the Elsewhere Principle. The interested reader should read JB, but the basic proposal is that superlatives have comparatives as structural subparts.[3] How one pronounces the subpart then has an effect on how one can pronounce the larger structure. So, in effect, if the comparative is suppletive and it is part of the structure of the superlative, then the superlative must be suppletive as well given something like the Elsewhere Principle. This accounts for the absence of the ABA pattern. Explaining the absence of the AAB pattern takes a few more assumptions concerning the locality of morphological operations.[4]

All of this may or may not be correct (I am no expert) but it is all very interesting and very plausible. Let’s return to the PoS part of the argument.  JB notes several very interesting properties of these patterns.

First, the pattern (especially the *ABA) is linguistically very robust. It occurs in languages where the morphology makes it clear that comparatives are part of superlatives (Czech) and those where this is not at all evident on the surface (English). Thus, whatever is responsible for the *ABA pattern cannot be something that is surface detectable from inspecting morphologically overt morphemic forms. Thus, that it holds in languages like English does not follow from the fact that the comparative-within-superlative structure is evident in English forms. It isn’t. So that *ABA holds quite generally, even when there is no surface evidence suggesting that the superlative contains a comparative subpart, suggests that the postulated nested relationship between comparatives and superlatives drives the overt morphology, rather than the other way around.  And this, JB notes, strongly suggests that this gap in the possible patterns points to *ABA implicating some fundamental feature of FL/UG.

Note, incidentally, this is an excellent example where the G of language A can ground conclusions concerning the G of language B, something that only makes sense in the context of a commitment to some form of Universal Grammar. The G of Czech is telling us something about the G of English, which borders on the absurd unless one thinks that human Gs as such can have common properties (viz. a commitment to UG in some form).[5]

Second, suppletion of the relevant sort is pretty uncommon within any single language. So, in English there are only two such suppletive trios (for good and bad). So too in other languages (e.g. Hungarian, Estonian, Persian, Sanskrit, Modern Greek and Portuguese have one suppletive form each).[6] Consequently, the *ABA pattern only emerges if one takes a look across a large variety of languages and notes that the rather suppletive *ABA pattern never appears in any.

Let me stress these two points: (i) the pattern is surface invisible in many languages (e.g. English) in that the words that are relevant to finding it do not wear the pattern on their morphological sleeves. (ii) Moreover, the absent pattern occurs in an exceptional part of the language, suppletions being exceptions to the more clearly rule governed part of the morphology. And (iii) suppletions are rare both within a language and across languages. The numbers we are looking at are roughly 200 forms over 50 or so languages.  Nonetheless, when all of these exceptions from across all of these languages is examined, the absence of ABA patterns shines through clearly. So, there is a kind of three fold absence of relevant data for the child: the pattern is surface invisible in many languages, suppletion triplets are rare in any given language and the pattern is only really well grounded when one considers these small number of exceptional cases across a good number of languages. The PoSity (haha) of relevant evidence is evident. As JB rightly concludes, this begs for a FL/UG explanation.

Third, as JB notes, the absence really is the absence of a pattern. Here’s what I mean. Even among languages in close contact the pattern cannot be accounted for by pointing to roots and morphemes that express these patterns shared across the languages. The reason is that the relevant roots and morphemes in language A are not those that express it in language B even in cases where A and B are geographical and historical neighbors. So there is no plausible account of *ABA in terms of borrowing forms across Gs either geographically or historically local to one another.[7]

As JB eloquently sums things up (here: p 16):

…a growing body of research…finds…order in chaos – robust patterns of regularity that emerge as significant in their cross-linguistic aspect. Systematic gaps in these attested patterns…point to the existence of grammatical principles that abstract away from the peculiarities of individual words in specific languages and restrict the class of possible grammars.

This argument combines classic PoS themes with one important innovation. What’s classic is zeroing in on the absence of some grammatical possibility. UG is invoked to explain the gaps, exceptions the observed general patterns. UG is not generally invoked to explain what is visible, but what fails to bark. What is decidedly new, at least to me, is that the relevant pattern is only really detectable across Gs. This is the data the linguist needs to establish *ABA. There is no plausible world in which this kind of data is available in any child’s PLD. Indeed, given the rarity of thee forms overall, it is hard to see how this pattern could be detected by linguists in the absence of extensive comparative work. 

As noted, JB provides a theory of this gap in terms of the structure of superlatives as containing comparatives plus the Elsewhere Principle. If UG requires that superlatives be built from the comparative and UG adopts the Elsewhere Principle then the *ABA hole follows. These assumptions suffice to provide an explanatorily adequate theory of this phenomenon. However, JB decides to venture into territory somewhat beyond explanatory adequacy and asks why this should be true. More particularly, why must superlatives be built on top of comparatives? He speculates, in effect, that this reflects some more general property; specifically a principle

… limiting the (semantic) complexity of functional morphemes. Perhaps the reason there can be no true superlative (abstract) morpheme combining directly with adjectives without the mediation of a comparative element is that the superlative meaning “more X than all others” contain two semantically rich elements: the comparative operator and a universal quantifier. Perhaps UG imposes a condition that such semantically rich elements must start out as syntactic atoms (i.e. X0 nodes). (here p. 6)

It is tempting to speculate that this proposal is related to the kind of work that Hunter, Pietroski, Halberda and Lidz have done on the semantic structure of most (discussed here). They note that natural language meanings like to use some predicates but not others in expressing quantificational meanings. Their analysis of most critically involves a comparative and a universal component and shows how this fits with the kinds of predicates that the analog number + visual system prefer. One can think of these, perhaps, as the natural semantic predicates and if so this might also relate to what JB is pointing to. At any rate, we are in deep waters here, just the kind of ideas that a respect for minimalist questions would lead one to explore.

Let me end with one more very interesting point that JB makes. He notes that the style of explanation developed for the *ABA gap has application elsewhere. When one finds these kind of gaps, these kinds of part-whole accounts are very attractive. There seem to be other morphological gaps of interest to which this general kind of account can be applied and they have very interesting implications (e.g. case values may be highly structured). At any rate, as JB notes, with this explanatory schema in hand, reverse engineering projects of various kinds suggest themselves and become interesting to pursue.

So let me end. To repeat, boy was I wrong. Morphology provides some gorgeous examples of PoS reasoning, which, moreover, are easy to understand and explain to neophytes. I would suggest adding the *ABA MLG to your budget of handy PoS illustrations. It’s great stuff.

[1] I also have a copy of an early draft of what became part of the book that I will refer to here. I will call this JB-draft.
[2] Is Latin the only case of an ABC pattern? JB probably said but I can’t recall the answer.
[3] This is a classical kind of GG explanation: why do A and B share a property? Because A is a subpart of B. OR why if B then A? Because A is A is part of B. Note that this only really makes sense as an explanatory strategy if one is willing to countenance abstract form that is not always visible on the surface. See below.
[4] I won’t discuss this case here, but it clearly bears on question 32 here. Should we find the same locality conditions conditioning morphological and syntactic operations, this would be an interesting (indeed very interesting) reason for treating them the same.
[5] David Pesetsky made just this point forcefully in Athens.
[6] See JB-draft:15.
[7] JB-draft (15-16) notes that neither roots nor affixes that induce the suppletion are preserved across neighboring or historically related languages.


  1. This looks like typology to me, not PoS, since the words are reasonably common in the individual languages. That has the advantage of making the point invulnerable to the deep learning juggernaut.

    1. Not sure I understand here, so maybe you could expand. Yes, the discovery is about a typological fact. The question is what explains it? Why the *ABA? One answer: it's just an accidental gap. As you note the individual cases are easy to learn as they are common and small in number. The question though is why it exists at all? How do kids come to know the *ABA such that they never violate it across multiple Gs? Doesn't this point to a UG answer? I agree with one thing you may be noting: this is not a conventional PoS argument. I agree. It is not hard within a language to learn this. The problem is at a typological level.

    2. I'm just being fussy about the terminology, which is I believe it is extremely important to be. The Perseus project for example gets 380 docs for the comparative 'beltio:n', 486 for superlative 'aristos' (search terms belti/wn and a)/ristos; I was too lazy to add up how many occurrences in each document), so there is plenty of stimulus for people to learn the forms from, and the superlatives are not massively rarer than the comparatives. So no real PoS problem.

      But, obviously, an 'explaining typology' problem, which does presumably connected to PoS via a 'stability of learning' issue: why don't the superlatives get lost independently of the comparatives? But it's not really PoS because the stimulus appears to be plentiful (but, sometimes, in language acquisition, people ignore it, but not in this particular way, it would appear).

    3. Forms above from Ancient Greek (blogger's preview function has been misbehaving badly for me, so I'm even more prone to inattentiveness/typo type errors than usual).

    4. @Avery, I think Norbert's argument is about the structure, not the form. You are correct, of course, that learners have lots of exposure to the suppletive forms (e.g., good, better, best). But JB's argument is that the typological fact (*ABA) is explained by saying that each learner acquires a particular structure as a way of representing the comparative and superlative forms. It is the structure that is not in evidence, even if the words are plentiful. The POS argument concerns the representation of the suppletive forms, not the forms themselves. What stops the learner from simply memorizing the forms whole? The answer, according to JB's logic, is that there is a principle of UG that forces the superlative to contain the comparative as a part. Since this principle is not in evidence in the data the learner is exposed to, the fact that it governs the typology must be explainable in terms of the contribution of the learner and not the contribution of experience.

    5. But, the putative acquisition of any kind of proposed structure is always seriously underdetermined by the evidence, even basic phrase structure, where most of the phenomena in individual languages can be produced by a finite state machine; what is unusual about this case is the unusually clear path by which the structures appear to predict the typology. So I think it's better to be terminologically fussy in the way I propose, and reserve 'PoS' for cases where there is an evident paucity of evidence for the acquired observable facts of the individual languages.

  2. Yes! *ABA is also one of my favourites, and JB is one of the great stars of morphological theory. It´s a great book. I think it is important to note that what makes the generalization statable is a specific claim about the compositional semantic hieararchy that goes into building these meanings. Note also that semantic tools in the abstract could allow you to derive the meaning of positive adjectives from comparatives or comparatives from superlatives, OR the other way around. Nothing in the truth conditions or the way they are stated forces you into this particular hierarchy. It is a fact about the way language seems to work. These semantic part-whole hierarchies are substantive semantic generalizations that needs to be built into the system. In other words, these kinds of generalizations require a semantic-structural commitment. The exciting fact about this kind of generalization is that if it is true, and if we can rely on *ABA as a principle underlying syncretisms, then it can be used to probe the semantic hierarchies themselves. Another related and cool fact is that when you can tell the difference, a Verb derived from an Adjective is formed on the basis of the comparative root, not the positive root.(You can get a flavour of this from English when you notice that the deadjectival verb based on `good´and `bad´is to `better´ or to `worsen´, not to `gooden´ or `badden´. This is very interesting from the point of view of how scalar structures get parlayed into temporalized verbal scales of change.

    1. Hi Gillian: This is above my payscale but I'm interested in the last point you made on the impossibility of "gooden" and "badden". It seems that if they were possible, they would have meant different things--make it good and make it bad---from "better" and "worsen" (which roughly mean "make it better" and "make it worse"). And the badness of "gooden" and "badden" may have something to do with the fact that "-en" is not (clearly) productive: not all (short) adjective can add -en (*dullen, *colden, *greenen *cuten), Perhaps "worsen" is possible because we hear it, ditto for all other -en verb ("redden", "harden", "weaken", etc.): they are like the irregular verbs! The failure to hear "gooden" and "badden" makes them impossible---their absence is then not very interesting, at least not from the syntax/semantics angle you gave.

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    3. But "widen" doesn't mean 'get/make wide,' it means 'get/make wider.' Deadjectival inchoatives usually mean '(cause to) become more A.' So "better" (as a comparative adjective) means exactly what good+inchoative should mean.

      The interesting thing is that crosslinguistically, deadjectival inchoatives are based on comparative forms, when they exist, e.g. Norwegian _stor_ 'big' has an irregular comparative _større_, and _liten_ 'little' has a suppletive comparative _mindre_, and the deadjectival inchoatives are not based on _stor_ and _liten_ but rather share root forms with _større_ (forstørre) and _mindre_ (minske). This holds for many cases across many languages.

      So yes, it must be related to the fact that inchoatives mean '(cause to) become more A,' but in a somewhat indirect way, since we don't say *"wideren." [edited to put "cause to" in parentheses, since the causation part of the meaning is probably orthogonal]

    4. Yeah. What Peter said. The semantics of degree achievements is complicated, interesting, and very well studied in semantics. Basically, for the semantics of the verb, you need to make reference to a property scale. The change is an increasing positive degree on that property scale. Since according to most semantic theories of adjectives, you need the `scale´for both the positive and the comparative form, there should be no semantic reason from that point of view to build the degree achievement from the one stem or the other (It is the stem you build the verb from, not the whole comparative). Mostly you can´t tell. In English, the stem forms are usually the same except in cases of suppletion. When you CAN tell, though, and this is bizarrely true in the other languages you can check as well, it is the comparative stem that is used. Some semanticists (Hay, Kennedy and Levin 1999) have tried to argue that the telicity of the degree achievement is dependent on whether the property scale denoted by the positive adjectival form is open or closed. But there is so much coercion around, the data just doesn´t go through. Instead, the degree achievements all just seem to mean get more and more positive on the scale. And there is never an entailment from X Adj-ened to X is Adj. (If the road widens, it does not necessarily mean that the road is now wide. If the rope shortens, it does not necessarily mean that the rope is now short. In other words these degree achievements always mean that the object gets widER, shortER, as Peter said). In a particular context a particular contextual degree on the property scale can be implied to give the illusion of telicity, but it is nearly always defeasible.

    5. There are some counterexamples though. Gaelic `beag' means small with the comparative root `lugha', but the inchoative/causative is `beag-aich', not `lugh-aich'. Ditto for `mòr', big with comparative stem `motha' but the causative is `mòraich' not `mothaich' (which exists, but means to notice). Also interesting is `ceartaich' to correct, from `ceart' correct/right, where the causative means to make right, not make more right, so

      `Cheartaich mi na mearachdan' .
      Right-cause I the mistakes
      `I corrected the mistakes'

      Doesn't mean you made the mistakes more right. It means you turned the referent of mistakes from being wrong to right.

      Always been puzzled by these. Any thoughts Gillian?

    6. I am not convinced that the comparative stem in Gaidhlig is a true comparative, it could be some kind of nominal derivative. There is too much extra grammar you need to make a comparative predication in addition to the stem. I mean compared to Norwegian where the comparative stem forms the basis for measuring directly.( I no other words, what is that stuff 'NAS before the comparative? It looks like squashed down copular clause plus PP? Do we know for sure?) Anyway, if that's true, then Gaidhlig just has one adjectival stem.

  3. Yeah, that's what I say in that Gaelic adjectives paper I wrote years ago that's on lingbuzz. I said the comparative was an abstract nominal denoting an interval on a scale. But that still leaves the question of why the positive form is used for the causative.