Necessary conditions for a morphological relationship

The aim of this blog post is to establish sufficiency conditions for the subconscious establishment of a morphological relationship in a speaker’s lexicon.

Ford & Singh (2003) state that “morphology is the study of formal relationships between words”. The word is defined as possessing a phonological structure, a “category”, and a meaning. It is then stated that “any morphological relationship between a non-unique pair of words in a language can be described by a rule”. With this seemingly common-sense definition of morphology, it is argued the notion of a morpheme is not useful. In my view, this definition of morphology also makes morphological relations arbitrary. A language speaker may relate any two words on the basis of similarity between either phonological form, syntactic category, semantic meaning, or some permutation of two of these components, or some combination of all three. A language speaker may also NOT do this. The act of relating two words may be linguistic, but the factors which propel a speaker to relate two words is, apparently, not linguistic.

According to Ford & Singh (2003:25), the only relevant component to the study of morphological relations is the physical form of a word. Yet, their definition of morphology specifies “formal relationships”. If this definition of morphology is applied to words in a Parallel Architecture framework, the very interesting consequence is that formal relationships between words may occur in one of three components (Phonology, Semantics, Syntax), only one of which is physical.

What exactly is a morphological relation? Ford & Singh (2003) do not provide a definition even for a “formal” relation. Implicitly in their analysis, two words may have a morphological relation if they share some phonological and semantic information, and if the information which they don’t share follows a general pattern visible throughout pairs of words in the lexicon.

According to Jackendoff (1975), the basic condition that two words have a morphological relation is that “knowing one of them makes it easier to learn the other”. Jackendoff’s (1975) evaluation procedure is summed up here in the most basic possible terms: take two words, take their lexical entries, work out which information is shared in the lexical entries. Jackendoff uses the term “redundancy” to describe shared information, but states that it is “obvious” that shared information which is semantic is not redundancy. This is because if two words share the same meaning, knowing one does not make it easier to learn the other, since there is no schema that would allow one to predict the phonology of a word from the semantics of another word (at least, not without the help of a third-party morphological relation – see Ramscar (2001)).

Yet, if we accept Ford & Singh’s (2003) definition of morphology, any shared information between two words which can be formalized could be considered redundancy. Jackendoff’s Parallel Architecture specifies three linguistic components of a word which can be formalized: Phonology, Syntax and Semantics. Hence, shared semantic information is redundancy.

Is the mere existence of redundancy a sufficient basis for a morphological relation? Should we propose a limit beneath which redundancy is just too small for a speaker to form a morphological relation subconsciously?¹

Since this blog has taken the Parallel Architecture viewpoint, let’s propose that redundancy in less than two linguistic components is insufficient for a morphological relation. Hence, there is no morphological relation in English between the verb trip and the noun trip, since the only redundant information is located in a single linguistic component, the Phonology. This leaves us with four permutations of redundancy which provides a sufficient condition for a morphological relation. Each of these will now be discussed.

1. Redundancy in Phonology and Semantics

An English example would be the words marry and marriage, which share the redundant phonological information /mæri/ and the redundant semantic information [MARRY]. The following morphological schema may be inferred from this morphological relation.

PHON: [ X ] <-> [ X [ dʒ ] ]

SEM: [ A ] <-> [ A ]

SYN: [ verb, trans ] <-> [ noun ]

The pair of words carry/carriage seems to follow this schema in the PHON and the SYN components, but not SEM. In fact, the only redundant information in the pair carry/carriage is in the PHON component. The noun carriage does not refer to an event of the verb carry, but instead to an object of transport. Although one may superficially claim that a carriage “carries” its passengers, this is not an inherent feature in the SEM component of the word. (When a carriage is sitting in a garage, it carries nothing.) Hence, the conditions for a morphological relation are insufficient and hence there is no (subconscious) morphological relation between the words carry and carriage. Note that, for the moment, this does not invalidate the morphological relation between marry and marriage.

2. Redundancy in Phonology and Syntax

(1) was a relatively familiar account of morphological relations, given experience in previous morphological descriptions and frameworks. Beyond (1), the sufficiency conditions given earlier result in the proposition of some startling morphological relations.

Let’s begin with the familiar: English words ending in -ing all share a morphological relation – playing, swimming, beginning, etc – since they have redundant information in the component SYN, [verb], and redundant information in the component PHON, /iŋ/. This provides a tremendously useful generalization for an English speaker, allowing one to form novel verbs in participle or gerundive constructions from any novel verb root.

Now the unfamiliar: there is a morphological relation between the words carriage and garage. They are both nouns, and they both shared the phonological information /ærɪdʒ/. This morphological relation is tremendously unhelpful to an English speaker, as the generalization it infers cannot assist in word-formation, nor in memorization, nor in lexical access. Not every noun ends in /ærɪdʒ/, and only a very small set of /ærɪdʒ/ words are nouns (e.g. barage is a verb). The only use this morphological relation serves is in linguistic creativity – poetry or comedy – which is seen to be irrelevant to this study (see footnote 1).

3. Redundancy in Semantics and Syntax

Shared phonological information is at the centre of morphological studies by Jackendoff (1975), Booij (2010), and Ford & Singh (2003). These authors would say that a lexical relation without shared phonological information does not constitute as a morphological relation. However, according to our sufficiency conditions, it does. In other words, the phenomena of ontological relations in the lexicon is morphological, and may be generalized using the same sort of schemas as the one given in (1).

For instance, there is a morphological relation between the English verbs bird and parrot. They share the redundant SYN information [ noun ], and the redundant SEM information [ BIRD ]. This relation is generalized in the following schema:

PHON: / X / <-> / Y /

SEM: [ A ] <-> [ A [ B ] ]

SYN: [ noun ]

This is essentially a schema describing hyperonymy. The X form is a category with the semantic content A. Since the Y form is a subcategory of X, the semantics of Y are simply the semantics of X (summed up as A) plus the specialized features of Y (summed up as B).

4. Redundancy in Phonology, Semantics and Syntax

When there is redundancy in all three components of language, you have a paradigm. Redundant information is shared in all three components in the English words walk, walked, walking, walks, etc. These redundancies are traditionally summed up as a paradigm and the generalizations inferred may be referred to as inflectional morphology. Any useful information


It is useful for a language speaker to infer generalizations from morphological relations established by redundancy in conditions (1), (3) and (4). (2) is not useful for subconscious linguistic activity. Therefore, assuming that the establishment of morphological relations and the inference of generalizations is a biologically real process in the acquistion and production of language, sufficiency conditions should be revised as follows:

Sufficiency conditions for establishment of morphological relations:

1. Redundancy must occur in at least two of the three components of language, Phonology, Syntax or Semantics.

2. Redundancy must occur in the Semantics component.

The implication of this is that a speaker can only infer the -ing ending from its regular occurrence in semantically related words in the lexicon. If a speaker is only given the words hunting, losing and yawning, they will not derive the suffix -ing. However, if a speaker is given the words hunting, chasing, and pursuing, then they will derive the suffix -ing. I am uncertain about this conclusion. However, Ramscar (2001) may be interpreted as supporting this conclusion, since it found that speakers tended to infer different English past tense forms for novel words by analogy from semantic priming (e.g. when the word frink is in a context where one would expect the word drink to be used, English speakers by analogy will produce the past tense form frank instead of frinked).


  1. The assumption here is that a line should be drawn between subconsciously derived morphological relations, which aid speech production, parsing and acquistion, and consciously derived morphological relations, which are employed for artistic purposes. A deeper assumption is that a line should be drawn between the psychology of communication and the psychology of creativity.


Booij, Geert. 2010. Construction morphology. New York: Oxford University Press

Ford, Alan & Rajendra Singh. 2003. Prolegomena to a theory of non-Paninian morphology. In Singh & Starosta (eds). Explorations in seamless morphology. New Delhi: Sage Publications. pp18-42

Jackendoff, Ray. 1975. Morphological and semantic regularities in the lexicon. Language 51(3):639-671

Ramscar, Michael. 2001. The role of meaning in inflection: why the past tense does not require a rule. Cognitive Psychology 45:45-94

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