- Ljuba N. VeselinovaLjuba N. VeselinovaLinguistics, Stockholm University
The term suppletion is used to indicate the unpredictable encoding of otherwise regular semantic or grammatical relations. Standard examples in English include the present and past tense of the verb go, cf. go vs. went, or the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives such as good or bad, cf. good vs. better vs. best, or bad vs. worse vs. worst.
The complementary distribution of different forms to express a paradigmatic contrast has been noticed already in early grammatical traditions. However, the idea that a special form would supply missing forms in a paradigm was first introduced by the neogrammarian Hermann Osthoff, in his work of 1899. The concept of suppletion was consolidated in modern linguistics by Leonard Bloomfield, in 1926. Since then, the notion has been applied to both affixes and stems. In addition to the application of the concept to linguistic units of varying morpho-syntactic status, such as affixes, or stems of different lexical classes such as, for instance, verbs, adjectives, or nouns, the student should also be prepared to encounter frequent discrepancies between uses of the concept in the theoretical literature and its application in more descriptively oriented work. There are models in which the term suppletion is restricted to exceptions to inflectional patterns only; consequently, exceptions to derivational patterns are not accepted as instantiations of the phenomenon. Thus, the comparative degrees of adjectives will be, at best, less prototypical examples of suppletion.
Treatments of the phenomenon vary widely, to the point of being complete opposites. A strong tendency exists to regard suppletion as an anomaly, a historical artifact, and generally of little theoretical interest. A countertendency is to view the phenomenon as challenging, but nonetheless very important for adequate theory formation. Finally, there are scholars who view suppletion as a functionally motivated result of language change.
For a long time, the database on suppletion, similarly to many other phenomena, was restricted to Indo-European languages. With the solidifying of wider cross-linguistic research and linguistic typology since the 1990s, the database on suppletion has been substantially extended. Large-scale cross-linguistic studies have shown that the phenomenon is observed in many different languages around the globe. In addition, it appears as a systematic cross-linguistic phenomenon in that it can be correlated with well-defined language areas, language families, specific lexemic groups, and specific slots in paradigms. The latter can be shown to follow general markedness universals. Finally, the lexemes that show suppletion tend to have special functions in both lexicon and grammar.