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date: 20 June 2019

Summary and Keywords

The definition of exocentricity hinges on the notion of head in morphology. Exocentricity and its opposite, endocentricity, describe the two possible relationships between compound constituents and the compound lexeme they make up. In endocentric compounds, one of the constituent lexemes is the head, that is, the lexical item with the semantico-syntactic features that are passed on to the whole compound. In exocentric compounds, the features of the whole are not attributable to the constituents and must be sought elsewhere.

Exocentric compounds can be divided into two broad classes, namely, syntactic (or formal) and semantic exocentric compounds. Syntactic exocentric compounds exhibit a mismatch between the grammatical category of their constituents and that of the whole. Semantic exocentric compounds are exocentric by virtue of their meaning alone, their structure providing no clues of their nonliteral interpretation. Historically, most descriptive and theoretical analyses of exocentricity have focused on syntactic exocentric compounds. On the basis of large but non-exhaustive databases of the world languages, it has been shown that exocentric compounds are marked. With a few exceptions, exocentric compound patterns are both less frequent cross-linguistically and less likely to be used in those languages that can have them. However, some patterns recur with remarkable regularity in the world’s languages. These include possessive compounds (known by their Sanskrit name, bahuvrīhi), which combine a description of a part to denote the whole (e.g., Eng. sabretooth). Deverbal nominal compounds are also robust in many language families, such as Romance; these compounds combine a verb and its direct object to denote an agent or instrument (e.g., Fr. portefeuilles ‘briefcase,’ lit. ‘carry+papers’). A third highly frequent exocentric compounding pattern combines two constituents of the same grammatical category to create a lexeme of a different word class (e.g., Japanese daisho ‘size,’ lit. ‘small+large’). It should be noted that the basic distinction between syntactic and semantic exocentric compounds can become blurred because any lexicalized compound, regardless of its internal structure, is potentially susceptible to metaphoric meaning shifts and to formal recategorization through conversion. Although exocentricity is a syntactico-semantic feature typically attributed to compounds, other morphological structures may occasionally exhibit similar behavior, namely, phrasal chunks or “syntactic freezes.”

Exocentric compounds create interesting challenges to rule-based accounts of morphology, including both lexicalist hypotheses and also those that subsume word formation operations to those of syntax. In both types of proposals, the features of all constructions are attributable to their head, so that accounting for the mismatch exhibited by exocentric compounds requires structural adjustments. Cognitive linguistics has also focused on exocentric compounds, and has sought to account for their meanings through a combination of metaphoric and metonymic shifts.

Keywords: compounding, exocentricity, headedness, semantic head, formal head

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