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Derivational Morphologyfree

Derivational Morphologyfree

  • Rochelle LieberRochelle LieberDepartment of Linguistics, University of New Hampshire


Derivational morphology is a type of word formation that creates new lexemes, either by changing syntactic category or by adding substantial new meaning (or both) to a free or bound base. Derivation may be contrasted with inflection on the one hand or with compounding on the other. The distinctions between derivation and inflection and between derivation and compounding, however, are not always clear-cut. New words may be derived by a variety of formal means including affixation, reduplication, internal modification of various sorts, subtraction, and conversion. Affixation is best attested cross-linguistically, especially prefixation and suffixation. Reduplication is also widely found, with various internal changes like ablaut and root and pattern derivation less common. Derived words may fit into a number of semantic categories. For nouns, event and result, personal and participant, collective and abstract noun are frequent. For verbs, causative and applicative categories are well-attested, as are relational and qualitative derivations for adjectives. Languages frequently also have ways of deriving negatives, relational words, and evaluatives. Most languages have derivation of some sort, although there are languages that rely more heavily on compounding than on derivation to build their lexical stock. A number of topics have dominated the theoretical literature on derivation, including productivity (the extent to which new words can be created with a given affix or morphological process), the principles that determine the ordering of affixes, and the place of derivational morphology with respect to other components of the grammar. The study of derivation has also been important in a number of psycholinguistic debates concerning the perception and production of language.


  • Morphology
  • Phonetics/Phonology
  • Semantics
  • Syntax

1. Defining Derivation

Derivational morphology is defined as morphology that creates new lexemes, either by changing the syntactic category (part of speech) of a base or by adding substantial, non-grammatical meaning or both. On the one hand, derivation may be distinguished from inflectional morphology, which typically does not change category but rather modifies lexemes to fit into various syntactic contexts; inflection typically expresses distinctions like number, case, tense, aspect, person, among others. On the other hand, derivation may be distinguished from compounding, which also creates new lexemes, but by combining two or more bases rather than by affixation, reduplication, subtraction, or internal modification of various sorts. Although the distinctions are generally useful, in practice applying them is not always easy.

1.1 Derivation Versus Inflection

The distinction between derivation and inflection is a functional one rather than a formal one, as Booij (2000, p. 360) has pointed out. Either derivation or inflection may be effected by formal means like affixation, reduplication, internal modification of bases, and other morphological processes. But derivation serves to create new lexemes while inflection prototypically serves to modify lexemes to fit different grammatical contexts. In the clearest cases, derivation changes category, for example taking a verb like employ and making it a noun (employment, employer, employee) or an adjective (employable), or taking a noun like union and making it a verb (unionize) or an adjective (unionish, unionesque). Derivation need not change category, however. For example, the creation of abstract nouns from concrete ones in English (king ~ kingdom; child ~ childhood) is a matter of derivation, as is the creation of names for trees (poirier ‘pear tree’) from the corresponding fruit (poire ‘pear’) in French, even though neither process changes category. Derivational prefixation in English tends not to change category, but it does add substantial new meaning, for example creating negatives (unhappy, inconsequential), various quantitative or relational forms (tricycle, preschool, submarine) or evaluatives (megastore, miniskirt). Inflection typically adds grammatical information about number (singular, dual, plural), person (first, second, third), tense (past, future), aspect (perfective, imperfective, habitual), and case (nominative, accusative), among other grammatical categories that languages might mark.

Nevertheless, there are instances that are difficult to categorize, or that seem to fall somewhere between derivation and inflection. Many of the difficult cases hinge on determining the necessary and sufficient criteria in defining derivation. Certainly, category change is not necessary, as there are many obvious cases of derivation that do not involve category change. But further, Haspelmath (1996) has argued that there are cases of inflection (participles of various sorts, for example) that are category-changing, so that this criterion cannot even be said to be sufficient. Productivity has also been used as a criterion—inflection typically being completely productive, derivation being only sporadically productive—but some derivation is just as productive as inflection, for example, forming nouns from adjectives with -ness in English, and some inflection displays lexical gaps (Booij, 2000, p. 363 says, e.g., that the Dutch infinitive bloemlezen ‘to make an anthology’ does not correspond to any finite forms), so productivity is neither necessary nor sufficient for distinguishing inflection and derivation. Anderson (1982) makes the criterion of relevance to syntax the most important one for distinguishing inflection from derivation; inflection is invariably relevant to syntax, derivation not. But Booij (1996) has argued that even this criterion is problematic unless we are clear what we mean by relevance to syntax. Case inflections, for example, mark grammatical context, and are therefore clearly inflectional. Number-marking on verbs is arguably inflectional when it is triggered by the number of subject or object, but number on nouns or tense and aspect on verbs is a matter of semantic choice, independent of grammatical configuration. Booij therefore distinguishes what he calls contextual inflection, inflection triggered by distinctions elsewhere in a sentence, from inherent inflection, inflection that does not depend on syntactic context, the latter being closer to derivation than the former. Some theorists (Bybee, 1985; Dressler, 1989) postulate a continuum from derivation to inflection, with no clear dividing line between them. Another position is that of Scalise (1984), who has argued that evaluative morphology is neither inflectional nor derivational but rather constitutes a third category of morphology.

1.2 Derivation Versus Compounding

The distinction between derivation and compounding, unlike that between derivation and inflection, is a formal rather than a functional one. Both derivation and compounding may be involved in lexeme formation. As Olsen (2014, p. 27) points out, both are typically binary-branching and both may be recursive. Compounding, however, involves the combination of two or more lexemes, which in the prototypical case are free bases. Derivation involves modification of bases, either by affixation, reduplication, or internal changes of various sorts.

The distinction between compounds and words derived via subtractive processes or processes of internal modification is generally unproblematic. However, it is not always a simple matter to distinguish clearly between compounding and affixation, and there has been much discussion of the problems involved in finding the dividing line between the two (Lieber & Štekauer, 2009; Ralli, 2010; Bauer, Lieber, & Plag, 2013; Olsen, 2014). Where word formation involves the combining of robustly contentful free lexemes we can be confident that we have compounding. Where one or more of the formatives involved in word formation is bound, semantically less robust, and fixed in position, we may be confident that we have affixal derivation. The fuzzy borderline between compounding and affixal derivation lies where we find the combination of bound forms that are not fixed in position, or semantically more robust than typical, or that derive historically from or are related to free forms.

The status of neoclassical combining forms in English is a case in point. Neoclassical combining forms are bound, like prototypical affixes, but some are not fixed in position, as the examples in (1) illustrate:


Further, the meanings that they bear (‘skin,’ ‘disease,’ ‘book,’ etc.) are more robust than those of average affixes (see Semantic Categories of Derivation). However, even for neoclassical combining forms that are fixed in position (for example, -itis and -ology are always final, endo- and exo- always initial), theorists are reluctant to call them affixes, as we would inevitably be drawn to the conclusion that a word could be formed from affixes alone, without any base (Olsen, 2014, p. 35; Bauer, 1998). Bauer (1998) and others (Bauer et al., 2013; Olsen, 2014) therefore consider these compounds of sorts, even though they are composed of bound forms.

Another reason for the fuzziness of the boundary between affixation and compounding is diachronic change. As Bauer (2005) points out, free forms may over time become affixes and determining when the transition has been completed can be difficult. Trips (2009) traces the development of free forms in Old English like hād ‘office, rank, status’ and dōm ‘judgment, status, jurisdiction’ into the suffixes -hood and -dom in contemporary English. Olsen (2014) traces a similar trajectory for the suffix -heit in German. Steps from compounding element to affix include semantic abstraction, frequent occurrence in a fixed position, and dissociation from the corresponding free form (Trips, 2009, p. 10), and often prosodic weakening and greater phonological integration with the base (Bauer et al., 2013, p. 440). Frequently formatives occupy an indeterminate position between free form occurring in a compound and bona fide affix in which they have variously been called ‘affixoids’ (Fleisher, 1969; Ralli, 2010), pseudo-affixes (Bauer, 2005, p. 99), or ‘semi-affixes’ (Marchand, 1969, p. 356), although not all theorists believe that having a separate term for such intermediate forms is useful (Dalton-Puffer & Plag, 2000; Bauer et al., 2013).

1.3 Derivation Versus Conversion

Conversion involves change of syntactic category with no overt marker of that change, as for example in English when the verb kick becomes a noun kick ‘an instance of kicking’ or a noun saddle becomes a verb saddle ‘to put a saddle on.’ There is no question that conversion is a sort of derivation in the sense that already existing lexemes are used to form new lexemes. Rather, the issue here is whether conversion is a form of derivation distinct from affixation. If conversion were simply a species of affixation, the noun kick and the verb saddle might have the structures in (2):


The structures in (2) represent what has been called the ‘zero-affixation’ or ‘zero-derivation’ analysis of conversion (Marchand, 1969; Bauer & Valera, 2005; Valera, 2014, and references cited therein). Debate has centered on whether conversion is best analyzed as attachment of a zero affix or as something else, for example, simple relisting of items in the mental lexicon (Lieber, 1992, 2004) or listing of category-less items in the lexicon, as frequently advocated by adherents of distributed morphology (Harley & Noyer, 1999). The zero-affixation analysis predicts that items that have undergone conversion should display the same properties as items derived by overt affixation such as determination of a clearly circumscribed semantic category (e.g., agent or instrument) or inflectional class (e.g., masculine, feminine, neuter in languages that distinguish grammatical gender). To the extent that items that have undergone conversion do not behave as overt affixes do—instantiating several semantic categories or falling into multiple inflectional classes, the zero-affixation analysis becomes less attractive. The debate is by no means settled: as the articles in Bauer and Valera (2005) illustrate, which analysis is supported may depend on careful examination of the facts as well as on the typological characteristics of the languages examined.

2. Formal Means of Derivation

Derivation may be accomplished by any formal morphological means including affixation, reduplication, internal modification of bases, and subtraction. By far the most common morphological processes used for derivation is affixation, and in particular prefixation and suffixation, with suffixation apparently more frequent than prefixation (Štekauer, Valera, & Körtvélyessy, 2012). Infixation is well-represented as well, but circumfixation is rather rare in the languages of the world. Reduplication is also well-attested. Processes of internal modification include internal vowel and consonant changes as well as root and pattern or templatic systems. Formal processes of truncation or subtraction appear to be rather rare. We deal with each of these formal techniques in turn. A good resource for typological patterns of derivation is Štekauer et al. (2012).

2.1 Affixation

Prefixation involves the attachment of a bound morpheme before a free or bound base (3a). Suffixation involves the attachment of a bound morpheme after a free or bound base (3b).


Circumfixation is a form of affixation that involves simultaneous bound morphs, one prefixally and one suffixally crucially, in cases of circumfixation neither the prefix plus the base nor the suffix plus the base can be shown alone to contribute a recognizable part of the meaning of the derived form. For example, in the Tagalog example in (4) ka- before the base and -an after the base together create collective nouns.


Infixation involves the insertion of a bound morpheme into a base. For example, in Karok (a language isolate of California), an infix <eg> inserted after the onset of the first syllable of the base creates the intensive form of the verb (5a), and in Hua, a Trans-New Guinean language, an infix <’a> inserted before the last syllable of the base forms a negative (5b):


While other affixes are simply attached to one or the other of the edges of the base, the position of an infix must be specified with respect to some phonological landmark or ‘pivot’ in the base, for example, the initial or final vowel, consonant, or consonant cluster, the stressed syllable, and so on. Much attention has been devoted in recent research to determining the nature of those pivots (Yu, 2007; Blevins, 2014).

2.2 Reduplication

Reduplication uses repetition of all or part of the base as a means of word formation. Samoan, for example, uses full reduplication of a verb to form a related noun:


Partial reduplication repeats a portion of the base, frequently but not always a prosodic constituent like a syllable, foot, or minimal word:


In Mokilese, for example, reduplication copies a heavy syllable, that is, a syllable that either ends in a consonant or contains a long vowel. Researchers have worked to define the scope and limits of reduplication as a morphological phenomenon, to identify subtypes of reduplication, and to account in theoretical terms for restrictions on reduplication such as whether the repetition always involves some sort of prosodic constituent or where the site of reduplication can be. Inkelas (2014a) is an excellent survey of the literature. More extensive theoretical treatments can be found in Inkelas (2014b) and Inkelas and Zoll (2005).

2.3 Templatic Derivation

So-called templatic or root and pattern morphology is sometimes treated as a species of affixation, called ‘transfixation,’ but in recent years it has typically been analyzed as a distinct formal means of word formation rather than as a complex form of affixation. Templatic morphology involves the intercalation of segments according to a template or abstract pattern of consonants (C) and vowels (V). For example, in Arabic and Hebrew roots typically consist of three consonants that constitute the semantic core of words. Vowels may be interspersed among the root consonants in different patterns to express distinctions that are often inflectional. The example in (8) shows words based on the root ktb, all of which have something to do with writing:


In the Arabic example in (8), the root consonants occur in a fixed order and modifications to meaning can be effected by interspersing different vowels, or by varying the arrangement of consonants and vowels. The pattern CVCVC is associated with the verb ‘write,’ but the pattern CVCCVC is a causative verb ‘cause to write’ and the pattern CVVCVC can have a reciprocal meaning (‘corresponded’ = ‘wrote to each other’). Templatic word formation is most familiar in the Semitic languages, but it is attested in other languages as well, as the examples in Davis and Tsujimura (2014) show.

2.4 Subtraction

Derivation more often than not involves some incremental addition to a base, but it can also involve truncation or deletion of material from a base. For example, some verbs in the Uto-Aztecan language Tohono O’Odham derive a perfective verb from an imperfective one by deleting a final consonant (Davis & Tsujimura, 2014, p. 205):


English uses a process of deletion to form hypocoristics, for example, Tom from Thomas or Pat from Patricia. It is increasingly believed that subtraction is in fact a form of templatic morphology, one in which a longer base is made to fit a smaller template, resulting in the deletion of segments (Lappe, 2007; Davis & Tsujimura, 2014).

2.5 Internal Changes

Derivation may be effected by internal modifications to a base that may include changes to vowels or consonants, changes in stress or tonal patterns, or combinations of these. Internal vowel changes are often referred to as rules of umlaut or ablaut. Historically, umlaut involves the fronting (and sometimes raising) of a base vowel triggered by the front vowel in an adjacent suffix. The suffixal vowel may subsequently change (10a) or be lost entirely, leaving the base vowel as the sole exponent of the morphological distinction, as in the German plural example in (10b).


Other vowel changes are generally referred to as ‘ablaut’or ‘apophony.’ For example, female terms are derived from male terms in Manchu by fronting vowels, as illustrated in (11):


Internal modification of bases may also involve changes in consonants, a process that is sometimes called consonant mutation. McLaughlin (2000, p. 335), for example, illustrates a process of diminutivization in the West Atlantic language Seereer-Siin.


In this language diminutives are formed by prenasalizing a consonant in the base.

3. Semantic Categories of Derivation

This section briefly reviews the sorts of derivation that are most frequently found in the languages of the world and then examines a number of issues that have been prominent in the literature. It is impossible, of course, to be exhaustive in looking at semantic categories, so only the most frequently observed will be mentioned.

3.1 Nouns

Typical semantic categories of derivation for nouns include eventive and stative nouns, participant nouns, collective and abstract nouns, nouns that denote inhabitants, languages, followers or adherents of some doctrine, or doctrines themselves. I illustrate these categories with examples from English:


These rubrics are of course rather rough and there is frequently a great deal of overlap. Participant nouns can include not only agents (writer) and patients (employee), but also instruments (printer), locations (orphanage, diner), measure nouns (pinch), and means nouns (stroller), among others. Eventive nouns typically denote not only the event or process, but also the outcome or result of that event. Inhabitant nouns may denote language as well as inhabitant, as is the case with English and Japanese, but not New Hampshireite. The rubrics illustrated in (13) are of course not exhaustive. Languages can have affixes with far more specific meanings, as suggested by the example cited earlier of the French suffix -ier, which derives names for trees from the name of the corresponding fruit (poire ‘pear,’ poirier ‘pear tree’), or by the Spokane suffix -cin ‘mouth, food’:


It is not unusual for there to be several affixes associated with any given semantic category and for individual affixes to denote several semantic categories. In other words, the relationship between semantic category and affix (or other formal means) is frequently many-to-many (Lieber, 2004, 2016), a phenomenon known as affixal polysemy. The issue of affixal polysemy in covered in section 3.5 “Issues in the Semantics of Derivation”.

3.2 Verbs

Verbs may be derived from nouns, adjectives, or from other verbs. English has the affixes -ize and -ify that attach to nouns and adjectives and form verbs with a range of meanings (examples from Bauer et al., 2013, p. 283):


It is not unusual for languages to have derivational means to add arguments to verbal bases, either forming causatives or applicatives, as the examples from Chichewa (Mchombo, 1998) illustrate:


In Chichewa, the suffix -its/-ets derives causatives, that is, sentences in which an agent argument is added to the diathesis of the base verb, demoting the former agent to a patient. The suffix -ir/-er creates applicatives in which an argument is again added to the diathesis of the base verb, but this time adding a benefactive, locative, or instrumental argument rather than an agent.

As with nouns, verbs may be created derivationally with affixes that have far more specific meanings. Mithun illustrates this (1999, p. 49) with suffixes in Yup’ik that attach to nouns or verbs and mean such things as ‘hunt,’ ‘say,’ or ‘eat.’ She argues that these are derivational affixes rather than bound bases on the grounds that they are obligatorily bound, always follow the root, and critically that they are less contentful in semantics than roots typically are in the relevant languages.

3.3 Adjectives

Derived adjectives can vary semantically along several lines. They may, for example, be either gradable and qualitative or ungradable and relational (impressive vs. atomic). In English, affixes that form adjectives from nouns are typically not specialized as gradable or non-gradable or as qualitative or relational. The suffix -ic attaches to nouns to form both relational adjectives (atomic) and qualitative adjectives (toxic), for example. Other languages such as Chukchee are reported to have distinct affixes that derive either relational or qualitative adjectives but not both (Beard, 1995).

Deverbal adjectives may reference (i.e., be predicable of) either the subject argument of the base verb or the object of the base verb, or they may refer to the base event in general:


Some adjective-bearing affixes also bear modal nuances; the suffix -able in English, for example, conveys epistemic (possibility), deontic (permission), or dynamic (disposition toward) modalities.

3.4 Other Semantic Categories

Derivational processes may also add many other types of meaning. They may express negation, as illustrated in (18a). They may convey relational or prepositional meanings as in (18b) or temporal concepts as in (18c). They may add quantitative meaning (18d) or they may be evaluative (18e):


Under the rubric of ‘negation’ we can include not only contrary and contradictory negation, but also concepts of reversal (untie) and privation (deflea). Relational derivation can convey various types of spatial or directional meanings. Quantitative meanings can include numerical meanings, as the examples in (18d) illustrate, but they can also mark such distinctions as durativity, iterativity, or punctuality on verbs. A familiar example of aspectual derivation in English is the prefix re- (reread), which expresses repetition of the action denoted by the base verb. Evaluative affixes include diminutives and augmentatives. They are well-known for expressing a whole range of meanings including affection and familiarity, positive or negative evaluation, and childishness or childlikeness (Jurafsky, 1996; Körtvélyessy, 2014).

3.5 Issues in the Semantics of Derivation

Two issues that have been prominent in the literature concerning the semantics of derivation are the nature of so-called ‘transposition’ and the analysis of affixal polysemy.

Transposition is traditionally defined as derivation that changes category but does not add meaning, or adds only whatever trivial meaning comes along with change of category. Bauer (2004, p. 104) gives this definition and offers as an example the derivation of the adjective parental from the noun parent in English, where the latter presumably means nothing more than ‘quality with some relationship to parent.’ Beard (1993, p. 717) defines transposition as, “the simple shift of a word from one category to another.…” Spencer mostly reserves the term for processes that derive gerunds, participles, and the sorts of predicative nouns or adjectives that occur in languages like Selkup or Nenets (2013, pp. 75–76).

Although the definition itself seems clear enough at first blush, the problem comes when we try to be precise about what the ‘minimal’ meaning is that comes with any given category. Indeed, Lieber (2015) argues that the more articulated one’s theory of lexical semantics is, the harder it is to find any derivational process that is truly transpositional. For example, if one’s theory of lexical semantics admits of subcategories of adjectives—gradable and nongradable, qualitative and relational, and so on, items like parental derived with the suffix -al must inevitably fall into one or more of those semantic categories of adjectives. Only if a syntactic category were semantically monolithic could we conceive of true transposition. In other words, with a well-articulated theory of lexical semantics, no derivational change of category can be trivial in meaning.

Another phenomenon that has received substantial attention in the literature on derivation is the tendency for the relationship between form and meaning in derivation to be many-to-many. It is rarely the case that a derivational affix will express only one meaning and it is also rarely the case for a derivational meaning to be expressed by only one affix. It has long been noted, for example, that the affix -er in English that most often derives agent nouns (writer), also derives instruments (printer), locations (diner), means nouns (stroller), and even patients (loaner). Affixes like -ation that typically derive event and result nouns (assassination) can also derive nouns that denote agents (administration), instruments (decoration), locations (reservation), paths (continuation), and products (construction), among others. Bauer et al. (2013) document such affixal polysemy in great detail for English, but English is certainly not unique in this regard; Melloni (2011) illustrates the same sort of affixal polysemy for Italian (see also Štekauer et al., 2012, pp. 168–183). We also find that a given affixal meaning is typically expressed by several different formal means. Using English again as our example, event nouns can be derived with a whole range of affixes, including -ation, -ure, -ment, -al, and -ing, among others. Agent nouns can be former with -er, but also with -ant and -ist. Although it is true that not all of these are productive in contemporary English, several of them are. The theoretical question, then, is why the form-meaning relationship is not one-to-one, and how the complex web linking form and meaning can be modeled in any given theory; some early analyses appeal to argument structure (Booij, 1986; Grimshaw, 1990; Levin & Rappaport Hovav, 1988), some approach the issue from the perspective of syntax (Alexiadou, 2001; Borer, 2013; Harley, 2009), and others take a purely lexical semantic approach (Barker, 1998; Lieber, 2004, 2016).

4. Typology and Universals: Derivation in the Languages of the World

Now that we have briefly surveyed the formal and semantic ranges of derivation, we can begin to ask questions about its typological characteristics. Relatively little comparative cross-linguistic study of derivation has been done to date, although Lieber and Štekauer (2014) contains chapters devoted to derivational morphology in fifteen language families. The most complete treatment can be found in Štekauer et al. (2012), which surveys patterns of derivation in 55 genetically and areally diverse languages. This work allows us to begin to draw tentative generalizations about the distribution of different types of derivation in the languages of the world. For example, Štekauer et al. report that almost all languages in their survey display some form of affixal derivation, that only one language in their sample, Vietnamese, uses no affixation at all, and that only one language, Yoruba, has prefixation, but not suffixation (2012, p. 141). All other languages have suffixation and most have prefixation as well (2012, pp. 139–142). This finding accords with Hawkins and Gilligan’s (1988) earlier claim that suffixation is preferred over prefixation in inflectional morphology. Grandi and Montermini (2005) as well argue that the general preference for suffixation holds for most types of derivation, but not for evaluative derivation. Reduplication is found very frequently (80% of languages) in Štekauer et al.’s sample. Infixation and circumfixation are found in a far smaller percentage of the languages they survey (roughly 25% and 32%, respectively). In terms of semantic categories of derivation, Štekauer et al. (2012, chapter 6) look at the distribution of agent, patient, instrumental, and locative nouns, evaluatives, and causatives, among other categories, but do not cover such categories as negative, quantitative, or relational derivation.

It is probably premature to speculate about universals of derivation, but Lieber and Štekauer (2014, pp. 780–784) evaluate a number of putative universals mentioned in Greenberg (1963), Dressler (1988), Bauer (1997), and Štekauer et al. (2012), as well as several that are included in the Universals Archive. They conclude that some proposed universals seem solid, for example, that all languages display some form of derivation and that languages with circumfixation also have both prefixation and suffixation. Others, however, seem less tenable, for example, that derivation is always internal to inflection or that languages with non-concatenative derivation must also display concatenative derivation, as clear counterexamples can be found to each of these claims.

5. Theoretical Issues in Derivation

5.1 Productivity, Blocking, and Competition

In recent years there has been lively debate on the subject of productivity in derivation, that is, the extent to which an affix (or morphological process) can be used to create new forms in a language (Aronoff, 1976; Anshen & Aronoff, 1981; Bauer, 2001; Plag, 1999; van Marle, 1985). Bauer (2001), following Corbin (1987), distinguishes two factors in productivity, which he calls ‘availability’ and ‘profitability.’ Availability measures whether an affix can be used at all to create new forms; affixes that are no longer synchronically active are unavailable. For those affixes that are available, we can then assess the extent to which they are profitable, that is, how frequently and easily new forms may be coined using them. In (19a), we see an affix in English that has become unavailable; (19b) illustrates an affix that is still available, but only slightly profitable, (19c) one that is both available and robustly profitable:


A thorny problem in recent years has been how we can measure productivity. For example, although we might count the number of words that can be found with a given affix, simple counting of words turns out not to be a good way to measure productivity; there may be many words formed with a particular derivational process that remain in the lexicon of a language long after that process has become completely unavailable, as the words in (19a) with the suffix -th show. Counting those words tells us nothing about the synchronic status of the affix. Aronoff (1976) proposes instead to assess productivity by calculating the ratio of actual words with a particular affix to words that might be potentially be derived with that affix; but as Baayen and Lieber (1991) point out, we have no clear notion of what ‘actual’ words are and no reasonable way of counting them. Baayen (1989) proposes a different ratio instead, dividing the number of tokens in a corpus that are derived with a given affix by the number of hapax legomena (or hapaxes) with that affix; hapaxes are forms that occur with a frequency of one in a given corpus. A large number of hapaxes relative to the total number of tokens with the affix in question suggests that new forms are still being created, and therefore that the affix has some degree of productivity. Conversely, a small number of hapaxes relative to the total number of tokens with an affix correlates with low productivity. By comparing affixes in a single corpus using this measure, we can gauge the degree of productivity of one affix relative to another. To date, Baayen’s measure remains one of the better measures of productivity available.

Closely connected to productivity are the concepts of blocking and competition. Aronoff (1976, p. 43) defines blocking as “the nonoccurrence of one form due to the simple existence of another.” Blocking in derivational morphology is said to follow from the putative tendency for languages to avoid synonymy (Rainer, 1988). If languages truly avoid synonyms, the existence of a word with a particular meaning will prevent the creation of another word that means precisely same thing. Applied to derivational morphology we are led to expect that if English has the word barbaric, for example, it should not also have the word barbarous unless the two words were to have distinct meanings. More generally, if blocking is really a principle of derivation, we should find words formed on the same base with two functionally identical suffixes only if those two words mean different things. Affixes that are functionally identical, for example, deriving adjectives from nouns, as with -ic and -ous, or deriving nouns from verbs, as with -ation, -ment, -al, -ure, and so on are said to be in competition with one another. For any given base, then, only one of a set of competing affixes should be found to occur, unless the resulting forms have different meanings.

This is indeed true in some cases, for example with the three deverbal nominalizations that can be formed on the verb commit: commission, committal, and commitment all have distinct meanings. However, as Bauer et al. (2013, chapter 26) have pointed out, counterexamples are abundant and easy to find. Indeed, the words barbarous and barbaric can be found used with precisely the same meaning in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) (Davies, 2008), as can pairs of deverbal nominalizations like omitment and omission or cessation and ceasement, among many others. One tentative conclusion that Bauer et al. draw is that blocking may be a tendency, but it is not a real principle of derivational morphology.

5.2 Affix Ordering

Another topic that has engendered lively debate in recent years has been that of affix ordering. The essential problem is this: derivational affixes must minimally be specified as to the categories both of the bases they select and the resulting words they produce. So, for example, the suffix -ness in English attaches to adjectives and produces nouns, as does the suffix -ity. The affixes -ish and -esque both derive adjectives on nominal bases, among other categories. All other things being equal, we would expect both -ness and -ity to attach to words derived with -ish and -esque. Yet this is not what we find. We can find items like girlishness or Freudianesqueness (the latter found in COCA), but we never find anything with the combinations -ish+-ity or -esque+-ity (Bauer et al., 2013, chap. 27). How do we account for such lacunae?

Several theories have been proposed to account for the ordering properties of derivational affixes. Early on in the history of generative morphology, the theory of level ordering within lexical phonology and morphology was deployed to account for affix ordering (Kiparsky, 1982; Siegel, 1974). Affixes were arranged into blocks or levels and these blocks or levels were ordered with respect to one another such that affixes attached at later levels were predicted to be found outside affixes attached at earlier levels, but not vice versa. Levels for English were at least partially correlated with different etymological origins, that is, non-native versus native affixes. As pointed out by Fabb (1988), however, lexical phonology and morphology still predicted possible combinations of affixes that were unattested. Fabb’s solution was to add selectional restrictions on particular affixation rules to prevent the generation of unfound combinations and to dispense with level ordering. Aronoff and Fuhrhop (2002) propose the Monosuffix Constraint for affix ordering restrictions in English; this constraint limits the number of Germanic suffixes in an English word to one. They propose that German, in constrast, has what they call ‘closing suffixes,’ that is, suffixes after which no other suffixes are permitted to occur. Neither constraint is entirely successful in predicting possible combinations of affixes, however. The theory of Complexity Based Ordering proposed by Hay (2002) and further developed in Hay and Plag (2004) and Plag and Baayen (2009) attributes constraints on the ordering of affixes to principles of processing. The basic idea behind Complexity Based Ordering is that affixes that can be easily parsed in a word cannot occur inside affixes that are less easily parsed in a word. Restrictions on ordering are therefore attributed not only to selectional restrictions but also to psycholinguistic factors. A good overview of the theoretical debate concerning affix ordering can be found in Saarinen and Hay (2014).

5.3 Lexical Integrity

An issue that has long concerned morphologists studying derivation is the overall place of derivation in the grammar. Specifically, the concern has been whether derivational morphology can or should be analyzed as a part of the syntactic component of the grammar or whether its properties are sufficiently distinct to analyze it on its own terms, as a part of a purely morphological component of grammar. Good historical treatments of the issue can be found in Spencer (1991, 2005), Toman (1998), and Scalise and Guevara (2005). Briefly, the earliest accounts of derivational morphology in generative grammar, like Lees (1960) and Brekle (1970), wholeheartedly embrace the earliest model of transformational grammar as applied to the formation of complex words. Chomsky’s (1970) seminal paper “Remarks on Nominalization,” however, draws a line between nominals derived with suffixes like -ation and -al on the one hand and gerunds in -ing in English on the other. The latter are productive and regular, and may be analyzed using syntactic rules. The former are sufficiently idiosyncratic that their formation must be consigned to the lexicon, which as DiSciullo and Williams (1987) later claim, is the locus of all irregularity in the grammar, or to a separate morphological component. The Lexicalist Hypothesis (Lapointe, 1980) is the doctrine that derivation (or morphology in general) must be analyzed according to its own principles, that rules of syntax cannot ‘see’ into or manipulate parts of complex words, and that processes of word formation cannot apply above the word level to whole phrases. Generative morphologists of the early 1980s and 1990s had a number of names for this general idea, among them the Word Structure Autonomy Condition (Selkirk, 1982), the Atomicity Thesis (DiSciullo & Williams, 1987), and more generally the Lexical Integrity Hypothesis (Borer, 1998).

Much attention has been devoted since then to showing that morphology cannot be separated from syntax as clearly as the Lexical Integrity Principle would want it to be. It is clear that some sorts of derivation apply to whole phrases, as examples like one-step-behind-hood and down-to-earth-ness from Bauer et al. (2013, p. 514) show. Further, proponents of Distributed Morphology (Halle & Marantz, 1993; Harley & Noyer, 1999) argue for a fully syntactic treatment of morphology (including derivation, inflection, and compounding) on the basis of theoretical parsimony. Distributed morphology has generally paid less attention to derivation than to inflection, however, and it remains to be seen how nuances of affixal productivity and polysemy can be captured in that framework.

6. Psycholinguistic Issues

While linguistic approaches to derivational morphology have been largely concerned with form, structure, meaning, and the relationship among them, psycholinguistic approaches have concentrated on the perception, processing, and production of derived words. Experimental methods include the use of lexical decision tasks that measure reaction time (also called response latency), eye-tracking for written processing, and increasingly the use of sophisticated neuroimaging techniques such as electroencephalography (EEG), magnetoencephalography (MEG), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). A question that has been central to the psycholinguistic study of derivation is whether words are broken down into their constituent morphemes when they are accessed in the mental lexicon or whether derived words are accessed as unanalyzed wholes. Early experimental work such as Taft and Forster (1975) and Taft (1981) suggests that words are parsed into their component morphemes during lexical access, at least for words formed with prefixes. Baayen and Schreuder’s ‘parallel dual route’ model (1995) proposes that the two sorts of lexical access (decompositional and whole word) are not mutually exclusive, but rather that they may operate at the same time and compete with each other: complex words may both be stored as wholes and processed according to their parts, with a number of factors (frequency of derived word, frequency of base, frequency of family size, etc.) influencing whether the whole-word route or the decompositional route wins out for any given word. It is impossible to do justice to this vast area of research here, but the reader is referred to Baayen (2014) for a detailed review of psycholinguistic approaches to derivation.

Further Reading

  • Aronoff, M. (1976). Word formation in generative grammar. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Bauer, L. (2001). Morphological productivity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bauer, L., Lieber, R., & Plag, I. (2013). The Oxford Reference Guide to English Morphology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Bauer, L., & Valera, S. (2005). Approaches to conversion/zero derivation. New York. Munich: Waxmann.
  • Beard, R. (1995). Lexeme morpheme base morphology. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  • Inkelas, S., & Zoll, C. (2005). Reduplication: Doubling in morphology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lappe, S. (2007). English prosodic morphology. Dordrecht: Springer.
  • Lieber, R. (2004). Morphology and lexical semantics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lieber, R., & Štekauer, P. (2014). The Oxford handbook of derivational morphology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Marchand, H. (1969). The categories and types of present-day English word formation. Munich: Beck.
  • Plag, I. (1999). Morphological productivity: Structural constraints in English derivation. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Štekauer, P., & Lieber, R. (2005). Handbook of word formation. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.
  • Štekauer, P., Valera, S., & Körtvélyessy, L. (2012). Word-formation in the World’s languages: A typological survey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Yu, A. (2007). A natural history of infixation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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