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date: 28 June 2022

Subordinate and Synthetic Compounds in Morphologylocked

Subordinate and Synthetic Compounds in Morphologylocked

  • Chiara MelloniChiara MelloniDepartment of Linguistics, University of Verona


Subordinate and synthetic represent well-attested modes of compounding across languages. Although the two classes exhibit some structural and interpretative analogies cross-linguistically, they denote distinct phenomena and entail different parameters of classification. Specifically, subordinate makes reference to the grammatical relation between the compound members, which hold a syntactic dependency (i.e., head-argument) relation; synthetic makes reference to the synthesis or concomitance of two processes (i.e., compounding and derivation). Therefore, while the former term implies the presence of a syntactic relation realized at the word level, the latter has strictly morphological implications and does not directly hinge on the nature of the relation between the compound members.

Typical examples of subordinate compounds are [V+N]N formations like pickpocket, a class which is scarcely productive in English but largely attested in most Romance and many other languages (e.g., Italian lavapiatti ‘wash-dishes, dishwater’). Other instances of subordinate compounds are of the type [V+N]V, differing from the pickpocket type since the output is a verb, as in Chinese dài-găng ‘wait for-post, wait for a job’. The presence of a verb, however, is not compulsory since possible instances of subordinate compounds can be found among [N+N]N, [A+N]A, and [P+N]N/A compounds, among others: The consistent feature across subordinate compounds is the complementation relation holding between the constituents, whereby one of the two fills in an argumental slot of the other constituent. For instance, the N tetto ‘roof’ complements P in the Italian compound senza-tetto ‘without-roof, homeless person’, and the N stazione ‘station’ is the internal argument of the relational noun capo in capo-stazione ‘chief-station, station-master’.

Synthetic compounds can envisage a subordination relation, as in truck driv-er/-ing, where truck is the internal argument of driver (or driving), so that they are often viewed as the prototypical subordinates. However, subordination does not feature in all synthetic compounds whose members can hold a modification/attribution relation, as in short-legged and three-dimensional: In these cases, the adjective (or numeral) is not an argument but a modifier of the other constituent. The hallmark of a synthetic compound is the presence of a derivational affix having scope over a compound/complex form, though being linearly attached and forming an established (or possible) word with one constituent only. This mismatch between semantics and formal structure has engendered a lively theoretical debate about the nature of these formations. Adopting a binary-branching analysis of morphological complexes, the debate has considered whether the correct analysis for synthetic compounds is the one shown in (1) or (2), which implies answering the question whether derivation applies before or after compounding.

(1) a.[[truck] [driv-er]] b. [[short] [leg(g)-ed]]

(2) a. [[[truck] [drive]] -er] b. [[[short] [leg(g)]]-ed]

Interestingly, the structural and interpretative overlap between subordinate and synthetic compounds with a deverbal head is well represented across language groups: Synthetic compounds of the type in (1–2) are very productive in Germanic languages but virtually absent in Romance languages, where this gap is compensated for by the productive class of subordinate [V+N]N compounds, like Italian porta-lettere ‘carry-letters, mailman’, which are the interpretative analogous of Germanic synthetic formations. The difference between the two complexes lies in constituent order, V+N in Romance versus N+V in Germanic, and lack of an (overt) derivational affix in Romance languages.


  • Morphology

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