Autonomous Morphology in Diachrony: comparative evidence from the Romance languages

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Medieval & Modern Languages Fac


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Title Exhibition on Romance Linguistics in the Taylor Institution, Oxford, to mark the 100th anniversary of the inauguration of the Chair of the Romance Languages at Oxford, November 2009 - January 2010. 
Description Exhibition on Romance Linguistics in the Taylor Institution, Oxford, to mark the 100th anniversary of the inauguration of the Chair of the Romance Languages at Oxford, November 2009 - January 2010. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2009 
Description 'Irregular verbs' are the bane of many a learner of Romance languages. It may surprise those who have struggled to memorize the irregular verbs of, say, French, Italian or Spanish that they are, in fact, fascinating entities, which occupy a fundamental place in the history of the Romance verb and pose major theoretical problems for linguists concerned with morphology and with language change. This project has explored the evolution through time, and variation through space, of what could informally be described - and probably strikes most learners - as 'organized nonsense' in the verb. Taking the history of the inflexional paradigm of the verb across the Romance languages (including thousands of little-known dialects) we have looked at the origins, extent and nature of recurrent structural patterns in the verb-system which, despite lacking any apparent 'raison d'être', survive, spread and are reinforced through time (and how they die out, when they do). We suggest that such phenomena are far more pervasive and important determinants of morphological change than is traditionally assumed, and discuss why they are persistent over time. As an aid to this end we have produced the first ever comprehensive comparative database of the inflectional morphology of the Romance verb, through which we investigate the neglected role of 'autonomously morphological' (or 'morphomic') structure in the history of inflectional paradigms.

The Project has produced a full description of the extent, and nature, of the major and recurrent Romance morphomic patterns. This includes a greatly enriched typology of phenomena subject to morphomic distribution, beyond mere stem alternation. These include: defectiveness; alternations motivated by purely pragmatic factors; syncretism; the distribution of inflectional endings; conjugation class membership (heteroclisis). We also identify and describe other - minor and more localized - morphomic patterns. We also have new insights into the way morphomes can come into being and die out. For example, in addition to loss of phonological conditioning and loss of semantic conditioning of paradigmatic alternation, the differential effects of frequency in the spread of analogical changes has been found to be a source of novel morphomic patterning. On the other hand morphomic patterning tends to dissolve, not (as one might expect) as a result of any tendency to 'align' alternation patterns with extramorphological (e.g., semantic) conditioning, but usually as an accidental result of sound change. In other words, the most common cause of the genesis of morphomic alternation can also be one of the causes of its demise.

Our findings also lead us to reject what might be described as the 'morphomic ghetto'. Earlier work on morphomes (notably by Aronoff and Maiden) tends to identify as 'morphomic' only phenomena for which any extramorphological motivation can be ruled out. Our research has forced us to confront serious challenges to Maiden's earlier claims that certain alleged morphomic phenomena are not extramorphologically conditioned. Our conclusion, however, is not that the morphomic status of the relevant phenomena should be rejected, but rather that the boundary between the morphomic and the non-morphomic is often gradual and that, correspondingly, phenomena traditionally ascribed purely to phonological or semantic conditioning often contain an irreducibly morphological component. We have also found evidence to suggest that the degree of 'morphomehood' may be sensitive to the type of functional alternation at issue.

Our work has also demonstrated the importance for the study of Romance morphology, and general historical morphology, of two relatively neglected domains:

i. Romanian dialects, and particularly the remarkable body of morphological data contained in the (still only partly published) materials of the Romanian regional linguistic atlases.

ii. Non-European Romance varieties. Our original assumption (and one probably shared by most Romance linguists) was that the most interesting developments in verb morphology were likely to be limited to the European dialects, overseas varieties being colonial offshoots of the standard varieties (or of dialects similar to the standards). Our work on Acadian French as spoken in Canada has shown that this assumption is unsafe, and that theoretically significant developments have taken place in 'colonial' Romance varieties.
Exploitation Route Our online Database of Romance verb morphology provides a useful reference point for any user wanting to check points of detail in the verb morphology of a wide range of Romance languages. The fact that the Database is transcribed into the International Phonetic Alphabet also makes it a useful indicator as to the pronunciation of verb forms.
Sectors Education
Description Our findings continue to stimulate lively debate about the origins, nature, and limits of autonomously morphological phenomena in human language. We have (for example in media broadcasts and in teaching for non-specialists) managed to capture wider public interest by showing that irregularity in grammar can - counterintuitively - be self-replicating, and that concepts such as 'irregular verbs', often viewed as bizarre irritations by language-learners, are in reality exciting intellectual problems. Because our work crucially involves lesser-known languages, such as Romanian, we also feel that we have had some role in promoting awareness of their importance.
First Year Of Impact 2011
Sector Education
Impact Types Cultural