Morphophonology Research Paper

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In its broadest definition, morphophonology refers to the interaction of word formation with the sound system of language. These two linguistic subsystems interact in many different ways in the languages of the world, including phonological alternation of a stem or affix, vowel harmony involving both stems and affixes, spread of a phonological feature as a grammatical marker, combinations of patterns of consonants and vowels in nonconcatenative morphology, and phonologically definable reduplication.

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After describing these types of interaction between morphology and phonology, a variety of ways in which they have been analyzed and categorized will be discussed.

1. Interactions Between Phonology And Morphology

1.1 Allomorphy And Affixation

Allomorphy, i.e., differing surface forms corresponding to a single morpheme, may involve inflectional and derivational affixes or stems. The surface form may be phonetically or morphologically conditioned.

1.1.1 Phonetically Conditioned Allomorphy. An example of phonetically conditioned allomorphy in inflection is the productive plural marker of English, pronounced [z], [s], or [ z], depending on the final segment of the stem: carnation[z],violet[s], ros[ z]. Derivational affixes, too, may change shape depending on their phonetic context. For example, the English negative prefix unexhibits assimilation of the nasal segment to the point of articulation of a following stem-initial obstruent: u[n]productive, u[n]thinking, u[ ]convincing.

1.1.2 Morphologically Conditioned Allomorphy. In addition to purely phonetically conditioned alternations, definable classes of morphemes in a language may behave distinctly in terms of their morphophonology. For example, two classes of affix have been identified for English, Class I and Class II (also known as ‘non-neutral’ and ‘neutral,’ respectively). Class I suffixes involve a phonological change in the stem relative to an unaffixed stem or relative to the same stem with a Class II suffix. Such changes are shown in (1) with stress placement, vowel quality, stem-final consonants. A capital letter in (1) indicates the stressed syllable.

Morphophonology Research Paper

In (1a), comparing fInal and finAlity, there is a difference in stress, with the first syllable of fInal being stressed as compared with the second syllable of finAlity; additionally, the vowel quality differs in the second syllable, where the unstressed [ ] of final alternates with a full vowel [a] in finality. In (1b) there is also a change both in stress placement and in the stem-final consonant ([k] alternating with [s]). In contrast, for the Class II forms, the stress placement and vowel quality are identical to that of the stem.

1.2 Vowel Harmony

Vowel harmony is the requirement in certain languages that all vowels in a particular domain (e.g., word) share particular phonological features, such as rounding, backness, height, etc. Vowel harmony may involve stems alone or stems and affixes. Khalka Mongolian (Eastern Mongolian: Mongolian Republic), for example, has frontness, rounding, and height harmony. In the verbs in (2) note that the infinitive marker, -Vx (where V = a vowel), surfaces as [-ox], [-ox], [-ax] or [ex], depending on the vowel of the stem. That is, the suffix is a single grammatical marker the vowel of which assumes a different phonological shape, depending on the stem vowel.

Morphophonology Research Paper

In (2) the vowel of the infinitive marker suffix agrees with the stem vowel for frontness, height, and rounding.

1.3 Phonological Feature Spread

Phonological feature spread, similar in certain respects to vowel harmony, involves a phonological feature functioning as a grammatical marker. The difference between vowel harmony and feature spread is that feature spread does not involve a change triggered by a feature already present in the phonological form; the feature has a grammatical function and may occur throughout the word. An example of this is Terena (Arawakan: Brazil), in which the first person singular is marked by nasalization (indicated in the example with a tilde, ~). That is, given a third person singular form containing oral vowels and consonants, the first person form of the same word will exhibit nasalized vowels and consonants (subject to various conditions). Compare the following:

Morphophonology Research Paper

Thus, a phonological feature—here nasalization— fulfills a grammatical function. In the same language a different feature—palatalization—indicates 2nd person.

1.4 Non-Concatenative Morphology

In languages with non-concatenative morphology (e.g., Arabic, Hebrew), words consist of combinations of specific consonants and vowels, with for example the consonants contributing the lexical core of the word’s meaning while the vowels contribute specific morphosyntactic information.

In Arabic (Semitic: North Africa, Eastern Mediterranean, Arabian peninsula, Iraq, Syria, etc.) the perfective active verb form for the stem meaning ‘write’ is katab, while the corresponding passive is kutib; the perfective active form for ‘do’ is faal and the corresponding passive is fuvil. Note that for these words in each case the sequence of consonants and vowels is CVCVC, with the consonantal root providing lexical meaning and the vowels associated with voice, i.e., perfective active or passive.

Morphophonology Research Paper

1.5 Reduplication

Reduplication involves copying a base (full reduplication) or part of a base (partial reduplication) and affixing that copy to the base. The affixation may involve prefixation, suffixation, or infixation. The copy may be of a phonological constituent, e.g., a syllable, or of a definable part of the base which is not a constituent, e.g., the first two segments of the base. The first kind is known as ‘constituent copying,’ the second as ‘non-constituent copying.’

As an example of constituent copying, consider the following full reduplication in Turkish (Turkic: Europe), in which the entire phonological word is reduplicated. In this illustration the reduplication serves as an intensifier.

Morphophonology Research Paper

As an illustration of non-constituent, partial reduplication, consider (6), showing data from Tagalog (Malayo-Polynesian: the Philippines).

In this case the first consonant + vowel sequence of the base is copied and prefixed. The grammatical function of this reduplication is the expression of the future tense.

2. Theories And Analyses

Various theoretical accounts of certain aspects of morphophonology have been proposed in recent years. These include—among others—Lexical Phonology and Morphology, Autosegmental Phonology, Templatic and Prosodic Morphology, and Optimality Theory. The following sections illustrate how these theories apply to the kinds of data seen above.

2.1 Lexical Phonology And Morphology

In this theory the interaction between morphology and phonology has been modeled in terms of levels of interaction in the lexicon. Developing ideas proposed by Siegel (1974), the two major proponents of this view are Kiparsky (1982) and Mohanan (1986). While there are fundamental differences in the details of the models proposed by Kiparsky and Mohanan, they both share a similar view of lexical organization.

The assumption underlying the model is that morphological processes, e.g., affixation, are interleaved with phonological operations, e.g., stress assignment, and that items exhibiting different behavior may be associated with different levels. As an example, the kind of morphologically conditioned allomorphy seen in (1a) between finality and finalness, as compared with final, arises from the difference in affixation relative to stress assignment, with affixation of Class I affixes at Level I and Class II affixes at Level II. The affixation of -ity occurs before stress assignment while the affixation of -ness occurs after stress assignment. The result is differing stress placement on the two words and a consequent difference in vowel qualities, comparing the first and second syllables of finality and finalness.

In addition to modeling interaction between word formation and the sound system explicitly, lexical phonology also makes claims and predictions about aspects of language adjacent to morphophonology, for example, morphological productivity and restricted vs. across-the-board application of phonological rules.

Among the unresolved issues surrounding lexical phonology are the number of levels of morphological and phonological interaction required (ranging in the literature from one to five), and the universality of such levels—do all languages have the same number of levels but potentially use only a subset of them?

2.2 Autosegmental Phonology

Autosegmental phonology is typically attributed to Goldsmith (1976), though there are parallels with Firth (1948), Hockett (1955) and Rischel (1974). The fundamental notion is that there is no necessary one-to-one correspondence between a phonological feature and a segment. That is, adjacent segments may share a single phonological feature or, conversely, two values for the same phonological feature may be associated with a single segment. As an example of the first, English vowels occurring in syllables closed by a nasal stop are nasalized, as in teen [tın]. In autosegmental terms this can be seen as the spread of the phonological feature for nasality, say [nasal], to the vowel preceding the nasal stop, shown in (8a). The example in (8b) shows two values for the features [continuant] associated with a single segment. The affricate [c], the initial and final sounds in English church, consists phonetically of a stop plus a fricative, i.e., a noncontinuant sound together with a continuant sound. Phonologically, however, the affricate behaves like any other obstruent consonant: it is a single consonant, not two. Represented autosegmentally, the two values for [continuant] are both associated with the single segment.

The application of autosegmental phonology to the morphophonological processes of vowel harmony and phonological feature spread seen above is both straightforward and insightful.

In the case of vowel harmony (see Sect. 1.2 above), the relevant features spread from the stem vowel to the suffix vowel, resulting in the suffix vowel harmonizing with the stem vowel; the dotted line shows that the features in question have spread from the stem vowel:

In the same way, a phonological feature fulfilling a grammatical function, seen in Sect. 1.3 above, may spread throughout a word.

In addition to the insightfulness of autosegmental analyses of both vowel harmony and feature spread as a grammatical device, such analyses also highlight the interplay between phonological features and word formation.

2.3 Templatic Morphology And Prosodic Morphology

As seen in Sect. 1.4 above, word formation in some languages involves patterns of consonants associated with some meaning which are interleaved with patterns of vowels, themselves associated with some meaning or encoding grammatical information. Noting these recurring patterns and applying autosegmental principles of association, McCarthy (1979) proposed associating specific segments with positions in a template. That is, the recurring patterns are represented as fixed sequences of Cs and Vs onto which specific consonants and vowels are mapped.

Given the ktb and f 1 roots seen in (4) above, the combination of consonants and vowels—each group of which constitutes a morpheme—can be represented by templates, as in (11), with the specific consonants and vowels mapped onto template positions:

In related work, McCarthy (1981) and McCarthy and Prince (1986) extended and refined the concept of templates to include not just sequences of Cs and Vs, but prosodic constituents such as syllables or phonological words as well. Consider, for example, the advantage of this with a syllable template: in a given language, there might be five types of syllable, i.e., a valid syllable might consist of V, CV, CVC, CCVC or CCVCC. Thus the notion ‘syllable’ replaces five different CV templates.

The relevance of both CV templates and prosodic constituent templates to morphophonology is especially clear in reduplication. The Turkish data seen in (5) exemplify full reduplication of the word, a prosodic constituent:

Reduplication in Tagalog, on the other hand, is clearly non-constituent copying, involving as it does the prefixation of a copy of the first CV sequence of the stem. The copy is not a constituent since universal tendencies of syllabification would suggest that the first syllable of takbuh is $tak$ and therefore the first CV sequence of a syllable does not form a constituent.

2.4 Optimality Theory

Prince and Smolensky (1993) have proposed a nonderivational theory of linguistics, relying on putatively universal constraints on linguistic representations to ascertain the wellformedness of those representations. In a least two ways optimality theory has direct bearing on morphophonological analysis. First, the constraint hierarchies themselves constrain both phonological and morphological expression, e.g., prosodic structure constraints favor specific syllable types and alignment constraints ensure that a particular affix appears in the correct position. Second, the interaction of prosodic and morphological constraints allows the analysis of certain kinds of allomorphy.

As an example, Russell, (1997) proposes that regular English plural formation reflects the interaction of three constraints (along with the full range of constraints required independently), (a) a constraint on phonological structure, *SIBSIB, which disallows the occurrence of two sibilant consonants side by side, (b) a morphological alignment constraint, PLAFTERN, which ensures that the plural marker follows the noun stem, and (c) a faithfulness constraint, LEFT-ANCHORplural, which requires that the leftmost segment of the plural suffix should be the same in both the underlying representation and in the surface form, i.e., [z].

Given three candidates for the plural of rose, the following tableau represents the evaluation of those candidates by the proposed constraints. Note that the constraints are violable and that the ‘most harmonic’ or ‘optimal’ candidate is the one which has the least serious violations of constraints in the hierarchy. As to the formalism of the constraint ranking, a constraint appearing to the left of ≥ is ranked higher than a constraint appearing to the right of ≥. Constraints of equal importance are separated by a comma. In the tableau these relations are represented by a vertical dashed line ( = of equal importance), and a vertical solid line (higher ranked constraint to the left).

Tableau for roses, evaluating the candidates [rozz], [roz] and [roz z]

In this example, the correct output form [roz z], indicated by , is shown to result from the interaction of violable constraints in the evaluation of three suggested surface forms. A violation is marked by an asterisk; a fatal violation (relative to another constraint) is marked by an asterisk followed by an exclamation mark. A shaded cell indicates that because of the violation of a higher ranked constraint, that cell is irrelevant in determining the optimality of the candidate in question. Given the constraint ranking shown, the violation of LEFTANCHORplural by the form [roz z] is less important than either the violation of *SIBSIB by *[rozz] or the violation of PLAFTERN by *[roz].

Note, though, that the reliance on *SIBSIB precludes generalizing this analysis to the very similar facts of English past tense formation cf. play[d], hiss[t], batt[ d], which does not involve a sibilant in the suffix.

2.5 Other Frameworks

While the theories and analyses sketched above have been important in characterizing certain aspects of the interaction between phonology and morphology, they are neither exhaustive nor do they necessarily exclude other approaches. Optimality Theory, for example, as a non-derivational, surface-oriented theory has much in common with the morphological approaches of Bybee (1985). Another important theory is Prosodic Phonology (e.g., Nespor and Vogel 1986), which focuses primarily on phonology while dealing explicitly with the interaction between phonological and morphological structure.


  1. Bybee J 1985 Morphology: A Study of the Relation Between Meaning and Form. John Benjamins, Philadelphia
  2. Firth J 1948 Sounds and prosodies. Transactions of the Philo-logical Society 127–152 [Reprinted in Palmer F R 1970 Prosodic analysis. Oxford University Press, London, pp. 1–26]
  3. Goldsmith J 1976 Autosegmental phonology. Ph.D. dissertation, MIT. [Published 1979, Garland Press, New York]
  4. Hockett C 1955 A manual of phonology. International Journal of American Linguistics 21(4): Part 1. Memoir 11
  5. Kiparsky P 1982 From cyclic to lexical phonology. In: van der Hulst H, Smith N (eds.) The Structure of Phonological Representations. Foris, Dordrecht, Netherlands, pp. 131–75
  6. McCarthy J 1979 Formal problems in Semitic phonology and morphology. Ph.D. dissertation, MIT. [Published 1985, Garland Press, New York]
  7. McCarthy J 1981 A prosodic theory of nonconcatenative morphology. Linguistic Inquiry 12: 373–418
  8. McCarthy J, Prince A 1986 Prosodic morphology. Ms. University of Massachusetts Amherst and Brandeis University. [Issued 1996 as Technical Report no. 32, Rutgers Center for Cognitive Science.]
  9. Mohanan K P 1986 The Theory of Lexical Phonology. Reidel, Dordrecht, The Netherlands
  10. Nespor M, Vogel I 1986 Prosodic Phonology. Foris, Dordrecht, The Netherlands
  11. Prince A, Smolensky P 1993 Optimality theory: Constraint interaction in generative grammar. Ms. Rutgers University and University of Colorado Boulder. [Issued as Technical Report no. 2, Rutgers Center for Cognitive Science; to appear MIT Press.]
  12. Rischel J 1974 Topics in Westgreenlandic Phonology. Akademisk Forlag, Copenhagen, Denmark
  13. Russell L K 1997 Optimality theory and morphology. In: Archangeli D, Langendoen D T (eds.) Optimality Theory, An Overview. Blackwell, Oxford, UK, pp. 102–33
  14. Siegel D 1974 Topics in English morphology. Ph.D. dissertation, MIT. [Published 1979, Garland Press, New York]


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