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International Conference on Historical Linguistics

Plenary: Paradigms: Synchrony, Diachrony, and History



Henning Andersen


The presentation will discuss current issues in the historical interpretation of inflectional morphology. There are relatively new issues and there are old ones. Among the former is the problem of forming a unified understanding of (i) affixal morphology and the non-affixal techniques of (ii) vowel or consonant mutation and (iii) phonotactic modification (Trommer and Zimmermann 2015). The diversity in techniques calls for a processual understanding of inflection (Mel’čuk 2006), which in turn prompts a renewed discussion of the ontology of inflectional paradigms. Among the old issues are the common deviations from the ideal biuniqueness of morphological signs in inflectional systems — zero exponents, exponents without apparent content, and overlapping and multiple exponence — long discussed in the theoretical literature (e.g. Matthews 1972; Baerman 2015; Harris 2017). Against the background of the predominantly static, synchronic approach in most recent theoretical work I will take up Aronoff’s (1994: 169) suggestion that the complexity of inflectional morphology ”may hold the key to knowledge”. I will argue that a necessary first step is to adopt a consistently dynamic, truly historical perspective on synchronic data, one that takes due account of any observable synchronic variation in inflection. A second step is to push exponent analysis beyond the morphemic level wherever possible (Jakobson 1958), and a third, to interpret the data in semiotic terms (Anttila 1972). It can be shown that a dedication to detailed analysis and an effort to reveal the iconic and, especially, indexical relations that define morphological patterns are not only appropriate to the object of investigation, but fruitful, as Aronoff surmised. For diachronic linguistics such an approach will yield explicit characterizations of the different kinds and degrees of morphological cohesion along the agglutination – fusion – symbolism scale and clear interpretations of individual exponence changes along that dimension, that is, a better understanding of the innovations that give rise to such changes.


Anttila, Raimo. 1972. An Introduction to Historical and Comparative Linguistics. New York: Macmillan. Second edition: Historical and Comparative Linguistics. Amsterdam, Philadelphia: Benjamins, 1989.

Aronoff, Mark. 1994. Morphology by Itself. Stems and inflectional classes. Cambridge MA, London, England: MIT Press.

Baerman, Matthew (ed.). 2015. The Oxford Handbook of Inflection. Oxford: University Press.

Harris, Alice C. 2017. Multiple Exponence. Oxford: University Press.

Jakobson, Roman. 1958. Morfologičeskie nabljudenija nad slavjanskim skloneniem (Sostav russkix padežnyx form). In: American Contributions to the Fourth International Congress of Slavists, 127–156. ’s-Gravenhage: Mouton. Reprinted in his Selected Writings, vol. 2. Word and Language, 154–183. The Hague, Paris: Mouton.

Matthews, Peter H. 1972. Inflectional Morphology. A theoretical study based on aspects of Latin verb conjugation. Cambridge: University Press.

Mel ́čuk, Igor’ A. 2006. Aspects of the Theory of Morphology, ed. by David Beck. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Trommer, Jochen and Eva Zimmermann. 2015. Inflectional exponence. Baerman 2015: 47–86.

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