Bigsley the Oaf


Posted in Uncategorized by bigsleytheoaf on February 3, 2012

In Linguistics, we like to talk about morphemes. I’m reading this book “Semantics” by F.R. Palmer and he is distressed by the fact that there is a clear morphology to a word like “loved” = “love” + “-d” where “love” means “care for” and “-d” means “in the past” whereas there is no clear morphology to a word like “took.”

It’s very strange to me that he is distressed by this. Is it hard for him to think in terms of transforms? It seems to me that, descriptively, there is a class of linguistic transformations which we can call “verbal morphemes,” which take infinitive to past tense:

love -> loved
take -> took
eat -> ate

We are then free to prescriptively add structure on top of this undifferentiated list, by grouping in terms of transformation “classes”:

“+ -d verbs:”

love -> loved
shove -> shoved
clothe -> clothed

“internal vowel -> a verbs:”

run -> ran
sit -> sat
hit -> hit
jump -> jamp (LOLS JK)

These transformation classes can be defined as simple rules for taking a verb’s alphabetical/phonemic structure and transforming it in a reliable way into its past tense form. Words that belong to “large” classes are “regular.” Words that belong to “small” classes or are sole members of a class (e.g. be -> went, take -> took) are “irregular.” But it is important to remember that regularity/irregularity is not an intrinsic property of the verb.

It’s  interesting to note that there is a back-and-forth, here. Society want regularity (I’m talking about un-/intentional language reform, here) because it affords benefits – less complex to remember, easier to learn, shorter grammar books. Society resists regularity because it requires change of canonical texts. For example, note that the most common verbs in english have “old” and highly irregular morphology (be -> was, go -> went, etc.).

The intuition that I wanted to express is the idea that we should think of different “classes of morphologies” (e.g the + -d and + -ed morphologies) as proper entities in and of themselves. These creatures roam over the socio-linguistic membrane of society and attempt to exert themselves by regularizing or de-regularizing structures, compelling changes in verbs to different structures. Some pressures are subtle. For instance:

i. take -> took
ii. make -> mook
iii. lake -> look

i. is proper English. ii. is not proper, but at least it feels like it kind of makes sense. iii. is a perverse reverse-transform on a noun.

The point of listing these three is to show you that there is some degree of naturalness even to “incorrect” or “perverse” applications of morphology. Morphology is then this bizarre scheme/system/what-have-you which we interact with, which we can mold, which changes with society and changes society. The fact that it has both intrinsic and extrinsic properties, and that these change over time, qualifies it for full-fledged entity-hood.

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