The following online article has been derived mechanically from an MS produced on the way towards conventional print publication. Many details are likely to deviate from the print version; figures and footnotes may even be missing altogether, and where negotiation with journal editors has led to improvements in the published wording, these will not be reflected in this online version. Shortage of time makes it impossible for me to offer a more careful rendering. I hope that placing this imperfect version online may be useful to some readers, but they should note that the print version is definitive. I shall not let myself be held to the precise wording of an online version, where this differs from the print version.

Published in Times Higher Education Supplement, 5 Mar 1999.

By Geoffrey Sampson


Edited by Andrew Spencer and Arnold M. Zwicky

Blackwell, xvi + 815 pp., 85

ISBN 0-631-18544-5

Published January 1998



The editorial introduction to this book quotes a description of morphology (the study of word formation) as “the Poland of linguistics”.  American descriptive linguists of the 1950s tended to treat morphology as an annexe to the phonemic analyses which were commonly the centrepiece of their researches.  Later, when generative linguists turned syntax into the “hot” branch of linguistics, morphology was often subsumed uneasily under that heading.  Over the last twenty years or so, according to Spencer and Zwicky, linguists have come to see morphology as a topic comprising substantial facts and principles of its own, which cannot adequately be subordinated to other areas.


One contributor (Robert Beard, in a chapter on “Derivation”) continues to embrace the axiom that morphology should be reduced to syntax; but on the whole the authors of the book’s 32 chapters (who are predominantly American, though they include representatives of other parts of the English-speaking world, and Europe) reflect the editors’ claim that morphology is now enfranchised as an independent branch of modern linguistics.


The book is divided into five parts.  Part I, “The Phenomena”, surveys the word-formation processes found in the world’s languages – individual chapters cover topics such as inflexion, compounding, clitics, etc.  Part II, “Morphology and Grammar”, examines interactions between word-structure and various other linguistic levels.  Part III, “Theoretical Issues”, considers the implications of morphological data for theoretical linguistic controversies.  Part IV, “Morphology in a Wider Setting”, contains chapters relating morphology to topics such as child language-acquisition, aphasia, and word-recognition.  Part V contains sketches of the morphological systems of ten languages chosen from diverse, often little-known language families, focusing particularly (but not exclusively) on phenomena that are distinctively characteristic of the respective languages. (Refreshingly, Indo-European is represented not by English but by Celtic, in a chapter which examines consonant mutation in detail.)]


Many readers will find Part V the most valuable section.  Some of its chapters draw attention to possibilities of which one would never become aware through experience of the handful of languages that are widely studied.  In Archi, a language spoken by a thousand people in one village 7500 feet above sea level in Daghestan, Aleksandr Kibrik tells us that verb inflexion is so complex that one stem can have more than 1,500,000 inflected forms.  Speakers of European languages usually know without hesitation whether some inflected form is a valid word or not, even if they happen never to have encountered it before.  Archi speakers apparently often begin by denying that a complex inflected form is possible, and then radically change their judgment on further consideration.  According to John Haiman, Hua, a Papuan language, is strikingly devoid of modal forms – for instance, the only morpheme for the concept “be able to” is borrowed from a pidgin.  This severely restricts what is sayable.  A Hua speaker can ask “Do you want to X?”, but cannot assert “You want to X”.


Part IV, which relates morphology to topics outside synchronic linguistics, can be thoroughly recommended.  The discipline imposed by the need to make connexions with bodies of knowledge independent of linguistics makes these chapters commendably free of abstruse theorizing for theory’s sake.


However, the core of the book is its first three Parts.  These probably mention, somewhere, virtually every morphological phenomenon likely to engage linguists’ attention.  But it is debatable how far they can be seen as succeeding in covering their topics in the clear, definitive style required for a “Handbook”.


One problem in Parts I to III is that the contributors often assume a background of recent generative theory which many readers will not share and which, on the face of it, should not be needed in the context.  Chapter after chapter, for instance, not just in the “Theoretical Issues” part but even in Part I, analyses its material in terms of “theta roles”.  The present reviewer confesses that, although he has held a Chair of Linguistics and continues to read and publish in linguistics journals, he has no idea what theta roles are; if the concept genuinely deepens our understanding of morphology, the book ought to explain it.


Worse than this, though, when these chapters quote data from familiar languages, worryingly often the facts are wrong.  I was surprised by a claim, used to support the conclusion of Mark Aronoff and Frank Anshen’s chapter, that the word specialism, unlike specialist, “has come into use quite recently in British English”.  In fact the earliest O.E.D. citations for these words, from different sources, are both dated 1856 (and the precise sense of specialism described by Aronoff and Anshen is cited from 1868).  Or consider a displayed example, in a chapter by an author who will be nameless here, which translates “John sees it” into French as Jean le vois (and repeats the solecism in three further examples, lest we take it for an accidental misprint).  If the combined efforts of author, two editors, and publisher’s copy-editor of a book on morphology cannot avoid this sort of thing with a language as universally-known as French, it is difficult to trust the book when it makes odd-sounding claims (as it often does) about less-familiar languages, such as Japanese.  When the data come from languages like Greenlandic or Chichewa, their accuracy is anyone’s guess.


Editors and publisher have done less than they might have to turn this collection of research articles into a systematic, coherent survey of its subject.  Languages using non-Roman alphabets (Russian, Hebrew) seem to be transliterated on a different system by each author who refers to them.  The book is set in an unsuitable, calligraphic type-face which obscures distinctions (for instance, opening versus closing inverted commas) that are sometimes crucial to the phonetic notation.  There are grotesque misprints, where technical material has evidently been misunderstood by a copy-editor.  The book achieves comprehensiveness, but in other respects it does not really fulfil its task satisfactorily.



Dr G.R. Sampson is Reader in Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence at the University of Sussex.