Number suppletion vs. case suppletion: Does “locality” provide an explanation?

Whenever generative approaches claim that they can account for broadly cross-linguistic regularities, I try to pay close attention. In a recent short paper in Linguistic Inquiry, Moskal (2015) is concerned with the generalization that nouns may show number suppletion (e.g. Russian rebënok ‘child’, deti ‘children’), but almost never suppletion for case, whereas personal pronouns often show number suppletion (e.g. English I/we) as well as case suppletion (e.g. English I/me, we/us). This seems to be a robust observation, even though it has never been documented thoroughly, as far as I know. (Moskal claims that her study is based on 79 languages, but it is not clear what kinds of data she got from these languages and how; she does not mention Brown et al. (2003), the Surrey Suppletion Database).

Her explanation appeals to a locality constraint in a Distributed Morphology (DM) framework, as well as to the idea that nouns, but not pronouns, include a “little n” node in their tree structure. Thus, a noun such as Russian deti ‘children’ would have the underlying structure [[[[√CHILD] n] pl] nom], while a pronoun such as us would have the structure [[[[√we] pl] acc]. In the DM framework, vocabulary insertion is constrained by locality in some complex way (involving notions like cyclic domains and actual vs. potential phase initiators), resulting in the possibility of vocabulary items like us, but the impossibility of a hypothetical Russian suppletive *benjam for the dative plural of ‘child’ (the dative node in [[[[√CHILD] n] pl] dat] is too far away from the root).

A more accessible account of the general approach is given by Bobaljik (2015), who also summarizes the results of his (2012) book, where he observed similar patterns in comparative and superlative suppletion: Quite a few languages have suppletion patterns of the type ABB (bad/worse/worst), but none have the pattern AAB – Bobaljik explains this by saying that the superlative feature is “too far away” from the root to allow a suppletive form to express it.

Now intuitively, locality does indeed seem to play a role, as Bybee (1985) had observed: The categories that tend to be involved in suppletion (plural, aspect, tense) are also the categories that tend to occur closest to the root. So for suppletion in comparatives and superlatives, Bobaljik’s approach has some plausibility, because indeed the superlative marker sometimes includes the comparative marker and is further away (e.g. in Persian: X, X-tær, X-tær-in). But why should case be further away in nouns than in pronouns? Moskal’s proposal is that this is because nouns contain an extra (“category-defining”) node n which pronouns lack, but she does not say how this is otherwise motivated.

I would ask why we need an explanation in terms of abstract structure if a perfectly plausible usage-based explanation is available: Suppletion has long been known to be driven by high absolute frequency (e.g. Ronneberger-Sibold 1988; Hippisley 2001; Vafaeian 2013; with antecedents going back to the 19th century), and this predicts that personal pronouns should show a stronger tendency for suppletion than nouns – for example, case suppletion (or suppletion for other categories like gender, clusivity or politeness). This explanation is needed anyway, because no structural account is available to explain why ‘child’ is more likely to show a suppletive plural than ‘rabbit’. A generative story for case suppletion would need to address this competing explanation if it wanted to derive support from the cross-linguistic distributions. Nobody has collected systematic data yet, but it seems to me that frequency is also the best predictor of gender suppletion (he/she, contrasting with nonsuppletive actor/actr-ess), and frequency additionally explains why interrogative pronouns (apparently) show much less case suppletion than personal pronouns. Moskal only talks about “pronouns”, perhaps implying that interrogatives are included in this category as well (or is there reason to think that they include a little n, like nouns?). Moreover, Vafaeian (2013) points out that nominal suppletion is often governed by possession, and one wonders how this might fit into Moskal’s system.

In footnote 3, Moskal mentions the differences between UG-based true universals and mere “typological generalizations” (following Kiparsky 2008). The frequency-based explanation presumably falls into the latter group, but she aims for true universals. It should thus be a problem for her to find occasional counterexamples, like the Russian noun god ‘year’, which has the suppletive form let in the genitive plural, i.e. a clear instance of case suppletion of a noun. This example is not mentioned, but instead Moskal mentions an exception from Archi and one from Lezgian. In Archi, ábt:u ‘father’ has the suppletive ergative form ummu, which Moskal explains by noting that this noun does not occur in the plural, i.e, it has the structure [[[√FATHER] n] erg], where the case feature is close enough to the root. This would seem to predict that case suppletion should occur freely in case-inflecting languages that lack nominal plurals, such as Kayardild or Yidiñ. It would also seem to predict that highly frequent mass nouns which do not have plurals (e.g. German Milch, Wasser) should have suppletive case forms. Neither of these predictions seem to be confirmed by any facts.

In Lezgian, the word for ‘water’ does have case suppletion, but unfortunately, Lezgian is not one of those languages where mass nouns lack plurals. Instead, Moskal’s “explanation” for the exceptional case suppletion in ‘water’ is that the singular node is “pruned” in the context of oblique case. This is puzzling, because it seems to make the analysis empirically vacuous: If any number node can be deleted in an ad hoc way, then this allows ad hoc suppletive case forms of nouns without limits, contrary to what we find. (Moskal merely adds a footnote where she says that “pruning seems to be a highly marked configuration”, but this is precisely what one would want to explain.)

Thus, I am not impressed by this particular attempt to refer to abstract DM-style structures to help explain broadly cross-linguistic patterns, leaving out any discussion of well-known effects such as frequency. However, Bobaljik’s (2012) discussion of comparatives and superlatives is much more solid, and much more difficult to find holes in. If his general approach could be shown to work elsewhere, it would begin to look convincing.


Bobaljik, Jonathan David. 2012. Universals in comparative morphology: Suppletion, superlatives, and the structure of words. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Bobaljik, Jonathan David. 2015. Suppletion: Some theoretical implications. Annual Review of Linguistics 1(1). 1–18. doi:10.1146/annurev-linguist-030514-125157.

Brown, Dunstan, Marina Chumakina, Greville G. Corbett & Andrew Hippisley. 2003. Surrey Suppletion Database. University of Surrey.

Bybee, Joan L. 1985. Morphology: A study of the relation between meaning and form. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Hippisley, Andrew. 2001. Suppletion, frequency and lexical storage. In: Andronis, Mary & Ball, Christopher & Elston, Heidi & Neuvel, Sylvain (eds) Chicago Linguistic Society 37: The Main Session. Vol. 1, 201–14. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society.

Kiparsky, Paul. 2008. Universals constrain change; change results in typological generalizations. In Jeff Good (ed.), Linguistic universals and language change, 23–53. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moskal, Beata. 2015. Limits on allomorphy: A case study in nominal suppletion. Linguistic Inquiry 46(2). 363–376. doi:10.1162/LING_a_00185.

Ronneberger-Sibold, Elke. 1988. Entstehung von Suppletion und Natürliche Morphologie. Zeitschrift für Phonetik, Sprachwissenschaft und Kommunikationsforschung 41: 453-462.

Vafaeian, Ghazaleh. 2013. Typology of nominal and adjectival suppletion. Sprachtypologie und Universalienforschung 66(2). 112–140.



The evolution (or diachrony) of “language evolution”

Oxford University Press just published the first issue of its new Journal of Language Evolution, seemingly a logical consequence of the increased popularity of evolution-oriented studies at least since the first Evolang conference in 1996. But what is “language evolution”?

One would think that the opening editorial of a new journal would say something about its scope, i.e. that it would tell us a bit more about what falls under “language evolution” in the sense of the new journal. But Continue reading

Stephen Anderson on “diachronic explanation” (of what?)

In a number of publications over the years, Stephen Anderson has advanced the idea that phonological and morphosyntactic phenomena should often be explained diachronically, rather than with reference to the innate Language Faculty (a.k.a. Universal Grammar) (cf. Anderson 2005; 2008; 2016). For someone who has been a very prominent generative phonologist and morphologist (cf. Anderson 1974; 1992), this is remarkable. In the generative meaninstream, very few linguists have even entertained the possibility that core properties of grammars (such as distinctive features and alternations in phonology, or case-marking rules in syntax) might be explained by anything other than UG. The notion that “linguistic theory” (= what generative linguists are engaged in) consists in elucidating the constraints of our cognitive apparatus on possible mental grammars is still widely taken for granted. Thus, Anderson’s arguments are interesting Continue reading

Hypothesis-testing in comparative linguistics: Aprioristic categories cannot be disproven!

A few months after their (2014) target article with comments from de Reuse, Dryer and me were published in the “Perspectives” section of Language, Henry Davis, Carrie Gillon and Lisa Matthewson have published their response (DGM 2015). Their original claim was that a UG-oriented approach is better suited to the discovery of linguistic diversity, in contrast to some of the claims made by Levinson & Evans (2010). In particular, they stressed the need for systematic hypothesis-testing, which turned out to be uncontroversial.

In my commentary (Haspelmath 2014b), I noted that the main difference between two types of approaches is not between “C-linguists” and “D-linguists” Continue reading

Strong evidence that the roots of binding constraints are pragmatic from Cole et al. (2015)

Cole, Hermon, and Yanti’s (2015) new paper is an extremely important contribution that is likely to have a powerful impact on debates that focus on where grammatical constraints in languages come from. The authors compare Traditional Jambi Malay (TJM) with a dialect of Jambi Malay spoken in Jambi City (JCM). TJM is an example of a language in which the longer forms involve the addition of an intensifier or emphatic, which serves to indicate the pragmatically marked nature of the coreference (König & Siemund 2000; Levinson 2000). Continue reading

A proposal for the glossing of bound formatives without committing to their nature

Martin Haspelmath (2011) has argued that the notion ‘word’ is incoherent, and therefore is not useful as a cross-linguistically valid comparative concept or as a language-internal descriptive category. As a result, in his view, the distinction between bound formatives, e.g., affixes and clitics, is untenable. For example, in Lithuanian, the bound formative –si is traditionally analyzed as a suffix when it is in one position (after the verb when the verb has no prefixes) and as a prefix when it is in another position Continue reading

Trapezity: a modest proposal for a new typological category

“that temple wherein earnest young people are taught not the language itself, but the method of teaching others to teach that method” (V. Nabokov, Pnin, p. 3)

A success of the functionalist approach to linguistics is to increasingly uncover grammatical categories. To ‘tense’ and ‘mood’ of the ancients accrued ‘aspect’ (Comrie 1976), ‘evidentiality’ (Aikhenvald 2004), ‘mirativity’ (DeLancey 1997), ‘impulsative’ (Cathcart 2011), ‘state’ (Mettouchi and Frajzyngier 2013), ‘speaker expectation of interlocutor knowledge’ (Hyslop 2014), ‘allocutivity’ (Antonov 2015), and ‘egophoricity’ (Floyed et al. In press) among many others. The observation that history moves ever quicker holds true with regard to the proliferation of typological categories. It is perplexing that so many of these categories went unrecognized for so long and one may eagerly await the further discovery of categories as vast in number as the grains of sand that would fill all space. Continue reading

Ancient DNA and the Indo-European Question

by Paul Heggarty, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig.


1. Towards the End-Game at Last?

An ‘ancient DNA revolution’ is now sweeping through genetics. Suddenly, ancient population migrations can be recovered far more clearly than before.  For linguists, this holds out the prospect of ‘closure’, at last, on the Indo-European question.  And that is quite some prospect, for agreement on the origins of Indo-European has eluded us Continue reading

Obituary – Frank Lichtenberk (1945-2015)

Frank Lichtenberk (Frantisek LichtenberFrank2008k) passed away on Wednesday 29th April 2015 tragically struck by a train near his home in Auckland, New Zealand.

He was an Associate Professor of linguistics in the Department of Applied Language Studies and Linguistics, at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He had worked there since completing a PhD under the guidance of Andrew Pawley and George Grace at the University of Hawai’i on the Manam language Continue reading

Preposed function items are less likely to coalesce because speakers tend to pause before content items

Himmelmann (2014) makes a fresh attempt at explaining the suffixing preference in the world’s languages that was observed long ago by Sapir and Greenberg, and for which Hawkins & Cutler (1988) and Hall (1992) had proposed a processing explanation. But while these authors argued from word recognition, Himmelmann’s explanation starts from language production and combines research on spontaneous spoken language and clitic typology in a novel way. Continue reading

Marrying Boas and Chomsky: Davis, Gillon and Matthewson on “formal” diversity research

I was happy to see the recent methodological article in the (online-only) “Perspectives” section of Language by Henry Davis, Carrie Gillon and Lisa Matthewson: “How to investigate linguistic diversity: Lessons from the Pacific Northwest”. The three authors (henceforth, DG&M) defend the approach of their very interesting work on Salishan, Wakashan and Tsimshianic languages, e.g. on the semantics of determiners and quantifiers. The main point of their paper is that elicitation-based negative evidence is often crucial for discovering the full depth of linguistic diversity Continue reading

Is Special A Marking the mirror image of Special P Marking?

Fauconnier & Verstraete (2014) examine “Differential A Marking” (DAM, where ergative flagging is different in prominent and less prominent nominals), compare it with “Differential O Marking” (DOM, where accusative flagging is restricted to prominent nominals), and conclude that the two are not each other’s “mirror image”. Whatever the explanation of (better-known) DOM, the explanation for DAM must thus be different. Continue reading

Quo vadis linguistics in the 21st century

This post contains most of the contributions to the Round Table Quo vadis linguistics in the 21st century at the Societas Linguistica Europaea 2014 conference at the Faculty of English, Adam Mickiewicz University, in Poznań. Its aim was to discuss the future of linguistics as a discipline in Europe and the world. The motivation behind this topic was the conviction that as linguists we need to make a strong statement about the essential role of our field in facing global societal challenges, and in bringing together insights from the humanities and the sciences. We must provide rationale and support to the development and enhancement of linguistic studies. Very often the role of linguistic studies is underestimated or misunderstood, and linguists are treated as those who “speak a lot of languages” or, alternatively, as those who “teach languages”. Continue reading

The growing pains of pragmatic typology

Six months ago a linguistic factoid made global headlines: ‘huh?’ is a universal word. The New York Times described it as “the syllable that everyone recognises” and for the Süddeutsche Zeitung it was “the most important word in the world” because of its role in solving communicative mishaps. Some reports claimed it was the first human word or the only global word. The news was based on a paper by me and my colleagues Francisco Torreira and Nick Enfield, entitled, Is “Huh?” a universal word? Conversational infrastructure and the convergent evolution of linguistic items (see the paper or download the PDF). For us, the newsworthy part was in the second part of the title. For the rest of the world, it was in the first part.

The global huh-laballoo (as one commentator called it) was an interesting experience. Continue reading

Max Planck diversity linguistics redux: Welcome to “Linguistic and Cultural Evolution” in Jena

With Bernard Comrie’s retirement at the end of May 2015, the Department of Linguistics of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig will close (only two staff members with permanent contracts, David Gil and I, will remain, but will join some other department, without special funding for linguistics). Many linguists who appreciated the work that we have been doing over the last 16 years expressed dismay about this, but it’s actually a perfectly normal development. Unlike university departments, which exist independently of particular professors, departments at Max Planck institutes only last as long as their director is active. After that, a new department in a similar area may be founded (funds permitting) by the Max Planck Society, but this is preceded by a lengthy discussion, and preference is often given to new fields that are not sufficiently established in Germany’s research context. Since linguistics is only one of the numerous subfields with relevance to “evolutionary anthropology”, it surprised nobody that the Max Planck Society wants to devote the new department that will occupy our offices after 2015 to a different subfield, human behavioral ecology, a kind of evolutionarily oriented cultural anthropology. Thus, researchers in Leipzig will continue to do research on small, traditional societies, including fieldwork and large-scale databases, but with a focus on cultural and behavioural practices other than language.

But this is not the end of world-wide diversity linguistics within the Max Planck Society. Continue reading