A few weeks ago, a new paper of mine on bound forms and affixes was published by the journal Voprosy Jazykoznanija. This has long been the most important Russian linguistics journal, and it now publishes articles in English as well. Here’s an introduction to some of the key points of the paper (Haspelmath 2021a).
Since my 2011 article on on the problems with a general “word” concept, I have been aware of the great difficulties with defining the widely used term affix in such a way that the criteria are the same for all languages. But this is required of a general (= comparative) concept in linguistics: If we apply different criteria in different languages, we do not use the term in the same way, and we end up comparing apples with oranges. Affixes are generally thought to be different from clitics, but these have the same problem: There are no clear and widely accepted criteria for identifying clitics and distinguishing them from affixes (Haspelmath 2015).
In the 2011 paper, I realized that “test batteries” as they are well-known from the famous article by Zwicky & Pullum (1983) are not the solution – if we find enough “arguments” for a particular classificatory decision, we may persuade our readers, but the method is not rigorous (and often subjective). Different criteria may give different results, and then the temptation is great to cherry-pick those that fit our preconceptions.
So can we do linguistics without a general “affix” concept? Actually, I do think that this would be possible (for example, my efficiency theory of asymmetric coding in grammar does not need it, see Haspelmath 2021b). But the term affix is deeply ingrained, and linguists will use it anyway, so we want to have a clear definition for it.
In earlier work, I had made use of the Bloomfieldian term “bound form” (especially in Haspelmath 2013; see also my 2019 paper on flags as bound markers of semantic roles), which I found was a good concept. A bound form is simply a form that does not occur on its own – this is a single criterion that is in principle applicable in all languages. All languages have some forms, such as the English article the or the Mandarin perfective marker le, which MUST occur together with some other form. Note that boundness is not a phonological criterion – even though many bound forms are phonologically deficient (e.g. English the, with its schwa), there are many others that are not deficient. Thus, English -ing is not deficient (cf. ring, sing, …), but it cannot occur in isolation. It is an affix not because of any phonological properties, but because it is bound, and it occurs only on verbs.
Many linguists seem to have the intuition that affixes are somehow “phonologically attached” to their base or “fused” with it, but these metaphors have never been made precise. I have long suspected that the reason why these vague notions are compelling and have rarely been questioned is the influence of our word-based writing systems: If we didn’t write some elements together and some separately (as in Chinese and Thai), the metaphor of “attachment” wouldn’t occur to us. Chinese linguists have traditionally distinguished between xūcí 虚词 (empty words) and shící 实词 (full words), but have not said anything about “attachment”. Another factor may have been the heterogeneity of nominal and verbal affixes in Latin: Traditionally, Western linguists started out by learning different “declension” and “conjugation” paradigms, where the affixes were not separated by the roots and seemed inextricably linked to them. The notion of a morph is surprisingly young (it did not catch on until the 1920s, under the label morpheme), and there is still much confusion around it among linguists. (Many are still arguing that we should describe “morphology” in a word-based way, even though we cannot readily distinguish words from phrases.)
But of course, phonological alternations frequently happen at morph boundaries, and we want to understand what constrains them. For example, are the kinds of bound morphs that we normally call “affixes” more likely to exhibit such alternations than other kinds of bound morphs? Recall that the English article the is a non-affixal bound morph, and it alternates (th[ə] tree vs. th[i] apple) – while the English affix -ing does not. Phonological alternation is thus orthogonal to affixhood. Another nice example of this is the contrast between the English genitive marker ’s (which is widely thought to be a clitic, e.g. Anderson 2008), and the German genitive suffix -s. The latter is phonologically invariant (e.g. Kants Theorie ‘Kant’s theory’), but the English genitive marker is variable: the queen of Denmark’s husband vs. the king of France’s wife (-[s] vs. -[əz]).
This has led me to propose a new term for a bound morph that shows phonological interactions with its host: welded form (also discussed in an earlier blogpost). This new term drives home the point that bound forms need not be “phonologically attached” (and that a notion of “phonological boundness” makes no sense – we should talk about [phonological] weldedness).
After all these prelminaries, here’s the definition of affix that I propose – first the short version:
An affix is a non-promiscuous bound form that is not a root.
Roots can be bound forms (for example, the German verb root helf- ‘help’ must occur with some inflection: helf-e ‘I help’, helf-en ‘to help’, etc.), so clearly affixes must be defined as non-roots. But the relatively new part here is that affixes are different from non-affixes in that they are non-promiscuous – in other words, they only occur on roots of a single class. This makes English -ing an affix (it only occurs on verb roots), and it makes German genitive -s an affix (it only occurs on noun roots). However, English genitive ’s is not an affix because it occurs on verbs as well (Anderson gives the example: Every man I know’s taste in wallpaper is appalling, where ’s occurs on a verb).
As the term “promiscuous” is not so widely known (outside of morphology) and sounds a bit odd, the real definition of “affix” is as follows:
An affix is a bound morph that is not a root, that must occur on a root, and that cannot occur on roots of different root classes.
In the paper, I discuss a number of limitations of this definition – in particular, the fact that elements which occur both on nouns and adjectives (e.g. Spanish libro-s nuevo-s ‘new books’) are not included in the definition, although intuitively, some of them are affixes. Clearly, the definition does not correspond fully to everyone’s intuitions. But if it corresponds to our intuitions 80% of the time, I would say that it’s worth it – after all, nobody thinks that our intuitions must necessarily correspond to a coherent scientific concept.
By contrast, it is clear that our scientific terms should have clear definitions, so if we want to use affix as a scientific term (something that linguists often seem to be doing, or trying to do), we need a clear definition. If we have to sacrifice either intuitiveness or clarity, the choice should be clear.
Anderson, Stephen R. 2008. The English “group genitive” is a special clitic. English Linguistics 25(1). 1–20. (doi:10.9793/elsj1984.25.1)
Haspelmath, Martin. 2011. The indeterminacy of word segmentation and the nature of morphology and syntax. Folia Linguistica 45(1). 31–80.
Haspelmath, Martin. 2013. Argument indexing: A conceptual framework for the syntax of bound person forms. In Bakker, Dik & Haspelmath, Martin (eds.), Languages across boundaries: Studies in memory of Anna Siewierska, 197–226. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.
Haspelmath, Martin. 2015. Defining vs. diagnosing linguistic categories: A case study of clitic phenomena. In Błaszczak, Joanna & Klimek-Jankowska, Dorota & Migdalski, Krzysztof (eds.), How categorical are categories? New approaches to the old questions of noun, verb, and adjective, 273–304. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.
Haspelmath, Martin. 2019. Indexing and flagging, and head and dependent marking. Te Reo 62(1). 93–115. (doi:10.17617/2.3168042)
Haspelmath, Martin. 2021a. Bound forms, welded forms, and affixes: Basic concepts for morphological comparison. Voprosy Jazykoznanija 2021(1). 7–28.
Haspelmath, Martin. 2021b. Explaining grammatical coding asymmetries: Form-frequency correspondences and predictability. Journal of Linguistics. (doi:10.1017/S0022226720000535)
Zwicky, Arnold M. & Pullum, Geoffrey K. 1983. Cliticization vs. inflection: English n’t. Language 59(3). 502–513.