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We have some fun telling you about nonconcatenative mophology — that is morphology that doesn’t involve stringing things together. It’s not just Arabic, folks (though we do talk about that a bit).

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14 Responses to “Conlangery #99: Nonconcatenative Morphology”

  1. Christophe Grandsire-Koevoets

    Very good episode (as usual). One thing you seem to have missed (or just mentioned only in passing, I’m not sure) is that some languages mark inflections by means of phonation (creaky voice, breathy voice, etc.) or tone alone. This is uncommon, but can be found for instance in languages of South-Western Africa, and little bit in East Asia. I don’t have examples handy, but I remember reading about at least one language where verb negation is marked solely by a change of tone in the verb stem!

    Just as with umlaut, such examples of non-concatenative morphology seem to come from affixes that caused a change in tone and/or phonation to the word stem, and then disappeared due to sound changes, leaving the change in tone/phonation itself to take over the semantic burden. I like it. It’s like umlaut, but cooler :P. My own Moten has something similar: in some cases, the only audible mark of definiteness on a noun in the nominative case is a changed pitch pattern compared to the indefinite form. That’s because the definite infix -e- disappears when added to a stem that already has an -e- in its last syllable, put the pitch pattern that is associated with it is still used. For instance, _ge|sem_ with a HL pitch pattern means “a father”, while _ge|sem_ with a LH pitch pattern means “the father”. It’s cute, and it was completely unplanned by me! It just appeared naturally due to the way the Moten pitch accent works :).

    As for the talk we had between you, David and myself after the recording of the special, I do think the subject was really interesting and worth doing an episode about. Whether we can use that talk as is is another matter. We might hurt some sensibilities badly doing so ;).

    • admin

      I did bring that up in the podcast, but because I didn’t have specific examples on hand, I didn’t talk much (I think I did talk about a tone change I heard about in Chinese — though I am skeptical as to whether said change is productive).

      About our discussion, I don’t see why we couldn’t put it up. It’s not like we said anything offensive — it was just a theory rant.

      • Christophe Grandsire-Koevoets

        I thought I did hear that one indeed. It’s unfortunate that you didn’t have examples. When I’m back home I’ll come back and share some examples I have :).

        As for our discussion, I’m not talking about things that are offensive per se, but I do remember that I was quite harsh about whether in its current state linguistics should be considered a science at all (some linguists might not like hearing that 😉 ). I also think that because it was so informal, I was not so careful about everything I said, and some of it could be misunderstood. There’s so much misinformation around about what is science and what isn’t that I’d rather get that part right.

        In other words, I think the subject is important enough that an informal talk between David, you and I might not do it justice, however good that talk was :).

  2. Jyri

    You describe consonant gradation as a type of lenition and this is certainly the case for the Finnic gradation system. Historically it descends from shortening of geminated /pp tt kk/ and voicing or frication of single /p t k/ in certain closed syllables. The gradation system of the neighbouring Saami languages looks superficially very similar but is underlyingly a strengthening system. There the strong grade is actually rhythmic extra lengthening of all types of consonants and consonant clusters and the weak grade is where original closed syllables have blocked this change and preserved the original lengths of the consonantisms.

    The Finnish gradation system is a nice and transparent example but actually has a very low functional load. All the inflection are still formed by distinct affixes and the necessary consonant grades are determined by these. Consonant gradation really takes a prominent front stance in languages like Estonian of all the branches of Saamic. These languages have eroded the ends of their words more so that many common noun and verb inflection (such as the genitive/accusative case) are now only distinguished by gradation of the stem consonants. An example of a three grade opposition in North Saami is

    soađi – war.GEN
    soahti – war(NOM)
    soahtti – fighting (present participle)

    • Jyri

      Just to correct a minor but a bit embarrassing and potentially misleading error:

      ” Estonian of all the branches of Saamic” should actually read
      ” Estonian and all the branches of Saamic”

  3. Ossicone

    Please refer to concatenative morphology by it’s scientific term – stick-a-brick. 😉

  4. Aaron Richard

    Hi George,

    There are a few more examples of the “tone change to 4th = noun” in Chinese.

    E.g. 教 when pronounced jiāo is the verb “to teach”, whereas when pronounced “jiào” it’s the noun “teaching” (especially in the name of religions).

    But you’re right that it isn’t majorly productive in modern Mandarin.


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