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Is there an explanation, or maybe even an observation, how inflection appears in a language? With inflection I mean phenomena like the germanic ablaut ("man/men", "Mann/Männer") or the inflection in arabic. These declension or conjugation systems do not seem to be causally related to fusing suffixes to a word root.

  • "man/men", "Mann/Männer" is not ablaut, but umlaut. It is the result of the assimilatory palatalisation of the stem vowel before a suffix with a front vowel. – fdb Aug 5 '15 at 14:50
  • Just as syntax can become morphology by fusion, phonology can become morphology by fixing forms. Thematic vs athematic roots in Latin are an example. – jlawler Aug 5 '15 at 14:56
  • Inflection as opposed to derivation is not about how it is expressed, it is about what it expresses (case, tense, agreement, etc.). Inflection in Arabic is primarily accomplished with regular affixation. Are you asking about inflection, or about the history of umlaut and Semitic root-and-pattern morphology (two unrelated phenomena)? – user6726 Aug 5 '15 at 15:15
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This question has been dealt with in literature on grammaticalization. The Wikipedia entry has all the detail to get you started on further research.

In short, there are a number of processes through which lexemes lose their original meanings and through processes like enclitization become morphemes. We can even see some of these in progress as in the English will going from will=want to 'll.

This type of development has been famously summarized as:

content word → grammatical word → clitic → inflectional affix

| improve this answer | |
  • Diagram here. – jlawler Aug 5 '15 at 18:41
  • It might be better to state this as a hypothesis rather than as a fact. – fdb Aug 5 '15 at 21:44
  • You are correct. Although the grammaticalization process is well attested for individual morphemes, it is more of a supposition for the entire morphological system of highly inflected languages. – Dominik Lukes Aug 6 '15 at 6:20

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