In a lecture, my professor said that assumig a null morpheme signifying the singular number of nouns in German is problematic. Now I´m wondering why. The issue came up during a discussion on whether or not morphemes should be defined as the smallest signs carrying meaning (signifiant + signifé) or whether morphemes primarily have a signifié side (because of allomorphy of plural number of nouns in German).

Note the difference between null morpheme and null allomorph. The Wikipedia entry (not the most reliable source, I know), which mentiones null morphemes signifying the singular number of nouns in English as an example, also says that some linguists object to this notion:

Some linguists object to the notion of a null morpheme, arguing that it sets up an unverifiable distinction between a "null" or "zero" element, and nothing at all.

My questions:

  1. "Some linguists" - Who, apart from my professor?
  2. Are there any other reasons to object to null morphemes (in general)?
  • 5
    It’s theory-specific, but generally only null allomorphs make sense from the point of view of language economy (or Occam’s razor). For example, in modern Celtic languages some nouns have singular suffixes so it makes sense to assume that there’s a Ø variant. The same can be said of case endings, for example.
    – Atamiri
    Sep 25, 2017 at 9:49

1 Answer 1


In short, assuming invisible stuff is always problematic from a theoretical point of view, because you can never really prove it's there, and even worse, you can never really prove it's not there - because it's invisible. This is scientifically seen very undesirable and therefore often rejected - a hypothesis should always be possible to both be verified and be falsified by empirical facts, and this is not so straightforwardly possible for things that are never observable on a physical basis, indifferently between whether you claim it to be absent or present in that particular situation.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.