Is the derivational/inflectional morpheme distinction particularly significant to linguists?

If so, is it more significant for languages other than English, which I think is less "inflected" than most?

I know I've already asked two questions there, but I'd also be interested to know how English compares to other languages in terms of how much it uses derivational morphemes as opposed to inflectional ones (I'm assuming English is called a weakly inflected language because it uses few inflectional morphemes).

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    i'd say it's a significant distinction in morphological theory. most will admit that the distinction is problematic, but it is implicitly assumed in many theories of morphology. as with any theoretical issue, some languages tend to furnish more interesting examples than others. i am teaching morphology to students now and i elect to use mostly non-english data since english inflection is not interesting and derivation is complicated by all of the french/latinate vocabulary. – user483 Oct 6 '12 at 2:13

The distinction is quite important to any linguist. There is a certain grey area between the two, but there are many clear cases of both. And they have very different characteristics.

Here's a handout on the distinction.

-John Lawler, from France but unable to sign on.

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  • great handout. i'm referring to it as i prepare lecture notes! – user483 Oct 7 '12 at 18:03
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    +1 but I would go further and say that the distinction is extremely important to any linguist. – Gaston Ümlaut Oct 8 '12 at 7:49

Where I come from, inflection is seen as a kind of derivation, but one that is usefully distinguished from other kinds. It cannot be denied that an inflected form is derived from a stem, like any ordinary derivation; but inflection in general exhibits some properties that other kinds of derivation do not, like some of the ones Lawler mentions in his hand-out.

However, verbal inflection is in many ways very different from nominal inflection: a fairly sharp line can be drawn between the two—sharper than the line between inflection on one hand and other kinds of derivation on the other. It could be argued that the division verbal derivation v. nominal derivation is more significant in certain contexts than that between inflectional and other derivation.

Consider for example Latin mulier, "woman". I can add the non-inflectional suffix -bris to turn it into an adjective, so that amicitia muliebris could mean "the friendship of a woman". Instead, I could simply use the (inflectional) genitive, mulier-is, which is also normally translated as "of a woman" and which is in many contexts interchangeable with the adjective. I cannot do anything with verbal derivation that would result in the same meaning "of a woman", be it inflectional or non-inflectional derivation.

Simple inflection can also be used to create a new verb. The first person singular present ending -o can be stuck on a stem to create a verb out of nothing. The stem reg-, which means something like "straight, right, lead" becomes a verb if you simply add -o, so rego "I lead, direct", second person reg-i-s "you lead". The nominal suffix -s turns it into a noun in the nominative: rex (<*regs), "leader, king" (genitive reg-is "of a king", etc.). Is this added -o derivation or inflection? Or both?

An important reason why we maintain this distinction between inflection and non-inflectional derivation is tradition. Not only is this a tradition in the terminology of descriptive linguistics that dates back thousands of years, but it was also a self-fulfilling prophesy among prescriptivists. Because a full paradigm was (and is) the norm, people felt more inclined to fill up any existing holes and create new forms. The farther you go back in history, the more suppletion you will see. It is speculated that the oldest cases were suffixes that were not at all distinctive compared other suffixes, and possibly even enclitics, and possibly even wholly separate words before that.

For these reasons, it is best to treat inflection as distinct type of derivation.

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  • So, basically, all morphology is derivational, and the regular paradigmatic derivations are inflections? – John Lawler Oct 8 '12 at 21:01
  • @JohnLawler: I would say so, yes. Unless you can give me a nice counter-argument, hehe. – Cerberus Oct 8 '12 at 21:53
  • No argument necessary. All you're doing is changing the terminology. Linguists do that all the time; it doesn't affect anything real, just the understanding of one's audience. – John Lawler Oct 9 '12 at 17:08
  • @JohnLawler: Exactly. As long as everyone can see how terminology is just words, and weigh the benefits and drawbacks each set of terms, there is no problem. – Cerberus Oct 12 '12 at 23:52

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