In the French "A-t-il soif ?" there are several (inflected) lexemes ("A", "il", "soif"), and an empty morph "t".

The morph "t" has no meaning which is why it's an empty morph; it's there purely for the purpose of euphony.

Is an empty morph such as "t" also considered a lexeme? If not, is there a super group that includes both morph(eme)s and lexemes?

  • 5
    Different lexical theories have different answers to this. For example, in Ray Jackendoff's theory, that "t" is a lexeme that happens to have null semantics. (Or maybe the lexeme is even the construction "α-t-β" together with the euphony rule to fill in α and β appropriately.) But in other theories, "t" isn't a lexeme because it has no semantics. But in most such theories, it's not a morpheme either—morphemes are just the indecomposable parts of lexemes, and unless "t" or "a-t-il" or "α-t-β" is a lexeme, "t" isn't a morpheme.
    – abarnert
    Jan 30, 2019 at 22:44
  • This is the peculiar French-Canadian question marker coming from a reinterpretation of a misheared morpheme, right? If it marks questions, it isn't empty nor useless. Lexiconvalley mentioned it in the episode on the letter T.
    – vectory
    Jan 30, 2019 at 23:18
  • 2
    @vectory It's standard French, not just Canadian. "As-tu soif ?" and "Avez-vous soif ?" don't use the euphonic "t". "A-il" would need a pause in between which is where the "t" comes in. It's used where inversion occurs for the third person singular (il, elle, on) after a verb ending in a vowel whether that vowel is normally silent or not. Silent consonants become sounded, so "t" is not inserted: "Est-il ?" It's certainly not useless, but it is semantically empty.
    – CJ Dennis
    Jan 30, 2019 at 23:51

3 Answers 3


I don't think there is a theory-neutral term for the "super group" you're looking for—and I think the reason there isn't is that no such term would help the way you want it to.

Pre-theoretically, I don't think there's a problem. Presumably French people just think they're putting the words "a", "t", and "il" together, right? It's only when you try to rigorously define what they mean in some theoretical framework that "hold on, 't' has no semantics, so it can't be the same kind of thing as 'a'" even comes up.

In most definitions, morphemes are just the indecomposable parts of lexemes. But what are lexemes? That's the tricky part.

  • In many theories, it's not a problem for lexical entries to have null semantics—"it" in "it's raining" is pleonastic, but still a lexeme, and there's no reason "-t-" in your example couldn't be the same. (Of course "-t-" is also the sole morpheme in that lexeme, but you don't need your super group here.)
  • In other theories, lexemes have to have semantics, so what you actually have is a whole bunch of separate lexemes that have all have that "-t-" in the middle, which are "produced in the lexicon".1
    • Sometimes that just means that it's part of morphosyntax rather than phrase syntax, so there is clearly a "-t-" morpheme that all of those lexemes can be built from on the fly. So here, but really only here, your proposed super group would be useful.
    • In other versions (including the original sketch by Chomsky), if "-t-" isn't in the lexicon, it isn't being used by morphosyntax. There is no such thing as a "-t-" morpheme,2 or any "-t-" thing anywhere in the language, so no super group could help here.
  • Many theories that reject "-t-" as a lexeme aren't doing so because it has no semantics, but because (they claim) it has no independent existence.3
    • In a Steven Pinker-inspired "words vs. rules" treatment, what you have is a euphony rule—which lives in your "rules engine database", not your "lexicon"—that inserts the /t/ phoneme without having to grab anything out of the lexicon. There is no "-t-" lexeme, and no "-t-" morpheme, anywhere in the language. I don't know of a good word for "phoneme clusters embedded in rules", but they're definitely not morphemes, and there's no supergroup that will include them and lexemes together.
    • In a constructional approach, instead of a "euphony rule" stored in a separate rules engine, you have a construction (or family of constructions) stored in the lexicon, right alongside the words. For example, in Peter Culicover and Ray Jackendoff's Parallel Architecture, there's no lexeme "-t-", but there is a lexical entry we can call "euphonic α-t-β", a construction which includes phonological and syntactic information and interface constraints4 but nothing semantic5. Could you call "-t-" a morpheme in their treatment? Maybe,6 but even if you can, I think it misleads more than it helps to try to talk about morphemes and simple lexical entries as a group, rather than constructional and simple lexical entries as a group.

There are probably other theoretical approaches to morphosyntax that I haven't covered here, but that should be enough to explain why there's probably no term that applies to all of them that gives you what you want.

1. I'm taking your analysis for granted here. I think if pressed, most people who supported this kind of theory would insist that there must actually be some semantics for "-t-" so it can be a lexeme, to avoid this conclusion.

2. Of course you could still call "-t-" a morpheme in the diachronic history of each of the separate lexemes that uses it. But it isn't a morpheme in the language as a language, so that's more misleading than helpful. And the same goes for some of the other treatments below, including the next one.

3. Although they may use the fact that it has no semantics to argue that it must not be an independent lexeme, that's at the metatheoretical level.

4. There's the /t/ sound, probably some prosody information, the linear ordering, both euphonic and morphosyntactic constraints on what can be inserted in the two variable slots…

5. This is badly oversimplified, more like Culicover's earlier treatment than like actual PA, but it gets the idea across.

6. Any good instantiation of their system (which hopefully includes the human brain) is surely going to use (both regular and quasiregular) commonalities to optimize storage and lookup of different constructions that, e.g., all stick a /t/ in the middle. So there could be a generic "-t-" that "euphonic α-t-β" inherits from, which you could easily call "the '-t-' morpheme". But there could just as well be some kind of implicit associative analogy storage that doesn't have anything you could point to as "the '-t-' morpheme".

  • "It's raining" is not pleonastic. Nobody means "the rain is raining". I mean maybe it is deep down, but thee are a hundred different ways to mean it and I see no reason to prefer this one.
    – vectory
    Jan 31, 2019 at 10:43
  • 2
    @vectory “Pleonastic” is the standard term used for things like English “it” and “there” that have no meaning but are required by syntactic rules. Yes, that conflicts with the use of the same word in semantics to mean a redundant modifier, and in rhetoric to mean stating things repetitively for effect, and in usage guidelines to mean saying things like “because of the fact that” instead of just “because”, but all of those uses do make sense given the Greek meaning of “superfluous”—and even if they didn’t make sense, they’re way too established to change.
    – abarnert
    Jan 31, 2019 at 10:52
  • 2
    @vectory And the fact that nobody means “the rain is raining” is exactly why “it” is pleonastic. It doesn’t refer to the rain; it doesn’t refer to anything at all. That’s what makes it superfluous—a normal pronoun has a function, referring to something in the sentence or in the discourse, but a pleonastic pronoun has no function except to fill a syntactic rule.
    – abarnert
    Jan 31, 2019 at 10:56
  • 2
    @vectory No. Normally “referring to nothing” means having no reference. It’s only in specialized cases where it means having a reference to the abstract concept of nothing, and this clearly isn’t such a case.
    – abarnert
    Jan 31, 2019 at 11:25
  • 2
    @vectory I don’t understand most of the rest of your comment at all, except that you seem to be suggesting that the speaker is a default agent for “rain” or something, which is nonsense. Even in the rare cases where you want to assign responsibility for rain, there’s no agent role, so you have to use a causative construction like “Zeus made it rain” or an adjunct like “It’s raining because of the cloud-seeding planes”.
    – abarnert
    Jan 31, 2019 at 11:25

Morphemes are subdivised into lexical morphemes and grammatical morphemes.

Only lexical morphemes are considered lexemes. It is not a question about meaning or not. Grammatical morphemes have meaning but they are not lexemes.

The definition of a morpheme is the smallest meaningful linguistic unit. So we should ask ourself if a empty morpheme, which doesn't have meaning, is really a morpheme or an epenthesis instead, especially if there is only one phoneme.

In the case of French "t" appearing in the third person of interrogative sentences, it can be analysed as an epenthesis phenomenon.

I don't mean that an epenthesis is the same as an empty morpheme. They are two different concepts. But sometimes in some writings what can be viewed as an epenthesis is described as an empty morpheme.

Some empty morphemes cannot be regarded an epenthesis, because several phonemes are part of the empty morpheme. Moreover, it shouldn't be categorised as a full morpheme though.

  • 1
    Right. Specifically it's epenthesis as liaison, French's standard means of resolving hiatus. Otherwise we'd say that such cases as the /z/ that appears in « fais-toi-en pas » /fetwezɑ̃pɑ/ is an "empty morph"... Jan 31, 2019 at 23:23

It's a Grammatical Particle and for sake of the argument assume a rather broad meaning for grammatik (ie. that which is well said or written).

In one sense it's a clitic like the s in "it's raining", if you admit that "it raining" is well meaningfull and understandable, though the grammar be needing some getting used to. At least it's a Noun Phrase though the grammatical status of participles as verbs or nouns is indecicive. Surely the sound is rather important here, it just flows better with a hiss. You don't want a glottal stop or worse a cluster "training".

Or it's a, umm, a filler, of course, like "of course". One cannot argue whether it's of semantical importance when the semantics are rather low level, like signaling group identification.

  • 2
    It’s not a grammatical particle—it doesn’t apply a grammatical function, and it’s not a word. And the “-s” in “It’s raining” isn’t a clitic; it’s the verb at the core of the sentence. (Are you confusing it with the possessive that looks like the contraction?)
    – abarnert
    Jan 31, 2019 at 11:03
  • 1
    It’s also not a Noun Phrase, or a participle. And, even if it were any of these things, that wouldn’t answer the question that was asked. As for “Surely the sound…”, the question already says it’s there for euphonium, and that’s what euphony means.
    – abarnert
    Jan 31, 2019 at 11:06
  • 3
    No, it’s not “same difference”. You can’t just use any technical word you want with any meaning you invent. And possessive s certainly doesn’t make a verb., either. And verbs aren’t marked for case.
    – abarnert
    Jan 31, 2019 at 11:35
  • 1
    Wikipedia defines a grammatical particle as a function word associated with another word to impart meaning. There are many types of particle, but they are all types of particles, not types of meaningless non-word things. And yes, “smashing pumpkins” is a phrase with a participle as its head; but what does that have to do with anything in the question, your answer, or your comments? Do you think “particle” and “participle” are the same thing?
    – abarnert
    Jan 31, 2019 at 11:56
  • 2
    @CJDennis Not at all. For example, a verb on its own can be an imperative. A noun on its own can be a reply to a question, as can even a disjunctive pronoun in French, and so on. But the subject pronouns can't be isolated the same way: "Qui l'a fait ? - *Je." If you want a fuller explanation (and/or debate!) of the analysis as nothing more than a verbal inflection that happens to be detached in French (and not in pro-drop languages, where the pronoun is not necessary to determine the conjugation), it might be a good idea to ask a separate question. Feb 1, 2019 at 1:53

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.