Implicational Morphology

Farrell Ackerman & James P Blevins

Morphology is traditionally described as ‘the study of word structure’. For much of the modern period, this study has been guided by the goal of elucidating the relation between discrete units of ‘meaning’ and ‘form’; this semiotic goal is sometimes even taken to define the task of morphological analysis. Classical models develop a different conception of structure, one grounded in the implicational relations between patterns of form variation, rather than in the denotative function of their parts. This perspective is partially rehabilitated in studies of ‘morphomic’ patterns (e.g., Maiden 2005) but even within this literature (e.g., Aronoff 1994) implicational patterns are often treated as deviations from a normatively denotational organization.

This course traces the development of implicational models from their classical origins to their modern formulation in current word and paradigm (WP) approaches. Within this tradition, the fundamental locus of analysis is the morphological system, not inventories of elements abstracted from systems. Implicational analyses model system-level variation, regarding individual contrasts at the level of form, arrangement and distribution as dimensions of larger patterns with communicative functions.

The lectures explore a cluster of issues that arise within approaches that frame morphological analysis in terms of observable and quantifiable dimensions of system-level variation. The general topics covered in lectures include discussions of:

  • The principles and dynamics that define the organization of morphological alternations, patterns and systems,
  • The abstractive and discriminative dimensions of form variation, and the implicational function of structure,
  • The statistical basis and predictive value of linguistic ‘units’, and the secondary function of ‘diagnostics’,
  • The pedagogical biases that underlie analytic traditions based on constructs like ‘rules’, ‘lexicons’ and ‘grammars’,
  • The formal and distributional bases of familiar notions such as ‘features’, ‘classes’, ‘templates’ (and ‘meaning’),
  • The role that paradigmatic structures play in overcoming effects of sparse and biased input on acquisition and use,
  • The learning principles that allow discriminative models to resolve morphological ‘competion’ in the course of acquisition,
  • The form in which implicational relations are represented in integrated models of language learning and processing.


Course textbook

Blevins (2016)

General readings

Blevins and Blevins (2009); Bochner (1993); Bybee (1985); Matthews (1991); Sims (2015)


L1: Typological & developmental perspectives (pdf)


  • What is the nature and extent of language variation (and why does this matter)?
  • What ensures the learnability of (complex) inflectional and derivational systems?
  • How can methods and models in linguistics be adapted to answer these questions by drawing on insights from the developmental sciences?


Ackerman and Nikolaeva (2010) (pdf); Ramscar et al. (2017) (pdf)

L2: Variation & anomalies (pdf)


  • Why does what recurs cross-linguistically, recur?
  • Why do the variations in encodings of what recurs look the specific way they do?
  • What can we conclude from: variable morphotactics/endoclisis/multiple exponence/periphrasis/polyfunctional markers/etc.?


Ackerman, Blevins, and Malouf (2009) (pdf); Ackerman and Malouf (2016) (pdf); Ramscar (2013) (pdf)

L3: Measuring morphological variation & structure (pdf)


  • How can we measure variation/implicational structure in morphological systems?
  • Do languages differ in how much measurable variation and structure they exhibit?
  • Are there any constraints on how much/little variation a language can exhibit?

The Zipfian Paradigm Cell Filling Problem (pdf)


  • How does a speaker come to know the inflected and derived forms of a language?
  • How much of a learning challenge does inflectional variation create?
  • To what extent is this challenge affected by the problem of the ‘Sparsity of the Stimulus’?
  • What types of structure in the input can compensate for sparsity and bias?


Ackerman and Malouf (2013) (pdf); Blevins (2016:sec. 7); Malouf (2017) (pdf); Milin et al. (2009) (pdf); Ramscar et al. (2010) (pdf); Sanders (1990) (pdf)

L4: Morphological structure and information (pdf)


  • How does structure in the input compensate for sparsity and bias?
  • Does form variation function in isolation or in the context of a system?
  • In what ways are the analytic challenges associated with the segmentation and classification of recurrent partials different from those associated with words?


Acquaviva (2016) (pdf) Anderson (1986) (pdf); Blevins (2016:sec. 8); Maiden (2005) (pdf) Penke and Krause (2002) (pdf) Ramscar, Dye, and McCauley (2013) (pdf)

L5: Naturalness, predictiveness and system-internal interpretation (pdf)


  • What role do natural feature classes play in synchrony and diachrony?
  • What is the nature of the stimulus available to speakers?
  • What is the relevance of subphonemic sensitivity to word-based assumptions?
  • What is the status and function of regular and irregular formations?


Baerman (2004) (pdf); Blevins (2008) (pdf); Kemps et al. (2005) (pdf); Maiden (2010) (pdf);

L6: Discrimination and extrapolation (pdf)


  • What role does sub-phonemic variation play in morphological change?
  • Is decomposition ever lossless, or is some information always lost?
  • What communicative role do regular and irregular formations play?


Blevins, Milin, and Ramscar (2017) (pdf); Dye et al. (2017) (pdf); Robins (1959) (pdf); Seyfarth et al. (2017) (pdf)

L7: Architectural vs learning-based analysis and explanation (pdf)


  • What is the nature of ‘explanation’ and what role does it play in evaluating alternatives that develop radically different intuitions?
  • What is the status of morphological competition?
  • Can traditional claims for the status of units or structures be validated by 'naive', general-purpose techniques for probing the informativeness of linguistic units, boundaries and system organization?


Brown and Evans (2011) (pdf); Geertzen, Blevins, and Milin (2016) (pdf); Moscoso del Prado Martín (2011) (pdf); Ramscar and Dye (2010) (pdf)

L8: Implicational structure of derivational families (pdf)


  • In what ways do inflection and derivation share implicational organization?
  • In what other ways can inflectional and derivational elements be related or differentiated within synchronic systems and across diachronic stages?


Ackerman and Malouf (2017) (pdf); Bonami and Strnadová (2017) (pdf); Plag and Balling (2016) (pdf)


Ackerman, Farrell.; and Robert Malouf. 2013. Morphological organization: The Low Conditional Entropy Conjecture. Language 89.429–464.

Ackerman, Farrell.; and Robert Malouf. 2016. Implicative relations in word-based morphological systems. The Cambridge handbook of morphology, ed. by Gregory T. Stump and Andrew Hippisley, 297–328. Cambridge University Press.

Ackerman, Farrell.; and Robert Malouf. 2017. Systemic organization in pattern-based derivation: Separable preverb predicates in Hungarian.

Ackerman, Farrell.; and Irina Nikolaeva. 2010. Descriptive typology and grammatical theory. Stanford: CSLI.

Ackerman, Farrell.; James P. Blevins.; and Robert Malouf. 2009. Parts and wholes: Implicative patterns in inflectional paradigms. Analogy in grammar: Form and acquisition, ed. by James P. Blevins and Juliette Blevins, 54–81. Oxford University Press.

Acquaviva, Paolo. 2016. Morphomic stem extension and the german n-declension. The morphome debate, ed. by Ricardo Bermúdez-Otero and Ana R. Luís, 248–275. Oxford University Press.

Anderson, Stephen R. 1986. Disjunctive ordering in inflectional morphology. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 4.1–32.

Aronoff, Mark. 1994. Morphology by itself: Stems and inflectional classes. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Baerman, Matthew. 2004. Directionality and (un)natural classes in syncretism. Language 80.807–827.

Blevins, James P. 2008. Declension classes in Estonian. Linguistica Uralica 44.241–267.

Blevins, James P. 2016. Word and paradigm morphology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Blevins, James P., and Juliette Blevins (eds.) 2009. Analogy in grammar: Form and acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Blevins, James P.; Petar Milin.; and Michael Ramscar. 2017. The Zipfian Paradigm Cell Filling Problem. Perspectives on morphological structure: Data and analyses, ed. by Ferenc Kiefer, James P. Blevins, and Huba Bartos. Leiden: Brill.

Bochner, Harry. 1993. Simplicity in generative morphology. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Bonami, Olivier.; and Jana Strnadová. 2017. Paradigm structure and predictability in derivational morphology.

Brown, Dunstan.; and Roger Evans. 2011. Inflectional defaults and principal parts: An empirical investigation. Proceedings of the 17th international conference on head-driven phrase structure grammar, ed. by Stefan Müller, 234–254. Stanford: CSLI.

Bybee, Joan L. 1985. Morphology: A study of the relation between meaning and form. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Dye, Melody.; Petar Milin.; Richard Futrell.; and Michael Ramscar. 2017. A functional theory of gender paradigms. Perspectives on morphological structure: Data and analyses, ed. by Ferenc Kiefer, James P. Blevins, and Huba Bartos, (in press). Leiden: Brill.

Geertzen, Jeroen.; James P. Blevins.; and Petar Milin. 2016. The informativeness of linguistic unit boundaries. Italian Journal of Linguistics 28.1–24.

Kemps, J. J. K, Rachèl.; Mirjam Ernestus.; Robert Schreuder.; and R. Harald Baayen. 2005. Prosodic cues for morphological complexity: The case of Dutch plural nouns. Memory & Cognition 33.430–446.

Maiden, Martin. 2005. Morphological autonomy and diachrony. Yearbook of morphology 2004, ed. by Geert Booij and Jaap van Marle, 137–175. Dordrecht: Springer.

Maiden, Martin. 2010. Morphological persistence. The Cambridge history of the romance languages, ed. by Martin Maiden, John Charles Smith, and Adam Ledgeway, 155–214. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Malouf, Robert. 2017. Abstractive morphological learning with a recurrent neural network.

Matthews, Peter H. 1991. Morphology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Milin, Petar.; Victor Kuperman.; Aleksandar Kostić.; and R. Harald Baayen. 2009. Words and paradigms bit by bit: An information-theoretic approach to the processing of inflection and derivation. Analogy in grammar: Form and acquisition, ed. by James P. Blevins and Juliette Blevins, 214–253. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moscoso del Prado Martín, Fermín. 2011. The mirage of morphological complexity. Proceedings of the 33rd annual meeting of the cognitive science society, 3524–3529.

Penke, Martina.; and Marion Krause. 2002. German noun plurals: A challenge to the dual-mechanism model. Brain and Language 81.301–311.

Plag, Ingo.; and Laura Winther Balling. 2016. Derivational morphology: An integrative perspective on some fundamental questions. Word knowledge and word usage: A cross-disciplinary guide to the mental lexicon, ed. by Vito Pirrelli, Ingo Plag, and Wolfgang U. Dressler. De Gruyter.

Ramscar, Michael. 2013. Suffixing, prefixing, and the functional order of regularities in meaningful strings. Psihologija 46.377–396.

Ramscar, Michael.; and Melody Dye. 2010. Learning language from the input: Why innate constraints can’t explain noun compounding. Cognitive Psychology 62.1–40.

Ramscar, Michael.; Melody Dye.; and Stewart M. McCauley. 2013. Error and expectation in language learning: The curious absence of mouses in adult speech. Language 89.760–793.

Ramscar, Michael.; Melody Dye.; James P. Blevins.; and R. Harald Baayen. 2017. Morphological development. Handbook of communications disorders: Theoretical, empirical, and applied linguistic perspectives, ed. by Amalia Bar-On and Dorit Ravid. Boston/Berlin: De Gruyter.

Ramscar, Michael.; Daniel Yarlett.; Melody Dye.; Katie Denny.; and Kirsten Thorpe. 2010. The effects of feature-label-order and their implications for symbolic learning. Cognitive Science 34.909–957.

Robins, Robert H. 1959. In defence of WP. Transactions of the Philological Society 58.116–144.

Sanders, Gerald. 1990. On the analysis and implications of Maori verb alternations. Lingua 80.149–149.

Seyfarth, Scott.; Marc Garellek.; Gwendolyn Gillingham.; Farrell Ackerman; and Robert Malouf. 2017. Acoustic differences in morphologically-distinct homophones.

Sims, Andrea D. 2015. Inflectional defectiveness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.