Sunday, March 13, 2011

Seminar Series, March 25

Our next talk in the W2011 Seminar Series is Friday, March 25. Degif Banksara will be speaking on: "Against Mobile Morphemes". More details of this talk are found below. All are welcome!

Time: 4-5pm
Location: SN 4073

Against Mobile Morphemes

Degif Banskara

Chaha, one of the Semitic languages of Ethiopia, displays morphemes (e.g., the impersonal subject) that are sometimes expressed by labialization, palatalization or both (Polotsky 1951, Lelau 1967, Hetzron 1971, Banksira 2000). These processes affect phonemes that are located at various positions in a word. Due to this, the language has been considered to have ‘mobile morphemes’ (McCarthy 1983, Akinlabi 1996, Rose 1997, Piggott 2000). The two main characteristics of such morphemes are that i) their phonological content is less than a full segment – it is a feature or bundle of features – and ii) the position of these features is variable. In this presentation, I will argue that the so-called mobile morphemes of Chaha do not satisfy any of these conditions and that Chaha in fact does not have mobile morphemes at all.

From an empirical point of view, I will present data showing that the phonological signals of the putative mobile morphemes are not necessarily mobile nor less than a full segment – they sometimes surface as independent segments and their position is fixed. This is shown in (1a) where the impersonal suffix surfaces independently and occupies a fixed position like any other fixed suffix such as (1b).

(1) a. čənə-wi-m


One came.

(1) b. čənə-čɨ-m


She came.

I will then propose that the independent and fixed -wi of (1a) is the output of morphology even in cases where mobility is at issue. This output of morphology, namely the underlying /-wi/ is submitted to phonological rules which may give rise to mobile phonological features depending on the nature of the stem. In other words, in addition to establishing dominance relations between morphemes, morphology establishes a fixed precedence relationship between them, this relationship is asymmetric, namely if ‘a precedes b’ is true then the inverse is not. However, phonological rules may alter this asymmetry by manipulating the phonological features associated with /-wi/ without manipulating their morphosyntactic features. These rules are blind to morphosyntactic features of the impersonal subject and they can apply within morphemes. Thus, mobility is a function of phonology – not of morphology – and phonological rules alone are responsible for featural mobility.

If this claim proves correct, it will have two important consequences. First, it will provide evidence that analyzing Chaha labialization and palatalization as mobile morphemes is descriptively inadequate. Thus, gradient Optimality Theoretic constraints such as “align morphological categories to an edge” proposed by Akinlabi (1996) to compute the movement of these morphemes can be dispensed with (see Piggott 2000 for similar proposals). Second, it will solve the puzzle that the placement of a morpheme in Chaha depends on its morphosyntactic content. Notice that the phonological signals of well-known and better understood morphemes cross-linguistically have a variety of shapes: C, V, CV, CVC, CVCC, and so on, or their moraic equivalents. Yet, such morphemes are not known to be mobile. So, theories that subscribe to mobile morphemes must attribute the special behaviour of mobility only to morphemes whose phonetic expression can be (partly) featural. In such analyses the morphosyntactic contents of a morpheme (e.g. the impersonal in (1a) vs. the 3fem. sing. in (1b)) will dictate their positions. On the contrary, the claim being made here is that the placement of a morpheme is blind to its morphosyntactic content and that the mobility of phonological features has nothing to do with morphology.


Akinlabi, A. (1996). Featural affixation. Journal of Linguistics 32, 239-289.

Banksira, D. P. (2000). Sound Mutations: The Morphophonology of Chaha. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Hetzron, R. (1971). Internal labialization in the tt-Group of Outer South-Ethiopic. Journal of the American Oriental Society 91, 192-207.

Leslau, W. (1967). The impersonal in Chaha. To honor Roman Jakobson. Essays on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, 1150-1162. The Hague: Mouton.

McCarthy, J.J. (1983). Consonantal morphology in the Chaha verb. The proceedings of the second West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics, edited by M. Balow, D. Flickinger & M. Wescoat, 176-188. Palo Alto: Stanford Linguis­tics Association.

Piggott, G. (2000). Against featural alignment. Linguistics 36, 85-128.

Polotsky, J.H. (1951). Notes on Gurage grammar. Jerusalem: Israel Oriental Society.

Rose, S. (1997). Theoretical issues in comparative Ethio-Semitc phonology and morphology. Doctoral dissertation, McGill University.

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