The Demarcation of Inflection and Derivation

Seminar Paper, 2010

12 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. The Demarcation of Inflection and Derivation
2.1. Obligatoriness
2.2. Syntactic Relevance
2.3. Change ofSyntactic Category
2.4. Paradigm
2.5. Semantic Differences

3. Theory of Split Morphology

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Inflection and derivation are traditional concepts in the field of morphology, the subdiscipline of linguistics that concentrates on the internal structures of words. Despite the ascribed central role in linguistics, the distinction between inflection and derivation is far from clear-cut. Linguistic textbooks or publications used to treat the fields of inflectional and derivational morphology as two clearly distinguishable categories but on closer examination the boundaries between both processes turn out to be a lot fuzzier. "The question of how inflection can be distinguished from derivation is one of the classical problems addressed by structuralist linguistics."[1]. During the last decades many linguists have already focussed on this lack of clear distinctions with the aim to find a universally valid definition for both categories, but the concepts of inflectional and derivational morphology "are notoriously easier to illustrate than to define."[2] We will first turn towards a broad selection of criteria that have been argued to distinguish inflection and derivation. These criteria have been proposed to put the dichotomy on a firmer theoretical footing which is important since much morphological theorising is based on the assumption that morphological processes fall into these two broad categories - inflection and derivation.

2. The Demarcation of Inflection and Derivation

For instance, the English words walk, walks, walked and walking are considered to be different word forms of the lexeme walk. The dictionary of English would not list these four words as separated lexical entries, but deal with it in one entry for the verbal lexeme walk. The noun walker in contrast, is no longer considered as a form of the lexeme walk, but as a different lexeme with a different meaning and also a different lexical category. As a consequence it receives its own lexical entry. The main distinction between inflection and derivation is a functional one: "it refers to different functions of morphological processes, the creation of different forms of lexemes versus the creation of different lexemes."[3] This statement captures the basic intuitions behind the two terms, but as a concrete definition it is not useful unless there is a reliable way to determine whether two words that contain the same root are different lexemes or merely different forms of the same lexeme. Without any independent criteria that guide us in making this judgment, the definition becomes circular. In order to avoid this circularity we need to focus on a number of issues which are typical for inflectional morphology and others which are typical for derivational morphology, as these terms have traditionally been used. With these properties we are allowed to describe the distinction between inflection and derivation in terms of a contrast between two prototypes. "Most affixes in most languages can be assigned to one class or the other according to which prototype they share the most properties with."[4] If we take the noun walker again, it is the stem, which consists of the root walk and the derivational suffix-er. The distinction between word and stem is one of the main requirements of the distinction between inflection and derivation. Normally, the creation of a new lexeme happens on the basis of the stem form, not on the basis of one of its inflectional forms, i.e. the Italian noun macchina 'car' constists of the stem macchin- with an inflectional ending -a. The derived word macchinista 'driver' consists of the same stem but a derivational ending -ista. If we used the inflectional word form macchina, the wrong form namely macchina-ista would have been derived. This regularity of word formation processes, that we expect inflection to be peripheral to derivation, has also been confirmed in 1963 by Joseph H. Greenberg's language universal 28, which reads as follows:

If both the derivation and inflection follow the root, or they both precede the root, the derivation is always between the root and the inflection.

In the following, I am going to present different issues that are concerned with the questions: how do we know whether a special morphological process belongs to the domain of inflection or to that of derivation? Can we draw a clear boundary between the two? Are there striking properties that are typical for inflection or derivation? And if there are any, how can they be described? Is Greenberg's language universal still valid despite several counterexamples?

2.1. Obligatoriness

The first criterion for the distinction between inflection and derivation is that inflectional processes are obligatory, whereas derivational processes are optional.

For instance, Latin nouns are inflected for number and case, which means that their endings always indicate number and case and the base itself is not a possible word form. Hence, the categories number and case are obligatory categories of Latin and hence inflectional.

Similarly, in most languages verbs are marked obligatorily for a specific tense and also often for person and number of the subject of the clause. "[...] this is true even if there is no overt marking for a particular inflectional feature."[5] In English occurs a lack of specification for number as an inflectional category for nouns in some cases. Each noun is marked as either singular or plural. The plural is realized through the plural marker -s but for the singular as f.ex. in the noun book, there is no special indication. "This implies that a word like book is specified as singular by means of a zero­morpheme, or will receive the feature [singular] on the basis of a paradigmatic opposition, i.e. its position in a paradigm of related word forms [,..]."[6] Nouns that for semantic reasons do not have a plural form, such as food, milk, rice, courage, etc. must nevertheless be considered as singular nouns because they trigger singular number agreement with verbs. In contrast, no obligatory morphological expression is involved when we use the agent noun walker for the verb walk.

"The use of this word is a choice made by the language user for purely semantic reasons."5 For this reason we consider walker a case of derivation.

2.2. Syntactic Relevance

As another important demarcation criterion proposes the fact that inflection is the part of morphology that is relevant to syntax (Anderson 1982). Particular inflectional forms may be required by a certain syntactic context, i.e. determination by agreement or government. A concrete term for that would be "contextual inflection" which contains the agreement in number and person between the subject and a finite verb and also the selection of a particular case form of nouns in context with verbs and prepositions.


[1] Hacken, Pius ten. 1994. Defining Morphology: A Principled Approach to Determining the Boundaries of Compounding, Derivation, and Inflection. Hildesheim: Georg Olms; 145

[2] Bochner, Harry. 1984. Inflection within Derivation. The Linguistic Review 3: 411-421; 411

[3] Booij, Geert. 2000. Morphology - an International Handbook on Inflection and Word-Formation. New York: de Gruyter; 354

[4] Kroeger, Paul R. 2005. Analyzing grammar: an introduction. Cambridge University Press; 250

[5] Booij 2000: 655

[6] Booij (1998), The demarcation of inflection: a synoptical survey. In Ray Fabri, Albert Ortmann and Teresa Parodi (eds.), Modelsoflnflection.Tübingen: Niemeyer, 11-27; 14/15

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The Demarcation of Inflection and Derivation
Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel  (Englisches Seminar)
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Demarcation of Inflection and Derivation, Criteria for Distinction, Obligatoriness, Syntactic Relevance, Change of syntactic category, Paradigm, Semantic Differences, Theory of Split Morphology
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B.A. Janine Klinge (Author), 2010, The Demarcation of Inflection and Derivation, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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