About the universal Validity of Selkirk's Account of Compounding: A Comparison between English and Dutch.

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

11 Pages, Grade: gut


Table of Contents


Headedness, Right-Hand Head Rule, and

Percolation in English

Headedness, Right-Hand Head Rule, and

Percolation in Dutch

First Order Projection Condition (FOPC)

Vs. First Sister Principle (FSP)


Works Cited


“Apart from derivation, compounding is the most important event within the process of word formation, i.e. the combination of two or more freely distributed morphemes or morpheme sequences (words) to a compound, whereby - as a rule - the last constituent determines both word of speech, as well as inflectional class” (BUßMANN 2002: 360).

This definition of compounding is based on several linguistic works and theories, one of which Elisabeth Selkirk’s Syntax of Words is one of.

This work will focus on Selkirk’s account of compounding and make a comparison between the English and Dutch language. Thereby, I will summarize Selkirk’s main points and contrast them to comparable qualities of the Dutch language. My aim is to examine whether or not and in what way Selkirk’s account of compounding in English is universally applicable.

This examination will comprise the main topics Headedness, Right-hand Head Rule, Percolation, and First Order Projection Condition.

Headedness, Right-hand Head Rule, and Percolation in English

In her work The Syntax of Words, Selkirk defines English compounds to be “a type of word structure made up of two constituents, each belonging to one of the categories Noun, Adjective, Verb, or Preposition” (1982: 13). She suggests a context-free grammar for generating compound word structures – consisting of a set of context-free rewriting rules – (cf. 1982: 13 – 16). and furthermore differentiates endocentric compounds from exocentric (nonheaded) compounds. The first kind shows a head customary on the right and is predominant in English (cf. 1982: 19) (such as in snowflake, songwriter, starlight, and underground), while the second, rather exceptional kind has no head at all (cf. 1982: 19) (such as in hunchback, pickpocket, lazybones, cutthroat, and redskin). However, the denotation of a head is controversial. Williams proposed the so-called “Right-hand Head Rule” (RHR), which says that “the righthand member of a morphologically complex word is the head of that word”, what entails that the rightmost constituent determines all the properties of the whole (cf. 1981a: 245 – 274).

Such would be the case in the following examples:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

However, the right-hand head rule as it stands, is not applicable to all cases. The right-hand head rule fails to cover especially those cases where the rightmost element of a compound does not determine the category of the word as a whole. As an example, that would be the case with

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Selkirk therefore claims that the RHR should be “inadequate to characterize the headedness of English word structure” (1982: 20) and proposes a revised right-hand head rule, which – in contrast to Williams’ principle - also covers cases in which verb-particle sequences are left-headed components or in which the head of an inflected word is not the inflectional affix (cf. 1982: 20):

“In a word-internal configuration,

illustration not visible in this excerpt

where X stands for a syntactic feature complex and where Q contains no category with the feature complex X, Xm is the head of Xn”(1982: 20 – 21).

Thereby, a general well-formedness condition on syntactic representation – the so-called Percolation – ensures that a constituent and its head have the same feature complex (cf. Williams 1981a: 245 - 275/Selkirk 1982: 21). Percolation can be defined as “the copying of features typically from a lower to a higher level of constituency, especially in Lexical Morphology, where features of morphemes ‘percolate’ upwards to the level of the word” (Matthews 1997: 271). In other words, features from all of the daughters are available to the mother. In the case of conflicting features, the mother node will take the features of the head element. This is the case in examples such as:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

A further difference has to be made between verbal and nonverbal compounds. Verbal compounds (also referred to as synthetic compounds) typically display (i) a rather specific and grammatically characterizable range of semantic interpretations, (ii) endocentric adjective or noun compounds whose head adjective or noun is morphologically complex, and (iii) head adjectives or nouns which have been derived from a verb, whereby the nonhead constituent is interpreted as an argument of the head adjective or noun (cf. Selkirk 1982: 23).

For nonverbal compounds, virtually any relation between head and nonhead is possible (cf. Selkirk 1982: 23).


Excerpt out of 11 pages


About the universal Validity of Selkirk's Account of Compounding: A Comparison between English and Dutch.
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar)
English Word Formation / Morphology
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ISBN (eBook)
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About, Validity, Selkirk, Account, Compounding, Comparison, English, Dutch, English, Word, Formation, Morphology
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Christian Hensgens (Author), 2005, About the universal Validity of Selkirk's Account of Compounding: A Comparison between English and Dutch., Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/37655


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