Distributed morphology

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In generative linguistics, Distributed Morphology is a theoretical framework introduced in 1993 by Morris Halle and Alec Marantz.[1] The central claim of Distributed Morphology is that there is no divide between the construction of words and sentences. The syntax is the single generative engine that forms sound-meaning correspondences, both complex phrases and complex words. This approach challenges the traditional notion of the Lexicon as the unit where derived words are formed and idiosyncratic word-meaning correspondences are stored. In Distributed Morphology there is no unified Lexicon as in earlier generative treatments of word-formation. Rather, the functions that other theories ascribe to the Lexicon are distributed among other components of the grammar.

Overview of Distributed Morphology[edit]

The basic principle of Distributed Morphology is that there is a single generative engine for the formation of both complex words and complex phrases; there is no division between syntax and morphology and there is no Lexicon in the sense it has in traditional generative grammar. There are three relevant lists in Distributed Morphology: the Lexicon, Vocabulary Items, and the Encyclopedia. Items from these lists enter the derivation at different stages.


The Lexicon in Distributed Morphology includes all the bundles of semantic and syntactic features that can enter the syntactic computation. These are interpretable or uninterpretable features, such as [+/- animate], [+/- count] etc., which are manipulated in syntax through the traditional syntactic operations (such as Merge, Move or Agree in the Minimalism framework). These bundles of features do not have any phonological content; phonological content is assigned to them only at spell-out, that is after all syntactic operations are over. The Lexicon in Distributed Morphology differs, thus, from the Lexicon in traditional generative grammar, which included the lexical items (such as words and morphemes) in a language.

Vocabulary Items[edit]

Vocabulary items associate phonological content with arrays of underspecified syntactic and/or semantic features – the features listed in the Lexicon - and they are the closest notion to the traditional morpheme known from generative grammar.[2] In other words, a vocabulary item is a relation between a phonological string (which could also be zero or null) and the context in which this string may be inserted.[3] Vocabulary items compete for insertion to syntactic nodes at spell-out, i.e. after syntactic operations are complete. The following is an example of a vocabulary item in Distributed Morphology:

An affix in Russian:

/n/ <--> [___, +participant +speaker, plural][4]

The phonological string on the left side is available for insertion to a node with the features described on the right side.


The Encyclopedia associates syntactic units with special, non-compositional aspects of meaning.[2] This list specifies interpretive operations that realize in a semantic sense the terminal nodes of a complete syntactic derivation.


The Y-model of Minimalism, as well as the syntactic operations postulated in Minimalism, are preserved in Distributed Morphology. The derivation of a phrase/word proceeds as follows:

  • A subset of the Lexicon, i.e. some combination of interpretable and uninterpretable features, and category-neutral lexical roots (e.g. √CAT) enter the computation. These features specify structural relations, which are satisfied via the operation of the traditional syntactic operations, such as Merge, Move or Agree. For example, if node A has a [+ plural] feature, while node B has no value assigned to the feature [plural], then node B could become [+plural] if it is in the right configuration with node A for Agree to apply. Once all relations specified by the features present in the numeration are satisfied, the syntactic derivation is complete; there is a configuration of terminal nodes, with different combinations of features and their values, and roots but without phonological content assigned to these nodes. At spell-out, the traditional division to LF and PF of the Y-model takes place.
  • At LF, the Encyclopedia of Distributed Morphology is responsible for the semantic interpretation of the terminal nodes. Any non-compositional and idiosyncratic meaning associated with the bundles of features and lexical roots present at the end of the syntactic computation is assigned at this stage.
  • After syntactic operations are complete, certain morphological operations (see below) apply before any assignment of phonological content to the terminal nodes.
  • Once these morphological operations are complete, phonological content is finally assigned to the terminal nodes, through competition of vocabulary items for insertion. How does competition work? Each terminal node contains a bundle of features and all vocabulary items compete for insertion into the terminal nodes. The vocabulary item that wins the competition and is inserted in a certain terminal node is the item that is most highly specified for that node. For example, if at the end of the derivation there is a terminal node with the features [+past, + plural, +3rd person] and the lexical root √PLAY, then the phonological content that will be assigned to the node will be the one corresponding to “played” because the most highly specified vocabulary item for this node is the item /d/ <--> [___, +past, plural, 3rd person]. It is important to note that this vocabulary item does not exactly match the features of the terminal node; however, it wins the competition because in English it is the most highly specified vocabulary item for the specific values of features present in the node. Competition for insertion is governed by the Subset Principle, the following version of which is from Halle (1997):
The phonological exponent of a Vocabulary Item is inserted into a morpheme in the terminal string if the item matches all or a subset of the grammatical features specified in the terminal morpheme. Insertion does not take place if the Vocabulary item contains features not present in the morpheme. Where several Vocabulary items meet the conditions for insertion, the item matching the greatest number of features specified in the terminal morpheme must be chosen.[4]

Morphological Operations[edit]

Distributed Morphology recognizes a number of morphology-specific operations that occur post-syntactically. There is no consensus about the order of application of these morphological operations with respect to vocabulary insertion, and it is generally believed that certain operations apply before vocabulary insertion, while others apply to the vocabulary items themselves.[2] For example, Embick and Noyer (2001)[5] argue that Lowering applies before Vocabulary insertion, while Local Dislocation applies afterwards.

Apart from the operations described above, some researchers (Embick 1997 among others)[6] have suggested that there are morphemes that represent purely formal features and are inserted post-syntactically but before spell-out: these morphemes are called “dissociated morphemes”.

Morphological Merger[edit]

Morphological Merger is generalized as follows in Marantz 1988: 261:

Morphological Merger: At any level of syntactic analysis (d-structure, s-structure, phonological structure), a relation between X and Y may be replaced by (expressed by) the affixation of the lexical head of X to the lexical head of Y.[7]

Two syntactic nodes can undergo Morphological Merger subject to morphophonological well-formedness conditions.[2]


Two nodes that have undergone Morphological Merger or that have been adjoined through syntactic head movement can undergo Fusion, yielding one single node for Vocabulary insertion.[2]


Fission refers to the splitting of one terminal node into two distinct terminal nodes prior to Vocabulary Insertion. Some of the most well-known cases of fission involve the imperfect conjugations of Semitic, in which agreement morphology is split into a prefixal and suffixal part, as investigated in the work of Noyer (1992).[8] Fission may also occur where insertion of a Vocabulary item discharges the intrinsic features of the Vocabulary item from the terminal node, leaving others features available for possible insertion; if fission applies, then other Vocabulary items can be inserted to discharge the remaining features. When Fission occurs, the order of morphemes is influenced by the featural complexity of Vocabulary items.[9]


Impoverishment (a term introduced into the theory in Bonet 1991) refers to a change in the feature content on a terminal node prior to Vocabulary Insertion, resulting in a less marked feature content. This can be accomplished by deleting a feature or by changing it from a marked to an unmarked value (e.g. [+plural] to [-plural]). Impoverishment accounts for cases in which spell-out of a terminal node by a featurally specific Vocabulary Item is blocked by a less specific Vocabulary Item.

Impoverishment can also target an entire terminal node (rather than just one of its features), in which case it is referred to as 'obliteration'.[10] This results in the complete absence of the morpheme from the structure of the word.


Lowering is sensitive to syntactic headedness and operates on abstract feature bundles, after syntactic movement but prior to vocabulary insertion.[5] Lowering takes place when a head X lowers to the head of its complement, Y. For example, T in English (e.g. +past) lowers to be realized on the head of its complement V, as in "John [TP tT [vP play-ed piano]]." An adjoined adverb will not block this syntactic movement, since it is sensitive to syntactic headedness rather than linear adjacency: "John skillfully play-ed piano." On the other hand a Merged Negation head will block this movement and trigger 'do insertion':" John did not play piano" (Embick & Noyer 2001:564).[5]

Local Dislocation[edit]

String-adjacent Vocabulary items may undergo Local Dislocation, in which the two items form a unit, with reversed linear order. Embick and Noyer (2001) [5] suggest that linearization takes place at Vocabulary Insertion. At this point it is possible to reorder linearly adjacent vocabulary items. This reordering must respect the relationship between the constituents, however. In a linearization [X [Z*Y]], X can undergo Local Dislocation to give the linearization: [[Z+X]*Y]], since Z is still left-adjacent to Y though Z is now an internally complex head (Embick & Noyer 2001:563).[5] The relationship between X and Z has been properly converted through Local Dislocation. Since the relationships between the constituents have been respected or properly converted, the derivation is well-formed. Local Dislocation applies after Vocabulary insertion to reorder two linearly adjacent elements, such as the comparative feature and an adjective in John is smarter than Mary., which contrasts with John is more intelligent than Mary.; in this case the movement makes reference to the phonological features of the moved items, moving -er after an adjective of one syllable, while leaving more in a position dominating the adjective (Embick & Noyer 2001:564).[5]

Distributed Morphology approach to core theoretical issues[edit]

Morpheme order[edit]

In Distributed Morphology morpheme order is determined by the position of features from the Lexicon and lexical roots in the syntactic structure. However, since syntactic structure is hierarchical and not linear, the linear order of the morphemes (if, for example, an affix will be realized as a suffix or a prefix) is determined by the post-syntactic morphological operations. For example, both Lowering and Local Dislocation could have an effect on the final order of the morphemes.

Meaning in Distributed Morphology[edit]

In Distributed Morphology there are two different types of meaning: the meaning associated with the bundles of features of the Lexicon and the idiosyncratic meaning listed in the Encyclopedia. It is believed that encyclopedic meaning is associated with lexical roots, rather than with complete phrases.[2]


Phonologically-conditioned allomorphy is handled in terms of contextual specification on Vocabulary items. For example, the allomorphs of the Moroccan Arabic 3rd person singular masculine object clitic could be specified as follows:

  • /-h/ ↔ [-author,-participant, -pl, -fem] / V __
  • /-u/ ↔ [-author,-participant, -pl, -fem] / C __

The underscore ___ above indicates that these Vocabulary items can only be inserted when they meet the environment specified.

Morphologically conditioned allomorphy may involve suppletion (as in go-Ø/wen-t) or readjustment rules that apply in the context of certain Vocabulary items (as in buy-Ø/bough-t). Suppletion and readjustment rules apply to a terminal node and its associated Vocabulary item - unlike affixation, which combines this terminal node with a separate terminal node that has its own distinct (though potentially null) Vocabulary item. Suppletion arises from the competition of Vocabulary items for insertion into a terminal node. Competition involving root Vocabulary items is a topic of ongoing research, however. Early work in Distributed Morphology suggests that that a single, abstract lexical root appears in the syntax; in this view, roots do not compete for insertion into root nodes, but exist in free variation, constrained only by semantic and pragmatic well-formedness. Subsequent research has suggested that the distribution of root Vocabulary items can be grammatically restricted (Embick 2000, Pfau 2000, Marantz 2013); this means that roots may be featurally restricted and thus subject to competition. The issue of whether root alternations such as buy-Ø/bough-t are better handled by suppletion or readjustment rules remains a topic of debate (Embick & Marantz 2008, Siddiqi 2009, Bonet & Harbour 2012).

The term suppletion refers to allomorphy of an open-class lexical item. For a large-scale study of suppletion in the context of comparative and superlative adjectival morphology within the general framework of Distributed Morphology, see Bobaljik (2012).[11]

Morphological Paradigms[edit]

In Distributed Morphology morphological paradigms are seen as epiphenomena. Irregular forms or gaps associated with paradigms are explained via competition for vocabulary insertion.[2]


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  2. ^ a b c d e f g McGinnis, Martha. (to appear). Distributed Morphology. In Hippisley, Andrew & Gregory T. Stump (eds.) The Cambridge Handbook of Morphology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. ^ Distributed Morphology FAQ: [1]
  4. ^ a b Halle, Morris. 1997. 'Distributed morphology: Impoverishment and fission.' In MITWPL 30: Papers at the Interface, ed. Benjamin Bruening, Yoonjung Kang and Martha McGinnis. MITWPL, Cambridge, 425-449.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Embick, David, & Rolf Noyer. 2001. Movement operations after syntax. Linguistic inquiry 32.4: 555-595.
  6. ^ Embick, David. 1997. Voice and the interfaces of syntax. Doctoral dissertation,University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
  7. ^ Marantz, Alec. "Clitics, morphological merger, and the mapping to phonological structure." Theoretical morphology (1988): 253-270.
  8. ^ Noyer, Rolf. (1992). Features, positions and affixes in autonomous morphological structure (Doctoral dissertation). Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
  9. ^ McGinnis, Martha. (2013). Agree and Fission in Georgian Plurals. In Ora Matushansky & Alec Marantz (Eds.), Distributed Morphology Today (pp. 39-58). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  10. ^ Arregi, Karlos & Andrew Nevins. 2007. Obliteration vs. Impoverishment in the Basque g-/z- Constraint, in Proceedings of the 26th Penn Linguistics Colloquium, Penn Working Papers in Linguistics 13.1, 1{14. Penn Linguistics Club, Philadelphia.
  11. ^ Bobaljik, Jonathan David (2012). Universals In Comparative Morphology: Suppletion, Superlatives, and the Structure of Words. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


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