Accidental gap

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In linguistics an accidental gap, also known as a gap, lexical gap, lacuna, or a hole in the pattern, is a word or other form that does not exist in some language but which would be permitted by the grammatical rules of the language.[1] Accidental gaps differ from systematic gaps, those words or other forms which do not exist in a language due to the boundaries set by phonological, morphological, and other rules of that specific language.

In English, for example, a word pronounced /pfnk/ cannot exist because it has no vowels and therefore does not obey the word-formation rules of English. This is a systematic gap. In contrast, the string /peɪ̯k/ obeys English word-formation rules, but is not a word in English. Although theoretically such a word could exist, it does not; its absence is therefore an accidental gap. Such gaps are characteristic of idiom, the peculiar form of languages and language families.[dubious ]

Various types of accidental gaps exist. Phonological gaps are either words allowed by the phonological system of a language which do not actually exist, or sound contrasts missing from one paradigm of the phonological system itself. Morphological gaps are non-existent words predicted by the morphological system. A semantic gap refers to the non-existence of a word to describe a difference in meaning seen in other sets of words within the language.

Phonological gaps[edit]

Often words that are allowed in the phonological system of a language are absent. For example, in English the consonant cluster /spr/ is allowed at the beginning of words such as spread or spring and the syllable rime /ɪk/ occurs in words such as sick or flicker. Even so, there is no English word pronounced */sprɪk/. Although this potential word is phonologically well-formed, it happens to not exist.[2]

The term "phonological gap" is also used to refer to the absence of a phonemic contrast in part of the phonological system.[1] For example, Thai has several sets of stop consonants that differ in terms of voicing (whether or not the vocal cords vibrate) and aspiration (whether a puff of air is released). Yet the language has no voiced velar consonant (/ɡ/).[3] This lack of an expected distinction is commonly called a "hole in the pattern".[2]

Thai stop consonants
plain voiceless aspirated voiceless voiced consonant
p b
t d

Morphological gaps[edit]

A morphological gap is the absence of a word that could exist given the morphological rules of a language, including its affixes.[1] For example, in English a deverbal noun can be formed by adding either the suffix -al or -(t)ion to certain verbs (typically words from Latin through Anglo-Norman French or Old French). Some verbs, such as recite have two related nouns, recital and recitation. However, in many cases there is only one such noun, as illustrated in the chart below. Although in principle the morphological rules of English allow for other nouns, those words do not exist.[4]

verb noun (-al) noun (-ion)
recite recital recitation
propose proposal proposition
arrive arrival
refuse refusal
derive derivation
describe description

A defective verb is a verb that lacks some grammatical conjugation. For example, several verbs in Russian do not have a first-person singular form in non-past tense. Although most verbs have such a form (e.g. vožu "I lead"), about 100 verbs in the second conjugation pattern (e.g. *derz'u "I talk rudely"; the asterisk indicates ungrammaticality) do not appear as first-person singular in the present-future tense.[5] Morris Halle called this defective verb paradigm an example of an accidental gap.

The similar case of unpaired words occurs where one word is obsolete or rare while another word derived from it is more common. Examples include *effable and ineffable or *kempt and unkempt.[6]

Semantic gaps[edit]

A gap in semantics occurs when a particular meaning distinction visible elsewhere in the lexicon is absent. For example, English words describing family members generally show gender distinction. Yet the English word cousin can refer to either a male or female cousin.[1] Similarly, while there are general terms for siblings and parents, there is no comparable common gender-neutral term for a parent's sibling or a sibling's child.[Note 1] The separate words predicted on the basis of this semantic contrast are absent from the language, or at least from many speakers' dialects.

male female neutral
father mother parent
brother sister sibling
uncle aunt
nephew niece [Note 1]

See also[edit]

  • Pseudoword, a unit that appears to be a word in a language but has no meaning in its lexicon
  • Semantic gap in computer programming languages and natural language processing
  • Sniglet, described as "any word that doesn't appear in the dictionary, but should"


  1. ^ a b In 1951, Samuel Martin coined the word nibling, which fills the gap for a gender-neutral single word meaning "sibling's child." It remains a rare word that most English speakers are not familiar with.


  1. ^ a b c d Crystal, David (2003). A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 0-6312-2664-8. 
  2. ^ a b Trask, Robert Lawrence (1996). A Dictionary of Phonetics and Phonology. London: Routledge. 
  3. ^ Abramson, Arthur S. (1962). The Vowels and Tones of Standard Thai: Acoustical Measurements and Experiments. Bloomington: Indiana University Research Center in Anthropology, Folklore, and Linguistics. 
  4. ^ Kerstens, Johan, Eddy Ruys and Joost Zwarts, ed. (2001). "Accidental gap". Lexicon of Linguistics. Utrecht institute of Linguistics OTS. Retrieved 2011-02-12. 
  5. ^ Halle, Morris (1973). "Prolegomena to a theory of word-formation". Linguistic Inquiry 4: 451–464. 
  6. ^ Quinion, Michael (23 November 1996). "Unpaired words". World Wide Words. Retrieved 2012-07-31.