Morphological leveling

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In linguistics, a paradigm is a group of forms with the same stem, in which each form corresponds in usage to different syntactic environments.[1] When a paradigm undergoes leveling, the number of forms will be reduced to a less varied paradigm.[2] Morphological leveling or paradigm leveling is the generalization of an inflection across a paradigm or between words.[3]

When a language becomes less synthetic, this is often a matter of morphological leveling. An example of this is the conjugation of English verbs, which has become almost unchanging today (see also null morpheme), thus contrasting sharply for example with Latin, where one verb has dozens of forms, each one expressing a different tense, aspect, mood, voice, person, and number.


There are two types of Paradigm Leveling which speak to how the leveling occurs.

Paradigm Internal Leveling[edit]

In this case, the paradigm leveling occurs within the same paradigm. In this way, one form of a word will take on the characteristic(s) of another form within its own paradigm.[4]

Trans-Paradigmatic Leveling[edit]

In trans-paradigmatic leveling, the process occurs between two forms originating from two separate paradigms. This means that a form from one paradigm will begin to resemble the form of another from a separate paradigm.[4]


to be Leveling[edit]

In this application of leveling, the verb to be becomes leveled to a select few forms used in the language. To Be Leveling is considered the extension by analogy[5][6][7] of the (more frequent) third-person singular form is to other persons, such as I is and they is. In English, this would be the use of I is for I am and they is for they are. This leveling extends to the past tense for was.[2] In dialects that use this leveling, examples would be "They was late" and "We was fixing it".

Ablaut Leveling[edit]

An ablaut is the vowel changes within a single root or its relations that is common to many Indo-European languages.[8] Within the terms of paradigm leveling, ablaut leveling occurs when the variation in the vowels used to differentiate between forms weakens, or lessens, to mimic a similar form.[9]

Prosodic Paradigm Leveling (PPL)[edit]

Prosody deals with the pitch, length, and loudness of the segments of words. In prosodic paradigm leveling (PPL), the prosody of the forms of a word will be leveled so that the prosodic distinction between the words is minor, or they are prosodically similar. This application of leveling occurs in two steps. The first being the when a new form begins to gain use along side an older version of the word. The second step is when the older form falls out of use and the newer one becomes the primary form of the word.[4]

In Languages[edit]


Because of the many dialects in English, there are multiple ways morphological leveling affects the language.

to be Leveling[edit]

In African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and Appalachian English, they both exhibit the to be leveling mentioned above.

In AAVE, this kind of leveling can be used to change the semantics of a sentence. When a speaker of this dialect says a phrase like, "I be working when they call," it does not mean the same as "I am working when they call." It means that the speaker is usually working when they receive the phone call. Thus, the leveling of the verb is used to show a recurring event instead of the typical immediate happening of the verb.[10]

In more general terms of Appalachian English, speakers will use the past tense form of to be instead of using the other conjugations of the verb. Thus, sentences like "We was talking" and "They was making a mess" become common in the language. They also make use of a contracted form of the verb was. These sentences look like "We's out last night." This contracted form differs from the contracted is form because of the decidedly past tense context of the sentence.[2]

Ablaut Leveling[edit]

An example of ablaut leveling would be the reanalysis of English strong verbs as weak verbs, such as bode becoming bided, swoll becoming swelled, and awoke becoming awakened. The original strong forms of these and most other leveled verbs are readily understood by modern English speakers, but are seldom used. Another example is how for all but a few nouns the original English plural suffixes stemming from the Old English weak declension have been replaced by one general plural marker; as late as the 16th century, shoon was still in use as the plural form of shoe, but in contemporary English the only acceptable form is shoes, using the general plural marker -s.


Historically, English has undergone a few changes in relation to prosodic paradigm leveling. For example, the word he'd in Australian English has experienced an internal leveling in terms of vowels. The original word was pronounced /hid/ (in IPA) in the same was as the word "heed" is pronounced in American English. However, it experienced influence from the weaker form of the word, /hɪd/. Thus, the primary pronunciation of the word became /hɪd/. Another example of this would be the word than. The word was originally pronounced /ðæːn/. This leveling occurred in terms of trans-paradigmatic leveling. The change in the word stemmed from paradigms like that (/ðæt) and have (/hæv/), from which than dropped the lengthening of the vowel to become /ðæn/.[4]

Germanic Languages[edit]

In Germanic Languages, such as Swedish, Dutch and German, ablaut leveling occurs in relation to strong verbs. In the case of Swedish, the preterite will have a distinct vowel pattern in comparison to the past participle, specifically the singular form of the preterite. An example of this would be the verb meaning to write, which is conjugated below.

  • Infinitive/Present: skriva
  • Preterite Singular: skrev
  • Preterite Plural: skrivo
  • Past Participle: skrivit

The vowels for the preterite singular and past participle are "e" and "i", respectively. This follows the pattern mentioned above of Swedish keeping the two tenses separate. The leveling comes in with the fact that the other tenses match one or the other of the tenses. In this case, the infinitive/present and preterite plural tenses follow the past participle and use the vowel "i".

German and Dutch follow a different pattern, in that the vowels of the preterite singular and past participle are kept the same. However, this is only the favored pattern and certain verbs do deviate from this.

Dutch German
to offer to steal to offer to find
Infinitive/Present bieden stelen bieten finden
Preterite Singular bôd stal bot fand
Preterite Plural bôden stâlen buten funden
Past Participle gebôden gestôlen geboten gefunden

In the chart above, both the Dutch and German versions of the verb to offer keep the vowel of the preterite singular the same as the past participle. However, in the German verb to find and the Dutch verb to steal each have a different vowel used in the preterite singular and past participle.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Paradigm". SIL Glossary of Linguistic Terms. 2015-12-03. Retrieved 2019-05-09.
  2. ^ a b c Hazen, Kirk (2014). "A new role for an ancient variable in Appalachia: Paradigm leveling and standardization in West Virginia". Language Variation and Change. 26 (1): 77–102. doi:10.1017/S0954394513000215. ISSN 0954-3945.
  3. ^ Ishtla Singh (2005). The History of English. Hodder Education. p. 27.
  4. ^ a b c d Round, Erich R. (January 2011). "Function word erosion which is not a frequency effect: On exemplars and prosodic paradigm levelling". Lingua. 121 (2): 287–301. doi:10.1016/j.lingua.2010.09.006.
  5. ^ Katherine Wysocki and Joseph R. Jenkins (winter 1987). Deriving Word Meanings through Morphological Generalization. Reading Research Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 1 , pp. 66-81.
  6. ^ William E. Nagy, Irene-Anna N. Diakidoy and Richard C. Anderson (June 1993). The Acquisition of Morphology: Learning the Contribution of Suffixes to the Meanings of Derivatives. Journal of Literacy Research, Vol. 25, No. 2, pp. 155-170. DOI: 10.1080/10862969309547808.
  7. ^ Prasada, S., & Pinker, S. (1993). Generalizations of regular and irregular morphology. Language and Cognitive Processes, 8(1), 1-56.
  8. ^ "Definition of ABLAUT". Retrieved 2019-05-09.
  9. ^ a b Dammel, Antje; Nowak, Jessica; Schmuck, Mirjam (2010). "Strong-Verb Paradigm Leveling in Four Germanic Languages: A Category Frequency Approach". Journal of Germanic Linguistics. 22 (4): 337–359. doi:10.1017/S1470542710000097. ISSN 1470-5427.
  10. ^ Salmon (2018). "Negative Inversion: Camouflage and Style across Two Varieties of US English". Style. 52 (4): 404–422. doi:10.5325/style.52.4.0404. JSTOR 10.5325/style.52.4.0404.