In linguistics and etymology, suppletion is traditionally understood as the use of one word as the inflected form of another word when the two words are not cognate. For those learning a language, suppletive forms will be seen as "irregular" or even "highly irregular".
The term "suppletion" implies that a gap in the paradigm was filled by a form "supplied" by a different paradigm. Instances of suppletion are overwhelmingly restricted to the most commonly used lexical items in a language.
Irregularity and suppletion
An irregular paradigm is one in which the derived forms of a word cannot be deduced by simple rules from the base form. For example, someone who knows only a little English can deduce that the plural of girl is girls but cannot deduce that the plural of man is men. Language learners are often most aware of irregular verbs, but any part of speech with inflections can be irregular.
For most synchronic purposes—first-language acquisition studies, psycholinguistics, language-teaching theory—it suffices to note that these forms are irregular. However, historical linguistics seeks to explain how they came to be so and distinguishes different kinds of irregularity according to their origins.
Most irregular paradigms (like man:men) can be explained by phonological developments that affected one form of a word but not another (in this case, Germanic umlaut). In such cases, the historical antecedents of the current forms once constituted a regular paradigm.
Historical linguistics uses the term "suppletion" to distinguish irregularities like person:people or cow:cattle that cannot be so explained because the parts of the paradigm have not evolved out of a single form.
Similarly, in Modern Standard Arabic, the verb jāʾ ("come") usually uses the form taʿāl for its imperative, and the plural of marʾah ("woman") is nisāʾ.
Some of the more archaic Indo-European languages are particularly known for suppletion. Ancient Greek, for example, has some twenty verbs with suppletive paradigms, many with three separate roots. (See Ancient Greek verbs § Suppletive verbs.)
In English, the past tense of the verb go is went, which comes from the past tense of the verb wend, archaic in this sense. (The modern past tense of wend is wended.) See Go (verb). The Romance languages have a variety of suppletive forms in conjugating the verb "to go", as these first-person singular forms illustrate:
The sources of these forms, numbered in the table, are four different Latin verbs:
- vādere ‘to go, proceed’,
- īre ‘to go’
- ambitāre ‘to go around’, also the source for Spanish and Portuguese andar ‘to walk’
- ambulāre ‘to walk’, reflected in Fr. aller
- fuī suppletive perfective of esse ‘to be’.
Many of the Romance languages use forms from different verbs in the present tense; for example, French has je vais ‘I go’ from vadere, but nous allons ‘we go’ from ambulare. Galician-Portuguese has a similar example: imos from ire ‘to go’ and vamos from vadere ‘we go’; the former is somewhat disused in modern Portuguese but very alive in modern Galician. Even ides, from itis second-person plural of ire, is the only form for ‘you (plural) go’ both in Galician and Portuguese (Spanish vais, from vadere).
Similarly, the Welsh verb mynd ‘to go’ has a variety of suppletive forms such as af ‘I shall go’ and euthum ‘we went’. Irish téigh ‘to go’ also has suppletive forms: dul ‘going’ and rachaidh ‘will go’.
In Estonian, the inflected forms of the verb minna ‘to go’ were originally those of a verb cognate with the Finnish lähteä ‘to leave’.
Good and bad
In Germanic, Romance (except Romanian), Celtic, Slavic (except Bulgarian and Macedonian), and Indo-Iranian languages, the comparative and superlative of the adjective "good" is suppletive; in many of these languages the adjective "bad" is also suppletive.
|English||good||Proto-Germanic: *gōdaz||better||best||Proto-Germanic: *batizô
cognate to Sanskrit: bhadra "fortunate"
from Old Latin: duenos
|Scottish Gaelic||math||Proto-Celtic: *matis
from Proto-Indo-European: *meh₂- "ripen", "mature"
from Proto-Indo-European: *wers- "peak"
|Breton||mat||gwell, gwelloc'h (1)||gwellañ (1)|
|Welsh||da||Proto-Celtic: *dagos "good", "well"||gwell (1)||gorau (2)|
|Polish||dobry||Proto-Slavic: *dobrъ||lepszy||najlepszy||Proto-Indo-European *lep-, *lēp- "behoof", "boot", "good"|
|Russian||хороший, khoroshiy||probably from Proto-Slavic: *xorb||лучше, luchshe||(наи)лучший, (nai)luchshiy||Old Russian лучии, neut. луче
Old Church Slavonic: лоучии "more suitable, appropriate"
|Serbo-Croatian||dobar||Proto-Slavic: *dobrъ||bolji||najbolji||Proto-Slavic: *bolьjь "bigger"|
|Persian||خوب, khūb [xʊb][a]||probably cognate of Proto-Slavic *xorb (above). Not a satisfactory etymology for beh; but see comparative and superlative forms in comparison to Germanic||خوبتر, xūb-tar or بِهْتَر, beh-tar[b]||خوبترین, xūb-tarīn or بِهْتَرين, beh-tarīn||Not clear if cognate of Germanic "better" (above)[c]|
- Poetic به, beh
- The superlative of beh- 'good' in Ancient Persian is beh-ist which has evolved to بهشت, behešt "paradise" in Modern Persian.
- cf. Pers behist and English best
The comparison of "good" is also suppletive in Finnish: hyvä → parempi.
|English||bad||Uncertain, possibly from OE bæddel ("effeminate man, hermaphrodite, pederast"), related to OE bædan ("to defile") < Proto-Germanic *baidijaną ("constrain, cause to stay")
In OE yfel was more common, cf Proto-Germanic *ubilaz, Gothic ubils (bad), German übel (evil / bad) Eng evil
|worse||worst||OE wyrsa, cognate to OHG wirsiro|
|Old Norse||(illr, vándr)||verri||verstr|
|Icelandic||(illur, vondur, slæmur)||verri||verstur|
|Faroese||(illur, óndur, ringur)||verri||verstur|
|Swedish||(dålig, ond)||sämre, värre||sämst, värst|
|French||mal[a]||Latin: malus||pire||Latin: peior, cognate to Sanskrit padyate "he falls"|
|Scottish Gaelic||droch||Proto-Celtic *drukos ("bad") < (possibly) PIE *dʰrewgʰ- ("to deceive")||miosa||Proto-Celtic *missos < PIE *mey- ("to change")|
Proto-Celtic *waxtisamos ("worst")
|Polish||zły||Proto-Slavic *zel||gorszy||najgorszy||cf. Polish gorszyć (to disgust, scandalise)|
|Russian||плохой (plokhoy)||probably Proto-Slavic *polx||хуже (khuzhe)||(наи)худший ((nai)khudshiy)||Old Church Slavonic хоудъ, Proto-Slavic *хudъ ("bad", "small")|
- These are adverbial forms ("badly"); the Italian adjective is itself suppletive (cattivo, from the same root as "captive", respectively) whereas the French mauvais is compound (malifātius < malus+fatum).
- Mal is used in Catalan before nouns, the form after nouns (dolent) is also suppletive (< Latin dolente "painful").
Similarly to the Italian noted above, the English adverb form of "good" is the unrelated word "well", from Old English wel, cognate to wyllan "to wish".
Great and small
small, smaller, smallest Language Adjective Comparative / superlative Irish beag
(Old Irish bec < Proto-Celtic *bikkos)
níos lú / is lú
(< Old Irish laigiu < Proto-Celtic *lagyūs < PIE *h₁lengʷʰ- ("lightweight"))
(< Brythonic *bɨx
< Proto-Celtic *bikkos)
llai / lleiaf
(< PIE *h₁lengʷʰ- (“lightweight”))
great, greater, greatest Language Adjective Comparative / superlative Irish mór
(< Proto-Celtic *māros < PIE *moh₁ros)
< Proto-Celtic *māyos < PIE *meh₁-)
(< Proto-Celtic *māros < PIE *moh₁ros)
mwy / mwyaf
< Proto-Celtic *māyos < PIE *meh₁-)
In many Slavic languages, great and small are suppletive:
small, smaller, smallest Language Adjective Comparative / superlative Polish mały mniejszy / najmniejszy Czech malý menší / nejmenší Slovak malý menší / najmenší Ukrainian малий, маленький менший / найменший Russian маленький (malen'kiy) меньший / наименьший (men'she / naimen'shiy) great, greater, greatest Language Adjective Comparative / superlative Polish duży większy / największy Czech velký větší / největší Slovak veľký väčší / najväčší Ukrainian великий більший / найбільший
Examples in languages
In Albanian there are 14 irregular verbs divided into suppletive and non-suppletive:
Verb Meaning Present Preterite Imperfect qenë to be jam qeshë isha pasur to have kam pata kisha ngrënë to eat ha hëngra haja ardhur to come vij erdha vija dhënë to give jap dhashë jepja parë to see shoh pashë shihja rënë to fall, strike bie rashë bija prurë to bring bie prura bija ndenjur to stay rri ndenja rrija
- erkhomai, eîmi/eleusomai, ēlthon, elēlutha, —, — "go, come".
- legō, eraō (erô) / leksō, eipon / eleksa, eirēka, eirēmai / lelegmai, elekhthēn / errhēthēn "say, speak".
- horaō, opsomai, eidon, heorāka / heōrāka, heōrāmai / ōmmai, ōphthēn "see".
- pherō, oisō, ēnegka / ēnegkon, enēnokha, enēnegmai, ēnekhthēn "carry".
- pōleō, apodōsomai, apedomēn, peprāka, peprāmai, eprāthēn "sell".
In Bulgarian, the word човек, chovek ("man", "human being") is suppletive. The strict plural form, човеци, chovetsi, is used only in Biblical context. In modern usage it has been replaced by the Greek loan хора, khora. The counter form (the special form for masculine nouns, used after numerals) is suppletive as well: души, dushi (with the accent on the first syllable). For example, двама, трима души, dvama, trima dushi ("two, three people"); this form has no singular either. (A related but different noun is the plural души, dushi, singular душа, dusha ("soul"), both with accent on the last syllable.)
In English, the complicated irregular verb to be has forms from several different roots:
- be, been, being—from Old English bēon ("to be, become"), from Proto-Germanic *beuną ("to be, exist, come to be, become"), from Proto-Indo-European *bʰúHt (“to grow, become, come into being, appear”), from the root *bʰuH- ("to become, grow, appear").
- am, is, are—from Middle English am, em, is, aren, from Old English eam, eom, is, earun, earon, from Proto-Germanic *immi, *izmi, *isti, *arun, all forms of the verb *wesaną ("to be; dwell"), from Proto-Indo-European *h₁ésmi ("I am, I exist"), from the root *h₁es- ("to be").
- was, were—from Old English wæs, wǣre, from Proto-Germanic *was, *wēz, from the Proto-Indo-European root *h₂wes- ("to dwell, reside")
This verb is suppletive in most Indo-European languages, as well as in some non-Indo-European languages such as Finnish.
An incomplete suppletion exists in English with the plural of person (from the Latin persona). The regular plural persons occurs mainly in legalistic use. More commonly, the singular of the unrelated noun people (from Latin populus) is used as the plural; for example, "two people were living on a one-person salary" (note the plural verb). In its original sense of "populace, ethnic group", people is itself a singular noun with regular plural peoples.
Several irregular Irish verbs are suppletive:
- abair (to say): derived from Old Irish as·beir, from Proto-Indo-European roots *h₁eǵʰs- ("out") and *bʰer- ("bear, carry"). However, the verbal noun rá is derived from Old Irish rád, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *reh₂dʰ- ("perform successfully").
- bí (to be): derived from Proto-Indo-European *bʰuH- ("grow, become, come into being, appear"). However, the present tense form tá is derived from Old Irish at·tá, from Proto-Celtic *ad-tāyeti, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *steh₂- ("stand").
- beir (to catch): derived from Proto-Indo-European *bʰer- ("bear, carry"). However, the past tense form rug is derived from Old Irish rouic, which is from Proto-Celtic *ɸro-ōnkeyo-, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European roots *pro- ("forth, forward") and *h₂neḱ- ("reach").
- feic (to see): derived from Old Irish aicci, from Proto-Indo-European *kʷey- ("observe"). However, the past tense form chonaic is derived from Old Irish ad·condairc, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *derḱ₂- ("see").
- téigh (to go): derived from Old Irish téit, from Proto-Indo-European *stéygʰeti- ("to be walking, to be climbing"). However, the future form rachaidh is derived from Old Irish regae, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *h₁r̥gʰ- ("go, move"), while the verbal noun dul is from *h₁ludʰét ("arrive").
- fada, "long"; comparative níos faide or níos sia — fada is from Old Irish fota, from Proto-Indo-European *wasdʰos (“long, wide”); compare Latin vāstus (“wide”), while sia is from Old Irish sír ("long, long-lasting"), from Proto-Celtic *sīros (“long”); compare Welsh/Breton hir.
- sum, esse, fuī, futūrus - "be".
- ferō, ferre, tulī or tetulī, lātus - "carry, bear".
- fīō, fierī, factus sum (suppletive and semi-deponent) - "become, be made, happen"
- tollō, tollere, sustulī, sublātus - "raise, lift, elevate".
In some Slavic languages, a few verbs have imperfective and perfective forms arising from different roots. For example, in Polish:
|to go in/to go out (on foot)||wchodzić, wychodzić||wejść, wyjść|
|to ride in/to ride out (by car)||wjeżdżać, wyjeżdżać||wjechać, wyjechać|
Note that z—, przy—, w—, and wy— are prefixes and are not part of the root
In Polish, the plural form of rok ("year") is lata which comes from the plural of lato ("summer"). A similar suppletion occurs in Russian: год, romanized: god ("year") > лет, let (genitive of "years").
The Romanian verb a fi ("to be") is suppletive and irregular, with the infinitive coming from Latin fieri, but conjugated forms from forms of already suppletive Latin sum. For example, eu sunt ("I am"), tu ești ("you are"), eu am fost ("I have been"), eu eram ("I used to be"), eu fusei/fui ("I was"); while the subjunctive, also used to form the future in o să fiu ("I will be/am going to be"), is linked to the infinitive.
In Russian, the word человек, chelovek ("man, human being") is suppletive. The strict plural form, человеки, cheloveki, is used only in Orthodox Church contexts. It may have originally been the unattested *человекы, *cheloveky. In any case, in modern usage, it has been replaced by люди, lyudi, the singular form of which is known in Russian only as a component of compound words (such as простолюдин, prostolyudin). This suppletion also exists in Polish (człowiek > ludzie), Czech (člověk > lidé), Serbo-Croatian (čovjek > ljudi), and Slovene (človek > ljudje).
Strictly speaking, suppletion occurs when different inflections of a lexeme (i.e., with the same lexical category) have etymologically unrelated stems. The term is also used in looser senses, albeit less formally.
The term "suppletion" is also used in the looser sense when there is a semantic link between words but not an etymological one; unlike the strict inflectional sense, these may be in different lexical categories, such as noun/verb.
English noun/adjective pairs such as father/paternal or cow/bovine are also referred to as collateral adjectives. In this sense of the term, father/fatherly is non-suppletive. Fatherly is derived from father, while father/paternal is suppletive. Likewise cow/cowish is non-suppletive, while cow/bovine is suppletive.
In these cases, father/pater- and cow/bov- are cognate via Proto-Indo-European, but 'paternal' and 'bovine' are borrowings into English (via Old French and Latin). The pairs are distantly etymologically related, but the words are not from a single Modern English stem.
The term "weak suppletion" is sometimes used in contemporary synchronic morphology in reference to sets of stems whose alternations cannot be accounted for by synchronically productive phonological rules. For example, the two forms child/children are etymologically from the same source, but the alternation does not reflect any regular morphological process in modern English: this makes the pair appear to be suppletive, even though the forms go back to the same root.
In that understanding, English has abundant examples of weak suppletion in its verbal inflection: e.g. bring/brought, take/took, see/saw, etc. Even though the forms are etymologically related in each pair, no productive morphological rule can derive one form from the other in synchrony. Alternations just have to be learned by speakers — in much the same way as truly suppletive pairs such as go/went.
Such cases, which were traditionally simply labelled "irregular", are sometimes described with the term "weak suppletion", so as to restrict the term "suppletion" to etymologically unrelated stems.
- Collateral adjective—denominal adjectives based on a suppletive root, such as arm ~ brachial
- Irregular verb
- "suppletion". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
- Osthoff, Hermann (1900). Vom Suppletivwesen der indogermanischen Sprachen : erweiterte akademische Rede ; akademische Rede zur Feier des Geburtsfestes des höchstseligen Grossherzogs Karl Friedrich am 22. November 1899 (in German). Heidelberg: Wolff.
- Bobaljik, Jonathan David (2012-10-05). Universals in Comparative Morphology: Suppletion, Superlatives, and the Structure of Words. MIT Press. p. 27. ISBN 9780262304597. Retrieved 5 December 2017.
- Liberman, Anatoly (9 Jan 2013). "How come the past of 'go' is 'went?'". Oxford Etymologist. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 5 December 2017.
- Greville G, Corbett (2009). Suppletion: Typology, markedness, complexity. Berlin: On Inflection. Trends in Linguistics: Studies and Monographs, Berlin, Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 25–40.
- Andrew Hippisley, Marina Chumakina, Greville G. Corbett and Dunstan Brown. Suppletion: frequency, categories and distribution of stems. University of Surrey. 
- Vadere is cognate with English wade (PIE root *weh₂dʰ-).
- Late Lat. *ambitāre is a frequentative form of classical ambio ‘to go around’.
- The preterites of "to be" and "to go" are identical in Spanish and Portuguese. Compare the English construction "Have you been to France?" which has no simple present form.
- Wiktionary, Proto-Germanic root *gōdaz
- Max Vasmer, Russisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch
- "eDIL - Irish Language Dictionary". www.dil.ie.
- "Comparative forms". nualeargais.ie.
- "Pota Focal | sia". Pota Focal.
- Ionnrachtaigh, Seosamh Mac (June 2, 2015). Impreasin na Gaeilge I – Z: (Fuaim na Gaeilge). AuthorHouse. ISBN 9781496984203 – via Google Books.
- Kordić, Snježana (2005). "Gramatička kategorija broja" [Grammatical category of number] (PDF). In Tatarin, Milovan (ed.). Zavičajnik: zbornik Stanislava Marijanovića: povodom sedamdesetogodišnjice života i četrdesetpetogodišnjice znanstvenoga rada (in Serbo-Croatian). Osijek: Sveučilište Josipa Jurja Strossmayera, Filozofski fakultet. p. 191. ISBN 953-6456-54-0. OCLC 68777865. SSRN 3438755. . Archived from the original on 24 August 2012. Retrieved 22 September 2019.
- Paul Georg Meyer (1997) Coming to know: studies in the lexical semantics and pragmatics of academic English, p. 130: "Although many linguists have referred to [collateral adjectives] (paternal, vernal) as 'suppletive' adjectives with respect to their base nouns (father, spring), the nature of ..."
- Aspects of the theory of morphology, by Igor Mel’čuk, p. 461
|Look up Appendix:English irregular adjectives in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
|Look up Category:Suppletions by language in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
|Look up suppletion in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- Surrey Suppletion Database – examples of suppletion in different languages