The evolution of morphology

Andrew Carstairs‐McCarthy

in The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780199541119
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

 The evolution of morphology

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  • Linguistics
  • Language Evolution
  • Grammar, Syntax and Morphology


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Grammaticalization theory has become an influential theory within historical linguistics. Grammaticalization is the process whereby open-class lexical items develop over time into closed-class items with grammatical functions. It is said to be a uniform series of semantic changes involving metaphorical usage such as spatial terms acquire temporal meanings but not vice versa and “bleaching”. Grammaticalization often leads to “morphologization”, which is an independent marker of tense or where a number becomes an affix rather than remaining a free wordform, and may even ultimately fuse with the root of the lexeme to which it is attached. It is always possible for grammaticalization to stop short of morphologization that applies to most of the languages of East Asia. Even without any syntax there could be phonological processes operating between regularly contiguous “words”, and some of these processes could in due course become opaque. This would give rise to situations where the same meaning was expressed by two or more forms in different contexts that is, to instances of synonymy. Even without syntax, some items could be regularly juxtaposed to express a consistent conventionalized meaning. The capacity for allomorphy and morphophonological alternation could have arisen alongside syntax or even before it, but at any rate independently of it.

Keywords: grammaticalization; wordform; morphologization; syntax; allomorphy

Article.  2718 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Language Evolution ; Grammar, Syntax and Morphology

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