Morphological classifications in Soviet and post-Soviet linguistics

March 2nd, 20123:20 pm


Morphological classifications in Soviet and post-Soviet linguistics

As we have seen, all the attempts to work out a vocabulary classification based on one criterion only have failed.

The main principles of ancient as well as modern wordstock classifica­tions were explicitly formulated by Russian academician Lev Shcherba. These are 1) semantic criterion; 2) morphological criterion, and 3) syntactic criterion. As it has been mentioned, to form a logically impeccable clas­sification, one should stick to only one of them. However, the nature of language units is too complicated to follow logical rules inexorably: even structuralists, determined to use syntax as the cornerstone, ended up consid­ering morphological aspects as well.

One of the most influential of Soviet linguists, Shcherba, emphasized the great importance of the notion “a part of speech” but at the same time added that the parts-of-speech classification could hardly be called “a scien­tific one”. According to Shcherba, words can be classified in various ways and when parts of speech are concerned, a scientist should not rely on so­phisticated, but biased principles; instead, the scientist should look for the classification which is particularly persistently imposed by the language system itself (Scherba, 1974).

Soviet linguists were not unanimous concerning the nature of word-stock division. Academician Ivan Meshchaninov, for example, insisted on syntax as a criterion for a word classification. On the whole, his hy­pothesis is formulated in the following way: parts of speech originate from sentence parts which gradually have been acquiring distinctive morphologi­cal features (Meshchaninov, 1978). Applied to English, these claims become controversial because English is an example of a language in which some morphological categories have been dropped. On the other hand, it is the English language that requires a very rigid sentence structure, which makes syntactic peculiarities of parts of speech much more stable than their mor­phological features. If we dwell on syntax as criterion, we cannot but notice that there are a number of obstacles preventing the syntactic criterion from being the only one for vocabulary differentiation. Firstly, one and the same word may perform several syntactic functions. Secondly, the syntactic cri­terion does not identify the status of so-called “function-words” (articles, prepositions, conjunctions, particles). As a result, a number of words end up outside the wordstock classification. This gives grounds to say that the functional aspect of a language unit as a starting point produces a somewhat distorted picture. To avoid this distortion, descriptive structuralists classi­fied words on the basis of their both inflectional and syntactic behaviour and deny the role of meaning in identifying parts of speech (hence their term “form-class”, cf.Bloomfield, Hockett).

Taking lexical meaning as a criterion also presents a pitfall because it is a challenge to claim a general meaning of a class in such a way that every class member perfectly corresponds the definition. For example, though the noun is generally associated with naming “persons” or “things”, it is not quite clear whether such “nouns” as motion and blackness should be re­ferred to the former or the latter.

Therefore, in Soviet and now in modern Ukranian linguistics, parts of speech are traditionally regarded neither as semantic nor syntactic or mor­phological groups of words, but as lexico-grammatical classes. “Lexical” here means “possessing some general lexical meaning” (that of an action or process, person or thing, quality and so on), whereas “grammatical” pre­supposes common morphological traits, that is, word formation patterns, sharing the same categories (for example, those of case, tense, number). Consequently, the notion of lexico-grammatical classes combines several criteria.

One of the pillars of this approach was academician Viktor Vinogra­dov. He treated parts of speech as “lexico-grammatical classes”. In addi­tion to the traditionally recognized eight parts of speech (nouns, adjectives, adverbs, verbs, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections), Vinogradov introduced a new class – the class of modal words – to already recognized ones in the vocabulary classification. Vinogradov also elaborat­ed the views on the particle as a part of speech, dividing particles into sev­eral groups, e.g. negative, logical, modal, etc. This modified parts-of-speech classification, based on the Russian language, influenced Soviet linguistics in general, which cannot but change the interpretation of the English lan­guage morphology in particular. For example, a number of theoretical gram­mars distinguished between such new classes as modal words (certainly, of course, probably, obviously, etc.), particles (even, only, too, hardly, etc.), and statives (afloat, asleep, adrift, alive, etc.). However, some linguists do not consider it correct to grant these groups the status of parts of speech. Ob­viously, this dispute cannot be solved so easily. If one considers the meaning of state to be a particular categorical meaning and not a certain type of qual­ity, one has the right to regard statives as a separate part of speech and not a type of the adjective. On the whole, the less numerous the group is, the more objections to its status as a part of speech appear.

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