Morphological theory in the 20th-century Western linguistics

March 2nd, 201210:22 am


Morphological theory in the 20th-century Western linguistics

The traditional approach to wordstock classification is in great length criticized in modern British and American linguistic studies. As some scholars state, “the definitions in traditional grammars vary between authors, but they share a vagueness and inconsistency of approach. As David Crys­tal points out, the general intent behind the traditional definitions is clear enough; but several are insufficiently general to apply to all instances, and the lack of formal detail about their morphology or syntax makes them dif­ficult to apply consistently” (Crystal, 2000). The main criticism is targeted at the definitions that are sometimes either ambiguous or combine various approaches within one and the same classification. Let us analyze some of the most flagrant contradictions and weak points of the definitions common for English school grammars.

An adjective is a word used to qualifya noun, to restrict the application ofa noun by adding something to its


E.g. fine, brave

The definition is too broad and vague, as it allows a wide range of elements (e.g. the, my, all) which have very different graromatical properties, and even nouns in certain types of constructions (e.g. her brother the butcher) do not seem to be excluded.
A verb is a word used for saying something about some person or thing E.g. make, know, buy, sleep In this definition, there is little difference between a verb and an adjective. Some grammars prefer to talk about “doing words” or “action words”, but this seems to exclude the many state verbs, such’ as know, remember, and be.
A conjunction is a word used to join words or phrases together, or one clause to another clause E.g. before, as well as, and This definition captures the essential point about conjunctions, but it also needs some tightening up, as prepositions might also be said to have a joining function (the man in the street). Obviously, a lot depends on exactly what is being joined.

The main problem that becomes obvious when considering parts of speech is criteria of the classification. In the 20th century, linguists were mostly concerned with trying to find a balance between different criteria: reordering their successive application, ignoring some, focusing on others. It is the absence of permanent criteria that Hermann Paul pointed out. In his opinion, the parts-of-speech classification adopted in the Indo-European

languages lacks consistent logical principles, it has appeared as a result of attempts to take into account multiple aspects of the problem and is charac­terized by certain randomness.

The Danish representative of classical scientific grammar of the 20th century, Otto Jespersen, in The Philosophy of Grammar (1924) considers meaning extremely important but the most difficult to work out because, to his mind, it is impossible to ground scientific classification on deceptively short and easily applicable definitions, i.e. Jespersen warns against seeming simplicity and cogency of traditional definitions.

In his book, Jespersen proposes a dual system: together with the descrip­tion of the traditional parts of speech with their morphological peculiarities and lexical meaning, the linguist analyzes these word classes from the point of view of their functions in syntactic combinations (word combinations and sentences). Certain words may be primary, i.e. they may be the core of a word combination or the subject of a sentence. A word may also be secondary, i.e. it may modify primary words. Jespersen also distinguishes tertiary words, i.e. words subordinated to secondary ones. For example:

furiously barking dog
tertiary secondary primary

Obviously, Jespersen’s approach is one of the first attempts to suggest the classification based on word functions within units higher than a word. However, the morphological classification, syntactic functions and the three ranks constantly overlap each other, intertwine and create superflu­ous units.

In his classification, Jespersen doubts whether the division between con­junctions and prepositions is justified. He points out that the preposition of in A man of honour is a connector and it does not differ from a conjunc­tion. Jespersen also believes that there is not much difference between “sub­stance” and “quality”, traditionally associated with nouns and adjectives respectively. The scholar claims that these two meanings may be expressed both by nouns and by adjectives. As a result, Jespersen distinguishes the following parts of speech:

1) NOUN;



4) VERB;

5) PARTICLES (referring to this class all the words which are deprived of a morphological paradigm).

Morphological theory in the 20th-century Western linguistics – Part 2
Morphological theory in the 20th-century Western linguistics – Part 3

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