ALLOMORPHS. English Lexicology


The combining form allo- from Greek allos ‘other’ is used in linguistic terminology to denote elements of a group whose members together constitute a structural unit of the language (allophones, allomorphs). Thus, for example, -ion/-sion/-tion/-ation in §5.6. are the positional variants of the same suffix. To show this they are here taken together and separated by the sign /. They do not differ in meaning or function but show a slight difference in sound form depending on the final phoneme of the preceding stem. They are considered as variants of one and the same morpheme and called its all o m o r p h s . Descriptive linguistics deals with the regularities in the distributional relations among the features and elements of speech, i.e. their occurrence relatively to each other within utterances. The approach to the problem is consequently based on the principles of distributional analysis. An a l l o m o r p h is defined as a positional variant of a morpheme occurring in a specific environment and so characterised by complementary distribution. C o m p l e m e n t a r y d i s t r i b u t i o n is said to take place when two linguistic variants cannot appear in the same environment. Thus, stems ending in consonants take as a rule -ation (liberation); stems ending in pt, however, take -tion (corruption) and the final t becomes fused with the suffix. Different morphemes are characterised by c o n t r a s t i v e d i s t r i b u t i o n , i.e. if they occur in the same environment they signal different meanings. The suffixes -able and -ed, for instance, are different morphemes, not allomorphs, because adjectives in -able mean ‘capable of being’: measurable ‘capable of being measured’, whereas -ed as a suffix of adjectives has a resultant force: measured ‘marked by due proportion’, as the measured beauty of classical Greek art; hence also ‘rhythmical’ and ‘regular in movement’, as in the measured form of verse, the measured tread. In some cases the difference is not very clear-cut: -ic and -ical, for example, are two different affixes, the first a simple one, the second a group affix; they are said to be characterised by contrastive distribution. But many adjectives have both the -ic and -ical form, often without a distinction in meaning. COD points out that the suffix -ical shows a vaguer connection with what is indicated by the stem: a comic paper but a comical story. However, the distinction between them is not very sharp. Allomorphs will also occur among prefixes. Their form then depends on the initials of the stem with which they will assimilate. A prefix such as im- occurs before bilabials (impossible), its allomorph irbefore r (irregular), il- before l (illegal). It is in- before all other consonants and vowels (indirect, inability). Two or more sound forms of a stem existing under conditions of complementary distribution may also be regarded as allomorphs, as, for instance, in long a : : length n, excite v : : excitation n. In American descriptive linguistics allomorphs are treated on a purely semantic basis, so that not only [ ız] in dishes, [z] in dreams and [s] in books, which are allomorphs in the sense given above, but also formally unrelated [n] in oxen, the vowel modification in tooth : : teeth and zero suffix in many sheep, are considered to be allomorphs of the same morpheme on the strength of the sameness of their grammatical meaning. This surely needs some serious re-thinking, as within that kind of approach morphemes cease to be linguistic units combining the two fundamental aspects of form and meaning and become pure abstractions. The very term m o r p h e m e (from the Greek morphē ‘form’) turns into a misnomer, because all connection with form is lost. Allomorphs therefore are as we have shown, phonetically conditioned positional variants of the same derivational or functional morpheme (suffix, root or prefix) identical in meaning and function and differing in sound only insomuch, as their complementary distribution produces various phonetic assimilation effects.

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