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TESTING MORPHOLOGICAL PRODUCTIVITY

Mark Aronoff
Department of Linguistia
State University of New York
at Stony Brook
Stony Brook, New York 11794
Roger Schvaneveldt
Department of Psychology
New Mexico State University
L m Cruces, New Mexico 88001

Chapter 1 of Jespersen’s Philosophy of Grammar’ is called “Living Grammar.”
Here, in a discussion of ‘ I . . . the psychological side of linguistic activity . . .” Jespersen
sets out the important distinction between formulas and free expressions. A formula
is a linguistic string in which everything is fiied, whereas free expressions “. . have to
be created in each case anew by the speaker. . .” As examples of syntactic formulas,
Jespersen given “How do you do?” and “Good morning!” Examples of free expressions are “John gave Mary the apple.” and “My uncle lent the joiner five shillings.”
Modern linguistics has made Jespersen’s distinction familiar to us all. Indeed, the
progress of syntax is due in great part to a realization that the central task of a grammar is accounting for a speaker’s ability to produce and understand novel utterances, the ability which Chomsky calls linguistic creativity, and which Jespersen
more aptly called Living Grammar. But Jespersen said that living grammar is not
confined to syntax: “The distinction between formulas and free expressions pervades all parts of grammar.” Here the modems have not heeded his word. This is
especially true in morphology. It has been argued elsewhere*that no study of morphology can succeed which fails to distinguish between two distinct types of morphological phenomena: the actual words of a language and the possible words of a
language (in Jespersen’s terms, f l e d formulas and free expressions). The actual
words, the fixed formulas, constitute the lexicon of a language, and as such are inherently unpredictable (it has been recognized at least since Bloomfield3 that the
basic criterion for a word’s being listed in a speaker’s lexicon is its unpredictability or
irregularity). A theory that attempts to generate the actual words of a language with
all their idiosyncracies is bound to face insurmountable difficulties. These difficulties
can only be overcome by turning one’s attention away from the lexicon and concentrating instead on the possible words, the speaker’s potential for forming and
understandig new words. By focusing on this potential one can arrive at a highly
constrained and interesting theory of morphology in which the lexicon and its irregularities can also be accommodated, albeit in a (properly) derivative fashion. The
elements of such a theory are presented in the above mentioned work.
The theory is concerned with defining the notion possible word of a language.
Since the set of possible words contains the set of existing words, the dictionary of
existing words fulfills part of this definition. The other part, the definition of possible but non-occurring words, is accomplished by a set of Word Formation Rules
(WFRs), which provide the patterns according to which new words may be formed in
the language. These rules, which define the notion morphological structure, are the
central concern of any theory of morphology.
This approach thus distinguishes itself from others in its decision to study mor-

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phology in the same way as we now study syntax, devoting our attention to the
language’s “rule-governed creativity.” Morphology differs from syntax, however, in
one crucial regard with respect to this analogy: we make up and accept new words
much more infrequently and reluctantly than we do new sentences. Why this should
be is not altogether clear, but it does have practical consequences when we try to test
morphological hypotheses. Another difference between morphology and syntax is
that of productivity. Though speakers are generally reluctant to accept new words,
some new words are more successful than others. In the case of a suffix like agentive
-er, which is very productive, new words are constantly entering the language, almost
unnoticed (programmer, synthesizer, lettuce dryer). The suffix -ous, by contrast, is
much less successful. Only a few words ending in -ow have managed to enter the
language since 1800, and most of these are obscure or facetious: magnetiferous,
edacious, scrumptious. Finally, once productive -th has had no success since the
coining of width in 1627, despite such valiant attempts as greenth, illth, and lowth.
Once one accepts the approach to morphology that we have outlined, one must
find methods of analysis that are compatible with it. Since we are modeling our
enterprise after that of the syntactician, we should first look at how syntax is studied.
The most common analytic tool of the modern syntactician is the grammaticality
judgment. The investigator constructs sentences the grammaticality of which is
predicted by a hypothesis. The value of the investigator’s hypothesis is determined
by the extent to which its predictions agree with the judgment of native speakers.
Though this method is not perfect, it has greatly expanded our syntactic horizons.
On the analogy of this syntactic method, we should be able to make up words in accordance with a certain morphological hypothesis and submit them to speakers for
judgment. Such a simple test, however, is blocked by speakers’ reluctance to deal
with new words, even when they are well formed, and by the variation in productivity of patterns. The work cited above has depended on traditional techniques involving dictionaries and word-lists (Aronoff,’ chapters 3 and 6, contains examples of
analyses within this tradition). These techniques, though, are somewhat deficient in
that they deal in a very indirect fashion with those aspects of morphology which are
our most central concern: creativity, and productivity.
The major goal of our general project, then, is to develop other methods for
dealing with morphological structure, particularly the notion “possible but nonoccurring word,” and to find more subtle ways of testing hypotheses which deal with
such entities. Psychologists have long been interested in words (much more so than
in sentences, traditionally) and the ways in which people use and process them.
Recently, workers in cognitive psychology have developed reliable techniques for investigating the semantic, phonological, and orthographic structures of words, as well
as the ways in which people process these structures.
One of these te‘chniques is known as the lexical-decision task. In this task, people
are required to judge whether various stimuli are instances of English words or not.
Both the decision (yes or no) and the time taken to reach the decision provide data
for testing hypotheses about linguistic structures and the psychological processes
that represent and use these structures. Several recent experiments have used the
lexical-decision task to investigate the role of lingusitic structure in recognizing
words and nonwords.
Rubenstein, Lewis, and Rubenstein‘ found that unpronounceable nonwords
(e.g., BRAKV) are judged faster and more accurately than pronounceable nonwords
(e.g., BEAN). The latter were judged faster than nonwords whose pronunciation is
homophonic with an actual word (e.g., BRUDE, homophonic with BROOD). These
findings suggest that the time required to classify nonwords in the lexical-decision
task provides a scale of “wordness” according to phonological structure. The more

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Annals New York Academy of Sciences

a nonword embodies the phonological structure of words, the longer the time required for people to judge that it is a nonword.
Other recent experiments have shown that phonological structure influences
lexical-decision performance with actual words as well as with nonwords. 5 , 6 These
investigators found that judgments about words were influenced by the orthographic
and phonological similarity of the preceding word. For example, the word DIME is
judged faster following TIME than it would be if it followed an unrelated word. In
contrast, LEMON is more difficult to judge following DEMON than following a
dissimilar word. Presumably the phonological structure is responsible for the differences in the two cases. The important point for our purposes is that linguistic
structure on a phonological level can be investigated for both words and nonwords in
the lexical-decision task.
More directly related to our own work, a few studies have investigated morphological structure using the lexical-decision task. Mackay’ presented subjects with
verbs (e.g., DECIDE) and asked them to produce a related noun (DECISION) as fast as
possible by adding either -merit,-ence, or -ion. Reaction times and errors were related
to morphological and morphophonological complexity.
Taft and Forster’ found evidence to support the hypothesis that, in a lexicaldecision task, prefixed words are analyzed into their constituent morphemes before
lexical access occurs. They found that nonwords which are the stems of prefixed
words (e.g., JUVENATE) take longer to classify than nonwords which are not stems
(e.g., PERTOIRE). They also found that prefixed nonwords took longer to classify
when they contained a real stem (e.g., DEJWENATE) compared with control items
which did not (e.g., DEPERTOIRE). Thus nonwords which are morphologically closer
to real words lake longer to react to.
It is of some note that despite Berko’s pioneering study9there have been very few
attempts by linguists to study morphology experimentally. This situation can largely
be traced to the lack of a sufficiently explicit theory of morphological structure.
Within the small amount of literature that exists, it is not difficult to find work
which is marred by elementary misunderstandings. For example, Steinberg’s studylo
of the “reality” of the phonological system of Chomsky and Halle” is rendered
useless by the fact that the test items used in it, which are supposed to be novel, morphologically complex words of English, consistently break well-attested rules of
English word formation and hence are impossible. In general, Steinberg pays no attention to such crucial variables as the final morpheme of the word to which a suffix
is attached. The suffix -iry, for example, seldom attaches to native or monomorphemic words, yet we find among the -iry forms in Steinberg’s study only the following, all of which are either native or monomorphemic or both: SNIDE + ity, EFFETE
+ ity, OVERGROWN + ity. One cannot expect a speaker of English, when faced with
these bizarre “new words” to react in anything but a puzzled fashion.
The mere possession of a coherent theory thus puts us on a much firmer base
than was previously available. Furthermore, our ambitions are quite modest. We do
not presuppose some broad and unsupported linguistic foundation and then build
experimental work on that. Rather, our purpose is to use experiments to test the
strength of the linguistic theory, before going on to further “psychological“ study.
The Productivity Experiment
A central construct of our theory is the possible but non-occurring word. Among
such words, we can further establish a ranking of probability of occurrence, a ranking which is associated with the notion “productivity.” If a given Word Formation
Rule (i.e., affii) is more productive than another such rule, then words formed by

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the former are more likely to enter the language than those formed by the latter. Productivity and this particular way of viewing it are discussed in more detail in chapter
3 of Aronoff.’
A question that immediately comes to the mind of one who regards word formation as part of living grammar is whether productivity is a simple historical fact
(some patterns are more successful than others in the long run) or whether it figures
in the individual’s knowledge of the language. The latter possibility is much the more
intriguing, and there is some anecdotal evidence that it may be true. If you present
speakers of English with the two words obsessiveness and obsessivity, neither of
which is defined in Webster’s 111, most of them will tell you that obsessiveness
“sounds better.” This judgment parallels the fact that the -ness suffix is more productive than -ify with words ending in -be. Speakers thus seem to possess an ability
analogous to the productivity metric. The purpose of this experiment is to verify the
existence of such an ability and its consistency across individual words and across
speakers.
Material: Xive#ness and Xiv + ity
The English nominal suffixes -ness and -ity are “rivals” in that they both often
attach to the same morphological and semantic class of adjectives (CONCRUOUS/CONGRUOUSNESS/CONCRUITY;
POROUS/POROUSNESS/PORO.SITY; IMMENSE/IM-

The productivity of each of
the suffixes varies with the morphology of the base: -ity is more productive with
bases ending in ic (ELECTRIC/ELECTRICITY) and ile (SENILE/SENILITY), while -ness is
more productive with om (DEVIOUS/DEVIOUSNESS)
and ive (DECISIVE/DECISIVENESS).
Note that though one suffix is more productive with a certain class of base, the other
is not impossible: SPECIFICNESS, JUVENILENESS, UNCTUOSITY and DECEPTMTY are all
attested.
Productivity and its analogues can thus be studied in a very narrow range: the attachment of two rival affixes to bases of the same morphological class. The experiment deals with -ness and -ity attached to bases of the form Xive, where we know
that -ness is far the more productive. This is easily demonstrated by the analytic
techniques of AronofP; most obviously, there exist only 28 words of the form Xivity
in Walker,I2 versus 140 of the form Xiveness. Similar studies can be done with -ness
and -ity attached to other bases, as well as with other rival pairs of suffixes.
MENSENES~IMMENSITY: SCARCE/SCARCENESS/SCARC~Y).

Design
In this experiment there are three different types of items, each consisting of an
equal number of letter strings of the form Xiveness and Xivify. The three types are
defined as follows: (1) words-actual words in the language (listed in Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary); (2) possible words-these items do not occur in the language but
the form Xive does; (3) nonwords-these items do not occur in the language, nor
does the form Xive, nor does the form X.
Each subject judges 40 words, 100 possible words, and 40 nonwords. All subjects
judge the same 40 words, but the possible words and the nonwords come from two
different lists such that a particular Xive form will appear as Xivify in one list and as
Xiveness in the other. This counter-balancing ensures that performance on the possible words and nonwords can be attributed to the ending (-ness and -ity) and not to
any peculiar characteristics of the Xive items. Furthermore, each subject judges a
particular Xive stem only once, precluding any effects of repeating the stems.
An outline of the assignment of materials in the experiment is shown in TABLE1.
TABLE
2 contains a complete list of the materials we use in the experiment.

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Annals New York Academy of Sciences
TABLE1

Type of Stem

Word

Suffix
-ness

-it y
Possible Word

-ness
-ity

Nonword

-ness
-ity

Number Per
Subject

20
20
50
50
20
20

Examples from
List 1

List 2

perceptiveness
captivity

perceptiveness
captivity

augmentiveness
pr opulsivit y

propulsiveness
augmentivity

depulsiveness
remortivity

remortiveness
depulsivity

The choice of a 2:5:2 ratio for the three item types was motivated by the
hypothesis at issue. The subject should see some clear cases of words, some clear
cases of nonwords, and many instances that could be judged either way. The selected
ratio should encourage subjects to discriminate among the possible words, judging
some to be words and some, nonwords. The hypothesis makes clear predictions
about which possible words are more likely to be judged words.
An additional variable in this experiment is the instructions given t o the subjects.
One group is asked to judge whether the items are in their vocabulary. Another
group judges whether the items are English words. A third group judges whether the
items are meaningful words. This instructional manipulation should provide some
useful information about the effect of altering the task criterion. We expect the proportions of affirmative judgments for possible words to change with instructions,
but the predictions should still hold.

Anticipated Results
If speakers can consistently distinguish productivity, we expect that nonexistent
words of the form Xiveness will be judged to be actual words more often than nonexistent words of the form Xivity. We also expect results both within and across
speakers, as well as within and across Xive stems. This may tell us something about
the extent t o which productivity of Word Formation Rules is an individual or social
phenomenon and the extent to which productivity holds for particular words.

Procedure
We asked 141 students at the State University of New York at Stony Brook to
make judgments about the items listed in TABLE2. The students were divided into
three groups of 47 persons each, and each group was given different instructions as
described above. The suffixes -ity and -tress were counterbalanced with the stems for
the possible words and the nonwords. The items were presented in six random orders
on mimeographed sheets. Subject’s made yes or no judgments by circling Y or N in
adjacent columns. Obviously, we were not able to collect response time with this procedure. This makes our study different from most experiments involving the Lexical
Decision Task, where response time is considered the central variable. Our decision
was motivated by several considerations. Firstly, the items that we are testing are different from most of those used in previous experiments of this type: We are interested in possible words, rather than simple words or nonwords. Secondly, by not

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TABLE2

A. Words: 20 words of the form Xivity and 20 words of the form Xiveness
proclivity
negativity
relativity
activity
objectivity
decisiveness
compulsiveness
expansiveness
offensiveness
responsiveness

productivity
sensitivity
capt ivity
nativity
festivity
explosiveness
massiveness
aggressiveness
expressiveness
possessiveness

creativity
perceptivity
positivity
conductivity
subjectivity
permissiveness
exclusiveness
elusiveness
obtrusiveness
attractiveness

retroactivity
reactivity
passivity
receptivity
selectivity
effectiveness
destructiveness
primitiveness
deceptiveness
assertiveness

B. Possible Words: the list contains 100 words of the form Xive. From each of these is
formed a pair of words of the forms Xivity and Xiveness.
effervescive
abrasive
propulsive
ascensive
ostensive
implosive
errosive
asper sive
contorsive
recursive
accessive
assuasive
egressive
irrepressive
suppressive
obsessive
omissive
concussive
tussive
refusive
extrusive
contusive
siccative
indicative
amplificative

vellicative
supplicative
explicative
domesticative
inculcative
reciprocative
evocative
gradative
oxidative
exudative
permeative
derogative
arrogative
conjugative
mediative
retaliative
expiative
initiative
ablative
dilative
extrapolative
legislative
emulative
stimulative

granulative
inflammative
affirmative
reformative
rheumative
emanative
combina tive
subordinative
contaminative
culminative
illuminative
agglutinative
inchoative
emancipative
ex tirpative
adumbrative
reverberative
enumerative
vituperative
asseverative
elaborative
invigorative
pejorative
impetrative
administrative

remonstrative
eructative
cantative
mutative
extenuative
enervative
relaxative
tractive
reflective
inflective
maledictive
deductive
structive
inhibitive
exploitive
inceptive
redemptive
presumptive
invertive
assortive
contrastive
congestive
insistive
por tative
deflective

C. Nonwords: the list contains 40 nonwords of the form Xive. From each of these is
formed a pair of words of the forms Xivity and Xiveness.
remortive
ditestive
malipestive
transemptive
affentive
mortentive
amnective
condictive
rassive
ollutive

nebiative
tulsive
carmosive
valiative
incrative
pulmerative
argitive
sebutive
agrancive
permulsive

marbicative
fulgurative
ramitive
lugative
quentive
pervictive
aliomutive
rubictive
laspat ive
prensive

promutative
exputitive
mtusive
redunsive
florsive
ancotive
entractive
hortentive
plastive
axiative

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Annals New York Academy of Sciences
TABLE3
Proportion of ‘Yes’

Instruction (Question)

Suffix

Words

In your vocabulary?

+it y

.88
.84
.90

mess

An English word?
A meaningful word?

+ity
mess
+ity
mess

.87

.92
.93

Possible
Words

No nword s

.28
.34
.39
.46
.47
.52

.09
.10
.18
.20
.20
.19

measuring reaction time, we make the experiment much simpler to perform. It can
be administered to large numbers of subjects in a very short time.
Results
The results are shown in TABLES
3 , 4 , and 5. As can be seen from TABLE
3, the expected results were obtained with the possible words. People responded affirmatively
to the possible words with -ness suffixes more than they did with -ity suffixes,
regardless of the instructions. This effect is statistically reliable.
The instructions were effective in varying the proportion of positive judgments
people made, with .42, .SO, and .54 of the total responses being affirmative with
vocabulary, English word, and meaningful word instructions, respectively. The instructional effect shows that people can vary their criterion for what counts as a
word, but more importantly for our purpose, such variations have little effect on the
influence of morphological structure on their judgment. In other words, the possible
words show a very similar influence of morphological structure for the different instructions. We take this to mean that the phenomenon is robust.
The actual words and the nonwords showed less influence of morphological
structure. This may reflect the relatively leisurely judgments people.were allowed to
make in the experiment. With the words, different items are involved in the two suffix categories and since they were selected as foils, no effort was made to control for
other factors. The addition of a reaction-time measure may show effects where the
judgment proportions d o not. Particularly with the nonwords we used, the final

TABLE4

Entries Are Numbers of Items
Possible Words
Vocabulary
Language
Meaning
More Yeses to iry form
Equal Yeses to ity and ness forms
More Yeses to ness form
Sign test

33
5
62
p < .01*

*Significantly different from chance (a = .05).

27
9
64
p

< .01*

38
6
56
p

< .05*

20
13
14
p<.25

21
14

12
p = .25

V

*Significantly different from chance (or = .05).

More Yeses to i f y items
Equal Yeses for ity and
ness items
More Yeses for ness items
Sign test

Instruction

20
p = .25

15

12
32
p <.01*

12
3
34
p<.Ol*

11
2

Entries Are Numbers of Subjects
Words
Possible
L
M
V
L

TABLE5

32 *
p=.Ol

13
2

M

12
10
25 *
p = .05

12
22
13
p > .25

V

Nonwords
L

4

w

e

e

2a

e

0

0,

3

.a
10
18
p > .25

E

M
19 '

2
sE

rn

K
Y

fo,

2

0

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Annals New York Academy of Sciences

114

judgment may not be affected by the suffix, but the process of arriving at the judgment could be different for the two suffixes.
4 and 5 the data are broken down according to individual items and inIn TABLES
dividual subjects. The results of these analyses give added support to our conclu4, which is in terms of individual possible words, we
sions. Looking just at TABLE
find that significantly more ness forms than ity forms receive a higher proportion of
Yes responses, as we predict. Furthermore, the proportion stays more or less constant, regardless of instructions. This latter result is expected. Differences in instructions should affect the total proportion of positive responses, but should not affect
the ratio of positive n e s to positive ity responses.
5 , the data are broken down for individual subjects. Here our findings
In TABLE
are parallel. Out of 141 subjects, the number (98) giving more yes responses for ness
items is significantly greater than the number (36) giving more yes responses to ity
items. Seven subjects give equal numbers of responses to both sets. Here the proportions are almost exactly constant across instructions, as we predict.
Summary

We have shown how an experimental technique borrowed from cognitive
psychology, the Lexical Decision Task, can be used to study morphology. In particular, we have shown that native speakers of English respond positively more often
to novel words of the form Xiveness than they do to words of the form Xivity, a
result which was predicted from the greater productivity of the former pattern, as
determined by techniques of linguistic analysis. Our finding holds true under a variety of instructions. While the result of our study is not particularly surprising, we
hope that in demonstrating that the Lexical Decision Task is a reliable tool in the
study of morphology we will encourage further research along the lines that we have
developed.

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