Published September 1, 2022 | Version v1
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Forward-formation and back-formation in a Relational Morphology perspective

  • 1. Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology


Forward-formation and back-formation in a Relational Morphology perspective (conference abstract)

Giving special attention to back-formation makes good sense in a context where forward-formation is regarded as the default, and in the informal practice, this is surely the case. We often talk about morphological patterns as consisting of the “addition” of an element to a base, as the “combination” of several elements, and so on. Process metaphors permeate our ways of talking, and sometimes also our ways of thinking about grammatical patterns. But it has long been known that directional processes can be problematic (Hyockett 1954), and nondirectional alternatives have been advanced (e.g. Becker 1993, Bochner 1993, Plag 2003). Recently, a fully explicit proposal for a nondirectional model has been made under the heading of “Relational Morphology” (RM; Jackendoff & Audring 2020).

Two further traditional ideas are constitutive for the special status of back-formation: (i) that derivation is a different kind of morphology, and (ii) that productivity is the default so that its absence needs to be explained. In the RM perspective, these ideas do not play an important role anymore: On the one hand, inflection and derivation (and even syntax) are treated in much the same way, in terms of schemas of different degrees of generality, with interface links among the components of the Parallel Architecture and relational links between related schemas. On the other hand, limited productivity is a separate matter in RM, not treated as directly derivable from other aspects of the model (e.g. from an architectural difference between morphosyntax for productive patterns, and the lexicon for unproductive patterns, as in other models).

The RM perspective thus does not treat back-formation as special, and its seeming rarity must explained in different terms or treated as accidental. And in fact “inflectional back-formation” (or “syntactic back-formation”) does not seem to be unusual at all and is typically not even noticed – it appears that the unusualness of some types of back-formation mostly boils down to limited productivity. Štekauer (2015) points to the tension with the principle of diagrammatic iconicity, and similarly Anderson (2020) highlights the unusualness of “semantically subtractive morphology” (which may result in additive back-formation) – but these semantic effects may be best treated from the perspective of frequency-induced efficient coding (Haspelmath 2021).


Anderson, Stephen. 2020. Semantically subtractive morphology. In Körtvélyessy, Lívia & Štekauer, Pavol (eds.), Complex words: Advances in morphology, 36–54. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Becker, Thomas. 1993. Back-formation, cross-formation, and ‘bracketing paradoxes’ in paradigmatic morphology. In Booij, Geert & van Marle, Jaap (eds.), Yearbook of Morphology 1993, 1–25. Dordrecht: Springer. (DOI: 10.1007/978-94-017-3712-8_1)

Bochner, Harry. 1993. Simplicity in generative morphology. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2021. Explaining grammatical coding asymmetries: Form-frequency correspondences and predictability. Journal of Linguistics 57(3). 605–633. (doi:10.1017/S0022226720000535)

Hockett, Charles F. 1954. Two models of grammatical description. Word 10(2–3). 210–234.

Jackendoff, Ray & Audring, Jenny. 2020. The texture of the lexicon: Relational Morphology and the Parallel Architecture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Plag, Ingo. 2003. Word-formation in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Štekauer, Pavol. 2015. Backformation. In Müller, Peter O. & Ohnheiser, Ingeborg & Olsen, Susan & Rainer, Franz (eds.), Word-Formation, 340–352. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. (doi:10.1515/9783110246254-016)



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