Lexical splits

Workshop on non-canonicity in inflection

Key details

Dates: 21–22 June 2019

Location: University of Surrey, Guildford

Invited speakers:
Balthasar Bickel (University of Zurich)
Louise Esher (CNRS – Toulouse)
Enrique Palancar (CNRS – Paris)
Erich Round (University of Queensland)


Friday 21st June 2019


Registration & welcome


Erich Round

The view from Bentinck Island:  Lexical splits in Kayardild, Yukulta and Lardil


Coffee break



Xavier Bach

Splits in possessive paradigms in South Halmahera-West New Guinea languages


Borja Herce

Phonologically-conditioned stem alternations are morphomic in Kiranti





Louise Esher

Romance imperfects revisited


Pavel Štichauer & Xavier Bach

Mixed paradigms in Italo-Romance as non-canonical inflectional classes


Coffee break



Greville Corbett

External splits: terms and typology


Matthew Baerman & Irina Monich

Nuer noun inflection


Conference meal


Saturday 22nd June 2019


Balthasar Bickel

Splits in morphological dependencies


Andrew Spencer

Split inflectability


Coffee break



Zeprina-Jaz Ainsworth

The limits of non-canonical morphology in inflexional case systems


Silva Nurmio

Singulatives as non-canonical number inflection





Enrique Palancar

Stretching non-canonicity to breaking point: The tonal inflection of Amuzgo verbs


Timothy Feist & Enrique Palancar

The diachrony of stem alternation patterns in Chichimec (Oto-Manguean, Mexico)


Coffee and close


Given the diversity of inflection systems, linguists still struggle to find the means to characterise and compare inflectional morphology across languages. The notion of Canonical Inflection provides one method for doing this, by establishing a baseline from which to evaluate the inflectional systems we encounter. In canonical inflection, the stems of individual words remain unchanged between cells of a paradigm, while inflectional exponents are encoded consistently, and uniquely, from one cell to the next (Corbett 2015: 149-158). This state of affairs is by no means common, however. Instead, we find a multitude of deviations from this idealization across the world's languages.

For instance, in Cupeño (Uto-Aztecan, USA) the verb ‘die’ has suppletive stems: /qaaw/ when the subject is singular, but /chix/ with a plural subject. In Bariai (Austronensia, PNG) there is an inconsistency in how possession is marked on nouns: the person and number of the possessor is encoded by means of a prefix (e.g. /i-mata/ ‘3SG-eye’) if the possessor is 3SG, but by a suffix (e.g. /mata-g/ ‘eye-1SG’) for other possessors. In Dime (South Omotic, Ethiopia) person indexing on verbs is present for all TAM values, bar the progressive past which simply leaves person unmarked. In Skolt Saami (Uralic, Finland) stem allomorphy can involve as many as eleven different stem forms, brought about by the combination of three morphophonological processes (consonant gradation, vowel height alternations, and palatalization).

These examples of non-canonical inflection all share the characteristic of splitting the paradigm into different segments. Within each segment, canonical inflection obtains, but the principles shift when you move to a new segment (e.g. in Cupeño inflection goes from using one stem in one segment to another stem in another segment). By taking this more abstract view of non-canonical inflection, we can talk about the relationship between different segments of a split paradigm, independent of the nature of what is happening inside them.

For instance, in some cases a split is fully regular (cf. Bariai possessor affixes) in that it occurs across an entire word class, while in other cases it may be an entirely irregular property of the paradigm, restricted to a single lexeme. We can thus talk of a split’s regularity irrespective of whether it manifests itself as suppletion, periphrasis, or some other type of non-canonical inflection. Likewise, a split in a paradigm may result in coherent groupings of cells (cf. Dime progressive past forms as opposed to the rest of the paradigm), or disjunct groupings.

Peering deeper below the surface, this diversity becomes even more apparent. For example, many splits give rise to a paradigm cleaved into two (cf. Cupeño /qaaw/ vs. /chix/), but in other cases the result is a split three or more ways. Alternatively, distinct factors, each of which results in a split in its own right, may combine forces, and we talk of the resulting split being made up of several COMPONENT splits (e.g. the potential eleven-way split in Skolt Saami stems arises from the combination of a three-way split in consonant gradation, a two-way split in vowel height alternations, and a two-way split in palatalization).

And perhaps the most fascinating splits are those which have a corresponding effect which is external to inflection, say in the syntax: in Serbo-Croat, for instance, the noun ‘eye’ is non-canonical in its inflection, having a singular stem /oko/ and a plural stem /oči/, but crucially the two forms control different genders (neuter in the singular, feminine in the plural). We refer to examples like these as EXTERNAL splits.

Taking this more abstract view of non-canonical inflection, as opposed to looking at individual phenomena in isolation, interesting theoretical questions arise. For example, how should we define the pattern generated by one component split, when a separate component split eliminates the conditions required for the first component to apply in a given sector of the paradigm? Where a paradigmatic split has a corresponding pattern in syntax, is one of these triggered by the other, and why? Further questions we might ask include: How stable are complex splits over time? Are splits stored in memory or computed? What process do children go through to acquire splits?

This workshop – which forms part of the research project “Lexical splits: a novel perspective on the structure of words” funded by the AHRC – will serve as an arena for discussing some of the more unusual instances of non-canonical inflection and seeking answers to the problematic theoretical issues which they give rise to.

Call for papers

The main questions guiding this workshop are:

(i) How prevalent are those instances of non-canonical inflection that have a corresponding ‘effect’ elsewhere in the grammar (i.e. external splits ), and how should we analyse them?
(ii) Are complex splits more prone to processes of simplification than less complex ones?
(iii) How do speakers deal, cognitively, with the complexities arising from non-canonical inflection?

While we will favour abstracts that address these issues directly, we will also consider abstracts that address more general issues of non-canonical inflection. And as part of the celebrations surrounding the International Year of Indigenous Languages, we particularly encourage abstracts which focus on indigenous languages.

People wishing to present a paper at the workshop are invited to submit a one-page anonymous abstract in electronic form (PDF or Word document) to Tim Feist at the following address: t.feist@surrey.ac.uk. Deadline: 28 February 2019.

Project members

Prof Greville G. Corbett
Dr Matthew Baerman
Dr Timothy Feist

Period of award:

Sep 2016 – Aug 2019


Arts and Humanities Research Council