Syncretism is a surprising yet widespread and poorly understood phenomenon in natural language. Given a regular distinction such as present versus past, as in English help/helped, work/worked, laugh/laughed, we might not expect to find instances like bid, which can be present or past (we now bid five pounds, though yesterday we bid ten pounds). The form bid, is said to be an instance of syncretism, a single form fulfilling two or more different functions. Thus syncretism is found even in English, whose inflectional morphology (system of different word-forms) is simple in comparison with many languages.

This database encodes information on inflectional syncretism in 30 genetically and geographically diverse languages, representing such morphosyntactic features as case, person, number and gender, in all the inflectional classes where they are relevant.

There are three main parameters which can be used when querying the database, which are: (1) languages, (2) features, and (3) conditions, which are explained in the following sections.


The 'Languages' panel of the search interface allows you to refine a query by either language or language family, by making a selection from the relevant drop-down menu. A query can be run on this selection alone or combined with search criteria from the Features and/or Conditions panels.

When using this panel, you should select either a language or a language family, but not both. Selecting an option from both menus results in an 'AND search' and will therefore only return results if the correct language family is selected, which by definition makes an 'AND search' in this context redundant.


The database records instances of syncretism between two values of a specific feature. Search queries can be refined by selecting the pair of values which are expressed by the same fully inflected form.

Straightforward queries

The database records syncretism as pairs of morphosyntactic descriptions. For example, the syncretism represented by the Georgian attributive adjective form dzvel 'old', which serves for both the dative and adverbial case, is recorded as 'adv = dat'. Where the syncretic form embraces more than two morphosyntactic descriptions, the syncretism is recorded as a network of identity pairs. Thus, the syncretism represented by another form of the same Georgian word, dzveli, which serves for nominative, genitive and instrumental, is recorded as three identity pairs, namely:

  • gen = nom
  • instr = nom
  • gen = instr


The 'Features' panel of the search interface provides drop-down menus for 10 morphosyntactic pairs: Number Pair; Case Pair; Gender Pair; Person Pair; Tense Pair; Mood Pair; Voice Pair; Aspect Pair; Definiteness Pair; Negation Pair. Each pair represents two values for the category in question. These values are separated by a slash, and selection of the pair will result in a search for all examples in the database where the two values are expressed by the same fully inflected form. For example, if we select the pair adv/nom, the database will return all records for syncretism between the dative and adverbial cases. (This particular query will yield two records, both from Georgian).

The output of a query will also contain information about other morphosyntactic categories involved. If we select a particular pair of case values, the database will also return values for the other categories involved in the same syncretism. For example, if we select acc/nom for nominative-accusative, the database will return examples where accusative singular and nominative singular are syncretic, where nominative plural and accusative singular are syncretic, and any other categories which may be involved in the syncretism of nominative and accusative in a particular language (such as person, for example).

Feature values

While the morphosyntactic features employed are self-explanatory (e.g. person, number, case etc.), there is one convention which warrants further explanation, namely the notation of argument features on word forms which mark two arguments, which occurs with transitive verbs and possessed nouns. The convention employed here is to separate the arguments with a hyphen. In transitive verbs, subject features are represented to the left of the hyphen and object features to the right. For example:

3-1 3rd person subject -- 1st person object
-1 unspecified subject -- 1st person object
sg-pl singular subject -- plural object
-pl unspecified subject -- plural object

In possessed nouns, possessor features are to the left and features of the possessed noun to the right. For example:

sg-pl singular possessor -- plural possessed noun
pl-sg plural possessor -- singular possessed noun

For gender, we have adopted the convention of distinguishing 'male' and 'female' for semantically assigned gender and 'masc' and 'fem' for formally assigned gender. Other gender values are arabic numerals (e.g. for agreement classes in Swahili) or letters. As agreement classes may contain slashes, the user should distinguish between the slash of the agreement class and the slash which separates one value from another. For example, the Gender Pair 1/2/3/4 will yield examples of syncretism between classes 1/2 and 3/4 (in Swahili), and the Gender Pair 10/11/15 will yield examples of syncretism between classes 10/11 and 15 (in Diola Fogny).

Same value pairs

Where the pull down value pairs are the same (e.g. sg/sg, fut/fut etc.) selection of these pairs will return results where the category in question does not involve syncretic values, but occurs in the presence of other categories where the values are syncretized. This property of the database makes it useful for looking at the morphosyntactic contexts in which syncretism occurs. For example, selection of pl/pl yields 232 records where the value plural co-occurs with syncretism of some other feature values, such as those for case or for person.

Null values

Except for its use in marking objects and possession (see above), the symbol '-' is used to indicate that there is no value for the particular category in question. When we come across the pair -/- this therefore means that the category is not involved in a syncretism. For instance, querying for the Tense Pair -/- will return all instances of syncretism in the database which do not involve tense.

We also find examples where a null value is paired with a non-null value. For example, selecting the Person Pair -/1 will return examples of syncretism where first person shares a form with a cell in a paradigm where person is not a relevant property.


The 'Conditions' panel of the search interface can be used to further delimit the environments in which syncretism can occur, by selecting a syntactic or semantic property that conditions syncretism.

The 'Syntax' and 'Semantics' drop-down menus can be used to return results where a particular syntactic or semantic construction might be considered to condition syncretism. The 'Word Class' drop-down menu treats word class (i.e. syntactic category) as a set of one, or more, word classes. Hence, selecting the value 'adjective' will return syncretisms where just adjectives are involved. Selecting the combination 'adjective/verb' will return examples where adjectives and verbs share the same syncretism type.

Refining searches

Searches can be refined by choosing values from more than one field. For example, selecting pl/pl and acc/nom will yield results where nominative plural and accusative plural are syncretic. It should be noted that feature pairs will be order-independent with regard to each other. This means that if pl/sg is chosen with acc/nom, for example, the query will return results where both accusative plural is syncretic with nominative singular and where accusative singular is syncretic with nominative plural.