Institut de Lingüística Aplicada

Third Mediterranean Meeting on Morphology (MMM3)


G. Dal (University of Lille 3) and F. Namer (University of Nancy 2)
Complex words vs. phrases: the case of causative verbs in French

It is a well known fact that general principles of economy cause languages to avoid synonymy. In fact there are far fewer cases of true synonymy than is sometimes thought, since many apparent synonyms have the same set of referents without actually having the same lexically constructed meaning. For example, the French compound nouns tourne-disque and électrophone (both "record player") do not have the same meaning, though they are used to refer to the same types of entities: the first says of its referents that they are used to make records turn, whereas the second says that they produce sounds by electrical means.

Aronoff (1976: 43) accepts this general principle and adds a second principle, "blocking", defined as "the nonoccurrence of one form due to the simple existence of another" (cf. also Aronoff & Anshen (1998: 241)). This is introduced as a constraint on morphologically constructed lexical items, which are claimed to be "blocked" by the existence of a synonymous item (according to Aronoff, the regular process building furiosity from the base furious is blocked by the existence of the noun fury, whereas the structurally parallel curiousity is fine since there is no noun *cury to block it).

In this paper, we discuss whether blocking applies between morphologically constructed lexical items and synonymous syntactic constructions, as is explicitly proposed by Aronoff and Anshen (1998: 240), following Hoffman (1982), and whether, in the opposite direction, phrases can block the formation of complex words, as suggested in the call for papers for this conference.

The idea that syntax can block morphology or vice-versa, resting as it does on an "avoid synonymy" principle, presupposes that expressing a given meaning can alternatively be done in the morphology or in the syntax, and that the activation of the one blocks the activation of the other. In other words, the claim presupposes that syntactic or morphological means of expression can create identical senses and that the resulting synonymy is total. In fact though, it is not at all clear that syntax and morphology can build synonymous constructs. Indeed, the very idea denies that there is anything specific to either type of process.

In this paper, we conduct a case study which casts serious doubts on the idea that such synonymy between phrases and complex words is at all possible. We investigate morphological means of deriving causative verbs from adjectives in French (e.g. suffixation of -is- : moderneA ® mordernis-V; conversion: bleuA ® bleu-V; etc.) and syntactic constructions of the type "rendre A" ("cause to become A") which express causation. On the basis of a corpus study (using Frantext, Le Monde, TLF, RE), we show that:

  1. Though it is true that the idea of causing a referent to have a property expressed by an adjective A is sometimes expressed almost exclusively by syntactic means (e.g. there are 286 occurrences of "rendre quelqu'un aimable" ("cause someone to become amiable") in Frantext, whereas there are none of "amabiliser/aimabiliser"), and sometimes almost exclusively by morphological means ("rosir quelque chose" vs. "rendre quelque chose rose" ("cause something to become pink"), there are cases where both coexist, e.g. there are 600 occurrences of "agrandir quelque chose" vs. 200 of "rendre quelque chose plus grand" ("cause something to become bigger") in the French database Frantext.
  2. The meanings of the constructs built by syntax and morphology are not in fact synonymous. More specifically, we show that a verb like rendre does not consider the property expressed by the predicative adjective in the same way as the morphological constructions consider the property expressed by the bases they select.

In other words, we defend the hypothesis that blocking cannot in principle operate between morphology and syntax, and that when there is apparent blocking, other types of explanations must be invoked.