Institut de Lingüística Aplicada

Third Mediterranean Meeting on Morphology (MMM3)


Andrew Spencer (University of Essex)
Does English have productive compounding?

How can compounds be distinguished from phrases? None of the standard criteria (including stress) give unequivocal results. Phrases supposedly modify nouns in syntax, while single words modify inside compounds, but under Bare Phrase Structure (Chomsky 1995) this has to be reappraised. The phrase markers for black bird and blackbird would be identical:

  1. black(bird) bird(bird) [tree]

Adopting the BPS approach (but not necessarily Minimalism!), I argue that only NN 'compounding' is fully productive in English: AN compounding (blackbird) is invariably lexicalized (and often semantically opaque), while NA, AA (ice/icy cold) compounding is a restricted type of syntactic modification. Under BPS this means that compounds will be categorially indistinguishable from phrases and endocentric NN compounding amounts to a syntactic license for a bare N to modify another N (in contrast to, say, French or Russian syntax). This includes synthetic compounds, where 'modification' is interpreted as (inherited) argument-structure satisfaction. Appositional compounds (woman doctor) have two co-heads (Bresnan, 2000). Language-particular principles determine how they are inflected (women doctors, woman doctors).

Syntactic arguments:

  1. NN compounds supposedly have the distribution of single nouns, but a bare noun can modify an [A N] phrase: the London financial markets, an adjunct prepositional phrase, [Senate Committee] [internal memoranda].
  2. English has a construction in which a quantifier is incorporated into a noun: one-place (predicate), two-syllable (word), three-piece suit. These nouns regularly modify [A N] phrases: two-syllable phonological word, high-frequency neural transmission, 21st-century global warming. English also allows certain nouns to modify numbers: the [top/middle/bottom five] students (cf. the next five students). Thus, bare nouns can modify in the syntax.
  3. Phrases can also appear inside 'compounds'. I discuss one productive (but largely neglected) example, synthetic compounds based on transitive -ing participles: card-carrying (morphologist). I also briefly consider inflected words in compounds, comparing English with Finnish and Latvian and briefly considering 'noun stripping' types of Noun Incorporation (e.g. Miner 1986, Massam 2001). All this evidence supports the view that 'compounding' is either productive syntax or the lexicalization of phrases.

Stress: The distinction between forestress (Compound Stress, bláckbird) and afterstress (Phrasal Stress, blackbírd) is notoriously difficult to apply. However, afterstress tends to be associated with appositional readings rather than modificational ones: apprentice instrúctor (appositional) vs. appréntice instructor (synthetic compound, 'one who instructs apprentices').

This supports an model on which there can be morphosyntactic constructions (cf. Booij, to appear, on Dutch compounds), in this case defined by stress patterns (cf. Zwicky 1986) defined over syntactic phrases. There remains the question of why different languages permit different types of lexicalised compound. I suggest that this is not 'grammatical' in the strict sense but is best understood under the version of connectionist architecture argued for by Krott, Baayen & Schreuder (2001).