Linguistics Colloquium: Jonathan Bobaljik

(Im)possible suppletive patterns

The comparative and superlative corresponding to good are suppletive: better and best rather than hypothetical, but unacceptable, *gooder, *goodest. In a large, cross-linguistic survey of suppletion in adjectives (Bobaljik 2012), it turns out that some patterns of suppletion are widely attested, while others are virtually unattested. For example, essentially no language has a pattern like *good-better-goodest in which only the comparative is suppletive. Looking at a large, cross-linguistic sample (tens or hundreds of languages) allows us to distinguish between accidental and systematic gaps, and to seek explanations for generalizations that appear to be linguistic universals.

In this talk, I will go over an explanation for some of the universals presented in Bobaljik 2012, focusing in particular on the role of structure within words. The explanation of why ABA patterns like *good-better-goodest do not occur provides us with a template for looking for structure in words beyond adjectives. Armed with this ‘structure-detector’, we will look at a large survey of pronominal paradigms. In pronouns too we find that some patterns of suppletion are widely attested, while others are virtually unattested. The conclusions developed on the basis of adjectives lead us to posit hidden structure in pronouns as well, as an explanation for apparent universals.

*in collaboration with: Peter Smith, Beata Moskal, Jungmin Kang, Ting Xu

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