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2001 Base derivative faithfulness

The Unitary Base Hypothesis and the Semantics of Word Formation Rules
Université de Paris X – Nanterre / Università di Bologna
via Menconi, 11
43100 Parma, Italy
[email protected]
Early approaches to lexical morphology
within the generative framework elaborated a series of conditions and restrictions to word formation rules (henceforth WFR) which paid only little attention, if any, to the semantic aspect of
rules themselves and to semantic relationships
between morphological constituents. However,
as many works pointed out, these conditions appeared in turn to be too restrictive when faced to
new, more complex, data. In the last years, a
new attitude towards lexical rules emerged, one
which paid more attention to semantics in spite
of formal restrictions. According to these approaches many facts, formerly excluded from the
theory and labeled as ‘exceptions’, may actually
be reintegrated into it.
The goal of this paper will be, then, to review
one principle of early lexical morphology, the
so-called Unitary Base Hypothesis (Aronoff
(1976)), in semantic terms, in order to determine
whether, and in which measure, semantics is
more adequate to account for some facts which
were rejected by it.
The data on which this paper will be based
will be almost exclusively taken from Italian; it
is not excluded, however, that its main claims
will be applicable to other languages. In particular, I will concentrate on data which have often
been neglected by morphologists, such as apparently irregular behaviors of WFRs, or apparently
less prototypical WFRs. In facts, early morphological theories were for a great part constructed
on a very little range of data, supposed to be the
most central ones, and disregarded all the behaviors which were considered to be eccentric with
respect to this ‘core’. A very clear example of
Many thanks to Françoise Kerleroux and to Nicola
Grandi for their useful comments to an earlier version
of this paper.
that is, in my opinion, the treatment which has
been proposed for prefixation in many works of
morphology. The morphological component was
divided into two great areas, composition and
affixal derivation, which included, on its turn,
suffixation and prefixation. Behind this distinction, however, there was no clear reflection on
the nature of each different operation, but rather,
principles were elaborated to treat what was considered the ‘core’ of derivational processes – i.e.
suffixation – and prefixation was implicitly admitted to conform to these principles, or to be
considered a less regular rule. Together with prefixation there are many other morphological operations that are considered less regular, namely
because they do not conform to the principles
which are established. A second great goal of
this paper will be to find a way to permit morphology to treat these operations as well. The
main hypothesis I defend is that semantic coherence may constitute a good key to get into this
As I remarked above, recent convergent
works in morphology proposed new treatments
for morphological phenomena giving predominance to semantic coherence rather than to categorical relationships. It seems to me that the
emergence of this new way to look into morphology may be linked with a new mentality in
linguistic analysis, expressed by such theories as
the Optimality Theory (Prince and Smolensky
(1993)), which states that phonological processes
are best described by a set of constraints on output forms, that constraints are violable at a certain measure, and that the actually realized output form is the one that violates less the most
relevant constraints. One clear example of application of this attitude to morphology is I. Plag’s
(1998) paper on the polysemy of –ize derivatives
in English. The main claim of his work is that
syntactic restrictions are not as important as semantic conditions of well-formedness are in de-
termining the range of possible inputs for the –
ize WFR. This hypothesis provokes a shift in
perspective for the analysis of WFRs, i.e., in
Plag’s words, “from the possible input to the
possible output by rephrasing the traditional input-output relation between base, affix and derivative as a general condition on the output”
(Plag (1998: 238)). Other works to which I will
refer in this paper are D. Corbin’s (1999; f.c.)
papers on the distinction between prefixes and
suffixes in French. Though Corbin is less explicit in positing an output-oriented point of
view, and she doesn’t cite Plag’s paper, I think
that when she claims that “l’instruction sémantique dont tous les affixes sont porteurs […] serait responsable de leur instruction catégorielle”
(Corbin (f.c.: 2)), we can place these papers in
the same line as Plag’s.
In order to better explain how semantics may
constitute the central point around which WFR
are constructed, I will propose three observation,
corresponding to the leading ideas which will
inspire this work:
i) as it was already pointed out by Aronoff,
WFRs are at the same time a device for analyzing existing complex words and for creating new
ones (Aronoff (1976: 1)). Anyway, “it may not
be possible or even desirable […] to treat them
exactly the same manner” (Aronoff (1976: 1)).
In fact, a well known leitmotiv of linguistics is
that the passive competence of a speaker is much
wider than the active one. In morphological
terms, it means that a speaker is able to understand correctly more complex words than he is
able to produce, and then that a morphological
theory which gives predominance to semantic
coherence of complex words is preferable to one
which gives predominance to rigid syntactic restrictions. The latter is condemned not to take
into account a large amount of perfectly understandable existing words, when they do not conform to its restrictions;
ii) a clear distinction should be posited between what system-internal rules of morphology
permit to do and the actually attested lexicon. It
is clear that the latter is to be considered only in
relationship with the former, for the lexicon recorded in dictionaries is subject to various influences, as historic accidents, pragmatic conditions, and so on. One example will clarify this
point. The Italian prefix sotto-, apart from the
common spatial meaning (‘under’), may take
rather different secondary meanings, indicating
the non-reaching by an entity of a socially established norm, the subdivision of a larger entity,
hierarchical subordination, etc, a distinction we
observe in the verbs derived by sotto- of (1)2:
utilizzare →
‘to utilize’
‘to put’
‘to utilize not fully’
‘to submit’
Both base verbs in (1) are transitive and share
the same selection restriction; in facts, only
pragmatic knowledge permits us to determine
that sottoutilizzare means ‘to utilize not fully’
and not, for instance, ‘to utilize something in its
lower part’;
iii) a too rigid dichotomy in derivation between suffixes and prefixes is misleading. As
observation shows, there are prefixes which follow rigid restrictions, as there are suffixes which
are more loose. It is likely that a scale of prototypicity should be posited for both classes of
sublexical categories (though, as we will see below, prefixes are in general less prototypical affixes than suffixes), and that the violation of restriction should be regarded as transversal to the
prefixes-suffixes distinction. The hypothesis I
defend is that the less a WFR is prototypical, the
more crucial semantic coherence becomes for its
acceptability by speakers
The ‘Unitary Base Hypothesis’
Let us pass now to concretely review the
principle referred to above. As it is well known,
the Unitary Base Hypothesis (henceforth UBH)
was first elaborated by Aronoff in the following
terms: “the syntacticosemantic specification of
the base, though it may be more or less complex,
is always unique” (Aronoff (1976: 48)).
This means that a WFR always selects only
one syntactic category to which it may apply.
Such a claim is quite easily refutable, and indeed
it has been repeatedly revised and re-elaborated
in order to reincorporate into the restriction the
apparent counterexamples. Scalise, for instance,
remarking that many suffixes freely attach to different bases, proposed a modified version of the
For a detailed analysis of the prefix sotto- in Italian,
cf. Grandi and Montermini (f.c.).
UBH (henceforth MUBH), according to which a
suffix may be applied to bases containing a
common feature of syntactic category within the
X-bar theory (Scalise (1990: 206)). Thus, in the
examples of (2), the suffix –anza, which attaches
to both verbs or adjectives, does not violate the
UBH, since the categories verb and adjective,
according to the X-bar model, share the feature
‘to tolerate’
Moreover, Scalise claims that the UBH only
holds for suffixation, since prefixes tend to attach freely to bases belonging to any of the three
major lexical categories.
However, as I remarked above, a theory
which distinguishes too neatly between prefixation and suffixation, which are supposed to represent the two faces of a unitary affixal operation, should be avoided, and, which is more important, leads to false predictions. Given the picture drawn above, in fact, we would expect prefixes to attach always to any lexical category
without restrictions and suffixes to attach only
to one, maximum categories. It is quite easy to
demonstrate that these predictions are false.
There are prefixes in Italian which attach to only
one category of bases without exceptions, for instance, the prefix ri- which only attaches to
verbs to form verbs, or the prefix vice- which selects nouns indicating an office:
‘to do’
presidenteN →
‘to do again’
On the other hand, there are many suffixes
which attach to bases belonging to different
categories, both violating the UBH, and the
MUBH. Scalise himself presents some problematic data for the UMBH, as the suffixes -ismo/ista, which apparently may attach to any major
lexical category:
→ petrarchismo/ista
→ socialismo/ista
determinareV → determinismo/ista
‘to determine’
Scalise resolves this problem by claiming that
–ismo and -ista don’t attach productively to
verbs (Scalise (1990: 207-208)), but this solution
appears too easy to be fully convincing. In different places, moreover, he treats the apparently
exceptional behaviors of other suffixes, such as –
bile (5.a.) or –oso (5.b.):
→ tascabileA
(Scalise (1994a: 107))
(Scalise (1994a: 37))
In (5.a.) a suffix which is typically attached to
verbs to form adjectives (e.g. mangiare ‘to eat’
→ magiabile ‘edible’) is attached to a noun,
while in (5.b.) a suffix which is typically attached to nouns (noia ‘boredom’ → noioso ‘boring’) is attached to an adjective to form another
What I would like to propose in this respect is
a reflection on how those principles such as the
UBH were established by scholars. In order to
formulate a strong hypothesis on the categorial
relationship of a WFR, one might base himself
on three kinds of observations:
i) the meanings and categorial relationships
of affixes as they are described in previous
works, and in particular in ‘traditional’ grammars;
ii) his own intuition as a native speaker of a
given language; i.e.: ‘I know’ that the suffix –
bile forms adjectives from transitive verbs, then
the corresponding rule may be formalized as
[[X]Vtr –bile]A;
iii) statistic estimates on the attested lexicon,
in particular on dictionaries;
Clearly, none of these possibilities is useful if
it is not supported by a large observation of real
data. Quite often, data which do not conform to
the hypothesis formulated according to the above
mentioned procedures are considered ‘peripheral’, in opposition to the supposed ‘core’ of a
rule. So, for instance, Scalise (1994: 107) labels
as exceptions to the –bile WFR, apart from tascabile, such words as those of (6), claiming that
the suffix –bile only forms adjectives from transitive verbs:
PapaN → papabileA
‘potentially eligible Pope’
camionN → camionabileA
‘open to the circulation of
In order to maintain the generalization [[X]Vtr
–bile]A, it could be claimed that tascabile and the
words of (6) are indeed formed from an hypothetical denominal verb created by conversion
from the corresponding nouns. In fact a WFR
which forms verbs from nouns by conversion exists in Italian and is quite productive (e.g. bastoneN ‘stick’ → bastonareV ‘to beat with a stick’).
The fact that the verbs *tascare, *papare, and
*camionare are not found in Italian dictionaries
would not constitute a serious problem for this
hypothesis, since any serious morphological theory should be based on system-internal rules and
not on the work of lexicographers. Actually, the
definitive argument to abandon the hypothesis
that those words are constructed on a virtual verb
formed by conversion, is the fact that the hypothetical verb camionare, for instance, would
never mean, in Italian, ‘to circulate on a road
with a truck’, which is the meaning it should
have if camionabile was productively constructed on it. Similarly, it seems to me hard to
imagine that the hypothetical verbs *papare and
*tascare would mean, respectively ‘to elect
someone Pope’, and ‘to put something in a pocket’.
The only solution, thus, is to consider that the
adjectives of (6) are directly constructed on the
nouns papa and camion. It may be observed, in
addition, that adjectives are productively created
by means of the suffix –bile from non verbal
bases with a transparent meaning; it means that
this process could hardly be defined ‘peripheral’.
For instance, the forms of (7)3 seems to me perfectly transparent from a semantic point of view,
and thus well formed:
‘player in the
Italian football
team’ (lit. ‘blue’)
‘likely to be called
to play in the Italian
‘likely to become the
customer of a bank’
Remark that the same observations made for
tascabile, papabile and camionabile hold for the
words in (7): the hypothetical verbs *azzurrare
and *bancare would hardly mean ‘to call someone to play in the Italian team’ and ‘to make
someone the customer of a bank’.
Analogous observations for the French suffix
–able are proposed by Dal (1997: 95), in such
words as ministrable (‘likely to become a minister’). Dal claims that this suffix should be regarded as a “marqueur de possibilité” (‘possibility marker’), which is ideally attached to verbal
bases, but its attachment to bases of different
categories is not forbidden by the system itself,
though less likely to happen. The same statement
seems to me to hold for Italian.
Another example of a suffix with a behavior
which apparently is largely ‘irregular’ is the Italian suffix –oso. Scalise (1994: 37) defines the –
oso WFR as forming adjectives from nouns, and
claims that the form comodoso of (3) is
‘strange’, for it is created violating the normal
WFR. In fact, it is certain that the output of this
rule is always an adjective, which sometimes
may even have the characteristics of a relationship adjective (e.g. arterioso in pressione arteriosa ‘arterial pressure’), i.e. the typical denominal adjective. However, a rapid glance to a list of
neologisms I have collected reveals that the construction of adjectives by –oso with different
bases than nouns, such as adjectives (7.a.) or
Both forms were encountered in recent press.
The only problem with camionabile and azzurrabile
is represented by the vowel –a, which is absent in the
bases. Since the suffix may not be stated as having
the form -abile (with verbs of the second and of the
third class it is preceded by an –i), we are forced to
postulate a special readjustment rule for this suffix
when it is attached to non verbal stems.
verbs (7.b.), is possible and even reasonably
‘to get annoyed’
‘a real liar’
Indeed, a more accurate observation of data
from a dictionary (Zingarelli (1997)) shows that
the generalization [[X]N]A is true for the majority
of cases, but also that other patterns are minoritary but not marginal. Of almost 1.100 adjectives
formed with the suffix –oso 63 cannot be considered having a nominal base but rather a verbal
or an adjectival one; this number, though not big
in percentage terms, is not negligible in absolute
ones, even because many words from this list are
quite common, and perfectly transparent ones:
‘to think’
‘to fling down’
‘to silp’
Bugiardosissimo is taken from C.E. Gadda’s novel
La cognizione del dolore (-issimo is the superlative
suffix for adjectives in Italian), the three other forms
from various newspapers and magazines.
studioN / studiareV
‘study’ / ‘to study’
untoN / untoA
‘grease’ / ‘greasy’
Once again, let us turn to the semantics of
this suffix. The dictionary definition (Zingarelli
(1997)) states that –oso indicates “possession of
a property, abundance, fullness, pronounced
characterization”7. In this case too, it is clear that
the possession of a property, etc., is typically expressed referring to the noun denoting that property, but may also be expressed referring to a
verb denoting an action. It is semantics, indeed,
which permits us to determine from which of the
two possible bases indicated the forms in –oso of
(9) derive. Observation on a corpus of recently
coined words in –oso, in facts, shows that in the
great majority of cases this suffix, when attached
to nouns, forms adjectives meaning, roughly,
‘containing a lot of N’:
‘quite serious’
For the words of (8) a nominal base hypothesis does not hold, for the corresponding deverbal
or deadjectival nouns have quite different forms:
grande / grandezza, serio / serietà, pensare /
pensiero6, etc. One more observation, on the
contrary, tend to confirm the hypothesis of an
attachment of –oso to bases different than nouns:
apart from the 63 adjectives in –oso with nonnominal base referred to above, there are many
other which are systematically ambiguous with
respect to their base:
cipollaN →
plasticaN →
‘with a strong taste of onion’
‘containing a lot of plastic’
On the contrary, as it can be seen from the
examples in (7.b.), when attached to verbs, -oso
usually has the meaning ‘(someone) who Vs a
lot’. To go back to the words in (9), it is clear
that a form like studioso will be more likely be
interpreted as derived from a verb and meaning
‘(someone) who studies a lot’ than as derived
It is remarkable that the form pensieroso also exists.
In this text I used quite elementary semantic representations for WFR taken from a common dictionary.
It is not excluded, however, that the principles exposed here are compatible with more formal semantic
The examples of (10) are taken from Bencini &
Citernesi (1992).
from a noun meaning ‘study’. On the other hand,
the interpretation ‘containing a lot of N’ is perfectly compatible with the nominal base unto for
the derivation of untuoso. It is a good example, I
think, of how semantics is capable to catch some
facts which escape to rigid formal restrictions.
As it has been described so far, -oso resembles much another Italian suffix, -one, which
synchronically has a primary augmentative
meaning (11.a.), but which may be attached to
nouns or verbs to indicate a person who has a
pronounced characteristic (capelloN ‘hair’ →
capelloneN ‘long haired person’; mangiareV ‘to
eat’ → mangioneN ‘an hearty eater’, cf. Grandi
It will be argued that –one is one of the socalled ‘evaluative’ suffixes, a category of suffixes which has special features in many respects
(cf. Scalise (1994: 264-266)), and thus that –oso,
sharing a characteristic with it, should be regarded as a more peripheral suffix than other
ones. The behavior of –oso, however, remembers the one already observed for –bile, which
could hardly be referred to as a ‘peripheral’ suffix, and may be observed with many other suffixes (e.g. –ivo, –aggio, etc.).
Let us now go back to the prefixes of (3), in
particular to ri-. According to the dictionary
definition (Zingarelli (1997)), ri- expresses the
meanings “repetition, reduplication, return to a
previous state”. It is clear that these meanings
are more easily applicable to verbal bases, thus
ri- typically attaches to verbs or to deverbal
nouns and adjectives:
eleggereV →
‘to elect’
elezioneN →
eleggibileA →
‘to re-elect’
The attachment of this prefix to different
bases sounds quite odd, in particular, I claim, for
semantic reasons (repetition is typical of verbs,
not of nouns and adjectives), and, when it is possible at all, it is limited to special cases.
The data presented so far show that the violation of the UBH is not an eccentric behavior of
some peripheral suffixes, but rather a possibility
which is activated for a great part of WFRs, and,
moreover, that it cannot be considered a distinguishing characteristic of prefixes in relation
with suffixes, since both categories show different behaviors according to it.
The ‘Unitary Output Hypothesis’
Another principle strictly linked to the UBH
is what Scalise calls the Unitary Output Hypothesis (“Ipotesi dell’Uscita Unica”, Scalise
(1994: 187; 210)), according to which (the translation is mine) “a WFR always changes the category of the base for the reason that the rule has
its own constant meaning, which is independent
from the information associated to the base”.
This hypothesis is undoubtedly intended by Scalise to hold only for suffixation, for he claims that
prefixes never change the category of the base
they attach to (Scalise (1994: 95)). Actually, prefixes which are able to change the category of
their bases does not appear as marginal as they
always have been considered to be. Apart from
the well known cases of English prefixes en- or
de- (nobleA → ennobleV), or the so-called Romance parasynthetic prefixes (e.g. lungoA ‘long’
→ allungareV ‘to lengthen’, barcaN ‘boat’ →
imbarcareV ‘to embark’), it seems that the real
incidence of category changing prefixes have
been largely underestimated, as the following
data – including different kinds of prefixes, such
as spatio-temporal (13.b.) or quantitative (13.c.)
ones – seem to show:
cane anti-valanga
‘anti-avalanche dog’
tensione pre-partita
‘pre-match tension’
guanti monouso
‘mono-usage gloves’
The traditional view, according to which prefixes are ‘transparent’ with respect to the base
they attach to. So, any substantial distinction
which can be made between prefixation and suffixation on the basis of the categorizing power is
not justified, as he data in (13) confirm. It should
be admitted, anyway, that the same prefixes
which in (13) have a categorizing power in other
cases seem to be transparent to the category of
their bases:
esistenzaN →
On the other hand, however, it can be observed that there are some suffixes which may
form words belonging to more than one category, as the suffix –ista, whose outputs are both
nouns or adjectives (ottimoA → ‘excellent’ →
ottimistaN/A ‘optimist/optimistic’) or evaluative
suffixes which are often transparent to the category of their bases (giocoN ‘game’ → giochettoN
‘a child’s play’, scoppiareV ‘to explode’ →
scoppiettareV ‘to crackle’).
What I propose is that categorizing power,
and the UOH, are indeed transversal to the prefixes-suffixes distinction: they are not crucial in
distinguishing the ones from the others, but,
rather, they should be considered valid criteria to
identify classes of affixes which are more or less
prototypical within each category. If the model
we want to build is a scale of prototypicity, it is
clear that we expect to observe gradual changes
in the behavior of affixes as we pass to less prototypical classes. In relation with the two criteria
we are dealing with now, the UOH and the categorizing power, we may argue that they are logically ordered, and thus propose a tripartite classification of derivational affixes:
i) the most prototypical affixes (suffixes and
prefixes) both have a categorizing power and
follow the UOH. This is the case, for instance, of
the great majority of suffixes (for instance, of –
bile or –oso seen above), and of the so-called
parasynthetic prefixes referred to above (in Italian a-, in- and partially s-, de- and dis-, which
always form verbs from nouns or adjectives.
more rarely from other verbs);
ii) less prototypical are those affixes which
do not strictly follow the UOH but have, at least
sometimes, a categorizing power, like the spatiotemporal and quantitative prefixes showed in
(13) and (14). Examples of suffixes to be put in
this category are –ista (see above), and probably
also the ethnic suffixes, which regularly construct both names and adjectives from geographical names;
iii) the least prototypical affixes are those
which are transparent with regard to the category
they attach to and never have a categorizing
power. This is the case of evaluative suffixes,
and of those we could call ‘evaluative’ prefixes,
for instance super- in veloce ‘fast’ → superveloce ‘super-fast’. It is also the case of those prefixes which have a more ‘lexical’ meaning, as
It should be added that the classification I
proposed may be supported by independent arguments. On a phonological point of view, for
instance, prefixes of the first group always form
a phonological word with the base they attach to,
prefixes of the second group sometimes do, prefixes of the third group never do (cf. Nespor and
Vogel (1986)). On a syntactic point of view, prefixes of the first class never correspond to an
autonomous lexeme, while some prefixes of the
second and of the third class correspond to
autonomous words, most of all to prepositions
(e.g. sotto-, dopo-, contro-)9.
Another observation emerging from the proposed classification is that in general suffixes are
more prototypical affixes than prefixes, which is
a fact already observed by many scholars (for a
recent account see Corbin (1999: 69-70)). This is
certainly linked with the famous observation due
to typological linguistics that in many languages
suffixation is much more important than prefixation, and that there are many exclusively suffixing languages, but almost no exclusively prefixing languages (cf. Greenberg (1968)).
The third observation linked with the proposed classification we may do is that we obviously expect more prototypical units to have
regular behaviors, but the contrary is less sure. In
order to classify a unit as more prototypical, it
must possess a property, while units which are
considered less prototypical are not forced not to
For a slightly different classification of prefixes on
the basis of their resemblance to prepositions see
Amiot (f.c.).
possess that property. So, a unit like the adverbial suffix –mente, which is not prototypical on
many regards (it is used to form adverbs, it requests inflection to be placed inside derivation)
strictly follows the UBH and the UOH, for it always forms adverbs from quality adjectives.
To conclude, it is clear that, as far as prototipicity diminishes, the importance of semantics and of pragmatic factors grows in determining the acceptability and the understanding of
complex words.
4. Conclusion
In this paper, I have tried to review a ‘classical’ principle of lexicalist morphology, the Unitary Base Hypothesis and its correlates on semantic grounds, and I have tried to show that too
rigid principles are condemned to lose some interesting generalizations, while positing WFR
essentially as conditions of well-formedness on
the output permits to reintegrate into the theory
many facts formerly excluded. Moreover, I have
showed that principles which are intended to
work for all units without distinctions are too
powerful, and that internal divisions to WFR are
crucial in order to account for some facts.
It is likely that some other principles proposed by early lexicalist morphology, could be
dealed in a way similar to the one proposed in
this work. For instance, the so-called Uninflected
Base Hypothesis, which states that inflectional
affixes always follow derivational ones, fails to
account for some phenomena as campagna antiimmigrati (‘anti-immigrates(PL) campaign’).
These cases can be easily explained by means of
a distinction between contextual and inherent inflection (Booij (1996)), of which only the latter
may appear internally to derivation. This is another case in which semantics plays a crucial
role, since it is obvious that only inherent inflection is the one which has a clearly identifiable
semantic content. Place is lacking here to go
deep into the analysis of the other principles
cited, but their review from a new point of view,
with a more accurate observation of data and of
their semantic aspect will certainly provide matter for further work.
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