Confessions of a Morphologist

Confessions of a Morphologist

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Mice or mouses. Thief or stealer. These are some of the conundrums that Rochelle Lieber considers daily. A professor of English and linguistics who studies morphology, Lieber examines the way humans form complex words from smaller pieces of words called morphemes.

Lieber has spent the last several years researching corpora, large databases of language that collect spoken and written text from a wide range of sources such as magazines, journals, webpages, novels, and speeches. What's she's found is a treasure trove of information about how English speakers have been forming and using words over the past 20 years. At times and to her surprise, this information contradicts what linguists have theorized about how word formation works.

Watch the 2014 Lindberg Lecture: “Confessions of a Morphologist, or How I Learned to Stop Intuiting and Love Data," delivered April 17, 2014 by Professor Rochelle Lieber. 

Text version of lecture (pdf)

The results of Lieber's research can be found in her recent book, The Oxford Reference Guide to English Morphology, coauthored with Laurie Bauer of Victoria University in New Zealand and Ingo Plag of Duesseldorf University in Germany. The guide is the first comprehensive description and analysis of English word formation.

In this year's Lindberg Lecture, Lieber demonstrates how the corpora have complicated the idea that researchers can use intuition to determine how morphemes might be acceptably combined to form words. According to Lieber, linguists have long relied on intuition when considering sentence formation, often using the "does this sound right?" test. But words are not like sentences, Lieber concludes, and relying on intuition has led morphologists astray.

Lieber makes her point by demonstrating how a theory called "blocking" is proved wrong by the corpora. Blocking, in basic terms, says that simple words that mean the same thing, in both connotation and denotation, are typically avoided in word formation. The existence of one blocks the formation of a second synonymous word. Thus, true synonyms are rare, if they exist at all. This theory is based on how linguists think word formation should work, and they have examples to back it up. Intuition suggests that blocking should occur not only for simple words but also for complex words composed of multiple morphemes. However, the vast data of the corpora repeatedly yields words, both simple and complex, that are used interchangeably. People create and use synonyms. The theory based on intuitions is wrong.

These findings, for Lieber, support a broader approach to morphology than what has typically occurred in the field. She and like-minded colleagues look beyond the rules that govern word formation and study the larger "mental lexicon": how we create, store, and retrieve words. Word facility, for example, is affected by the frequency with which we come into contact with words and our ability, moment to moment, to retrieve words we've stored. While we do follow word formation rules, other elements are at play. Lieber, Bauer, and Plag have demonstrated that to truly understand how people form and use words, morphologists will need some new theories—and a fresh approach.

The Lindberg Lecture is delivered annually by the previous year's winner of the Lindberg Award for outstanding teacher-scholar in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of New Hampshire.

By Susan Dumais, College Letter