[in progress] Chapter 14: Historical Linguistics

14.4 Morphological change

Change in morphological paradigms

In many languages, root morphemes may combine with different inflectional affixes (see Section 5.2 for discussion of root morphemes and Section 5.7 for discussion of inflectional affixes). The resulting set of words is called the root’s inflectional paradigm or just paradigm for short. Verb paradigms are sometimes called conjugations, while noun and adjective paradigms are sometimes called declensions, especially in language learning courses. An example paradigm is given in Table 14.1 for the English verb move.

Table 14.1. Inflectional paradigm for move in English
move present tense, except for third-person singular (I move)
moves third-person singular present (she moves)
moved past tense and past participle (I moved, I have moved)
moving present participle (I am moving)

Many other English verbs (check, end, sign, etc.) have this same basic pattern in their paradigms, so it can also be useful to talk about that pattern as a kind of paradigm itself, separate from specific verb roots. This basic verb paradigm in English is given in Table 14.2.

Table 14.2. Basic verb paradigm in English
ROOT present tense, except for third-person singular
ROOT-s third-person singular present
ROOT-ed past tense and past participle
ROOT-ing present participle

This basic paradigm has a few cases of syncretism, which is when two or more distinct parts of a paradigm are pronounced identically. Most notably, this basic paradigm has syncretism in the past tense and past participle, which both have the suffix –ed and no differences in the root. However, there are many other verb paradigms in English with different patterns. For example, some verbs do not have syncretism in the past tense and past participle forms, such as show, which has the paradigm in Table 14.3, where the past tense has the suffix –ed, while the past participle has the suffix –n.

Table 14.3. Paradigm for show in English
show present tense except for third-person singular (I show)
shows third-person singular present (she shows)
showed past tense (I showed)
shown past participle (I have shown)
showing present participle (I am showing)

In addition, many verbs undergo changes in pronunciation of the root in some parts of the paradigm, such as internal change (changing one or more phones in the root) or even suppletion (changing the entire root); see Section 5.3 for discussion. Some examples of paradigms of English verbs with internal changes and suppletion are given in Table 14.4, with internal changes highlighted in blue and suppletion highlighted in orange. Note that gone has an internal change, with the vowel of the root changing from [o] to [ɒ], thouɡh this is not apparent from the spelling.

Table 14.4. Paradigms for ring and show in English
internal change suppletion
ring go present tense except for third-person singular
rings goes third-person singular present
rang went past tense
rung gone past participle
ringing going present participle

English has many different verb paradigms, mostly with internal change. In addition to the ring-rang-rung pattern, there are patterns like fly-flew-flown, ride-rode-ridden, speed-sped-sped, speak-spoke-spoken, and think-thought-thought. There are even degenerate patterns like hit-hit-hit, put-put-put, and quit-quit-quit, which have a large amount on syncretism, resulting in only a single form where many other verbs have three different forms.

Differences between paradigms can be a source of language change. Languages often shift to make their paradigms more consistent, either within a single paradigm or across multiple paradigms. They may copy existing patterns from elsewhere in the same paradigm or from a completely different paradigm. This kind of copying of paradigm patterns is part of a general type of language change called analogy. Analogy was introduced in Section 14.3 for sound change, but it is also a significant driving force in morphological change.

Recall from Section 14.3 the following sound change from Old English to Middle English that explains why words like sword are pronounced with [s] rather than [sw]:

  • [sw] > [s] / ▁ back vowel

For the verb swear, the root and most other forms have a front vowel, so these forms did not change [sw], which still remains in Modern English: swear, swears, and swearing. However, swear had the same paradigm as speak, so it had a back vowel in the past tense and past participle forms: swore and sworn, just like spoke and spoken. If the [sw] > [s] change had affected swore and sworn as expected, then we would now pronounce them with [s], just like we do for sword. However, by analogy with the rest of the swear paradigm, the [sw] was retained in all of swear’s forms, blocking the sound change from applying to swore and sworn, which keeps the paradigm more consistent.

Analogy commonly results in a reduction in the total number of allomorphs a root has in its paradigm (see Section 5.4 for discussion of allomorphy). This type of analogy that reduces the number of allomorphs is called analogical levelling. Many verbs in English have undergone analogical levelling by changing from a paradigm with multiple root allomorphs to just one allomorph. For example help used to have three root allomorphs in Middle English (help, halp, holp), but these underwent analogical levelling in Modern English so that there is now only one root allomorph (help), by analogy with many other verbs, like float and hope, as shown in Table 14.5.

Table 14.5. Analogical levelling in the paradigm for help in English
Middle English Modern English
help help float hope
halp helped floated hoped
holpen helped floated hoped

More rarely, analogy can result in increasing the number of root allomorphs by analogical extension of some other paradigm. For example, the Old English verb hring ‘ring’ had a paradigm with only one root allomorph (hring), but it shifted throughout Middle English and into Modern English to have three root allomorphs (ring, rang, rung), following the paradigm of verbs like begin and sing, as shown in Table 14.6.

Table 14.6. Analogical extension in the paradigm for ring in English
Old English Modern English
hringe ring begin sing
hringde rang began sang
hringed rung begun sung

Analogy can change the inflectional affixes in a paradigm instead of the root morpheme. For example, some nouns in Middle English could form their plural by adding –n. This –n is still retained in a few modern words like oxen and children, but it was replaced in Modern English with –s for nearly all other nouns: eyen > eyes, schon > shoes, treen > trees, etc. This change was due to analogy with the plural pattern with –s that other Middle English nouns followed: cloudes ‘clouds’, foxes, heedes ‘heads’, etc.

Change in morphological structure

The morphological structure of individual words or expressions can also undergo change. One type of change to morphological structure is reanalysis or rebracketing, where an existing morphological boundary shifts across one or more phones. The result is that the word or expression still contains the same morphemes, but some of the phones have shifted from one morpheme to another.

This happened in the history of the English word apron. Middle English naperon was borrowed from Old French naperon ‘tablecloth’, and it continued as napron into Early Middle English. Like many nouns, napron was frequently used with the indefinite article, as a napron. However, the definite article a has a second form an which is used before words that begin with a vowel, as in an apple. By reanalysis, the boundary between the article and the noun was shifted. This caused the [n] to be treated as part of the article rather than the noun, that is, a napron was reanalyzed as an apron. As a result, when the noun was used by itself, it become apron. Interestingly, the reverse boundary shift happened for newt, which was originally ewte, and by reanalysis, an ewte changed to a newte. See Figure 14.8 for a diagram of how reanalysis affected both napron and ewte.

Figure 14.8. Reanalysis of (n)apron and (n)ewt.

We still see the original [n] in (n)apron in related words like napkin and nape, which did not undergo reanalysis. Similarly, we see the original lack of [n] in (n)ewt in the related word eft, which is used in the term red eft, the name for a juvenile eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens).

Another way that the morphological structure of a word or expression can change is if new morphemes or a new structure is imposed upon it that it did not have before. This is called folk etymology or sometimes corruption, in which users of a language treat a word as having an etymology that it does not actually have, and this changes how they interpret its morphological structure. They may even invent completely new morphemes to build the folk etymology, and these morphemes could end up being used to create new words later. The folk etymology normally has some combination of matching phonology and semantics to the original word, though sometimes only the phonology matches.

Folk etymology can be seen in the development of the English word woodchuck, which was a late 1600s borrowing from an Algonquian language. The exact source is not known, but a likely candidate is the word [ʊˈt͡ʃeːk] ᐅᒉᐠ (ochek) ‘fisher (Pekania pennanti, a relative of martens and wolverines)’ from Cree, which is a dialect continuum in the Algonquian family, spoken in Canada and the United States.

Since [ʊˈt͡ʃeːk] contains phones used in English, it could have just been straightforwardly adapted into English with little change. However, its lack of transparent morphology lead to it being reinterpreted as a compound of wood and chuck ‘throw’, giving a possible etymology (an animal that throws wood around, perhaps) with a similar pronunciation: [ˈwʊdˌt͡ʃʌk] versus [ʊˈt͡ʃeːk]. Real woodchucks do not in fact do anything special with wood, let alone throw it, but the phonological similarity and vague semantics were enough to reinforce this folk etymology. Other examples of folk etymology in English are given in (1).

(1) a. Old English angnægl ‘hangnail’ was originally a compound of ange ‘tight; painful’ and nægl ‘nail’, but it was eventually reanalyzed through folk etymology as hangnail, through influence from both phonological and semantic similarity to hang, since hangnails are pieces of torn flesh that “hang” next to the nail.
b. Spanish cucaracha ‘cockroach’ was borrowed into English and reanalyzed as cockroach, a folk etymology influenced by phonological similarity to the existing words cock ‘rooster; male chicken’ and roach ‘fish in the genera Hesperoleucus or Rutilus’, which both also refer to animals, though very different kinds, so there is only weak semantic similarity. A further change is that cockroach is now often clipped to just roach.
c. Old French meisseron ‘mushroom’ was borrowed into Middle English and reanalyzed as mushroom, a folk etymology influenced by phonological similarity to the existing words mush and room, with no notable semantic influence.

Folk etymology likely begins at an individual level, often due to a misperception of the real word, when it is sometimes called an eggcorn (Liberman 2003). The term eggcorn itself is also an eggcorn, in this case, a common misinterpretation of acorn. Examples of eggcorns in English are given in (2), some of which are more commonly used and accepted than others.

(2) a. chomping at the bit < champing at the bit
b. cold slaw < coleslaw
c. hone in < home in
d. for all intensive purposes < for all intents and purposes
e. wet your appetite < whet your appetite

Many eggcorns are only obvious in spelling, because the replacement is pronounced the same as the original, as in the English examples given in (3).

(3) a. deep-seeded < deep-seated
b. free reign < free rein
c. of < -’ve (as in could of, should of, etc.)
d. peak my interest < pique my interest
e. tow the line < toe the line

Importantly, folk etymology and eggcorns are fundamentally the same process, just with different levels of acceptance: eggcorns are used by individuals, while folk etymologies are used by an entire language community. A person is not less intelligent or less competent at English for using cold slaw or could of instead of coleslaw and could’ve. Indeed, they are demonstrating the very same creative insight into English that speakers used centuries ago for words like woodchuck and hangnail. As with any case of variation, their version of the language may be mocked now, but it could eventually become the accepted version used by everyone, transitioning from an eggcorn into a folk etymology.

A similar concept is a mondegreen (Wright 1954), which is like an eggcorn in that it is also an idiosyncratic misperception by individual language users. The difference between an eggcorn and a mondegreen is their different effects on the meaning. With an eggcorn, the fundamental meaning is still the same: eggcorn still refers to an acorn, cold slaw still refers to coleslaw, etc. But with a mondegreen, there is a change to the semantics as well as the pronunciation.

The original example of a mondegreen (and the name of the phenomenon) comes from a 1954 article by Sylvia Wright. In her article, Wright discusses her own childhood misunderstanding of the lyrics of “The Bonny Earl of Murray” (a.k.a. “The Bonnie Earl O’ Moray”), an old Scottish ballad that appeared in a collection of songs, poems, and ballads published by Thomas Percy in 1765. The first stanza of the original as published by Percy (1765: 211) is on the left in Table 14.7, with a modernized version on the right.

Table 14.7. First stanza of “The Bonny Earl of Murray”
Ye highlands, and ye lawlands,
Oh ! whair hae ye been ?
They hae slaine the Earl of Murray,
And hae layd him on the green.
You highlands, and you lowlands,
Oh, where have you been?
They have slain the Earl of Murray,
And have laid him on the green.

Wright misheard the final line as and Lady Mondegreen, imaging that Lady Mondegreen was perhaps the Earl of Murray’s wife, and both had been killed. This changes not only the pronunciation and morphology, but also the meaning. Wright’s mondegreen includes someone who did not even exist in the original!

Mondegreens are often the result of mishearing lyrics from a song or poem. Perhaps one of the most famous mondegreens is scuse me while I kiss this guy as a mishearing of scuse me while I kiss the sky from the 1967 song “Purple Haze” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Jimi Hendrix can be heard singing the relevant lyric starting at 0:45 in the video linked here: https://youtu.be/WGoDaYjdfSg?t=45. Note that the mondegreen changes the meaning of the lyric to something that is more physically plausible (kissing a guy versus kissing the sky), which is why it so easily arises.

Just as an eggcorn may become frequent enough for everyone to adopt it as part of the language as a folk etymology (as happened with woodchuck), a mondegreen may become so common that the standard version of the song changes to match the new misheard lyrics. For example, in the first published version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (from a children’s book of unknown authorship from around 1780), the fourth present given to the singer was four colly birds, where colly is an older word for ‘black’ related to coal. However, by the 1909 version arranged by Frederic Austin, colly had become an obsolete word, and the lyric had shifted to the mondegreen four calling birds, no longer referencing the birds’ colour at all. Unlike with an eggcorn becoming a folk etymology, there is no special name for a mondegreen like this that becomes standardized.

Folk etymology can also result in back formation, which is a special type of neologism that creates a new morpheme from the false morphological structure, in which the new morpheme is used beyond the original word it was created for. The new morpheme could be a free morpheme or a bound morpheme, depending on the situation.

For example, English borrowed the word emotion from French, but because there are many English nouns having the structure of verb plus the suffix –(t)ion, emotion was incorrectly analyzed as having the same structure: emoteion. This resulted in the creation of the new free morpheme emote in English. Many other verbs were created in English the same way: donate, resurrect, secrete, etc.

Back formation can also create new bound morphemes, like the English suffix –holic (or –oholic or –aholic), which is back-formed by treating the word alcoholic as if it had the structure alco-holic or alc-oholic, even though it has no such structure (it is actually structured as the Arabic loanword alcohol plus the adjective suffix -ic). This invented morpheme -holic is treated as meaning ‘addict’, and it can be used fairly productively to create new words, like chocoholic ‘chocolate addict’, shopaholic ‘shopping addict’, sugarholic ‘sugar addict’, workaholic ‘work addict’, etc.

A word that uses a back-formed bound morpheme like –holic looks a lot like a blend; that is, we might think of shopaholic as being a blend of shop and alcoholic, rather than being shop plus the back-formed suffix –holic. However, blending usually results in only a single neologism, while a morpheme created through back formation could be used to create many new words. Language is flexible though, and it could be difficult in some cases to draw a clear boundary between blending and back formation. Other examples of back formation in English are given in (4).

(4) a. Some verbs like babysit and edit were back-formed from nouns (babysitter and editor) that are similar to other nouns that are built from a verb plus the suffix –er or –or, like baker and sailor.
b. Some singular nouns like bicep and pea were back-formed from nouns (biceps and pease) that were originally already singular, but they seemed like regular plurals ending in –s, so they were misinterpreted as plurals, requiring new singulars to be created.
c. The prefix cyber– was back-formed from the word cybernetics and can now be used quite productively to derive new words having to do online activities, like cyberbullying, cybercafe, cyberspace, etc.

Change in morphosyntax

Morphology and syntax are intimately related, especially in the realm of grammatical functions, like verb tense and noun case (see Section 5.7 for many others). Because of the tight connection between morphology and syntax, they often seem to behave as two aspects of the same underlying concept, called morphosyntax. Diachronic changes that affect both the morphology and the syntax of a language, as well as changes to just the syntax, are discussed in Section 14.5.

Check your understanding


Anonymous. circa 1780. Mirth without mischief. Comtaining [sic] The twelve days of Christmas; The play of the gaping-wide mouthed wadling frog; Love and hatred; The art of talking with the fingers; and Nimble Ned’s alphabet and figures. London: J. Davenport and C. Sheppard.

Austin, Frederic (arr.) 1909. The twelve days of Christmas (traditional song). London: Novello & Co.

Klafehn, Terry. 2003. Emergent properties of Japanese verbal inflection. PhD dissertation, University of Hawai‘i.

Liberman, Mark. 2003. Egg corns, folk etymology, malapropism, mondegreen, ???. Language Log, 23 September 2003. http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/​~myl/languagelog/archives/000018.html

Percy, Thomas (ed.) 1765. Reliques of ancient English poetry: Consisting of old heroic ballads, songs, and other pieces of our earlier poets, (chiefly of the lyric kind.) Together with some few of later date. Volume 2. London: J. Dodsley.

Shibata, Takeshi. 1965. 生きている方言 [Living dialects]. Green Belt Series 63. Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō.

Wright, Sylvia. 1954. The death of Lady Mondegreen. Harper’s Magazine, November 1954: 48–51.


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