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Inflection and Derivation

Inflection is the morphological system for making word forms of words, whereas derivation is one of the morphological systems for making new words. Derivation is formally similar to inflection because both processes make use of affixation. Intuitively speaking, the products of inflection are all manifestations of the same word, whereas derivation creates new words. Inflection does not change the syntactic category of the word to which it applies, whereas derivation may do so. For instance, while both boek book and boeken book-sare nouns, derivation may change word class: groen green is an adjective, but the diminutive word groentje beginner, greenhorn is a noun. Hence, the formation of diminutives belongs to derivation. The same holds for the noun dijk dike which has a corresponding derived verb bedijken to provide with a dike.

Given this difference between inflection and derivation, inflectional morphemes occur in a peripheral position with respect to derivational morphemes. In the past participle of the verb ge-de-compon-eer-ddecomposed the inflectional prefix ge- which derives past participles occurs before the verbalizing prefix de-, and the inflectional suffix -d follows the derivational suffix -eer.


One reason for making the distinction between inflection and derivation is that normally (but not always) the formal basis for derivation is the stem of a word, i.e. the word minus its inflectional affixes. For instance, deverbal word formation uses the bare stem of the verb as the input form, with all its inflectional affixes stripped off. The same holds for denominal and deadjectival word formation:

Table 1
Word class Stem Derived word Inflected form Impossible
V werkto work werk-erworker werk-tworks *werk-t-er
A roodred rood-heidredness rod-ered *rode-heid
N boomtree boom-pjelittle tree bom-entrees *bom-en-tje
In the morphological literature we find a number of criteria for distinguishing between inflection and derivation (cf. Plank 1994; Booij 1998 and Booij 2000 for surveys).

A first criterion is that derivation may change syntactic category, unlike inflection. This is not an absolute criterion, since inflected forms like infinitives and participles also change their syntactic category, at least in the sense that these verbal forms acquire additional nominal, respectively adjectival properties (see also Haspelmath 1996).

A second criterion is that, unlike derivation, inflection is obligatory. A potential problem for this criterion is that it is theory-dependent in its application. For instance, a Dutch singular noun has no inflectional ending, and is singular by default. As long as we do not assume a singular zero-suffix, we might claim that such nouns are not inflected, and that therefore inflection is not always obligatory.

A third distinguishing characteristic of inflection is full productivity. As far as Dutch is concerned, this is true for verbal inflection. Nouns, however, may fail to have a plural form (see singularia tantum), and many adjectives do not have comparative and superlative degree forms. This shows that full productivity is not always a fail-safe criterion.

As a corollary of the more general and productive nature of inflection it has also been claimed that inflection is semantically more transparent than derivation. Again, this appears to be a matter of degree, since inherent inflection also lends itself to lexicalization and semantic opacity. For instance, some plural nouns have a lexicalized meaning, such as the archaic plural form vader-enforefathers (compare the regular plural form vader-sfather-s

Finally, it has been assumed that there are psycholinguistic differences between inflection and derivation: outputs of derivational processes will be stored in the mental lexicon, whereas inflectional forms need not be stored and can be computed on-line, because they are transparent and are formed by productive processes. However, there is some evidence for storage of certain types of inflectional forms, in particular of frequent noun plurals and of the different stems of the irregular verbs. In this respect, inflection and derivation appear to differ only gradually (see e.g. Baayen 1997 on psycholinguistic evidence for storage of regular inflected forms). In conclusion, in many respects inflection and derivation form a continuum, and therefore there is no sharp functional distinction between the two. Nevertheless, we do need this distinction because it is the stem form of the lexeme, without the inflectional endings, that normally functions as the basis for derivation.

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The necessity of a formal distinction between inflection and derivation has led some morphologists to assume that inflection and derivation belong to different modules of the grammar. This is known as the "split morphology hypothesis" (Perlmutter 1988; Anderson 1992). On this view, derivation belongs to the pre-syntactic word formation module, whereas inflectional processes are accounted for in a post-syntactic module of inflectional rules that spell out the morphosyntactic and morphosemantic properties of each word. These properties are partly assigned by rules of agreement, on the basis of the syntactic configuration in which the word occurs (for instance, the number feature of a verb is a copy of that of its subject). Note, however, that agreement phenomena do not force us to assume that inflection is post-syntactic. It is also possible to assume that fully inflected words are inserted into syntactic structure. Agreement conditions will then check the compatibility between features in the relevant syntactic positions. The basic argument in favour of the split morphology hypothesis is that it expresses the generalization that inflection is peripheral to derivation. The peripherality of inflection is one of Greenberg’s universals: Universal 28. If both the derivation and the inflection follow the root, or they both precede the root, the derivation is always between the root and the inflection (Greenberg 1963: 93) Although this is a correct generalization, it does not mean that such a generalization has to be reflected in the organization of the grammar. Note that the split morphology hypothesis does not account for the equally important generalization that contextual inflection is peripheral to inherent inflection. There are also more specific tendencies in the order of inflectional morphemes that are not explained by split morphology. For instance, Bybee (1985: 35) established the following ordering of verbal inflectional markers: stem-aspect-tense-mood-number-person. Dutch is in conformity with this generalization. Some morphologists have come to the conclusion that there is no sharp distinction between inflection and derivation (for instance, Bybee 1985, Plank 1994), or that the opposition should be seen as the poles of a continuum, ranging from prototypical inflection to prototypical derivation (Dressler 1989; Spencer 2013). A problem for split morphology is that some kinds of inherent inflection do interact with derivation: they may feed derivation (and, more generally, word-formation). For instance, present participles feed deadjectival word formation such as prefixation with the negative prefix on-. However, this process is limited to a subclass of adjectives, i.e. lexicalized present participles. In the case of passive participles, on the other hand, lexicalization into adjectives is not a precondition for further derivational operations. A derivational suffix like -heid freely combines with these participles. Their adjectival interpretation is a matter of type coercion: it is the suffix that requires them to be adjectives. Moreover, regular and transparent comparative forms of adjectives are sometimes used in deadjectival word formation. Also, plural nouns in -en are used as bases for the collective suffixes -domstate of, group of or -achtig-like. Last but not least, the nominal properties of infinitives entitle them to accept nominal suffixes, for instance the suffix -schap. Examples of derived words with inflected bases are:

Table 2
Type of inflection Input Output
Passive participles aangepastadjusted aangepastheidconformity
geslotenclosed geslotenheidcloseness, reticence
gestuurdcontrolled ongestuurduncontrolled
verteerddigested onverteerdundigested
Comparatives beterbetter verbeteringimprovement
ergerworse verergerento worsen
ouderolder ouderdomold age
Plural nouns boekenbooks boekenachtigbookish
heldenheroes heldendomheroism
Infinitives nalatento leave sth. to sbd. nalatenschapinheritance
weddento bet weddenschapbet
wetento know wetenschapknowledge, science
Such forms are excluded by the split morphology hypothesis. Contextual inflection never feeds derivation. This follows from its nature: it does not express independent semantic or grammatical information, and hence, it makes no sense to include it as part of a complex word. As to the category Tense, which must be qualified as inherent inflection, we do not find tensed forms that feed word formation. For instance, we cannot coin the compound *werkte-vrouwformer charwomanbesides werkvrouwcharwoman. This may be related to the deictic nature of Tense: deictic categories never appear inside words, or else they lose their deictic properties in such positions. For instance, the Dutch pronoun wij we can be used in the compound wij-gevoel we-feelingcorporate identity. In this use, wij has lost its deictic properties, and therefore a sentence such as Zij hebben een slecht ontwikkeld wij-gevoel They don't have a well-developed we-feeling is well-formed, although the subject of this sentence is 3rd person.

  • Anderson, Stephen R1992A-morphous morphologyCambridge UKCambridge University Press
  • Baayen, R. Harald, Dijkstra, Ton & Schreuder, Robert1997Singulars and plurals in Dutch. Evidence for a parallel dual route modelJournal of Memory and Language3694-117
  • Booij, Geert1998The demarcation of inflection: a synoptical surveyFabri, Ray, Ortmann, Albert & Parodi, Teresa (eds.)Models of inflectionTübingenNiemeyer11-27
  • Booij, Geert2000Inflection and derivationBooij, Geert, Lehmann, Christian, Mugdan, Joachim, Skopeteas, in collaboration with Wolfgang Kesselheim & Stavros (eds.)Morphologie / Morphology. Ein internationales Handbuch zur Flexion und Wortbildung / An international handbook on inflection and word formationBerlinDe Gruyter360-369
  • Bybee, Joan1985Morphology. A study of the relation between meaning and formAmsterdam / PhiladelphiaBenjamins
  • Bybee, Joan1985Morphology. A study of the relation between meaning and formAmsterdam / PhiladelphiaBenjamins
  • Dressler, Wolfgang U1989Prototypical differences between inflection and derivationZeitschrift für Phonetik, Sprachwissenschaft und Kommunikationsforschung423-10
  • Greenberg, Joseph1963Some universals of grammar, with particular reference to the order of meaningful elementsGreenberg, Joseph (ed.)Universals of languageCambridge Mass.MIT Press73-113
  • Haspelmath, Martin1996Word-class-changing inflection and morphological theoryYearbook of Morphology199543-66
  • Perlmutter, David M1988The split morphology hypothesis: evidence from YiddishTheoretical morphology: approaches in modern linguisticsSan DiegoAcademic Press79-100
  • Plank, Frans1994Inflection and derivationThe encyclopedia of languages and linguistics3OxfordPergamon Press1671-1678
  • Plank, Frans1994Inflection and derivationThe encyclopedia of languages and linguistics3OxfordPergamon Press1671-1678
  • Spencer, Andrew2013Lexical relatedness. A paradigm-based modelOxford University Press
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