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  • Asymmetry in Morphology
  • Alana Johns
Anna Maria Di Sciullo . Asymmetry in Morphology. MIT Press. 2005. 253. US $30.00

This book, written for theoretical linguists, is a provocative and well-written proposal on the relationship between syntax and morphology. While syntax is typically concerned with grammar between words, many syntacticians have proposed that words themselves are built using the very same syntactic mechanisms. Within these proposals, morphology and syntax form a sort of continuum. Di Sciullo's stance, as previously in her work On the Definition of the Word, is that anything below the level of the word (morphology) is an atomic domain from syntax. In this book, she lays out her model of asymmetry theory, in which many familiar syntactic properties are instead argued to be different or restricted within Dm, the morphological component. Dm operates parallel to the DS, the syntactic component. Parallel is the key word here, for much of the book is dedicated to showing how findings discussed in syntactic models are accounted for within her model of asymmetry theory.

Chapter 1 introduces the formal concept of asymmetry, while chapter 2 develops asymmetry theory as a theory of morphology. Chapter 3 outlines tree structures in asymmetry theory, where we see familiar syntactic concepts such as specifiers, complements, shells, and agreement recast within Dm component. Chapter 4 outlines argument structure in asymmetry theory, based on the work of Ken Hale and Samuel Jay Keyser (2002), where argument structure derives from tree structure. Chapter 5 is a detailed analysis of morphological aspect, again echoing issues discussed by syntacticians. Chapter 6 develops an analysis of the bipartite nature of questions words, such as what (wh-at) and where (wh-ere) and determiner words such as that (th-at) and there (th-ere). [End Page 171] Chapter 7 examines in more detail linear ordering issues and chapter 8 addresses the issue of cross-linguistic variation within asymmetry theory.

A parallel domain seems to require parallel operations, and syntacticians will be familiar with such Dm operations such as M-Shift, which looks a lot like Merge. There are, however, some operations that are not found in syntax, such as M-Flip, discussed in detail in chapter 7. M-Flip produces a mirror image of the word tree structure when the conditions for its application are met. This operation is proposed to explain inversion orders (where elements ordered 1–2–3 surface in the linear order 3–2–1). In many languages (such as English), affixes are often found to the right of stems, even though their semantic scope suggests that they are higher in the tree, and therefore to the left. The derivation of inversion orders is currently a topic of much debate in syntax (as in the recent work of P. Svenonius). Di Sciullo proposes that an affix's status as a prefix or suffix can be predicted on independent grounds, that it need not be stipulated of individual morphemes. She argues that elements become suffixes because the specifiers in their minimal tree structures lack content, while other elements become prefixes because their specifiers contain content.

Traditional morphologists are unlikely to adopt a model of morphology of this nature, which has been developed from work within the Minimalist Program (e.g. Noam Chomsky). For Minimalist syntacticians whose research leads them into material below the word level, this book is a line drawn in the sand, as one of its goals is to identify and account for any properties that are found in one domain but never in the other. These properties include rigid scope order (but see Keren Rice's work for exceptions), lack of dummy elements, and a number of other empirical issues that bear closer examination within languages with rich morphology.

Alana Johns
Department of Linguistics, University of Toronto


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