Head (grammar)

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The term head (also: kern or nucleus ; in Austrian parlance also Haupt , engl. Head ) is used in linguistics to denote a component of a compound expression that defines the grammatical properties of the entire expression and on which accompanying expressions depend.

The head term can be used in the same way on the word level ( morphology ) and on the sentence level ( syntax ) and thus represents a fundamental structural principle for the entire grammar. It is assumed that normally all features of a compound expression come from a head (This then results in an " endocentric construction "). In the area of ​​syntax, theories differ as to whether “headless” structures are only a rarer case or whether they can be completely excluded. Exceptions are more common in morphology, especially in the form of eccentric compounds .

A system of how a head can be expanded into a complex expression in the syntax and its characteristics determined in the process is formulated by the X-bar theory .

general definition

Generally speaking, a head is that part of a compound expression that defines the properties of the entire expression. On the one hand, this means that the head forms the core of an expression and determines which dependent elements can still be added and which cannot. Such an element, which in a compound expression forms the dependent counterpart to the head, is also called dependens . - On the other hand, the head plays a role in dealing with grammatical features (e.g. part of speech or inflection features ): The head is that part of a compound expression that itself has the same features as the overall expression and of which it is come from. It is said that the head projects or inherits its characteristics into the overall expression.

The head principle is understood to mean the principle that the features of a complex expression normally originate from a head inside and must therefore also correspond to it, in other words that constructions are usually not exocentric . Those features for which a match between head and overall expression is required are also referred to as head features .

Heads in morphology


Particularly clear examples of the head principle can be seen in the regular derivation of compound words ( compound words ). Here one finds that in German the right part has the properties of a head (unless the special case of an eccentric compound is present). For example:

             Hausschuh (N, mask)
             /          \
     Haus(N, neutr)     Schuh (N, mask)

In this example, the right link shoe turns out to be the head, because:

  • It defines the category of the entire compound word (in the example N, i.e. noun (= noun ), otherwise also A = adjective, V = verb).
  • It defines further inflectional features such as the gender of a compound noun (mask., Fem., Neutr.), As well as the inflection paradigm to which the entire word will belong.
  • It can determine the category of meaning, i. That is, the head denotes the type of object to which the compound refers, and the first link merely defines it in more detail.

The last point only applies in cases (like here) where the compound is regularly interpreted; It is also possible that a compound word as a whole word acquires a new meaning that no longer emerges from the meaning of the head - e.g. B. Kindergarten is not a garden, but refers to a care facility as a whole, whereas a vegetable garden can be interpreted regularly. If the compound as a whole acquires a new meaning, however, this does not change the head principle for grammatical features such as part of speech or gender.

The mode of operation of the head principle is clearly demonstrated by contrasts such as the following:

             Hausschuh (N, mask)        (= eine Art von Schuh; nämlich für im Haus)
             /          \
     Haus(N, neutr)     Schuh (N, mask)
           Schuhhaus (N, neutr)        (= eine Art von Haus; nämlich eines, in dem Schuhe verkauft werden)
             /           \
     Schuh(N, mask)     Haus (N, neutr)
           Rotwein (N, mask)        (= Wein, der rot ist)
             /         \
     rot(Adj.)    Wein (N, mask)
          weinrot  (Adj.)    (= rot, und zwar von der Farbe wie (Rot)Wein)
            /        \
    Wein(N, mask)    rot(Adj.)

According to this, combinations of adjectives and nouns behave as a whole like a noun if the noun is a legal member, but overall like an adjective if the adjective is a legal member. This shows that the head is always on the right.

The right-hand member, and therefore the head, of a compound can be a simple word stem (e.g. aunt in the example below) or it can be a compound (such as Kinder + garten ):

             Kindergartentante (N, fem) 
             /                \
     Kindergarten(N, mask)   Tante (N, fem)
       /     \
 Kind(er)  Garten (N, mask)
            Waldkindergarten (N, mask) 
             /            \
    Wald(N, mask)     Kindergarten (N, mask)
                         /     \
                  Kind(er)  Garten (N, mask)


If an affix is used to derive a new word from a word stem ( derivation ), this affix can also be viewed as a head (although other forms of representation are also possible, see below). For example, the ending -er is responsible for the fact that a verb stem show- (as it is also contained in the infinitive show-en ) becomes a noun:

         Zeiger (N, mask)        (= eine Vorrichtung, die dazu dient, etwas (an-) zu zeigen)
             /   \
     zeig-(V)      ?

This case can be explained by the head principle in that the affix -er is understood as a unit that carries the category characteristic N (noun) and the additional characteristic "masculine" itself and inherits it in the manner of a head to the entire expression:

         Zeiger (N, mask)        (= eine Vorrichtung, die dazu dient, etwas (an-) zu zeigen)
             /   \
     zeig-(V)     -er (N, mask)

An alternative that is preferred in some theories of morphology , however, is to use the affix only as a sign for the establishment of a rule that includes the original stem, e.g. B. point (V) , maps to a new stem pointer (N) . This method is more favorable when there is no isolatable entity that can be identified as the bearer of the new category characteristic, e.g. B. if the derivation is only indicated by vowel changes inside the word stem (as in find- (V)  : Find (N) ). A head must normally be an isolatable expression (otherwise more abstract representations using invisible heads are at best possible).

Possible exceptions to the legal entity

In some cases of derivation it seems that an element ( prefix ) added to the left can also be a header. Examples are: the chatter, the shouting, the whining . The prefix Ge in nouns that are generated from verbs is usually associated with the grammatical gender neuter.

Heads in syntax

Projection of features

In a simple model of syntax it can be said that it regulates the connection of words into related groups of words and ultimately sentences. Under this condition, a head appears in the syntax as a word within a connected group of words ( constituents ), so that the characteristics of this word are inherited by the entire group. In principle, the same features are relevant here that were also considered in the morphology, namely part of speech features (such as noun, verb, adjective etc.) and inflection features. In contrast to word formation, the syntax also deals with features that are not inherent properties of stems (such as gender, which was seen in the examples of nominal composition), but are variable features that are only assigned by syntactic rules, such as . B. Case .

In order to determine heads in the syntax, it is first necessary to break down a sentence into constituents, i.e. H. related word groups, required, for example:

Der Mann  wurde bleich
Der Mann  erbleichte
Er        erbleichte

By the replacements of the man through it and turned pale by paled 2 can word groups identified are. Since the word paled a verb, and the phrase became pale fulfills exactly the same function, one can conclude that the latter as a whole as a feature of "verbal" owns. Since pale is an adjective, this means that the verbal feature must come from the verb was , which is thus a head and projects its category onto the entire unit. In the following this characteristic is noted as [V]:

      wurde_bleich  [V]
     /          \
   wurde [V] +  bleich [Adj]

This representation shows the analogy to the head principle in morphology; One difference, however, is that in the German syntax, heads are not restricted to a single relative position, but can be left or right depending on the construction type. When a group of words has been completed regarding the inheritance of a category characteristic, it is called a (syntactic) phrase . Assuming that the verbal feature in the example above does not spread to an even larger group of words, the expression turned pale would therefore have to be called a verb phrase , i.e. H. as a self-contained syntactic unit whose head is verbal.

Analogously, one can conclude that the word group man has the same category characteristic as the pronoun er , by which it was replaced in the example above, and also matching inflection characteristics such as “masculine”, “singular” and “nominative”. Furthermore, the is a certain (definite) article and the personal pronoun it is also definite. According to more recent analyzes of generative grammar, the article should therefore be used as the head of the entire unit because all of its features can be traced back to it. The category attribute of the article is usually denoted by "D" (for " determinants "):

      der_Mann  [D]
     /        \
   der [D]  + Mann [N]

Older analyzes that assume that N instead of D is the head are also widespread; For a basic illustration of the head principle, this alternative can be left open here. In the variant shown, the word group der Mann is now an “article phrase” or determinant phrase, i.e. a closed syntactic unit, the head of which is nominally determinative.

One of the most controversial questions of syntax is the problem of whether entire sentences are also phrases that have a head. Various possibilities have been considered: that the sentence is a projection of the verb (a verb phrase that also includes the subject), that the sentence is a projection of an abstract feature (such as “finiteness” as opposed to “infinitive”), or that sentences are eocentric constructions. (See also the article Complementizer ).

Heads and Dependents

Another property that can be found in syntactic heads and which at first glance differs from the projection of features is “selection”, i.e. the ability of heads to request additions with certain semantic and grammatical properties. The term selection refers to the fact that this property is rooted in the meaning of the respective head. It is a property that can be developed differently for each individual head (i.e. for the syntax, individual lexemes ), in contrast to the principle of trait inheritance, which runs automatically in every syntactic connection.


das Bier in den Kühlschrank stellen
       das Bier         kühlen
            --      schäumen

These three differently constructed verb phrases in the infinitive show that it is a special property of the verb stellen to require two additions, namely a direct object and an indication of direction (which cannot be omitted, at least not in this meaning of the verb); the verb to cool, on the other hand, only requires a direct object and the verb to foam none at all. In this respect too, a head (the respective verb) has the ability to determine properties of the entire phrase.

In addition to this process of selecting additions, heads also appear with other types of companions that are not strictly required but only have a modifying meaning ( adjuncts or information in traditional German terminology ), e.g. B. Adverbs . These are also compared to the head in a more general sense as a dependent element ("Dependens") (this generalization is used in the dependency grammar to build up syntactic structures).

That a head selects other material in the area of ​​its projection can in principle also be found for the heads of morphological units. Derivative affixes usually require a base (trunk) with a certain category characteristic; and although the head of a compound usually does not select its first member (e.g. in none of the examples given above), there is the special case of the rector compound , where this is the case.

Related uses of the head term

Since the head of a syntactic phrase is primarily an unassembled element, "head", especially in connection with the X-bar theory, also serves as a designation for the projection plane of the syntactic word , symbolized by the spelling X ° , for any part of speech X , as opposed to the level of phrase (XP) and intermediate projection (X '). This way of speaking is encountered, for example, in the concept of head movement or in the definition of the rectoral relationship that proceeds from a head.


  • Duden. The grammar. 8th edition. Dudenverlag, Mannheim 2009 (especially pp. 766–771).
  • Wolfgang Sternefeld: Syntax. A feature-based generative description of German . 3. Edition. Narr, Tübingen 2008 (Volume 1).

Individual evidence

  1. Term used in the Duden grammar (2009)
  2. See Sternefeld 2008, Chapter I.2, on which the following illustration is based