Syncretism (linguistics)

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Syncretism is the coincidence of inflections , in German, for example, the same ending in different cases . Syncretisms occur mainly in the Indo-European language family .

In morphological terms, syncretisms are markers with an identical shape that express different values ​​of a characteristic . A distinction is made between inner- paradigmatic and transparadigmatic syncretisms, with inner- paradigmatic syncretisms occurring within a flexion affix, while transparadigmatic syncretisms occur in different paradigms, e.g. B. the German suffix -en on the one hand with inflected adjectives (compare the following example), on the other hand with infinite verb forms such as "geh-en". In the following we restrict ourselves to inner-paradigmatic syncretisms.


Weak adjective inflection in German

This paradigm occurs when the adjective comes after the definite article, e.g. As well -e wine, the good -en wine, good -en women, etc.

Inflection paradigm of weak adjectives in German
case Mask Sg Neut Sg Fem Sg Plural
Nom -e -e -e -en
Acc -en -e -e -en
Date -en -en -en -en
gene -en -en -en -en

So this paradigm has two syncretisms: -e and -en .

Weak nominal inflection of Icelandic

Weak noun inflection paradigm in Icelandic
Num. case Mask Neut Fem
penn- 'spring' eye- 'eye' húf- 'hat'
Sg. Nom -i -a -a
Acc -a -a -u
Date -a -a -u
gene -a -a -u
Pl. Nom -ar -u -ur
Acc -a -u -ur
Date -around -around -around
gene -a -n / A -a

Six syncretisms appear in this paradigm: -i, -a, -u, -ar, -ur, -um (where the -n– in the [Gen Pl Neut] of aug- is word- specific here).


In linguistics it is assumed that certain syncretisms are no coincidence, and the so-called syncretism principle was formulated accordingly :

"Identity of form implies identity of function"

This means that two morphemes within a paradigm with the same form (they are syncretisms) also code (can - the syncretism principle is not a fundamental principle of linguistics, but rather the basis for a possibility of analyzing syncretisms).


For example, to describe the weak adjective flexion in German , use is made of the principle of syncretism: The table above shows that the ending -e occurs in all nominative singular genera and in the neuter / feminine of the accusative singular, in all other cases the inflection affix -en . If one now assumes that characteristics such as gender , number and case can be further abstracted:

Feminine [+ fem −mask]
Masculine [−fem + mask]
neuter [−fem −mask]
Singular [+ sgl]
Plural [−sgl]
Nominative [−a −b]
accusative [+ a −b]
Genitive [−a + b]
dative [+ a + b]

where ± sgl, ± mask, ± fem, ± a and ± b are abstract sub-categories (so-called " disctinctive features ") of the coded features of adjective inflection. The process of dividing features into subcategories is called decomposition . Note: The importance of the subcategories ± a and ± b is initially irrelevant.

Using these assumptions, the exact distribution of the syncretisms of this paradigm can now be assigned with relatively little effort:

–En [+ mask, + a, −b]
–E [+ sgl, −b]
–En []

The fact that the suffixes only have 3, 2 or no features here is called underspecification , that is, only those features are marked that are maximally necessary to clearly identify a suffix. Now carries an adjective stem, e.g. B. beautiful - the features [plural, fem, genitive], these are first decomposed ([−sgl, −mask −fem, −a, + b]) and then compared with the possible available endings, so it becomes that Affix selected whose set of features is a subset of the trunk's set of features (“subset principle”). In this case none of the specific endings -en 2 or -e apply, therefore the so-called “default marker”, that would be the one for which no specific features are coded, in this case -en 1 , is assigned. Should an affix "fit" on two endings (e.g. a stem with the features [akk, sgl, mask] or [+ sgl, + a −b, + mask -fem], whereby both the features of - e and of -en are 2 subsets of the characteristics of the stem), the more specific one is chosen. More specific is then that marker which has coded more features than all other possible markers, in this case -en 2 .

Current research in the field of distributed morphology tries to find ways that manage with a maximum of as many rules as there are syncretisms within a paradigm. Non- rectangular fields of syncretism, such as that of -e in the weak adjective inflection, pose a problem. With under-specified sets of features, one can only cover rectangular areas. Therefore, in this case it is not possible to correctly describe the two fields of syncretism with fewer than three rules. However, if several rules are used for a syncretism field, a relevant generalization of the language in question has not been captured.

Implicative paradigm building

This theory is based on the observation that e.g. B. the accusative usually has the same forms as the nominative and the dative follows the genitive. This is done through the assignments


expressed (the plural is understood here as the “fourth gender”). If an exponent is assigned to a set of characteristics, e.g. B. for the strong adjective inflection [MASK, NOM]: = -er , this results in further assignments: Because of NEUTR: = MASK, [NEUTR, NOM]: = -er also applies and because of AKK: = NOM, [MASK, AKK]: = -er and [NEUTR, AKK]: = -er . Incorrectly predicted exponents need to be corrected by more specific rules. Unfortunately, this theory does not have fewer rules than the one above.


The aim of the whole is to describe a paradigm as precisely as possible with as few coded features as possible. It should be possible to reduce the information stored in the mental lexicon to a minimum, which enables optimal access to information stored in the head.

See also


  • Manfred Bierwisch : Syntactic Features in Morphology: General Problems of So-Called Pronominal Inflection in German . In: To Honor Roman Jakobson . Mouton, The Hague / Paris 1967, pp. 239-270 (English).
  • Fabian Heck: Introduction to Morphology - Flexion (PDF; 159 kB) Lecture script 2007, pp. 46–89.

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Artemis Alexiadou, Gereon Müller: Class Features as Probes . Manuscript, University of Stuttgart, IDS Mannheim 2004.
  2. ^ Gereon Müller: Syncretism and Iconicity in Icelandic Noun Declensions: A Distributed Morphology Approach . (PDF; 39pp .; 304 kB) Appears in Yearbook of Morphology , 2004
  3. Gereon Müller: A Distributed Morphology Approach to Syncretism in Russian Noun Inflection (PDF; 98 kB). In: Proceedings of FASL 12. Michigan Slavic Publications, 2004, pp. 353-373.
  4. Sternefeld, Wolfgang. Syntax: A morphologically motivated generative description of German . Stauffenburg Verlag, 2006, Volume 1, pp. 79ff.
  5. Sternefeld (2006, p. 81ff.)
  6. ^ Zwicky, Arnold M .: How to Describe Inflection. Proceedings of the Eleventh Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society. 1985, pp. 372-386.