Morphology - Unit Four - Lesson No. 24


Paradigmatic and Syntagmatic relationships in morphology

The term ‘morphology’ has been taken over from biology where it is used to denote the study of the forms of plants and animals. Its first recorded use is in writing of the German poet and writer Goethe in 1796. It was first used for linguistic purposes in 1859 by the German linguist August Schleicher to refer to the study of the forms of words. In present day linguistics, it refers to the structure of words, and of the systematic form-meaning correspondences between words. Example:

(A) (B)
Buy Buyer
Eat Eater
Paint Painter
Sell Seller
Send Sender

In these sets of words, we observe a systematic form-meaning correspondence. The words in (B) have –er and thus the meaning correspond to the form. Therefore, the meaning of eater is one who eats. The words in (B) have the additional sound sequence [-ər] and they are nouns whereas the words in (A) are verbs. Thus, the form differences have a phonological and a syntactic dimension.

The two sets of words given above form paradigms. The term paradigm is used here in a general sense to denote a set of linguistic elements with a common property. All words in (A) are verbs and thus form a paradigm. The same applies to the words in (B) which are all nouns ending in –er. In our definition of morphology given above, we see two different perspectives:

  1. When we speak about morphology as the study of the systematic form-meaning correspondences, we take a paradigmatic perspective, since we take properties of classes of words as the starting point of morphological analysis.
  2. When morphology is defined as the study of internal constituents of words, we take a syntagmatic perspective.

We distinguish two different perspectives on language because language units exhibit syntagmatic and paradigmatic relationships. Words have a syntagmatic relationship when they are combined into larger linguistic unit. For instance, the words the and book have a syntagmatic relationship in the phrase the book. In contrast, the determiners a and the are paradigmatically related: they belong to the set of determiners of English, and can both occur at the beginning of a noun phrase, but never together: *the a book. Hence they belong to the paradigm of determiners of English.

To summarize, when two or more words can occur together in a linguistic unit or structure, be it a phrase, a clause or a sentence, then they have a syntagmatic relationship. On the other hand, when words cannot occur together in linguistic unit or structure, then they have paradigmatic relationship.

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