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I hate morphology!

By Linguipixie

I hate morphology… or rather I should say that as a language learner/speaker, I hate flexional morphology, tho’ as a linguist I somehow love it, but that would have been too long and not sexy enough for an article title.

So, a little context here, before the rant. As a French native speaker living in France, after mastering the living flexional morphological hell that is my native language, I graduated high school having studied, to a different extent, English – not much going on there in terms of flexional morphology –, German and Latin (as an elective) – OK now you’re talking… You might say I was very accustomed to flexional morphology – which is when the ending of a word (noun, adjective, verb) varies depending on the grammatical context, so basically declensions, conjugations, etc. But after that, I studied Japanese at university (master’s degree) and also took evening classes in Mandarin.

And there came the revelation: nouns don’t need a gender nor a plural form, adjectives don’t need to agree with the noun (granted, I already knew this thanks to English) and verbs don’t need to agree with the subject. Words can just… be, and people can still understand each other – myself included! Now I think that was the moment I swore to NEVER EVER learn a Romance language again, because I couldn’t be bothered anymore with all these useless linguistic features – well, seeing as I’m currently PhDing in Occitan and therefore learning conjugation tables for the past subjunctive of three different verb groups as I write, I kinda failed there but that’s a story for another time.

All this brings me to this question: is flexional morphology really useless?

Grammatical gender and past participle agreement

Every now and then, this meme pops in one of my feeds on social media:

As a French native speaker, I instinctively know that a washing machine is masculine if you use the word “le lave-linge” and feminine if you go for “la machine à laver (le linge)” (I usually say “la machine à laver”). However, I can imagine how frustrating this must be for learners (after all, I did take German and struggle with its 3 arbitrary genders). Even if I use them instinctively in my native language, I’ve never understood really understood the need to gender substantives – off the top of my head, I know that English, Mandarin and Japanese don’t have those and that creates no problem whatsoever. But what’s even worse, is that noun genders can trigger agreement in adjectives,  participles, etc. So that means that in addition to choosing the right article, you must also choose the right ending – flexional morphology – to other words too because of the gender of the noun! And although most agreements come naturally to a native speaker, there is one agreement rule which is literally infamous and that many French speakers really struggle to apply: “In the compound past (passé composé), the auxiliary avoir (have) doesn’t trigger any agreement on the past participle (while the auxiliary être (be) always triggers agreement with the subject), unless the object is placed before the verb (for instance in the form of a subordinating conjunction or an object pronoun), in which case the past particle agrees with the object”… What the actual… whaaat??!

Pierre s’est levé à 8h.Peter woke up at 8:00. [be → subject agreement]
Marie s’est levée à 8h.Mary woke up at 8:00. [be → subject agreement]
J’ai acheté une pomme.I bought an apple. [have → no object agreement]
La pomme que j’ai achetée est bonne.The apple that I bought is good. [have → object agreement]
(La pomme,) je l’ai achetée.(The apple,) I bought it. [have → object agreement]

pomme (feminine) = apple

Granted, flexional morphology is not responsible for this messed-up grammar rule, grammar is – or, according to 18th-century philosopher Voltaire, it is Clément Marot’s fault, a French poet from the 16th century who allegedly brought this obscure rule back from Italy to make French more sophisticated. Still, were there no grammatical gender and no flexional morphology in French, the rule just wouldn’t exist. I rest my case.

Verbs. Just verbs. (Japanese, English, Irish, French)

Have a look at those sentences in Japanese and their English and French translations:

JapaneseJapanese pronunciation (romaji)EnglishFrench
(私達は)リンゴを食べる(Watashitachi ha) ringo wo taberu.We eat an apple.Nous mangeons une pomme.
(先生は)リンゴを食べる(Sensei ha) ringo wo taberu.The professor eats an apple.Le professeur mange une pomme.
(彼らは)リンゴを食べる(Karera ha) ringo wo taberu.They eat an apple.Ils mangent une pomme.

watashitachi = we ringo = apple taberu = eat sensei = professor karera = they

The Japanese verb doesn’t vary at all, it doesn’t feel the need to agree with the subject – and to be fair, the subject/theme doesn’t really feel the need to be there either. The English verb varies very little too, but we find here the nightmare of a French pupil learning English: the 3rd person singular -s in the simple present; the one little “s” they always forget; the one little “s” that makes English teachers literally hiss at their students everywhere in France! “He doezzzzzz” ; “She walksssss”…

The same kind of invariable system as Japanese can be found, for example, in Irish – where the subject isn’t optional tho’ – and comprehension is not impaired whatsoever:

Téann mé ( / téim)I go
Téann túYou go
Téann sé/síHe/she goes
Téann muid ( / téimid)We go
Téann sibhYou go
Téann siadThey go

Now let’s go back to the first table of this section: the French verb varies a lot. But note that in the table, the French system appears particularly redundant semantically as the verb conjugation reactualises the person of the subject… which is a compulsory element of the sentence anyway, so basically, you just state which person performs the action twice (in the subject and in the verb ending)… very useful and time-efficient, indeed!

However, although verb endings do vary in French according to the person, a lot of those variations are actually only a question of spelling, as several persons’ forms are pronounced the same:

Je mange[ʒə mɑ̃ʒ]I eat
Tu manges[ty mɑ̃ʒ]You eat
Il/Elle mange[il/εl mɑ̃ʒ]He/she eats
Nous mangeons[nu mɑ̃ʒɔ̃]We eat
Vous mangez[vu mɑ̃ʒe]You eat
Ils/elles mangent[il/εl mɑ̃ʒ]They eat

In this example, when spoken, there’s only 3 different forms, but in writing, there’s actually 5 different forms. And to this rather useless complexity, you can add the fact that there are 3 verb groups:

  • 1st group: verbs ending in -er in the infinitive; 1 conjugation table – regular

ex: manger (eat), chanter (sing), marcher (walk)

→ je mange, nous mangeons

  • 2nd group: verbs ending in -ir in the infinitive; 1 conjugation table – regular

ex: finir (finish), choisir (choose), accomplir (accomplish)

→ je finis, nous finissons

  • 3rd group: other verbs; irregular (with subgoups)

ex: prendre (take), faire (do), servir (serve), vouloir (want), aller (go)…

→ je prends, nous prenons ; je fais, nous faisons ; je sers, nous servons ; je veux, nous voulons ; je vais, nous allons

In each case, the verb agrees with the person, and depending on the group, there’s a different number of common forms in the written and/or the spoken form. To put it in a nutshell, it’s a very complex system with what seems to be very little benefit – if any at all: pronouns and conjugations bring a redundant piece of information and conjugations have somewhat randomly redundant forms that don’t allow you to tell them appart. Like I said, welcome to a learner’s hell!

Now granted, in many languages, flexional morphology actually is useful in terms of meaning, I’m voluntarily picking examples of what I find useless here. For instance, other Romance languages such as Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Occitan have different forms for each person and the subject pronoun is most often elided, which means that except for the 3rd person when the subject is a nominal group, there is no redudancy of person:

ex: Occitan:

CantiI sing
CantasYou sing
CantaHe/she sings
CantamWe sing
CantatzYou sing (pl)
CantanThey sing

However, those langugages all have 3 verb groups (basically -ar, -er, and -ir or variations thereof), so it’s not one conjugation table but at least 3 that one must learn for each tense (and there are a lot of tenses, and modes). Moreover, in Occitan, although within a given tense, all the forms are different from one another, just look at this redundant monstrosity that makes my brain freeze any time I actually need to produce one of theses forms:

Imperfect OccitanEnglish transl.Preterit OccitanEnglish transl.
parlarparlavahe/she was speaking*parlèhe/she spoke
escríverescrivèva / escrivèhe/she was writingescrivóhe/she wrote

I think the language is just mocking me at this point. The flexional ending for the 3rd person singular of imperfect for -er verbs is the same as the 3rd person singular of preterit for -ar verbs. Kill me now.

About redundancy of information: the interesting case of word order in Breton

Among the few languages that I know a little about, the one that I like most when it comes to managing efficiency and non-redundancy in terms of conjugations is Breton <3 In Breton, the subject usually comes after the verb (and personal pronouns can be elided); in this case, the verb is conjugated. However, if the subject is placed before the verb, to denote emphasis for example, then the verb doesn’t need to be conjugated in agreement with the person (it only marks the tense), as the information of who is performing the action is already stated when the verb is uttered. How clever (and deliciously lazy) is that!

Brav eo an amzer.An amzer zo brav.The weather is fine.
N’eo ket brav an amzer.The weather isn’t fine.
Skuizh on.Me zo skuizh.I am tired.
N’on ket skuizh.I am not tired.
Debran.Me a zebr.I eat.
Debromp.Ni a zebr.We eat.

brav = fine, beautiful an amzer = the weather skuizh = tired debriñ = to eat

Now there’s a well-thought system. Everything makes sense, you don’t keep on randomly stating some pieces of information twice… And yet, welcome again to a learner’s hell! Just think about it… now, in addition to learning the verb’s conjugation table, you also have to calculate whether you actually need to use it in each sentence or if you can just wing it with a generic form, depending on the word order you’re going for…

A learner’s hell is a linguist’s heaven

Now as you can see, I say that I hate morphology but it seems I love talking about it. That’s because learning a language and studying it from a linguistic point of view are two very different activities. A language learner usually aims to be able to use the language as naturally (and therefore quickly) as possible in real life context, and in that situation, I feel like flexional morphology sometimes entails endless calculations that hinder fluidity when I speak – writing is easier because I can think about it and go back to correct mistakes. It is important to note here that flexional morphology is, in most cases, very useful to convey meaning efficiently. What makes things more difficult is the evolution of natural languages, that favours the development of irregularities which turn a simple and efficient system into a uselessly complicated mess.

On the other hand, a linguist aims to describe a language and explain how it works. Observing every little detail, identifying word categories, filling out tables, comparing systems (=languages) can all be part of the job and honestly, that’s what makes it so satisfying. Time-efficiency in language production is not an objective there, and frankly, the more difficult the system, the funnier the game!

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