Nonconcatenative morphology

Nonconcatenative morphology, also called discontinuous morphology and introflection, is a form of word formation in which the root is modified and which does not involve stringing morphemes together sequentially.[1]



In English, for example, while plurals are usually formed by adding the suffix -s, certain words use nonconcatenative processes for their plural forms:

  • foot /fʊt/ → feet /fiːt/;

and many irregular verbs form their past tenses, past participles, or both in this manner:

  • freeze /ˈfriːz/ → froze /ˈfroʊz/, frozen /ˈfroʊzən/.

This specific form of nonconcatenative morphology is known as base modification or ablaut, a form in which part of the root undergoes a phonological change without necessarily adding new phonological material. (In traditional Indo-Europeanist usage, these changes are termed ablaut only when they result from vowel gradations in Proto-Indo-European. Changes such as foot/feet, which are due to the influence of a since-lost front vowel, are called umlaut.)

Other forms of base modification include lengthening of a vowel, as in Hindi:

  • /mar-/ "die" ↔ /maːr-/ "kill"

or change in tone or stress:

  • Chalcatongo Mixtec /káʔba/ "filth" ↔ /káʔbá/ "dirty"
  • English record /ˈrɛkərd/ (noun) ↔ /rɨˈkɔrd/ "to make a record"

Consonant apophony, such as the initial-consonant mutations in Celtic languages, also exists.


Another form of nonconcatenative morphology is known as transfixation, in which vowel and consonant morphemes are interdigitated. For example, depending on the vowels, the Arabic consonantal root k-t-b can have different but semantically related meanings. Thus, [kataba] 'he wrote' and [kitaːb] 'book' both come from the root k-t-b. Words from k-t-b are formed by filling in the vowels, e.g. kitāb "book", kutub "books", kātib "writer", kuttāb "writers", kataba "he wrote", yaktubu "he writes", etc. In the analysis provided by McCarthy's account of nonconcatenative morphology, the consonantal root is assigned to one tier, and the vowel pattern to another.[2]


Yet another common type of nonconcatenative morphology is reduplication, a process in which all or part of the root is reduplicated. In Sakha, this process is used to form intensified adjectives:

/k̠ɨhɨl/ "red" ↔ /k̠ɨp-k̠ɨhɨl/ "flaming red".


A final type of nonconcatenative morphology is variously referred to as truncation, deletion, or subtraction; the morpheme is sometimes called a disfix. This process removes phonological material from the root.

Semitic languages

Nonconcatenative morphology is extremely well developed in the Semitic languages in which it forms the basis of virtually all higher-level word formation (as with the example given in the diagram). That is especially pronounced in Arabic, which also uses it to form approximately 41%[3] of plurals in what is often called the broken plural.

See also


  1. Haspelmath, Martin (2002). Understanding Morphology. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-340-76026-5.
  2. McCarthy, John J. (1981). "A Prosodic Theory of Nonconcatenative Morphology". Linguistic Inquiry. 12: 373–418.
  3. Boudelaa, Sami; Gaskell, M. Gareth (21 September 2010). "A re-examination of the default system for Arabic plurals". Language and Cognitive Processes. 17 (3): 321–343. doi:10.1080/01690960143000245.
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