Marcia Haag

University of Oklahoma

Audio | Handout

What to Leave in, What to Leave Out: Different Concepts of 'Word' in Choctaw and Cherokee

Wordhood and the processes that create it are of unflagging interest to linguists, especially to Americanists, who must grapple in their research languages with formidable morphology and obscure semantic/syntactic relations. We expect words to generally consist of a lexical root that may bear a series of affixes, the whole being concatenable in a cyclic fashion, along the lines of control, controllable, uncontrollable, uncontrollably. A fundamental distinction is made between affixes that derive words, as in this example, and those that inflect for various grammatical features; in English the best examples are the past tense marker, plural marker, and singular number agreement in the third person. Because these inflectional affixes are presumed to mark functions of the syntax, there should be a sharp demarcation between the levels; this line is at the boundary of the word according to most theories of grammar.

Comparing Choctaw, a Muskogean language, and Cherokee, an Iroquoian language, to English, we will see that Choctaw basically holds to a cyclic system of root-affix, while being appreciably freer in the actual morphological form of both derivations and inflections (notably stem deformation and infixes), and using those affixes to do very different things from what English does. Beginning with a root, in Choctaw we may reliably build up from a root meaning ‘learn’ make learn, the one who makes someone learn, the thing one makes someone learn with and so forth. Cherokee, in great contrast, seems not to have cyclic affixation to roots. Instead, a series of basic lexical roots is compounded below the level of the word, frequently incorporating information such as direction, the presence of plural objects or iterated actions, the presence of actors and patients, and the shapes of instruments. Even more problematically for traditional grammar theories is the fact that clearly ‘inflectional’ affixes appear as part of the semantic content of the word apart from any actual feature in the syntax itself. For instance, in the word for ‘he/she is sneezing’ there is a ‘semantic’ plural marker, the same one that marks a direct object, signifying that the sneeze includes the presence of more than one nostril. These distinctions may point to a basic word formation parameter in the world’s languages, treating the cyclicity of word formation and permeability of lexeme boundaries.