Martina Zier

Constraints on Conversion in English. A Corpus-Linguistic Approach

ErstbetreuerProf. Dr. Martin Hilpert

Why can speakers of English 'water a plant' but not *'guitar a song'? The main purpose of my PhD project is to determine how conversion as a word-formation process is constrained by various factors.
Since the coinage of the term conversion (Sweet 1891), the phenomenon that it describes has been a source of controversy, which is reflected in several alternative terms and definitions, including zero-derivation (Marchand 1969), lexical relisting (Lieber 1981), syntagmatic derivation (Kimenyi 1997), and category underspecification (Farrel 2000). However, there is one point of agreement: the process is extremely productive. Bauer (2002: 226) even states that "[...] conversion is a totally free process and any lexeme can undergo conversion into any of the open form classes as the need arises. Certainly, if there are constraints on conversion they have yet to be demonstrated." Bauer's assessment is widely shared; and although some constraints on conversion have been suggested (cf. Plag 1999, Eschenlohr 1999, Neef 2005 and 1999, Lee 2009), comprehensive empirical studies are lacking, especially for English. The purpose of this project is hence to re-assess Bauer's claim through an empirical study that combines the analysis of corpus data with the collection of survey data.
The methodological outlook of this study is corpus-based. Word pairs of homograph verbs and nouns were retrieved from the BNC in order to test the following questions: Do foreign, derived, or compounded bases behave differently than others? Do stress patterns and the number of syllables play a role? Are there semantic features that favour or block conversion? In order to test whether the tendencies observed in the corpus data enable accurate predictions about speaker behaviour, the study will administer questionnaires in which speakers rate the acceptability of 'converted' nouns and verbs. This two-tiered approach will determine whether the constraining factors are not only apparent in the written record of English but also in the speakers' active linguistic competence.

Works cited:

Bauer, Laurie. 22002. Introducing Linguistic Morphology. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Eschenlohr, Stefanie. 1999.Vom Nomen zum Verb: Konversion, Präfigierung und Rückbildung im Deutschen. Hildesheim et al.: Georg Olms Verlag.
Farrell, Patrick. 2001. "Functional Shift as Category Underspecification". English Language and Linguistics 5, 109-130.
Kimenyi, Alexandre. 1997. "Zero-Derivation or Syntagmatic Derivation". Semiotics Around the World: Synthesis in Diversity. Proceedings of the Fifth Congress of the International Association for Semiotic Studies, Berkeley 1994., Irmengard Rauch and Gerald F. Carr (eds.). Berlin/ New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 207-210.
Lee, Yongsung. 2009. "Conversion as zero affixation: Evidence from affix interaction". Korean Journal of English Language and Linguistics 9.1, 135-160.
Lieber, Rochelle. 1981. "Morphological Conversion within a Restrictive Theory of the Lexicon". The Scope of Lexical Rules, M. Moortgat, H. v.d. Hulst and T. Hoekstra (eds.). Dordrecht/ Cinnaminson: Foris Publications, 162-200.
Marchand, Hans. 21969. The Categories and Types of Present-Day English Word-Formation. A Synchronic-Diachronic Approach. München: C.H. Beck'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung.
Neef, Martin. 1999. "A declarative approach to conversion into verbs in German". Yearbook of Morphology 1998, eds. Geert Booij and Jaap van Maarle. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 199-224.
Neef, Martin. 2005. "On some alleged constraints on conversion." Approaches to Conversion/ Zero-Derivation, Laurie Bauer and Salvador Valera (eds.). Münster et al.: Waxmann Verlag, 103-130.
Plag,Ingo. 1999. Morphological Productivity. Structural Constraints in English Derivation. Berlin/ new York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Sweet, Henry. 1891 (Repr1968). A new English grammar. Locical and historical.Vol I. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Guest stay in Freiburg: Jan - Mar 2014

DisziplinEnglish Studies