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Constructional or 'gestalt' exponence

From a classical WP perspective, the difference between recurrence and redundancy reflects the constructional character of morphology. An inflected form is a lexical construction that is interpreted in a paradigmatic context. The declensional system of Estonian illustrates one kind of intrinsically constructional pattern. Table 4.3 lists partial paradigms of four first declension nouns in Estonian. The forms in bold, kukke, lukku, pukki and sukka, exhibit the variation characteristic of grade-alternating nouns. Each form contains a lexically-specific theme vowel that distinguishes the partitive from the consonant-final nominative singular. Each form also contains a ‘strong’ stem (marked here by consonant gemination) that distinguishes the partitive from the ‘weak' genitive singular form. As with the Russian forms in -u in Tables 4.1, the stem+vowel structure of the partitive and genitive case forms in Table 4.3 is fully regular.

Also as in Russian, the recurrent structure in Estonian declensions is not redundant. Each of the forms kukke, lukku, pukki and sukka realizes partitive singular, and each is composed of a strong stem and theme vowel. Yet it is precisely because these parts recur in the paradigms in Table 4.3 that neither can be associated in

Table 4.3 First declension partitives in Estonian (Erelt 2006; Blevins 2008a)

Nom Sg





Part(itive) Sg





Gen Sg





Illa(tive)2 Sg









isolation with partitive case. Partitive cannot be associated with the strong stems kukk, lukk, pukk and sukk, since strong stems also realize the nominative. Partitive also cannot be associated with the theme vowels -a, -e, -i and -u, since these vowels occur in the genitive singular. Both strong stem and theme vowel also occur in the ‘short’ illative singular forms in Table 4.3.

Moreover, neither stem nor vowel is predictable from the other. A strong stem can be followed by any of the four theme vowels in Estonian. Conversely, each theme vowel occurs with both the strong and the weak stem in these paradigms. Unlike in Russian, theme vowels are lexical and cut across declension classes. As a result, there is no principled means of reassembling the partitive singular from its parts, based either on the substantive properties that can be associated with these parts or even with indexical class features.

Partitive case is an irreducibly word-level feature that is realized by the combination of a strong stem and a theme vowel. This type of gestalt exponence (Ackerman et al. 2009) is difficult to describe if stems and theme vowels are disassembled and represented separately in the lexicon.[1] Together, strong stems and theme vowels realize partitive singular, but individually, they cannot be assigned discrete meanings that ‘add up’ to partitive singular. The constructional character of grammatical meaning in a language like Estonian raises a fundamental challenge, one that cannot be met by invoking a more abstract notion of meaning or by any other purely technical maneuver.[2]

  • [1] See Bickel (1994) for a discussion of morphological gestalts in the context of a perspective that alsodevelops Hockett’s (1987) notion of morphological ‘resonances.
  • [2] As discussed in Blevins (2008a), a strategyof decomposing case into abstract ‘features’ will not workin Estonian. The nominative and genitive forms of the nouns in Table 4.3 are each based on differentstems in the singular and plural, so that no consistent feature decomposition can be assigned to thenominative or genitive case.
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