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The logic of discrimination

At a basic level, these types of patterns reinforce Matthew’s conclusion that the correspondence between minimal ‘sames’ of ‘form’ and ‘meaning’ envisaged by morphemic models does not appear to exist. At a deeper level, they point to more fundamental problems with associative assumptions that underlie these models. Adopting a discriminative perspective throws the issues into sharp relief. That is, a discriminative analysis requires that the contrasts within a system suffice to distinguish the elements of the system. There is no requirement that particular contrasts in form will be associated with specific features. Nor is there any need for contrasts to partition elements into natural classes.

In the Dutch examples, there is no need to associate the prosodic properties that distinguish stems with determinate number features. It suffices for speakers to know that nouns have two inflected forms, that monosyllabic and disyllabic forms have different prosodic contours and that the weak plural marker -en conditions variation in syllable structure in monosyllabic nouns. In Estonian declensions, there is no stable association between stem grade and features. This is illustrated by the grammatical case forms of vaka ‘bushel’ in Table 8.1, in which there is no consistent association between features and grade. Neither singular nor plural forms are consistently strong or consistently weak. Nominative and genitive cases are similarly based on different stems in the singular and plural. Partitive case is in fact the only feature that is consistently associated with stem grade. The strong and weak stem grade classes are associated with correspondingly heterogeneous features.

Table 8.1 Grammatical case forms of vakk ‘bushel’

Sg

Plu

Nom

vakk

vakad

Gen

vaka

vakkade

Part

vakka

vakkasid

The problems that these patterns of ‘gestalt exponence’ pose for a decompositional analysis are discussed in Chapter 4. What is most important from the present perspective is the parallel between the ‘sub-morphemic’ variation in Table 8.1 and the sub-phonemic contrasts discussed directly above. The six grammatical case forms of vakk are effectively discriminated by variation in the form of stems and endings. The fact that these components cannot be associated with stable ‘units of meaning’ does not impair their discriminative value. The submorphemic character of this variation merely precludes an analysis on which their discriminative function is subsumed within a direct contrast-meaning association. The fact that contrasts within a system may effectively discriminate the elements of the system without a stable association between individual contrasts and meanings calls into question the value and status of this association.

 
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