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Linguistic Inquiry

Winter 2015, Vol. 46, No. 1, Pages 173-186
(doi: 10.1162/ling_a_00179)
© 2015 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Stem Storage? Not Proven: A Reply to Bermúdez-Otero 2013
Article PDF (1.25 MB)

Bermúdez-Otero (2013) argues that the Spanish lexicon stores whole stems complete with their theme vowels, rather than storing roots whose inflectional class features condition the insertion of particular theme vowels (as argued for in much Distributed Morphology (DM) work on Romance, such as Oltra-Massuet 1999, Oltra-Massuet and Arregi 2005). The argument turns on an apparent cyclicity paradox that Bermúdez-Otero (2013:65, 71) dubs the problem of the missing cycle. Bermúdez-Otero argues that this problem cannot be avoided if roots and categorizing heads are held to be atoms stored in the Spanish lexicon. The paradox can be circumvented only by embracing the notion of ‘‘stem’’ and taking the stem to be the unit stored as a lexical primitive.

This conclusion, if correct, would have far-reaching implications for the theory of the architecture of the grammar, since the notion of stem does not and cannot have any status as a primitive in a theory that is committed to the ideas of syntactic hierarchical structure all the way down and the strictly local determination of conditioned allomorphy (such as DM; see Embick and Halle 2005). The notion that a morphologically complex unit like a stem could be stored, and behave as a unit with respect to conditioned allomorphy, is not compatible with either of these tenets. Therefore, if Bermúdez-Otero’s argument is right, it follows that some of the fundamental architectural claims of DM are wrong.

In this squib, I point out that the problem of the missing cycle dissolves once the broader behavior of one of the crucial phenomena involved (the syllabification of /i/ as [i] or [j]) is taken into account. It turns out that the syllabification of /i/ in derived word forms is not based purely on whether or not the vowel is stressed on an earlier cycle; instead, it must be formulated in terms of the morphophonology associated with particular lexical categories (Smith 2001, 2011). I will argue that this phenomenon is the result of a rule that denuclearizes an unstressed /i/ in hiatus in nonverbal contexts. Syllabification of /i/ is therefore not a property inherited from earlier stress cycles, and the fact that its behavior contrasts with that of diphthongization (which does appear to be genuinely cyclic) thus does not constitute a cyclicity paradox. The general conclusion is this: since there is no problem of the missing cycle, there is no argument for stem storage, and therefore no threat to the idea of syntactic structure all the way down, nor to the strictly local nature of conditioned allomorphy.

The argument is developed as follows. In section 1, I introduce the problem of the missing cycle, which Bermúdez-Otero takes to be the inevitable consequence of any non-stem-based approach to combinations of roots and theme vowels in Spanish. In section 2, I highlight crucial evidence discussed by Cabré and Prieto (2006) and by Cabré and Ohannesian (2009), which suggests that the behavior of /i/ syllabification is not reducible to cyclicity; instead, the distinction between verbs on the one hand and nouns/adjectives on the other appears to be at issue. The cyclicity paradox adduced by Bermúdez-Otero is therefore dissolved. In section 3, I sketch a DM analysis of the phenomena discussed by Bermúdez-Otero that does not require the storage of stems (using insights from Harris 1969, Roca 1997, and the DM approach to Spanish stress advanced in Oltra-Massuet and Arregi 2005). Section 4 is a brief conclusion.