Getting ‘Better’: On Comparative Suppletion and Related Topics
University of Connecticut
I present and discuss four or five universals drawn from across-linguistic study of comparative and superlative morphology. Special attention is given to three generalizations regarding root suppletion in the comparative degree of adjectives (good-better, bad-worse). These generalizations, I contend, have a variety consequences for morphology, semantics and perhaps syntax, particularly in the areas of lexical decomposition (at whatever level this obtains) and the formal treatment of suppletion vs. irregularity. Although comparative suppletion is rare (though attested) outside of Indo-European, and although the data sample is small within any one language, the generalizations over the total data set are surprisingly robust. Two generalizations are given here:
The Comparative-Superlative Generalization:
If the comparative degree of an adjective is built on a suppletive root/stem, then the superlative is also suppletive. The superlative may use the same root as the comparative, or may be further suppletive, but will not use the basic adjectival root. Thus the schema in (1), where A, B, C refer to phonologically unrelated roots.
(1) A – A – A completely regular: short, short-er, short-est
A – B – B suppletive: bad, worse, worst
A – B – C doubly suppletive: Latin ‘good’: bonus – melior -optimus
A – B – A *unattested* * bad – worse – baddest
I argue that this generalization favours analyses in which the superlative is not merely related to the comparative (e.g., both involve degree operators), but is rather _derived_from_ the comparative: [[[SHORT]-ER]-(ES)T]. Put somewhat more contentiously, I argue (with a qualification) that UG excludes a morpheme “-EST” (Superlative) that attaches directly to adjectival roots.
The Comparative-Change-of-State Generalization:
If the comparative degree of an adjective is built on a suppletive root, then a derived change-of-state verb (inchoative or causative) will also be suppletive. The verb may use the same root as the comparative (bad – worse – worsen; bonus -melior – meliorare), or may be further suppletive, but will not use the basic adjectival root.
By parity of reasoning to the first section, I must conclude (contra Dowty and others) that change-of-state verbs always include the comparative at some level of representation (cf. Kennnedy & Levin). I will defend this view against a variety of possible objections and examine apparent counter-examples.