Posted by: gdevi | May 16, 2013

English 280 – Headless Compound example

Hello, 280 students, here is a newspaper report on “Maple Leafs.” This is a clear example of, what in morphology we call, “headless compounds.” Here is the explanation:

The default plural morphemes in English are /s/, /z/ or /ɪz/.  /s/ for singular morphemes ending in a voiceless consonant–eg., “cats”. /z/ for singular morphemes ending in voiced consonants == eg., “dogs.” And /ɪz/ for singular morphemes ending in fricatives or affricates — eg., “buses,” “bushes,” or “batches” through epenthesis and dissimilation. Then we have the irregular nouns with their own internal vowel changes — foot/ feet, tooth/teeth etc.

When we make compound words, the meaning of the compound word is determined by the rightmost member of the compound, known as the “head” of the compound.  Thus “black board,” is a kind of “board,” and not a kind of “black.”  “High chair” is a kind of “chair.”  Compound words, where the meaning of the compound is determined by the “head” of the compound are called Headed Compounds. Headed Compounds follow the pluralization rule for /s/, /z/, and /ɪz/ or internal vowel change as above.

“Headless Compounds” are compound words that do not have a “head” that determines the meaning of the compound. In other words, the parts do not make the whole, with respect to the meaning of the words.  In other words, “still life” is not a kind of “life.” “Pick pocket” is not a kind of “pocket.” “Low life” is not a kind of “life.”  Thus Headless Compounds do not follow the pluralization rule for voiced and voiceless consonants. The entire compound word is treated as one morpheme, without internal morphemic distinction or structure, and the default plural morpheme /s/ is added to the “whole word.”

The Canadian hockey team Maple Leafs spells its name with the plural “leafs” instead of “leaves” because of this morphological phenomenon called headless compounds. The hockey team is not a kind of “leaf.”  When we talk about a Canadian forest full of “Maple leaves” we are talking about “leaves,” — so we can pluralize it according to the plural rules.

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