A typology of defectiveness

An important design feature of language is the ‘productive pattern’. We have enjoy ~ enjoyed, agree ~ agreed, and many others. Even if the pattern is not fully regular, there will be a form available, as in understand ~ understood. Surprisingly, this principle is sometimes violated, a phenomenon known as ‘defectiveness’, which means there a gap in a word’s set of forms. The missing singular form of English ‘scissors’ is one example, and more striking instances can be found in languages with more complex systems of inflection (for example, Russian nouns that lack a genitive plural, or verbs which lack a first person singular form). Although such gaps have been known to us since the days of Classical grammarians, they remain poorly understood and all but uninvestigated. In order grasp what defectiveness means for the study of language, we need a much deeper and more extensive understanding of its typological range. We pose the following research questions:

1. How prevalent is defectiveness in the world’s languages?
2. What grammatical features can be affected?
3. What kinds of paradigms are subject to gaps?
4. How does defectiveness arise historically? What happens to it over the course of time?


Principal investigator
Professor Greville Corbett
Principal project staff
Dr Dunstan Brown; Professor Greville Corbett; Dr Matthew Baerman
Start date
Friday, September 1, 2006
Completion date
Sunday, March 1, 2009

Baerman, Matthew. "Defectiveness and homophony avoidance." Journal of Linguistics (2010). [currently online only: doi:10.1017/S0022226710000022]

Baerman, Matthew. "The diachrony of defectiveness." Chicago Linguistic Society 43/2 (2009): 251-265.

Baerman, Matthew. "Historical observations on defectiveness: the 1sg non-past." Russian Linguistics 32/1 (2008): 81-97.

Baerman, Matthew and Greville G. Corbett. "Defectiveness: typology and diachrony." In Baerman, Brown and Corbett, 1-18, 2010.

Corbett, Greville G. and Matthew Baerman. "Linguistic typology: Morphology." Linguistic Typology 11/1 (2007): 3-5.

Baerman, Matthew, Greville G. Corbett and Dunstan Brown, eds. Defective paradigms (Proceedings of the British Academy 145). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.