Gouskova, Maria and Suzy Ahn. 2024. Sublexical phonotactics and English comparatives. Submitted to University of Massachusetts Occasional Papers in Linguistics: 50th Anniversary volume.
English comparative “-er” is said to be phonologically selective, but the restrictions are too complex to state elegantly in a subcategorization frame, and too lexically specific to capture in an emergence of the unmarked account. We argue that selection is really lexical, and that phonological generalizations emerge from phonotactic learning over sublexicons associated with the affixation rule. This theory is tested in a rating experiment that presents nonce words in an adjectival (“very wug”) or a verbal context (“to wug”), and then asks people to rate the suffixed forms presented as either comparatives (“much wugger”) or deverbal nouns (“a wugger”). People rate adjectives higher than verbs in bare forms, but the ratings are reversed for suffixed forms. The ratings furthermore depend not just on syllable count and stress position but on the overall well-formedness of the wugs with respect to the sublexical phonotactics of adjectives that combine with the comparative “-er” suffix.
Note: this paper was originally distributed as a manuscript in 2016.