Dene Sųłiné Non-Segmental Morphology: Implications for Morphological Theory

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In this thesis, I undertake an analysis of the verbal morphology of Dene Sųłiné (Na-Dene, North-Central Canada) with a specific focus on two inflectional phenomena implementing non-segmental features of tone and nasality to mark distinctions of aspect and agreement. I critique existing accounts of these phenomena, which attempt to reduce both to affixal morphology, and investigate an alternative treatment as processes of non-concatenative morphology. Non-concatenative morphology holds theoretical interest as one of a variety of phenomena provided as evidence for an autonomous Morphology. In light of this interest, I develop and evaluate analyses of Dene Sųłiné’s non-segmental exponents, applying two theoretical frameworks exemplifying a major divide in thinking on morphological theory: Paradigm Function Morphology (PFM) and Distributed Morphology (DM). PFM recognizes an autonomous Morphology, an essential theoretical role for paradigms, and distinctly morphological Rules of Exponence. Conversely, DM posits a basic equivalence of syntax and morphology, recognizes no theoretical status for the paradigm and attempts to restrict morphological exponence to affixation. I test applications of PFM and DM to Dene Sųłiné’s non-segmental exponents, basing analyses on existing data and novel elicitations of Wollaston Lake Dene Sųłiné. Theoretical applications reveal characteristics of these non-segmental exponents challenging accounts in both frameworks. In particular, I identify a noteworthy “look-ahead” problem pertaining to the selection of the tonal exponent. This look-ahead problem seems best characterized as the sensitivity of a less-peripheral exponent to the phonology of a more-peripherally-applying exponent, a situation I argue both frameworks are challenged to address. Novel data from the Wollaston Lake dialect further complicates the account of this exponent’s selection, while also revealing a decreased role for affixation in the verbal morphology, suggesting an increase in the informational load assumed by non-concatenative processes. In addition to the challenges presented to the DM account by the tonal exponent’s formal quality, I present arguments against DM theorists’ claims that Dene surface morphotactics can be reasonably taken to derive from assumed universals of syntactic structure. I ultimately find that the formal and distributional characteristics of these exponents recommend a distinctly morphological account, not a reductionist, “syntacticocentric” one.
Dene Sųłiné, Morphology, Paradigm Function Morphology, Distributed Morphology, Non-concatenative morphology
Tufts, K. (2023). Dene Sųłiné non-segmental morphology: implications for morphological theory (Master's thesis, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada). Retrieved from