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Inflectional class

Anna Kibort

Inflectional class is the best known type of morphological feature. It partitions the vocabulary items in a given language according to the way in which they realise morphosemantic or morphosyntactic feature specifications. Corbett & Baerman (2006), who propose a typology of morphological features, argue that inflectional class features may be of two different sub-types: affixal, or prosodic. These sub-types may cross-classify the same vocabulary items - that is, the specifications for affixal and prosodic paradigms can be independent of each other.

An interesting instance of a phenomenon involving inflectional class, originally analysed in syntactic terms but re-analysed in terms of morphological rules by Anderson (1992:136-156), is found in the complex inflectional system of Georgian.

The screeves of Georgian (see the 'Screeve' entry in this Inventory) can be grouped into three Series. Furthermore, Georgian verbs can be divided into four Classes (also referred to traditionally as Conjugations) on the basis of morphological criteria corroborated by syntactic and semantic criteria (see Harris 1981:259-274 for a detailed discussion of this classification; also Aronson 1990 and Holisky 1981 for the traditional classification). According to Harris (1981), the semantic-syntactic properties of each verb can be predicted on the basis of universals, and thus Class membership is not arbitrary (and does not have to be listed in the lexicon). The verb forms of Series II (the oldest series) in Georgian include a screeve marker, all Series I forms include a series marker, and Series III has varied forms which frequently include a series marker. The Class of the verb and the Series together co-determine the pattern of case-marking that the governing verb form imposes on its arguments.

The apparent subject of a given clause in Georgian is not always in the same case. The following table captures three case marking patterns possible for a given clause (Harris 1981:1). The grammatical relations of Subject, Direct Object and Indirect Object are identified on the basis of their syntactic characteristics.

Subject Direct Object Indirect Object
Pattern C DATIVE NOMINATIVE tvis-nominal

And this is how the distribution of Patterns A, B and C can be stated with reference to verb Class and Series (Harris 1981:2):

Series I Series II Series III
Class 1 B A C
Class 2 B B B
Class 3 B A C
Class 4 C C C

Harris (1981:10 and Chapter 8) applies a syntactic rule, 'inversion', just where Pattern C is found. Thus, Pattern C can be derived from Pattern B by a regular rule which changes grammatical relations. After reducing Pattern C to a special instance of Pattern B, the case marking patterns of Georgian can be stated as follows (adapted from Harris 1981:276):

Subject Direct Object Indirect Object

And the distribution of the two Patterns in terms of verb Class and Series can be stated as follows (Harris 1981:276):

Series I Series II Series III
Class 1 and 3 B A B
Class 2 and 4 B B B

Anderson (1992:136-156) argues that morphological structure need not be completely isomorphic to syntactic form, and questions the analysis of Pattern C as reflecting an actual change in syntactic structure (i.e. he questions 'inversion' as the conversion of a syntactic subject into an indirect object and concomitant promotion of the direct object to subject). Instead, he offers an account of the morphology of Pattern C that does not require such syntactic restructuring, but relies only on morphological rules leading to a complex correspondence between morphological structure and syntactic form.

To sum up, on first approximation, in order to predict the case of a subject in Georgian, one must know the Class and Series of the governing verb form. Harris (1981) argues that the notion of 'Class' can be further reduced to a predictable syntactic characteristic (the unergativity vs unaccusativity of the verb, which accounts for the otherwise unexpected ergative case marking of the subjects of unergative intransitive verbs in Series II). However, the rules for the case marking of arguments in Georgian still have to refer to Series. In order to avoid appealing to a syntactic rule of 'inversion' which reorganises the syntactically motivated structure of clauses, Anderson (1992) proposes a morphological 'Unaccusative rule' and 'Morphosyntactic Representations' (lexical entries) of verbs which encode Series number (an inflectional class feature), and succesfully applies the same morphological rules of verbal affixation to all verbs.


  • Anderson, Stephen R. 1992. A-Morphous Morphology. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Aronson, H.I. 1990. Georgian: A Reading Grammar (2nd edition, corrected). Columbus: Slavica.
  • Corbett, Greville G. & Matthew Baerman. 2006. Prolegomena to a typology of morphological features. Morphology 16.231-246. Draft available at:
  • Harris, Alice C. 1981. Georgian Syntax. A Study in Relational Grammar. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Holisky, D.A. 1981. Aspect and Georgian Medial Verbs. Delmar: Caravan Books.

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How to cite this entry:

Kibort, Anna. "Inflectional class." Grammatical Features. 7 January 2008.

Content last updated 7 January 2008
Page last modified 16 January 2010
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