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Review of  A Guide to Morphosyntax-Phonology Interface Theories

Reviewer: Janet Leonard
Book Title: A Guide to Morphosyntax-Phonology Interface Theories
Book Author: Tobias Scheer
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
History of Linguistics
Book Announcement: 24.38

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AUTHOR: Tobias Scheer
TITLE: A Guide to Morphosyntax-Phonology Interface Theories
SUBTITLE: How Extra-Phonological Information is Treated in Phonology since Trubetzkoy’s Grenzsignale
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2011

Janet Leonard, Department of Linguistics, University of Victoria


“A Guide to Morphosyntax-Phonology Interface Theories” is a very large book comprising the description, synthesization and evaluation of a wide range of theories associated with the morphosyntax-phonology interface. Given that this book runs over 1000 pages in length, it is most useful to provide the reader with a synopsis of the book’s central goal along with a brief summary of the book’s four main parts, rather than detailed summaries of each chapter. The central goal of this book is to argue that the best type of theory of the morphosyntax-phonology interface is one that draws upon a convergence of a variety of theoretical assumptions concerning language modules and their communication. The author achieves this goal by combining a comprehensive review of the historical development of the morphosyntax-phonology interface literature, a discussion of the cognitive grounding of the morphosyntax-phonology interface and an evaluation of the different theoretical perspectives currently found in the literature today. Scheer examines the kinds of influence earlier scholarship on the morphosyntax-phonology interface (1940s-1970s) has had on the subsequent understanding of more recent theoretical frameworks associated with the interface (1980s to present-day). He evaluates, throughout, the compatibility of current trends in both phonological theories of the interface and morpho-syntactic theories of the interface, suggesting ways in which the two might be converged. In addition to proposing key characteristics of a good interface model, this book also serves as a reference guide to specific morphosyntax-phonology interface theories and explains to the reader the chronological development of those theories.

The book is organized into four parts: Introduction, Part I, Interlude and Part II. The Introduction sets the stage for the author’s own theoretical claims concerning the morphosyntax-phonology interface by explaining the difference between interface theories positing that phonological information is parsed iteratively beginning with the most embedded morpho-syntactic structure to the least (“procedural”) and interface theories claiming that phonology and morpho-syntax are separate modules which require some type of translation between them in order for the two modules to communicate (“representational”) (p. 1). The ultimate goal of this book is to argue that both procedural and representational aspects of interface thinking are needed in a good model of the interface. The author terms the combining of procedural models and representational models “Interface Dualism” (p. 2). His perspective is that a good theory of the morphosyntax-phonology interface should not focus on one type of model at the expense of the other.

Part I of “A Guide to Morphosyntax-Phonology Interface Theories” is divided into 12 chapters designed to take us on a chronological journey of interface thinking, illuminating for the reader how each theory has influenced the others and pointing out general assumptions that are shared, taken for granted or ignored by each theory. Chapter 1 adopts Kenstowicz and Kisseberth’s (1977) classification of linguistic processes at the interface as the context for a discussion of the relationship between morpho-syntax and phonology. Chapter 2 surveys the influence that the Functional Perspective (Trubetzkoy 1939) has had on subsequent theories of the interface. Chapter 3 focuses on American Structuralism and the proposal that morphological information was carried by “juncture” phonemes in the phonology (see for example Hockett 1942). Chapter 4 outlines literature concerning the move away from the use of “juncture” phonemes toward the use of boundaries to represent morpho-syntactic information in phonology. Chapter 5 is concerned with the contributions that “The Sound Pattern of English” (SPE; Chomsky & Halle 1968) made to interface theory. Scheer posits that the proposal that the communication between morpho-syntax and phonology is both procedural and representational has its roots in SPE. Chapter 6 is anchored around the debate about how, and if, phonology can access morpho-syntax and if it does, whether or not that access is direct or indirect. This chapter focuses primarily on Prosodic Phonology, arguing that “indirect referencing” turns out to be the correct way to view processes at the interface, but proposing that new phonological vocabulary is needed to correctly capture the interaction between morpho-syntax and phonology. The claim is that the “CV-unit” (p. 121) is the carrier of morpho-syntactic information.

Chapter 7 provides an evaluation of Lexical Phonology. Scheer takes the stance that this theory falls short of its goal of offering a procedural rather than a representational theory of the interface, despite it being the first theory of the interface to truly incorporate mechanisms compatible with a procedural approach. Chapter 8 discusses the work of Halle & Vergnaud (1987), acknowledging their role in initiating a new tradition in procedural communication between morpho-syntax and phonology by combining theoretical tools and ideas from SPE with the mechanism of “selective spell out” (p. 187). Chapter 9 focuses on Kaye’s (1995) interpretation and application of previous proposals having to do with no look-back and spell out devices. This chapter bridges previous treatments of these devices by frameworks such as Lexical Phonology with how they are applied in more recent frameworks, for example Minimalism. Scheer claims that Kaye is the first to provide a solely procedural means of communication between the phonology and the morpho-syntax. He explains that Kaye’s approach is a functionalist approach which assumes that the phonology demarcates morpho-syntactic information as a way to aid morpheme identification.

Chapter 10 guides the reader through the historical development of Prosodic Phonology. Scheer’s perspective is that it is solely a representational interface theory. In his opinion, although rarely explicitly stated in the literature, Prosodic Phonology departs from previous interface theories by moving away from the theoretical notion of the boundary toward the theoretical notion of the domain as the unit of communication at the interface. According to Scheer, “Indirect Reference” (p. 345) is Prosodic Phonology’s most important contribution to interface theory. Chapter 11 examines how Optimality Theory (OT) formalizes the communication at the interface. Scheer argues that OT subscribes to a representational means of communication at the interface and that rather than proposing its own representational mechanisms it borrows them from Prosodic Phonology. Further, OT, Scheer claims, is not a theory which offers Interface Dualism, which he says is largely due to its rejection of the generative principles of cyclicity resulting in the total absence of a procedural (modular) means of communication between morpho-syntax and phonology. Distributed Morphology (DM) is the focus of Chapter 12. In this chapter Scheer compares the theory to Kaye (1995) and current minimalist thinking. He concludes that DM contributes nothing to either a procedural or representational approach to communication at the interface. Instead, phonology is assumed to have direct access to the morphology.

The goal of the “Interlude” section is to contextualize for the reader issues associated with Modularity. This section of the book is divided into 6 chapters. In Chapter 1 Scheer claims that Modularity is rarely referenced in the interface literature, even though its concepts underlie many assumptions about how the modules phonology, morphology and syntax communicate. Chapter 2 provides an overview of the basic assumptions regarding the concepts of Modularity and Connectionism made in Cognitive Science as it relates to the Brain and Mind. Chapter 3 summarizes the historical literature, back-grounding proposals about how the Brain and Mind are organized. Chapter 4 discusses how particular areas of the Brain (modules) work. Chapter 5 provides an overview of how assumptions and principles associated with a cognitive understanding of Modularity have been adopted in linguistic theories. This chapter presents a range of views of what kind of linguistic components are included within a module. Previous literature concerning the inclusion of phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax and/or semantics within the same module, or within separate modules is discussed and evaluated. Chapter 6 is concerned specifically with how language modules communicate. In this chapter Scheer is concerned with whether or not it is some type of structure or vocabulary that is translated between modules, and if information from one module to another is translated using some type of computational or matching device.

The main purpose of Part II is to illuminate and organize for the reader theoretical ideas and assumptions concerning the morphosyntax-phonology interface, which Scheer claims are not always explicitly laid out in the theoretical literature, and to discuss the impact of those ideas and assumptions on current linguistic thinking about the morphosyntax-phonology interface. This part of the book is organized into 6 chapters. Chapter 1 is a two-page introduction where Scheer explains that Part II is also designed to serve as a navigational tool for Part I. Various themes are presented in this part of the book which are directed back to relevant discussions of theoretical frameworks found in Part I. Chapter 2 points out empirical generalizations which Scheer claims are not frequently discussed in the interface literature, e.g. the observations that morpho-syntactic information has no impact on phonological computation, that morphemes have no internal phonological boundaries, and that morpho-syntactic information has no phonetic correlate. Chapter 3 focuses on two of the empirical issues brought up in Chapter 2 that, Scheer asserts, are clearly resolved. These issues include claims that there are no boundaries inside morphemes and that there are no phonetic correlates for morpho-syntactic distinctions. Chapters 4 and 5 are centered on issues relevant to “Direct Interface” and “Indirect Interface”. These issues include the kinds of linguistic modules that are relevant to the interface and how those linguistic modules communicate and how they should be represented. In particular, Scheer puts forth arguments associated with the ordering of rules, how morpho-syntactic information is mapped to the phonology and what kinds of basic units should be included in a theory of the morphosyntax-phonology interface. Chapter 6 examines questions associated with procedural processes at the interface. In particular, it focuses on theoretical mechanisms such as spell-out, phases, and no look-back devices. Scheer points to the differences and to the relationships between how Lexical Phonology, Halle & Vergnaud (1987) and Kaye (1995) interpret and apply these kinds of mechanisms, and explains their contribution to current syntactic theory.


“A Guide to Morphosyntax-Phonology Interface Theories” contributes to the morphosyntax-phonology debate in two major ways. First, it contributes by offering the reader a unique model of the interface. Scheer uses the evaluation of what he sees as the strengths and weaknesses of the previous theories that he surveys in Part I as evidence to support arguments for what kinds of assumptions and theoretical tools a good model of the interface should include. He discusses previous theoretical questions and introduces new ones. His central argument is that a good model of the morphosyntax-phonology interface should combine the theoretical tools of both procedural and representational theories of the interface and should not violate basic properties of modularity. Scheer suggests that a model which takes these points into consideration is better equipped to answer both new and old theoretical questions about the interface than any of the solely procedural and representational interface models that have come before it.

Second, this book contributes by providing the general linguistic reader with a comprehensive overview of existing literature concerning the morphosyntax-phonology interface. It is an excellent guide for understanding the various contexts within which questions regarding the morphosyntax-phonology interface are grounded. Scheer clearly demonstrates to the reader the various perspectives there are on this subject, their origin, their development, and the relationship between those various perspectives.

In addition, the way in which the book connects the historical overview of interface theories with questions concerning what, in Scheer’s opinion, a correct model of the interface should look like is organized in a useful and intuitive way. The reader is frequently directed throughout the book to other areas in the book which are relevant to the current section they are reading. The section numbers are embedded in the text and their locations are given in bold in the margins of the page. There are a number of typos throughout the book; though these inconsistencies may distract the reader, they are not serious enough to cause any confusion about the intention of the author’s content.

This book is an interesting and relevant volume for anyone interested in familiarizing (or reorienting) themselves with the theoretical literature associated with interface thinking and with the cognitive grounding of the idea of linguistic modules. In addition, this book is relevant for anyone wishing to learn more about contemporary thinking on these subjects. Scheer is explicit about his own perspective of what theoretical devices a successful interface model should include (Interface Dualism, Modularity, CV-units) and is clear about which theoretical framework he favours (Government Phonology). Despite this he references a vast range of sources from each of the theoretical frameworks included in the book, making it possible for the reader to follow up the literature he evaluates. Whether or not the reader agrees with Scheer’s point of view with respect to the historical development of the field and the types of assumptions and theoretical tools a good model of the interface should adopt, this book is a must read for any scholar wishing to learn more about or enter into the theoretical debate of how morpho-syntactic and phonological information are processed.


Chomsky, Noam and Morris Halle. 1968. The Sound Pattern of English. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Halle, Morris and Jean-Roger Vergnaud. 1987. An Essay on Stress. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Hockett, Charles. 1942. A System of Descriptive Phonology. Language 18: 3-21.

Kaye, Jonathan. 1995. Derivations and Interfaces. In Frontiers of Phonology, Jacques Durand and Francis Katamba (eds.), 289-332. London & New York: Longman.

Kenstowicz, Michael and Charles Kisseberth. 1977. Topics in Phonological Theory. New York: Academic Press.

Trubetzkoy, Nikolai Sergeyevich. 1939. Grundzige der Phonologie. 6th edition 1977, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Janet Leonard is a PhD Candidate at the University of Victoria. Her research interest is the relationship between phonology and morphology in SENĆOŦEN (Saanich), a Northern Straits variety of an endangered Salish language spoken on Vancouver Island, B.C. Canada. Her dissertation focus is on understanding the morphological and phonological predictors of schwa placement in SENĆOŦEN.

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