Suppletion

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In linguistics and etymology, suppletion is traditionally understood as the use of one word as the inflected form of another word when the two words are not cognate. For those learning a language, suppletive forms will be seen as "irregular" or even "highly irregular". The term "suppletion" implies that a gap in the paradigm was filled by a form "supplied" by a different paradigm. Instances of suppletion are overwhelmingly restricted to the most commonly-used lexical items in a language.

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Irregularity and suppletion

An irregular paradigm is one in which the derived forms of a word cannot be deduced by simple rules from the base form. For example, someone who knows only a little English can deduce that the plural of girl is girls, but cannot deduce that the plurals of man and person are men and people. Language learners are often most aware of irregular verbs, but any part of speech with inflections can be irregular. For most synchronic purposes — first language acquisition studies, psycholinguistics, language teaching theory — it is enough to note that these forms are irregular. However historical linguistics seeks to explain how they came to be so and distinguishes different kinds of irregularity according to their origins. Most irregular paradigms (like man:men) can be explained by philological developments that affected one form of a word but not another. The historical antecedents of the current forms were once a regular paradigm. The term "suppletion" was coined by historical linguists to distinguish irregularities like person:people that cannot be so explained, because the parts of the paradigm have not evolved out of a single form.

Examples

In English, the past tense of the verb go is went, which comes from the past tense of the verb wend, archaic in this sense. (The modern past tense of wend is wended.) See go (verb).

The Romance languages have a variety of suppletive forms in conjugating the verb "to go", as these first-person singular forms illustrate:

  • Similarly, the Welsh verb mynd (to go) has a variety of suppletive forms such as af, "I shall go" and euthum, "we went".
  • In Germanic, Romance, Celtic, and Slavic languages, the comparative and superlative of the adjective "good" is suppletive; in many of these languages the adjective "bad" is also suppletive.
  • Similarly to the Italian noted above, the English adverb form of "good" is the unrelated word "well", from Old English wel, cognate to wyllan "to wish".

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