In This Article Subtractive Morphology

  • Introduction
  • The Earliest Description of Subtraction
  • Monographs
  • Journals
  • Towards a Typology of Subtraction

Linguistics Subtractive Morphology
Stela Manova
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0116


Subtraction consists in a shortening of a morphological base as in the Russian derivation mikrobiologija ‘microbiology’ → mikrobiolog ‘microbiologist’. Of course, one can doubt the correctness of the direction of this derivation and claim that the shorter form mikrobiolog serves as a base for mikrobiologija and not vice versa. However, from the literature on word-formation it is well known that the most important diagnostic criterion for being a product of a derivation is semantic dependence; i.e., the definition of the derivative depends on the meaning of its base. In our case, the definition of mikrobiolog depends on mikrobiologija (a microbiologist is not a microscopic biologist but a person specialized in the field of microbiology; microbiology is the study of microscopic organisms). As can be seen from the Russian example, subtraction differs from concatenative affixation, i.e., from affixation by addition of a discrete affix (see the Oxford Bibliographies article “Affixation.” Therefore, in the literature, subtraction is seen as an instance of nonconcatenative morphology and is usually analyzed either as process morphology without morphemes or as addition of defective phonological material. Subtraction has been reported in derivation and inflection and in well-studied and lesser-studied languages. Among the most frequently cited examples of subtraction in textbooks and reference resources are the masculine forms of some French adjectives (e.g., masc. bon /bõ/ ‘good’—fem. bonne /bon/) and the formation of perfective verbs from imperfective ones in the Uto-Aztekan language Tohono O’odham (called “Papago” in some sources) (e.g., singular: imperf. him ‘walk’—perf. hi:, plural: imperf. hihim—perf. hihi). However, it has to be mentioned here that numerous studies on theoretical morphology have provided alternative, nonsubtractive analyses of those French and Tohono O’odham data. Additionally, there are different opinions on how much form can be deleted in subtraction. Some linguists claim that subtraction deletes a phoneme, others speak of a mora, and still others assume that subtractive morphology deletes segments of different lengths. Some linguists postulate subtraction only if the shortened material does not coincide with an existing morpheme elsewhere in a language, whereas others show that the deleted material can be equal in form with an existing affix. There are also different opinions on what a proper word-formation process is and which morphological derivations involve subtraction. Unlike most morphology textbooks, some theoretical studies see hypocoristics, blends, and clippings as instances of (more or less regular) word-formation and refer to them as either “subtractive truncation” or “subtractive word-formation.” Thus we come to terminology; in the literature, different labels have been used to refer to subtraction(-like) formations: minus feature, minus formation, disfixation, subtractive morph, (subtractive) truncation, backformation, or just shortening.

The Earliest Description of Subtraction

In the literature, Bloomfield 1933 is usually considered the earliest description of subtraction. Note, however, that Bloomfield did not speak of subtraction, but of “minus feature.” He illustrated the phenomenon with the forms of the French masculine adjectives that seem to be derived from their feminine counterparts by deletion of the final consonant (see the example in the annotation to Bloomfield 1933). Although most of the more recent work on subtraction doubts the correctness of Bloomfield’s analysis (see Textbooks and Most Frequently Cited Examples of Subtraction), the French masculine adjectives have become the most-cited examples of subtraction, especially in textbooks, glossaries, and reference resources. Nida 1949 seems to be the first to discuss the existence of an alternative analysis of the data from Bloomfield 1933.

  • Bloomfield, Leonard. 1933. Language. New York: H. Holt.

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    Reprinted in 1973 Discusses French masculine adjectives, such as plat /pla/ ‘flat’ (derived from the fem. platte /plat/), and terms the change “minus feature” (p. 217–218. The masculine adjective is formed from the feminine by deletion of the final consonant. Bloomfield’s examples have become the most frequently cited in relation to subtraction.

  • Nida, Eugene. 1949. Morphology: The descriptive analysis of words. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

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    Written within the framework of American structuralist linguistics, this book focuses on issues related to identification and definition of morphemes. “Subtractive morphemes” (p. 75) are illustrated with data from Bloomfield 1933. However, the author notes that Bloomfield’s data are the result from a historical process of sound change.

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