In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Syncretism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliography
  • Online Datasets and Resources
  • Different Interpretations of Syncretism
  • Frequency and Markedness
  • Autonomous Morphology
  • Paradigms
  • Directional Syncretism
  • Underspecification
  • Syncretism and the Internal Structure of Words
  • Features in Combination
  • Syntactic Status of Syncretic Forms
  • Syncretism in Computational Linguistics
  • Suggested Constraints on Syncretism
  • Related Terms and Concepts

Linguistics Syncretism
Dunstan Brown, Peter Arkadiev
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 April 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0140


Syncretism is a term that describes a relationship between morphology and syntax, where the distinctions required by syntax are not realized by morphology for a subset of words. For instance, in Russian there is a syntactically relevant distinction between nominative and accusative, reflected in the different forms of the lexeme “book”: kniga (nominative) and knigu (accusative). Other nouns in Russian fail to make this distinction: the word for “letter” has the same form for both cases, namely pis’mo. In order to determine whether there is an instance of syncretism, it is essential that there is evidence that the distinction involved in the syncretism is to be found in the language. This is provided straightforwardly by the two different forms of the Russian noun for “book” in our example. Syncretism has often been associated with case, but in principle it can occur between values of any feature in different word classes, including—in addition to case—gender, number, person, tense, aspect, and mood. Some features are more prone to syncretism than others. In languages with gender systems, for instance, it is the norm for syncretism to occur between gender values. As well as features in isolation, scholars have researched the interaction between features, identifying differing tendencies to syncretize when they occur together. For instance, one is more likely to observe syncretism within agreement features, such as gender or person, in the presence of tense, aspect, or mood than the other way round. Although differing in their exact theoretical manifestations, there are essentially two possible interpretations of syncretism. Some scholars maintain that only one of these is tenable, while others accept that both interpretations may be valid, depending on the phenomenon being considered. Under one view, syncretism is the resort to the core meaning shared by different feature-values (meaning-based), while under the other, syncretism may be the result of systematic rules within the morphology (form-based). Evidence for the latter can be found where the feature-values involved in the syncretism do not form a natural class. (What constitutes a natural class can be contested, of course.) It is possible to identify three types of theoretical mechanism, or something similar to them, to account for syncretism: underspecification, (morphomic) indexing, referrals. These represent increasingly severe deviations from the ideal correspondence between syntactic distinctions and their realization: underspecification is uninformative but respects feature structure, morphomic indexing represents a separate structure which crosscuts syntax, while referrals are uninformative and also crosscut syntactic distinctions.

General Overviews

Baerman, et al. 2005 is an in-depth study of syncretism. The book defines the area, provides a typology, with data on its occurrence with different morphosyntactic features and in a wide variety of languages, and progresses to the theoretical issues which arise from it. Textbooks on morphology provide a more basic overview than that found in Baerman, et al. 2005. Haspelmath and Sims 2010 is a good one to start with and includes a section on syncretism.

  • Baerman, Matthew, Dunstan Brown, and Greville G. Corbett. 2005. The syntax-morphology interface: A study of syncretism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511486234

    This book is a crosslinguistic investigation of syncretism. It is broad in its coverage of diverse language families and provides information on different morphosyntactic features and their interaction. It discusses different theoretical approaches to syncretism and presents formally implemented accounts of syncretism in the penultimate chapter.

  • Haspelmath, Martin, and Andrea D. Sims. 2010. Understanding morphology. 2d ed. London: Hodder Education.

    An introductory textbook that contains a useful short section on syncretism (section 8.6, pp. 174–179).

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.