Describing Morphosyntax, by Thomas E. Payne | Literature Review

I regret not reading this before Evolution of Grammar, since it provides a lot of in-depth explanations about the terms used in the former book. I decided to rent this book out until March 2021 because I have no intention on keeping this book and I had might as well use this to my advantage. I will admit that I only read about 80% of the book, but I did not want to worry too much about the rental expiration.


Unlike the previous linguistics texts in the Conlinguistic Reviews, this book is more focused on socio-linguistics, in which case, it is essentially a guide to documenting endangered languages.


Payne does not include himself in his own book as prominently as the other writers.


One of the major themes involves categorization, either classifying a certain language by its morphological typology (as agglutinative or analytic) or whether each concept like “dog” is a form of category for the individual words that spring from it.

There is the difference between inflectional and derivational words. Derivational involves modifying the word based on any indiscernible paradigm, while the former actually describes what exactly that word is representing in terms of person, number, and tense.

Unlike the other linguistic books, this book was less concerned with any critical conversations, though it makes frequent references to scholars such as Bybee. It is more concerned with providing a bare-bone explanation of the components of linguistics. In this way, it was much easier for me to understand than Evolution of Grammar, especially when it came to the difference between the nominative/accusative markers and the ergative/absolutive markers. They mainly had to do with topicality, with N/A favoring humans and other high-ranking parts of the topic-worthiness hierarchy and E/A usually referring to inanimate objects and the oblique predicates.

Payne is unique in that he emphasizes that while languages do follow patterns (such as SVO, SOV, VSO), there are exceptions. In fact, those strict orders are themselves exceptions and a lot of sentences tend to have pragmatic constituents. In this way, it expresses many nuances that the strict syntactical order cannot. Those nuances are filled with copulas and auxiliaries which, paradoxically, do not have any semantic meanings on their own rather in juxtaposition to a verb or noun.


Since the formation of words and phonemes is the major subject of this book, then it would easily apply to Bybee, Perkins, and Pagliuca’s book. Whereas that book is more concerned about where these grams originate, this book is more concerned about how to document them. While it focuses on the past, this book focuses on the present moment, since most of the 7,000 languages around the world are in danger of becoming silent.

Although David Peterson gets into depth about the basics of linguistics, he does not specify about the different types of languages within the spectrum of isolating to polysynthetic.

Writing Style

The way this book is written is like a questionnaire, since it always provides questions at the end of every section. In this way, it shows that the book is intended for any linguists when doing their fieldwork.

Just like the previous texts, it makes use of sample sentences from many languages and uses at the bottom in order to truly show which parts are what.

Real-World Application

It is important to note that all languages make do. If they do not have a specific affix or word to convey a mood or temporality, they always make use of auxiliaries and clauses. They also do so with affixes like in the case of Chickasaw which uses the agentive case to refer to a non-volitional state, the patient case for the volitional state, and the dative case for the experimental state.

I would not know if I would be able to answer all of the questions that Payne introduces when they pertain to conlangs. However, it is worth a shot for those who have the time.

Recommend This To…

  • This book is actually required to those linguists who actually document the languages on the verge of extinction which had only been mentioned rather than studied. However, in this review’s case, I would recommend this to the conlangers who are documenting the languages that are spoken in their own fictional settings.


  • Bybee, Joan et al. “The Evolution of Grammar: Tense, Aspect, and Modality in the Languages of the World.” The University of Chicago Press. 1994.
  • Payne, Thomas E. “Describing Morphosyntax: A Guide for Field Linguists.” 1st Edition. Cambridge University Press. 1997.
  • Peterson, David J. “The Art Of Language invention: From Horse-Lords To Dark Elves, The Words Behind Wordbuilding.” Penguin Books. 2015.

Image Attribution: Micky Milkyway

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