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Variation in inflectional morphology

“Variable or non-standard realizations of inflectional morphology in English” sounds like a rather dry and academic topic. But the shocked and amazed reactions I have received over the years in discussing my native dialect suggest that it can actually be quite amusing.

Both Arnold Zwicky and Mark Liberman of Language Log were on the case when a woman interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition produced a doubly-inflected compound verb.

In the August 27th Morning Edition story, “Lack Of Sleep, Genes Can Get Sleepwalkers Up And About”, Miranda Kelly reports:

I usually don’t realize when I do it. Like every couple months I’ll wake up in an odd place, and realize “Oh, I slept walked.”

Kelly uses slept walked as the past tense of the verb sleep walk (which, of course, can also be written with a hyphen or with no intervening white space).

As Zwicky notes:

[The] verb sleepwalk (or sleep-walk) is a back-formation from the N + N synthetic compounds sleep-walking ‘walking in one’s sleep’ and sleep-walker ‘someone who walks in their sleep’; OED2′s first cite is from 1923 (sleep-walks), with a similar cite from 1954 and cites for sleepwalked in 1976 and 1981. In any case, sleepwalk is a V of the form N + V, so it’s inflected on its V (second, head) portion.

Liberman notes that both slept walked and sleeped walked are attested in written English, and Zwicky adds other cases of internal- external- and double inflection on compound verbs. For example, the  past tense haul ass is, in Zwicky’s data, realized as hauled ass (internal inflection), haul assed (external inflection), and hauled assed (double inflection).

Inflection occurs not only on verbs (sometimes called conjugation) but also on nouns and pronouns (sometimes called declension). It is here that the (I hope) amusing data from my native dialect comes in. I grew up in North Dakota during the 1970’s and 80’s speaking a variety of North-Central American English. A non-standard pronoun form used in informal speech where I grew up has at times prompted linguist-colleagues to blurt, “No! Do people really say that?” when I describe it. The data are as follows.

In informal speech the phrase them guys occurs as roughly equivalent to they – that is as a third-person plural subject (nominative) pronoun.* This, I believe, is common in informal speech in many English dialects. Examples on the web include:

Well all the police just left and all full.People them guys can eat and I enjoyed watching them put it down.

Them guys were great!
Lyerly, Granite Quarry, NC

Them guys are deadly, I am afraid to speak against them.

At least where I come from, the possessive (genitive) of them guys is the double-inflected their guys’s (pronounced like ‘their guises’), where them becomes their and guys receives the regular apostrophe+s possessive suffix.

California males know the best way to put on their guys’s swimwear – they put on their “speedos” super reduced and tight, and they generally reveal just somewhat little bit of butt-crack.

But I dont think that my computer runs so good as you see their guys’s computers does? any ideas why?, it should be a good computer, and pretty new. :)?

Not gonna take anything away from their guys’s determination, but for goodness’ sake, wrap somebody up!

I don’t know how widespread this form is. The last example above is from a comment on Georgia Tech football, so it seems less likely that the writer is from the north central US or central Canada.** On the other hand, a commenter at The Japanese Page, a language study forum, says, “I caught myself the other day saying ‘It should be one of their guys’s turns to drive’ and I’ve heard ‘our guys’s’ also.” The commenter goes on to suggest, “I guess I should stay in the Midwest US.”


* Them guys can also occur in object position (either accusative or dative), where it is essentially equivalent to them. As far a I know, though, *they guys does not occur as subject pronoun.

** This may, however, be a slightly different construction, with their indicating the team’s possession of guys and guys’s indicating said guys’ possession of determination.

1 thought on “Variation in inflectional morphology”

  1. Pingback: Inflectional morphology: both interesting *and* kind of funny. Who knew? | All Things Linguistic

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