Special Realizations of Morphemes: Suppletion

As discussed in the preceding paragraph on allomorphs, the distribution of allomorphs of the same morpheme is either phonologically conditioned, determined by the immediate grammatical context, or it may be conditioned lexically.

Yet, in some admittedly rare cases phonological, grammatical as well as lexical factors are irrelevant vis-à-vis the selection of allomorphs – that is to say, the allomorphs of a given morpheme are phonetically unrelated. This linguistic phenomenon has caused some to comment on the craziness of the English language, as illustrated in the following poem:

The Craziest Language

We’ll begin with a box and the plural is boxes;
But the plural of ox should be oxen not oxes.

Then one fowl is a goose, but two are called geese,
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.

You may find a lone mouse or a nest full of mice;
Yet the plural of house is houses, not hice.

If the plural of man is always called men
Why shouldn’t the plural of pan be called pen?

If I spoke of my foot and show you my feet,
And I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet?

If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth
Why shouldn’t the plural of booth be called beeth?

The one may be that, and three would be those,
Yet hat in the plural would never be hose,
And the plural of cat is cats, not cose.

We speak of a brother and also of brethren,
But though we say mother, we never say methren.
So English I fancy you will agree,
Is the craziest language you ever did see.

Published in The Linguist No.2, 1991.

It is good and better, not gooder: allomorphs of only one morpheme that are phonetically unrelated are called suppletion. Most of the irregular plural forms in the excerpt mark the change in number internally, such as foot and feet or goose and geese. In our mental lexicon, these suppletive forms must be listed separately as they represent exceptions.