Optimal Smurfing in English and Greek

Optimal Smurfing in English and Greek Catherine Chatzopoulos, 2008, University of Chicago, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

I found a PDF version of the paper.

Chatzopoulos introduces us to the term “smurpheme”, which in English, is the word “smurf”.

The distribution of the morpheme smurf or strumf (henceforth smurpheme), far from being random, results from the interaction of various constraints relating to the semantic and phonological properties of the item targeted for substitution.

Chatzopoulos does not distinguish the “morphological smurfing” and “phonological smurfing” that Sailer and Dörner discern.

Perhaps this is because Chatzopoulos works inside an Optimality Theory framework for this paper, while Sailer and Dörner were examining smurfing from a head-driven phrase structure grammar viewpoint.

Another possibility for missing the p-smurfing/m-smurfing distinction is because Chatzopoulos is working with a smurfed language that does things differently. Chatzopoulos points out that English and Greek versions of smurfing have different rules:

In the English series, every occurrence of smurf replaces one syllable without disturbing the metrical feet of the targeted word. Greek on the other hand, permits the insertion of strumf that is, of extra syllables in the discourse. So, the smurpheme in Greek can be simply added to the targeted word usually as a prefix followed by the infix -o- which is used as a connective in compound words.

Chatzopoulos is writing about “p-smurfing” here - “one syllable without disturbing the metrical feet” is pretty much the definion of p-smurfing. You can substitute the smurpheme for a syllable in English, but you can insert the smurpheme followed by an “o” in Greek. I don’t think Sailer and Dörnerwrote that smurfing German allowed smurpheme insertions with an analog to the -o- infix connective.

Chatzopoulos goes on to give some general “constraints” on when and where the smurpheme can be substituted or inserted. The constraints are rules like:

  • Smurf all lexical morphemes
  • Smurfed discourse should be recoverable

“Recoverable” means that a reader or listener should be able to figure out what the smurfed language means. She gives an amusing illustration from the South Park satirical animated series.

There are some other constraints/rules given for smurfing, along with a rough prioritization of the constraints. Chatzopoulos demonstrates that English and Greek smurfing has different constraint priorities, and claims that this points out different mental biases in speakers of Greek and English when forming new words.

This is a fun paper that uses the Smurfs to uncover deeper truths about human language. I recommend it.