In morphology, bracketing paradox is a situation in which the morphological structure of a word which one would like to propose for semantic reasons does not correspond to the structure one would like to propose for phonological reasons.
A well-known case of a bracketing paradox independent of level-ordering (see Level Ordering Hypothesis) involves the English comparative suffix -er and the negative prefix un-. In this case the phonological argumentation derives from a well-known restriction on the attachment of -er. This suffix is subject to the following constraint: it may attach to monosyllabic adjectives, and a small class of bisyllabic ones with a light final syllable, while it may not attach to adjectives with two or more heavy syllables. Compare the words
blacker, softer, poorer, nicer happier, luckier, heavier *directer, *complexer, *eloquenter, *importanter
Apparent counterexamples involve the prefix un-, since unhappier, unluckier etc. are well-formed. In level-ordering theories, the solution to this problem is almost trivial: assume that -er suffixation takes place at an earlier level than un- prefixation. In that case -er is added to, for instance, happy, and un- to happier, and the phonological condition on -er suffixation is not violated. Hence, the phonologically motivated morphological structure of unhappier is [un [happy-er]A]A. However, this structure raises a problem of interpretation. The meaning of the word unhappier can be paraphrased as 'more not happy', i.e. with more having scope over un-, and crucially not as 'not more happy' with reversed scope. Hence the semantically motivated structure is [[un happy] er].
A situation in which morphophonological structure and semantic structure are not isomorphic. The existence of bracketing paradoxes is closely associated with level-ordering theories such as Pesetsky's (1979) and Kiparsky's (1982) theories of Lexical Morphology/Phonology. These theories propose morphological structures on the basis of level-ordering which are sometimes in conflict with the semantic structure.
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