In linguistics and etymology, suppletion is traditionally understood as the use of one word as the inflected form of another word when the two words are not cognate. For those learning a language, suppletive forms will be seen as "irregular" or even "highly irregular". The term "suppletion" implies that a gap in the paradigm was filled by a form "supplied" by a different paradigm. Instances of suppletion are overwhelmingly restricted to the most commonly used lexical items in a language.

Irregularity and suppletion

An irregular paradigm is one in which the derived forms of a word cannot be deduced by simple rules from the base form. For example, someone who knows only a little English can deduce that the plural of girl is girls but cannot deduce that the plural of man is men. Language learners are often most aware of irregular verbs, but any part of speech with inflections can be irregular. For most synchronic purposes — first-language acquisition studies, psycholinguistics, language-teaching theory — it suffices to note that these forms are irregular. However, historical linguistics seeks to explain how they came to be so and distinguishes different kinds of irregularity according to their origins. Most irregular paradigms (like man:men) can be explained by philological developments that affected one form of a word but not another (in this case, Germanic umlaut). In other cases, the historical antecedents of the current forms once constituted a regular paradigm. Historical linguists adopted the term "suppletion"[1] to distinguish irregularities like person:people or cow:cattle that cannot be so explained because the parts of the paradigm have not evolved out of a single form.


Suppletion exists in more than 71 languages around the world.[2] These languages are from various language families : Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Arabic, Romance, etc. For example, in Georgian, the paradigm for the verb "to come" is composed of four different roots (di- / -val- / -vid- / -sul-).[3] Similarly, in Modern Standard Arabic, the verb jāʾ "come" usually uses the form taʿāl for its imperative, and the plural of marʾah "woman" is nisāʾ. Nonetheless, some of the more archaic Indo-European languages are particularly known for suppletion. Ancient Greek, for example, has some 20 verbs with suppletive paradigms, many with 3 separate roots. (See Ancient Greek verbs § Suppletive verbs.)

Language Infinitive Present Future Preterite
Catalan anar (3) vaig (1) aniré (3) aní (3)
French aller (3) vais (1) irai (2) allai (3)
Italian andare (3) vado (1) andrò (3) andai (3)
Portuguese ir (2) vou (1) irei (2) fui (4)
Spanish ir (2) voy (1) iré (2) fui (4)
The sources of these forms are four different Latin verbs:
  1. vadere "to advance", akin to English wade, wend (see above), and wander and to German wander[e]n
  2. ire "to go"
  3. ambulare "to walk", or in some cases perhaps ambitare "to go around", the latter itself generated through redundant rule application by appending Latin regular first-conjugation -are to the third-person singular of ire as prefixed by amb- ("[on] both [sides]"); Spanish and Portuguese andar "to walk" have the same source
  4. fui suppletive perfective of esse "to be". (The preterites of "to be" and "to go" are identical in Spanish and Portuguese. Compare the English construction "Have you been to France?" which has no simple present form.)
Many of the Romance languages use forms from different verbs in the present tense; for example, French has je vais, "I go" (from vadere) but nous allons "we go" (from ambulare). Galician-Portuguese has a similar example: imos (from ire, "to go") and vamos (from vadere), "we go", the former is somewhat disused in modern Portuguese but very alive in modern Galician, even, ides (from itis, second-person plural of ire) is the only form for "you (plural) go" both in Galician and Portuguese (Spanish vais, from vadere).
Verb Present Preterite Imperfect
Qenë (to be) jam qeshë isha
Ngrënë (to eat) ha hëngra haja
Ardhur (to come) vij erdha vija
Dhënë (to give) jap dhashë jepja
Parë (to see) shoh pashë shihja
good, better, best
Language Adjective Etymology Comparative / superlative Etymology
Proto-Germanic *gōdaz (OE gōd, OHG guot, Old Dutch *guot, and ON góðr),[4] cognate to Sanskrit gadhya "what one clings to" better / best
besser / besten
beter / best
bättre / bäst
bedre / bedst
betri / bestur
Proto-Germanic *batizô,[4] of which OE betera, cognate to bōt "remedy" and Sanskrit bhadra "fortunate"
Latin bonus, from OL duenos, cognate to Sanskrit duva "reverence" meilleur
Latin melior, cognate to multus "many", Gk mala "very"
Proto-Celtic *mati-s < PIE *mē- feàrr
Proto-Celtic *veris < PIE *upo-
Proto-Slavic *dobrъ lepszy / najlepszy
lepší / nejlepší
lepší / najlepší
ліпший / найліпший
PIE *lep- / *lēp- ("behoof", "boot", "good" )
Russian хороший (khoroshiy) probably from Proto-Slavic *xorb[5] лучше / (наи)лучший (luchshe, (nai)luchshiy) Old Russian лучии, neut. луче, Old Church Slavonic лоучии "more suitable, appropriate"[5]
Proto-Slavic *dobrъ bolji / najbolji
boljši / najboljši
Proto-Slavic *bolьjь ("bigger")
خوب khūb' [xʊb]
N.B. Poetic به
probably cognate of Proto-Slavic *xorb (above). Not a satisfactory etymology for beh; but see comparative and superlative forms in comparison to Germanic خوبتر/ خوبترین (xūb-tar/ xūb-tarīn) or alternatively بِهْتَر / بِهْتَرين
(beh-tar/beh-tarīn) N.B. the superlative of beh- 'good' in Ancient Persian ls beh-ist which in Modern Persian has evolved to بهشت behešt 'paradise'
Not clear if cognate of Germanic "better" (above) NB. Also cf. Pers behist and English best
bad, worse, worst
Language Adjective Etymology Comparative/superlative Etymology
English bad unknown
In OE yfel was more common, cf Proto-Germanic *ubilaz, Gothic ubils (bad), German übel (evil / bad) Eng evil
worse / worst OE wyrsa, cognate to OHG wirsiro
Latin malus pire
Latin peior, cognate to Sanskrit padyate "he falls"
Proto-Celtic *do-gna-vos miosa
Proto-Celtic *missos < PIE *mei- (cf Scottish Gaelic and English prefixes mì- and mis- respectively)
zlý (špatný)
archaic злий
Proto-Slavic *zel gorszy / najgorszy
horší / nejhorší
horší / najhorší
гірший/ найгірший
gori / najgori
cf. Polish gorszyć (to disgust)
Russian плохой (plokhoy) probably Proto-Slavic *polx[5] хуже / (наи)худший (khuzhe, (nai)khudshiy) Old Church Slavonic хоудъ, Proto-Slavic *хudъ ("bad", "small")[5]
† These are adverbial forms ("badly"); the Italian adjective is itself suppletive (cattivo, from the same root as "captive", respectively) whereas the French mauvais is compound (latin malifātius < malus+fatum).
* Mal is used in Catalan before nouns, the form after nouns (dolent) is also suppletive (< Latin dolente "painful").
small, smaller, smallest
Language Adjective Comparative / superlative
Polish mały mniejszy / najmniejszy
Czech malý menší / nejmenší
Slovak malý menší / najmenší
Ukrainian малий, маленький менший / найменший
Russian маленький (malen'kiy) меньший / наименьший (men'she / naimen'shiy)
great, greater, greatest
Language Adjective Comparative / superlative
Polish duży większy / największy
Czech velký větší / největší
Slovak veľký väčší / najväčší
Ukrainian великий більший / найбільший
Verb Imperfective Perfective
to take brać wziąć
to say mówić powiedzieć
to see widzieć zobaczyć
to watch oglądać obejrzeć
to put kłaść położyć
to find znajdować znaleźć
to go in/to go out (on foot) wchodzić / wychodzić wejść / wyjść
to ride in/to ride out (by car) wjeżdżać / wyjeżdżać wjechać / wyjechać

^ *z, przy, w, and wy are prefixes and are not part of the root

  • erkhomai, eîmi/eleusomai, ēlthon, elēlutha, --, -- "go, come".
  • legō, eraō (erô) / leksō, eipon / eleksa, eirēka, eirēmai / lelegmai, elekhthēn / errhēthēn "say, speak".
  • horaō, opsomai, eidon, heorāka / heōrāka, heōrāmai / ōmmai, ōphthēn "see".
  • pherō, oisō, ēnegka / ēnegkon, enēnokha, enēnegmai, ēnekhthēn "carry".
  • pōleō, apodōsomai, apedomēn, peprāka, peprāmai, eprāthēn "sell".


Strictly speaking, suppletion occurs when different inflections of a lexeme (i.e., with the same lexical category) have etymologically unrelated stems. The term is also used in looser senses, albeit less formally.

Semantic relations

The term "suppletion" is also used in the looser sense when there is a semantic link between words but not an etymological one; unlike the strict inflectional sense, these may be in different lexical categories, such as noun/verb.[7][8]

English noun/adjective pairs such as father/paternal or cow/bovine are also referred to as collateral adjectives. In this sense of the term, father/fatherly is non-suppletive. Fatherly is derived from father, while father/paternal is suppletive. Likewise cow/cowy is non-suppletive, while cow/bovine is suppletive.

In these cases, father/pater- and cow/bov- are cognate via Proto-Indo-European, but 'paternal' and 'bovine' are borrowings into English (via Old French and Latin). The pairs are distantly etymologically related, but the words are not from a single Modern English stem.

Weak suppletion

The term "weak suppletion" is sometimes used in contemporary synchronic morphology in regard to sets of stems (or affixes) whose alternations cannot be accounted for by current phonological rules. For example, stems in the word pair oblige/obligate are related by meaning but the stem-final alternation is not related by any synchronic phonological process. This makes the pair appear to be suppletive, except that they are related etymologically. In historical linguistics "suppletion" is sometimes limited to reference to etymologically unrelated stems. Current usage of the term "weak suppletion" in synchronic morphology is not fixed.

See also


  1. "suppletion". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. Greville G, Corbett (2009). Suppletion: Typology, markedness, complexity. Berlin: On Inflection. Trends in Linguistics: Studies and Monographs, Berlin, Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 25–40.
  3. Andrew Hippisley, Marina Chumakina, Greville G. Corbett and Dunstan Brown. Suppletion: frequency, categories and distribution of stems. University of Surrey. []
  4. 1 2 Wiktionary, Proto-Germanic root *gōdaz
  5. 1 2 3 4 Max Vasmer, Russisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch
  6. Kordić, Snježana (2005). "Gramatička kategorija broja" [Grammatical category of number] (PDF). In Tatarin, Milovan. Zavičajnik: zbornik Stanislava Marijanovića: povodom sedamdesetogodišnjice života i četrdesetpetogodišnjice znanstvenoga rada (in Serbo-Croatian). Osijek: Sveučilište Josipa Jurja Strossmayera, Filozofski fakultet. p. 191. ISBN 953-6456-54-0. OCLC 68777865. Archived from the original on 24 August 2012. Retrieved 22 September 2015.
  7. Paul Georg Meyer (1997) Coming to know: studies in the lexical semantics and pragmatics of academic English, p. 130: "Although many linguists have referred to [collateral adjectives] (paternal, vernal) as 'suppletive' adjectives with respect to their base nouns (father, spring), the nature of ..."
  8. Aspects of the theory of morphology, by Igor Mel’čuk, p. 461

External links

Look up Appendix:English irregular adjectives in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Look up Category:Suppletion in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Look up suppletion in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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