Clitics, A brief introduction

Clitics are a unique feature of language that do not fit comfortably within standard categories of syntax, morphology, and phonology, but instead share features of all three. They are prosodically deficient. That means they lack the prosodic structure to be used on their own in natural speech. Instead they must attach to a host element to satisfy the phonological requirements of the language for being a word. English examples of clitics include the contractions like =n’t and the copula =’s would be the possessive =s.*

* The symbol ‘=’ denotes a clitic morpheme boundary, rather than an affix morpheme boundary.

  • a.  The man in the brown hat isn’t coming until tomorrow.
    b.  He’s planning on coming by train.
    c.  That man’s hat is brown.

In each case above, the clitic has a syntactic role in the clause, but it lacks the phonological structure for it to be function a full word. Clitics are grammatical words, but they are not phonological words. Their phonological structure is such that they cannot stand alone in a clause in the same manner as words with full grammatical and phonological status. In order to form a full phonological word, a clitic must be attached to a host. Together they function as a single phonological word constituted of multiple grammatical words. If one were to draw a traditional phrase structure tree, each grammatical word would be treated as having equal status in the syntax.

All of these English clitics are above are enclitics, meaning they attach to the previous element as their host. There are also proclitics, which attach to the next word in the sentence. Prepositions and articles tend to be proclitic in natural speech, even though they are written out as separate words. In the example below the preposition ‘to’ and the definite article ‘the’ are transcribed as t= and ð=.*

* The symbol ‘ˈ’ denotes a given word primary accent in multi-syllabic words.

  • Mary said to me, “Pass me the apple.”
    ˈmɛri sɛd t=ˈmi, “pæs mi ð=ˈæpəl.”

Simple clitics, phrasal clitics, and special clitics

Some of these are fairly simple. The English negation and auxiliary verb clitics above, realized in English orthography as the =n’t and =’s contractions respectively, are simple clitics. Their syntactic positions are identical to their non-clitic alternates, not and is. They merely attach to the previous full word in the clause. Other clitics are more complicated in how their phonology interfaces with syntax. Note the position of the possessive clitic =’s in the examples below.

  • a.  That man’s hat is brown.
    b.  The man and the woman’s home is bright yellow.
    c.  The man wearing a green coat’s hat is brown.

The syntax is the same, but the attachment position is always at the end of the full noun phrase. Thus in sentence a, we have [NP: that man]]=’s, in sentence b, we have [NP: The man wearing a green coat]=’s and =’s. The English possessive clitic =’s is a phrasal clitic, since its attachment position is to a full syntactic phrase rather than a single lexical item.

Special clitics are unique in that their position in the clause is phonologically fixed, while being syntactically independent. These are the so-called Wackernagel clitics (named for Jacob Wackernagel, who wrote seminal work on them in an 1892 essay), but other terms used include: post-positive clitics and second position clitics. Connectives such as δέ and γάρ are representative, wherein they occupy a fixed prosodic position in the clause following an initial phonological unit, irrespective of phrase structure or syntax, as in the following sentences.

  • a.  ἦν δὲ ὁ Φίλιππος ἀπὸ Βηθσαϊδά
         Now Philip was from Bethsaida (John 1:44).
    b.  Πρὸ πάντων δέ, ἀδελφοί μου, μὴ ὀμνύετε, μήτε τὸν οὐρανὸν μήτε τὴν γῆν
         But above all, my brothers, do not swear either by heaven or earth (James 5:12).
    c.  Μετὰ δὲ ταύτας τὰς ἡμέρας συνέλαβεν Ἐλισάβετ ἡ γυνὴ αὐτοῦ·
         Then after these days, his wife Elizabeth conceived (Luke 1:24).
    d.  πᾶσα δὲ παιδεία πρὸς μὲν τὸ παρὸν οὐ δοκεῖ χαρᾶς εἶναι
         Now all discipline in the moment does not feel joyful (Hebrews 12:11).

Each of these sentence presents the connective δέ in a different syntactic environment, though its absolute position in the clause remains effectively unchanged:. first immediately after the verb, then in (b) after a full prepositional phase. But in sentence (c) the connective interrupts a prepositional phrase and similarly in sentence (d), it interrupts a noun phrase. Since clitics are inherently phonological (i.e. their definition as unaccented), their distribution in the clause must, also then, involve a phonological component.

The phonology of clitics

Α given phonological word consists of weak and strong syllables grouped together into weak and strong feet, which are then joined into a phonological word, as seen in example (1) below.

  • a. fə-ˈto-gɹə-ˌfi  “photography”
    b.  [fə-ˈto]-[gɹə-ˌfi]

The pronominal clitics in Greek are enclitic, which means that they attach to the grammatical word that comes immediately before them. These clitics also function as prosodically deficient segments: weak syllables or feet that when attached cause the reassignment of the primary phonological stress, as in examples (2-3) below.*

* The IPA transcription used in this example is based on Gignac (1977) with reference to Horrocks (2010, 117-20). I assume, for the data here, that θ has not yet changed from a voiceless aspirated stop, /tʰ/, to a voiceless fricative: /θ/.

  • a.  tʰɛ-ˈɾɑ-pon-tɑs, θεράποντας “servants”
    b.  [tʰɛ]-[ˈɾɑ-pon-tɑs]
         [footW] -[footS]
  • a.  tʰɛ-ˌɾɑ-pon-ˈtɑs=su, θεράποντάς σου “your servants”
    b.  [tʰɛ-ˌɾɑ-pon]-[ˈtɑs=su]
         [footW] -[footS]

Cliticization, as in example (3), provides a sure guide for determining how Greek patterns secondary stress in phonological words. The clitic in (3) causes a reanalysis of the word’s primary stress makes it clear that the syntax of pronominal clitics cannot be examined in the same manner as other free forms. Thus, pronominal clitics share many of the same syntactic functions as full pronouns, but their syntactic distribution is noticeably restricted.

Further Reading

Allen, Sydney. Accent and Rhythm: Prosodic Features of Latin and Greek: A Study in Theory and Reconstruction. Cambridge Studies in Linguistics 12. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.
Anderson, Stephen R. Aspects of the Theory of Clitics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Haplern, Aaron L. 2001. “Clitics.” Pages 101-122. In The Handbook of Morphology. Edited by Andrew Spencer and Arnold M. Zwicky. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Janse, Mark. “The Prosodic Basis of Wackernagel’s Law.” Pages 19-22 in Les Langues Menacées. Actes du Xvu Congrès International des Linguistics, Québec, Université Lavel, 9-14 Août 1992. Ed. André Crochetière, Jean-Claude Boulanger and Conrad Ouellon. Sainte-Foy: Presses de i’Université Lavel, 1993.
Klavans, Judith L. 1982.Some problems in a theory of clitics. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Linguistics Club.
Lambrecht, Knud. Information Structure and Sentence Form: Topic, Focus, and the Mental Representation of Discourse Referents. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Nevis, Joel. A.; Brian D. Joseph, Dieter Wanner, and Arnold M. Zwicky. 1994. Clitics: A comprehensive bibliography 1892–1991. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Taylor, Ann “A Prosodic Account of Clitic Position in Ancient Greek” Pages 477-504 in Approaching Second: Second Position Clitics and Related Phenomena. Ed. Aaron L. Halpern and Arnold M. Zwicky. Stanford: Center for the Study of Language and Information, 1996.
Zwicky, Arnold M. 1977.On clitics. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Linguistics Club.

Works cited

Gignac, Francis T. 1977. A Grammar of the Greek Papyri of the Roman and Byzantine Periods: Phonology. Milano: Cisalpino-Goliardica.
Horrocks, Geoffrey. 2010. Greek: A History of the Language and its Speakers. 2nd Edition. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.