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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 is enough 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. The term "suppletion" was coined by historical linguists 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.


Most of the examples below are from Indo-European languages, but suppletion is hardly restricted to these languages. For example, in Georgian, the paradigm for the verb "to come" is composed of four different roots (di- / -val- / -vid- / -sul-).[1] 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 (related to nās "people"). 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.)

  • In English, the past tense of the verb go is went, which comes from the past tense of the verb wend, archaic in this sense. (The modern past tense of wend is wended.) See Go (verb).
  • The Romance languages have a variety of suppletive forms in conjugating the verb "to go", as these first-person singular forms illustrate:
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).
  • Similarly, the Welsh verb mynd (to go) has a variety of suppletive forms such as af, "I shall go" and euthum, "we went".
  • In Albanian there are 14 irregular verbs divided into suppletive and non-suppletive:
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),[2] cognate to Sanskrit gadhya "what one clings to" better / best
besser / besten
beter / best
bättre / bäst
bedre / bedst
betri / bestur
Proto-Germanic *batizô,[2] 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[3] лучше / (наи)лучший (luchshe, (nai)luchshiy) Old Russian лучии, neut. луче, Old Church Slavonic лоучии "more suitable, appropriate"[3]
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
cf. Polish gorszyć (to disgust)
Russian плохой (plokhoy) probably Proto-Slavic *polx[3] хуже / (наи)худший (khuzhe, (nai)khudshiy) Old Church Slavonic хоудъ, Proto-Slavic *хudъ ("bad", "small")[3]
Serbo-Croatian zao Proto-Slavic *zel gori / najgori
† 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).
  • Similarly to the Italian noted above, the English adverb form of "good" is the unrelated word "well", from Old English wel, cognate to wyllan "to wish".
  • In English, the complicated irregular verb be / is / were has forms from several different roots: be originally comes from the Proto-Indo-European language *bhu-; am, is and are from *es-, and was and were from *wes-. See Indo-European copula. This verb is suppletive in most IE languages, as well as in some non-IE languages such as Finnish.
  • An incomplete suppletion in English exists with the plural of person (from the Latin persona). The regular plural persons occurs mainly in legalistic use. The singular of the unrelated noun people (from Latin populus) is more commonly used in place of the plural, e.g. "two people were living on a one-person salary" (note the plural verb). In its original sense of "ethnic group", people is itself a singular noun with regular plural peoples.
  • In Russian, the word человек chelovek (man, human being) is suppletive. The strict plural form, человеки cheloveki, is used only in Orthodox Church context. It may have originally been the unattested *человекы *cheloveky. In any case, in modern usage, it has been replaced by люди lyudi, the singular form of which is known in Russian only as a component of compound words (such as простолюдин prostolyudin). This suppletion also exists in Polish (człowiek > ludzie), Czech (člověk > lidé), Serbo-Croatian (čovjek > ljudi),[4] and Slovene (človek > ljudje).
  • In Bulgarian, the word човек chovek (man, human being) is suppletive. The strict plural form, човеци chovetsi, is used only in Biblical context. In modern usage it has been replaced by the Greek loan хора khora. The counter form (special form for masculine nouns, used after numerals) is suppletive as well: души dushi (with the accent on the first syllable), e.g. двама, трима души dvama, trima dushi (two, three people). This form has no singular either (a related but different noun is the plural души dushi, singular душа dusha (soul), both with accent on the last syllable).
  • In Polish, the plural form of rok ("year") is lata which comes from the plural of lato ("summer"). A similar suppletion occurs in Russian: год god ("year") > лет let (genitive of "years").
  • In many Slavic languages, small and great are suppletive:
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
  • In some Slavic languages, a few verbs have imperfective and perfective forms arising from different roots. For example, in Polish:
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".
  • The comparison of good is also suppletive in Finnish (hyväparempi).
  • In Estonian, the inflected forms of the verb minna (to go) were originally those of a verb cognate with the Finnish lähteä (to leave).


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.[5][6]

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. Andrew Hippisley, Marina Chumakina, Greville G. Corbett and Dunstan Brown. Suppletion: frequency, categories and distribution of stems. University of Surrey. []
  2. 2.0 2.1 Wiktionary, Proto-Germanic root *gōdaz
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Max Vasmer, Russisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch
  4. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  5. 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 ..."
  6. Aspects of the theory of morphology, by Igor Mel’čuk, p. 461

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