Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Morphology (linguistics)

Morphology as a subdiscipline of linguistics studies word structure. Words are at the interface between phonology, syntax and semantics (Spencer / Zwicky)

 Fields and subfields within

Cognitive linguistics

There are many current approaches to morphology. For expository purposes, this article will describe the phenomena in terms of fairly traditional one: treating words as combinations of discrete meaningful units (morphemes) put together by concatenation. A contemporary morphologist would call this a "morpheme-based" theory; alternatives are lexeme-based morphology and word-based morphology.

The components of a word form are called morphemes. Word formation rules describe how to select morphemes from the lexicon and to combine them.

Important concepts:

At the basic level, words are made of "morphemes." These are the smallest units of grammar: roots, prefixes, and suffixes. Native speakers recognize the morphemes as grammatically significant or meaningful. For example, "schoolyard" is made of "school" + "yard", "makes" is made of "make" + a grammatical suffix "-s", and "unhappiness" is made of "happy" with a prefix "un-" and a suffix "-ness".

Inflection occurs when a word has different forms but essentially the same meaning, and there is only a grammatical difference between them: for example, "make" and "makes". The "-s" is an inflectional morpheme.

In contrast, derivation makes a word with a clearly different meaning: such as "unhappy" or "happiness", both from "happy". The "un-" and "-ness" are derivational morphemes. Normally a dictionary would list derived words, but there is no need to list "makes" in a dictionary as well as "make".

These examples also illustrate the other two kinds of morphemes, unbound (which are meaningful on their own) and bound (which have meaning when combined with another morpheme). Thus, the word "schoolyard" consists of two unbound morphemes ("school" and "yard"), while the word "makes" has one unbound ("make") and one bound, and "unhappiness" has one unbound and two bound.

A word may consist of two bound morphemes: the word "morpheme" itself illustrates this, since it consists, or traditionally consisted, of two bound morphemes ("morph" and "eme"). But as the example of "morpheme" reveals, bound morphemes may become unbound ones: "morph" has been adopted in linguistics for the phonological realization of a morpheme, and the verb "morph" was coined to describe a type of visual effect done with computers. A more familiar example is if we adopt the suffix "-ish" as a separate word, and use "ish" by itself to mean "somewhat, a bit, so-so".

A morpheme may have different realizations (morphs) in different contexts. For example, the verb morpheme "do" of English has three quite distinct pronunciations in the words "do", "does" (with suffix "-s"), and "don't" (with "-n't"). Such alternating morphs of a morpheme are called its allomorphs. Other examples are in past tenses of verbs: "I have walked", "I have eaten", "I have drunk": one verb has a regular "-ed" allomorph, one has a less common "-en" allomorph, and one changes the vowel inside the verb. This last case is a problem for description, because you can't separate the morpheme "drink" from the morpheme for past tense. The two appear fused.

In some languages, of which Latin forms a prime example, several inflections are often fused into one phonetic form. These are called fusional languages. For example, dominus "master" has plural domini, while domina "mistress" has plural dominae. The ending -us contains the ideas of masculine and singular, and in addition is only used in the nominative case. In the accusative singular it is dominum, and in the genitive plural it is dominorum. It is impossible to isolate separate morphemes for case, or gender, or number. In contrast to fusional languages, agglutinative languages such as Turkish use multiple morphemes in the one word but they are all phonetically separable.

The Semitic languages show an extreme of fusion, in that word roots are represented by fixed consonants, usually three, and their inflection and derivation is done with internal vowel patterns as well as affixes. For example, in Arabic we find kataba "he wrote", yaktubu "he writes", kaatibun "writer", kitaabun "book", maktuubun "office". All these form utilise the consonant cluster KTB.

Suppletion is the replacement of a regular form by an unrelated word. In English "go" has the past tense "went", and "be" has various unrelated parts such as "am" and "was".

A cranberry morpheme is one that exists only in one bound form, such as the "cran-" of "cranberry". It is unrelated to the word "cran" meaning a case of herrings, and though it actually comes from "crane" the bird, it is not at all clear why. Phonetically, the first morphemes of "gooseberry" and "raspberry" also count as cranberry morphemes, as they don't occur by themselves, but the spelling gives an obscure clue to their origin. Compare these to "blackberry", which has two obvious unbound morphemes.

See also: inflected language; noun case; uninflected word.

Further Reading

Peter H. Matthews' Morphology is a classic late 20th century introductory textbook.