Welcome to WTF, a column dedicated to helping with some basic concepts in English linguistics. Up for discussion this month, WTF is a morpheme?
In a nutshell:
A morpheme is the smallest possible grammatical unit that carries meaning. Words can be monomorphemic or multimorphemic, that is, comprised of one or more morphemes.
Here’s an example: talk is monomorphemic, talked is multimorphemic.
Here’s another one: lock is monomorphemic, unlock is multimorphemic.
Morphemes also come in different types, they can be bound or free which, as the names suggest, means they can stand alone or always have to be bound to another morpheme.
For example, talk is a free morpheme while -ed is not. Likewise, lock is free while un- is bound.
We can also classify morphemes based on where they occur in a word, describing them as root, affix, and combining form morphemes.
You can think of root morphemes as the “core” of a word, so the meaning of unreadable is built around the root morpheme read. The affixes in this word are un- and -able and, as you probably already know, affixes are either suffixes that appear at the end of a word or prefixes that appear at the start of a word.
Combining forms are like affixes but they carry a little more lexical weight, you can connect a combining form with an affix to create a word, one common example is cephal- and -ic which together make the word cephalic. There are other types of combining forms too, take a look at this helpful post by Miriam Webster to learn more.
Some morphemes have allomorphs, allomorphs are the different pronunciations of the same morpheme in different contexts. Allomorphic morphemes that you use every day include the plural making suffix -s and the past tense suffix -ed.
Consider the way you say these words: cats, dogs, horses. In each, the plural morpheme -s sounds distinct from the others. Try again and see how the position of your tongue changes with each word.
Another way we classify bound morphemes is by describing them as either inflectional or derivational. The easiest way to figure out the difference is by seeing if the bound morpheme changes the grammatical class of the root.
Here’s an example: normal and the affix -ise combine to make normalise.
Normal is an adjective and normalise is a verb, the -ise affix in this context is derivational because we can use it to derive a new class of word.
Here’s another example: odd and -ly combine to make the adverb oddly.
Inflectional morphemes are different because they affect the grammatical or semantic function of a word but never change its word class. For example, take and taken are both verbs.
In English, unlike many other languages, there are only eight inflectional morphemes:
- -s (plural - one cat, many cats)
- -’s (possessive - John’s paper)
- -s (third-person singular present tense - she plays the piano)
- -en (past participle - she has taken her piano)
- -ed (past tense - she played the piano)
- -ing (progressive - she is playing the piano)
- -er (comparative - John is faster than Mary)
- -est (superlative - John is the fastest runner)
Derivation is a far more common word-forming process in English than inflection. Other languages, such as Hungarian, display complex and productive inflection. German, on the other hand, is moderately inflectional, it has a richer inflection system than English but is not considered a highly inflectional language.
Note that some derivational morphemes do not change the word’s grammatical category. One example of this is the prefix un-, happy and unhappy are both adjectives. Here, un- has a reversative function.
This can get a little ambiguous, consider the word unlockable: does it mean unable to be locked (un- and lockable) or able to be unlocked (unlock and -able)? For this reason, morphologists, that is, linguists who specialise in morphology, adopt a hierarchical approach. Diagrams can help discern the internal structure of a word. Take a look at this handout from Stanford for more info.
And the last type of morpheme we’ll look at are infixes. In English, these are rare and occur in inventive expletives: abso-bloody-lutely, fan-fucking-tastic.
Okay, got it, but why do morphemes matter?
Morphemes matter because words, just like sentences, are governed by rules and have an internal structure. Morphology, morphological research and insights benefit semantics, phonology, and other research areas. In particular, morphology is of interest to cognitive scientists who focus on language acquisition theories.
Professional translators also need in-depth knowledge of the target language’s morphological system to avoid any unfortunate mistranslations or clumsy text.
Get more info
A solid and readable introduction to English morphology is Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy’s Introduction. The book also touches on the formation of English from a historical context and explains where we garnered some of our productive morphemes from.
Over at the Ling Space, Moti Lieberman has a series of quick, fun videos on morphology. Find those here.