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Introduction[edit | edit source]

Morphology is the identification, analysis and description of the structure of words, practiced by morphologists.

This chapter will largely follow the morpheme-based theory of morphology, but a description of other views of morphology will be presented at the end.

Morphemes[edit | edit source]

A morpheme is roughly defined as the smallest linguistic unit that has semantic meaning. For example, the word boy cannot be broken down into any further unit of meaning. That's why there's a different kinds of example like:

  • b;
  • o;
  • y;
  • bo;
  • by and
  • oy – none of which mean anything. We say that boy is made of only one morpheme.

But the word antigovernment can be broken down into:

  • anti- = against
  • govern = to rule/administrate
  • -ment = noun suffix

Therefore, we say that antigovernment is made of three morphemes.

One should be careful not to break a single morpheme into multiple constituent morphemes. This is a common error in the analysis of some languages, such as Chinese. The word 犹豫 (yóuyù), meaning hesitate, is a notorious example. As most Chinese characters represent a single morpheme, linguists before the Qing Dynasty believed that all characters represented a single morpheme. As a result, the word 犹豫 has become the subject of much nonsensical speculation. One scholar during the Tang Dynasty believed that it originated from the description of a deer-like monkey that would look left and right before climbing a tree. Later generations discovered that 犹豫 was, in fact, a single disyllabic morpheme, disproving these odd claims.

Classifying Morphemes[edit | edit source]

Morphemes are categorised thus:

  • Bound morphemes: They cannot stand alone, i.e. they are affixes.
    • Derivational morphemes: We change the grammatical category or the meaning of the word. Examples are re-, de-, un-, -ness, -ly and so on.
    • Inflectional morphemes: We do not change the meaning or grammatical category of the word with these. We use them to mark plurality, tense, agreement, case and so on.
  • Free morphemes. They can be used alone.
    • Lexical morphemes: They represent the concepts of the message we wish to bring across. Ship, orange and president are some examples. They are an open set of words in a language.
    • Functional morphemes: They are functional words, like determiners, pronouns, conjunctions and so on. Whatever, because and against are some examples.

Affixation[edit | edit source]

Affixes are our workhorse morphemes—the tools we use again and again to assemble new words. There are several kinds of affixes:

  • Suffixes Suffixes are morphemes that attach to the end of a word. Examples are -ion in motion and -ate in investigate. Suffixes are written with an initial hyphen.
  • Prefixes Prefixes attach to the beginning of a word. Examples are re- in redo and un- in unthinkable. Prefixes are written with a terminal hyphen.
  • Infixes. Although English generally does not have infixes, or morphemes that go "in the middle" of a word, other languages do. An exception in English might be -bloody- in the following:
Q: Are you going to the concert tonight?
A: Absobloodylutely.
Infixes are written with initial and terminal hyphens, as above.
  • Circumfixes. Circumfixes are affixes that "surround" the word, attaching to the beginning and end of the word. Although English has few examples of this type of affix, other languages use it. The circumfix is probably most widely known from the German past participle (ge- -t for regular verbs). Probably the only circumfixes in English are en- -en in enlighten and em- -en in embolden, which are essentially the same circumfix, as we will see below. In older usage, however, the present participle could be formed using the circumfix a- -ing: a- -ing in a-flying or a- -ing in a-caroling. Circumfixes are written with initial and terminal hyphens.

Sometimes, multiple affixations can take place. The original word, which is a free morpheme, is known as the stem or root. We can attach affixes to it in a continual manner:

anti- inter- govern -ment -al-ist

Here, govern is a root, anti- and inter- are prefixes, and -ment, -al and -ist are suffixes.

Inflection and Derivation[edit | edit source]

Inflectional Morphology[edit | edit source]

Illustration of the possible inflections of the Spanish word "gato", meaning "cat", for gender and number.

Inflectional morphology is a type of morphology that deals only with the grammatical function of the word. In other words, it marks the grammatical categories. For example, you'd add -ing when you want to put a verb in the progressive aspect. English only has eight inflectional morphemes, all of which are suffixes:

  • -s (after a noun) indicates plurality
  • -'s indicates the possessive case
  • -s (after a verb) indicates the third-person singular
  • -ing indicates the progressive aspect, or participles
  • -en indicates the perfect aspect in some irregular verbs
  • -ed indicates the past tense
  • -er indicates comparatives
  • -est indicates superlatives

Technically, -'s is actually not an affix, but a clitic. This is because it does not necessarily attach to the end of a noun. For example, you can say The man from Moscow's book. Here, -'s attaches to Moscow, even though the book belongs to the man, not Moscow. This shows that although -'s attaches itself onto another word, it functions, in terms of its position in the sentence, like a word in its own right.

The types of inflection that occur depends very much on the language. The most common grammatical categories marked by inflection are below:

  • Tense: Verbs are inflected based on when an action or stated occurred, such as -ed in English.
  • Mood: Verbs are inflected based on the probability that the proposition is true (we will look at propositions in the semantics chapter). For example, in English, we strip down the verb to the root form in the imperative mood (Get out!) and the subjunctive mood (that he get out, in sentences such as I insisted that he get out). This is a 'zero morpheme', which we will cover below.
  • Person: Verbs are inflected based on the subject, such as -s for the third person in English.
  • Number: Words are inflected based on the number, such as -s for plural nouns in English. Note that some languages, like Chinese, have no plurals, while others, like Arabic, can have a dual value, i.e. two, that is distinct from plurality.
  • Gender: Words are inflected based on noun class, such as -e for French adjectives. For example, in French, you would say un homme chantant (a singing man) but une femme chantante (a singing woman). Note how chantant ('singing') becomes chantante.
  • Aspect: Words are inflected based on whether it is finished, such as -ing and -ed/-en in English.
  • Comparison: Adjectives are positive (no inflection in English), comparative (-er in English) or superlative (-est in English).
  • Case: Nouns are marked according to their roles in a sentence. For example, in Latin, nauta ('sailor') is in the nominative case (subject position), nautae is in the genitive case (usually marks possession) or the dative case (marks indirect objects), and nautam is in the accusative case (marks direct objects).
  • Evidentiality: Although it is not present in major languages, a quarter of the world's languages have this category. Consider this example from McLendon (2003):

Evidentials in Eastern Pomo
Evidential type Example verb Gloss
nonvisual sensory pʰa·békʰ-ink’e "burned"
[speaker felt the sensation]
inferential pʰa·bék-ine "must have burned"
[speaker saw circumstantial evidence]
hearsay (reportative) pʰa·békʰ-·le "burned, they say"
[speaker is reporting what was told]
direct knowledge pʰa·bék-a "burned"
[speaker has direct evidence, probably visual]

Sometimes, a single inflection can handle multiple grammatical categories. For example, in French, the suffix -ions can mark:

  • First person + Plural number + Subjunctive mood: que nous allions
  • First person + Plural number + Imperfect tense: Nous allions

It is important to note that grammatical categories are not always marked by inflection. They can also be marked using function words.

Derivational Morphology[edit | edit source]

While English is poor in inflectional morphology, it has a complicated system of deriving new words from old.

Word-formation processes[edit | edit source]

Concatenative morphology[edit | edit source]

Concatenation is a process which deals with the formation of new lexical items by putting at least two distinct morphemes together. Concatenative processes are by far the ones which happen to be the most productive in the Indo-European language family. Thus, they are of major concern when it comes to discussing word-formation processes in English. These include compounding, affixation and incorporation. Their presence in the language varies with the last one being even non-existent in English.

Non-concatenative morphology[edit | edit source]

When a word is created as a result of linguistic operations on one morpheme, such process belongs to the branch of non-concatenation. Here are some examples:

  • Clipping/Truncation: A polysyllabic word is reduced. Advert and ad are clipped from advertisement.
    • Apocope/Back-clipping: We cut off all but the beginning of the word, like hippo from hippopotamus.
    • Apheresis/Fore-clipping: We cut off all but the end of the word, like bot from robot and phone from telephone.
    • Syncope: We cut off the middle part. This is rare and occurs in ma'am from madam.
    • Mixed clipping: We cut off both the beginning and the end, e.g. fridge from refrigerator.
    • Hypocorism: It is a type of clipping associated with child talk. We take the first syllable, then add an /i/ sound to the end. Examples are Aussie and telly.
  • Backformation: A word is reduced to a simpler form by removing a supposed affix, e.g. swindler (noun) → swindle (verb).
  • Conversion: A word is changed to another category without changing its form at all, e.g. chair (noun) → chair (verb). Many linguists suggest, however, that this is a case of zero-derivation, which means an empty morpheme is concatenated with the word.
  • Ablaut
  • Reduplication: An element of a word is repeated. This is not found in English, while Chinese uses reduplication for a variety of purposes. For example, the "看 (look)" in "让我看看 (let me have a look)" is reduplicated to produce a slight requiring mood, compared to "让我看 (let me look)".
  • Acronymisation: An acronym becomes a word. Scuba (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus), radar (RAdio Detection And Ranging) and laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) are common examples.

Issues in Morphology[edit | edit source]

Morphs and Allomorphs[edit | edit source]

One way to treat differences in inflectional morphemes is by proposing variation in morphological realization rules. In order to do this, we draw an analogy with some processes already noted in phonology. Just as we treated phones as the actual phonetic realization of phonemes, so we can propose morphs as the actual forms used to realize morphemes. For example, the form cats consists of two morphs, cat + -s, realizing a lexical morpheme and an inflectional morpheme ("plural"). The form buses also consists of two morphs (bus + -es), realizing a lexical morpheme and an inflectional morpheme ("plural"). So there are at least two different morphs (-s and -es) used to realize the inflectional morpheme "plural". Just as we noted that there were "allophones" of a particular phoneme, so we can recognize the existence of allomorphs of a particular morpheme. That is, when we find a group of different morphs, all versions of one morpheme, we can use the prefix allo- (means, one of a closely related set) and describe them as allomorphs of that morpheme.

Morphotactics[edit | edit source]

Other Morphemes[edit | edit source]

Certain processes which apply to words are often considered to be "morphemes", despite having no single surface realization.

Other Theories of Morphology[edit | edit source]

Lexeme-based morphology views words as being the result of the application of rules to lexemes, rather than the concatenation of morphemes.

Word-based morphology or Realizational morphology views what would traditionally be considered derived or inflected words to be paradigms which bear internal similarity and often systematic relationships to other paradigms due to analogy.