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A morpheme is the smallest meaningful lexical item in a language. A morpheme is not a word. The difference between a morpheme and a word is that a morpheme sometimes does not stand alone, but a word on this definition always stands alone. The field of linguistic study dedicated to morphemes is called morphology.

In English, when a morpheme can stand alone, it is considered a root because it has a meaning of its own (such as the morpheme cat). When it depends on another morpheme to express an idea, it is an affix because it has a grammatical function (such as the –s in cats to indicate plurality).[1]. However this definition is not universal and it does not apply to, for example, Latin, where many roots cannot stand alone. For instance, the Latin root reg- (king) must always be suffixed with a case marker: rex (reg-s), reg-is, reg-i, etc. In a language like Latin, a root can be defined as the main lexical morpheme of a word.

For some examples:

  • "Unbreakable" is composed of three morphemes: un- (a bound morpheme signifying "not"), -break- (the root, a free morpheme), and -able (a free morpheme signifying "can be done").
  • Allomorphs of the plural morpheme for regular nouns: /s/ (e.g., in cats /kæts/), /ɪz, əz/ (e.g., in dishes /dɪʃɪz/), and /z/ (e.g., in dogs /dɒɡz/).

Classification of morphemes[edit]

Free and bound morphemes[edit]

Every morpheme can be classified as either free or bound.[2] Since the categories are mutually exclusive, a given morpheme will belong to exactly one of them.

  • Free morphemes can function independently as words (e.g. town, dog) and can appear within lexemes (e.g. town hall, doghouse).
  • Bound morphemes appear only as parts of words, always in conjunction with a root and sometimes with other bound morphemes. For example, un- appears only accompanied by other morphemes to form a word. Most bound morphemes in English are affixes, particularly prefixes and suffixes. Examples of suffixes are -tion, -sion, -tive, -ation, -ible, and -ing. Bound morphemes that are not affixed are called cranberry morphemes.

Classification of bound morphemes[edit]

Bound morphemes can be further classified as derivational or inflectional morphemes. The main difference between derivational morphemes and inflectional morphemes is their function in relation to words.

Derivational Bound morphemes[edit]

Derivational morphemes[edit]

  • Derivational morphemes, when combined with a root, change the semantic meaning or the part of speech of the affected word. For example, in the word happiness, the addition of the bound morpheme -ness to the root happy changes the word from an adjective (happy) to a noun (happiness). In the word unkind, un- functions as a derivational morpheme since it inverts the meaning of the root morpheme (word) kind. Generally, morphemes that affix (i.e., affixes) to a root morpheme (word) are bound morphemes.
Inflectional bound morphemes[edit]

Inflectional morphemes[edit]

  • Inflectional morphemes modify the tense, aspect, mood, person, or number of a verb, or the number, gender, or case of a noun, adjective, or pronoun, without affecting the word's meaning or class (part of speech). Examples of applying inflectional morphemes to words are adding -s to the root dog to form dogs, or adding -ed to wait to form waited. An inflectional morpheme changes the form of a word. English has eight inflections.[3][4]


Allomorphs are variants of a morpheme that differ in pronunciation but are semantically identical. For example, the English plural marker -(e)s of regular nouns can be pronounced /-s/ (bats), /-z/, (bugs), or /-ɪz, -əz/, (buses), depending on the final sound of the noun's plural form.



A zero-morpheme, is a type of morpheme that carries semantic meaning but is not represented by auditory phonemes. They are often represented by /Ø/ within glosses.[5]

Generally, these types of morphemes have no visible changes. For instance, sheep is both the singular and the plural form. The intended meaning is thus derived from the Co-occurrence determiner (in this case, "some-" or "a-").[6]

Content vs. function[edit]

Content morphemes express a concrete meaning or content, and function morphemes have more of a grammatical role. For example, the morphemes fast and sad can be considered content morphemes. On the other hand, the suffix -ed is a function morpheme since it has the grammatical function of indicating past tense.

Both categories may seem very clear and intuitive, but the idea behind them is occasionally harder to grasp since they overlap with each other.[7] Examples of ambiguous situations are the preposition over and the determiner your, which seem to have concrete meanings but are considered function morphemes since their role is to connect ideas grammatically.[8] Here is a general rule to determine the category of a morpheme:

  • Content morphemes include free morphemes that are nouns, adverbs, adjectives, and verbs, and include bound morphemes that are bound roots and derivational affixes.[8]
  • Function morphemes may be free morphemes that are prepositions, pronouns, determiners, and conjunctions. Sometimes, they are bound morphemes that are inflectional affixes.[8]

Other features[edit]

Roots are composed of only one morpheme, while stems can be composed of more than one morpheme. Any additional affixes are considered morphemes. For example, in the word quirkiness, the root is quirk, but the stem is quirky, which has two morphemes.

Moreover, some pairs of affixes have the same phonological form but have a different meaning. For example, the suffix –er can be either derivative (e.g. sellseller) or inflectional (e.g. smallsmaller). Such morphemes are called homophonous.[8]

Some words might seem to be composed of multiple morphemes but are not. Therefore, not only form but also meaning must be considered when identifying morphemes. For example, the word relate might seem to be composed of two morphemes, re- (prefix) and the word late, but it is not.[citation needed] Those morphemes have no relationship with the definitions relevant to the word like "to feel sympathy," "to narrate," or "to be connected by blood or marriage." By contrast, the word rename does consist of two morphemes; here the morpheme re- indicates that the action "name" is done again.

Furthermore, the length of a word does not determine whether or not it has multiple morphemes. The word Madagascar is long and might seem to have morphemes like mad, gas, and car, but it does not. Conversely, some short words have multiple morphemes (e.g. dogs = dog + s).[8]

Morphological icons[edit]

Morphological icons are images, patterns or symbols that relate to a specific morpheme.[9] For children with dyslexia, it has been shown to be an effective way of building up a word. The word 'inviting' as an example is made up of two commonly used morphemes, 'in-' and '-ing'. A morphological icon for 'in-' could be an arrow going into a cup, and '-ing' could be an arrow going forward to symbolise that something is in action (as in being, running, fishing).

The concept of combining visual aid icons with morpheme teaching methods was pioneered from the mid 1980s by Neville Brown.[10] He founded the Maple Hayes school for dyslexia in 1981, where he later improved the method alongside his son, Daryl Brown. The school's curriculum uses morphological icons as a learning aid.[11]

Morphological analysis[edit]

In natural language processing for Japanese, Chinese, and other languages, morphological analysis is the process of segmenting a sentence into a row of morphemes. Morphological analysis is closely related to part-of-speech tagging, but word segmentation is required for these languages because word boundaries are not indicated by blank spaces.[citation needed]

The purpose of morphological analysis is to determine the minimal units of meaning in a language or morphemes by using comparisons of similar forms: for example, comparing forms such as "She is walking" and "They are walking," rather than comparing either with something completely different like "You are reading." Thus, the forms can be effectively broken down into parts and the different morphemes can be distinguished.

Similarly, both meaning and form are equally important for the identification of morphemes. For instance, an agent morpheme is an affix like -er that transforms a verb into a noun (e.g. teachteacher). On the other hand, –er can also be a comparative morpheme that changes an adjective into another degree of the same adjective (eg.. smallsmaller). Although the form is the same, the meanings are different. Also, the opposite can occur, with the meaning being the same but the form being different.[8]

Changing definitions[edit]

In generative grammar, the definition of a morpheme depends heavily on whether syntactic trees have morphemes as leaves or features as leaves.

Given the definition of a morpheme as "the smallest meaningful unit," nanosyntax aims to account for idioms in which an entire syntactic tree often contributes "the smallest meaningful unit." An example idiom is "Don't let the cat out of the bag." Here, the idiom is composed of "let the cat out of the bag." This might be considered a semantic morpheme that is itself composed of many syntactic morphemes. Other cases of the "smallest meaningful unit" being longer than a word include some collocations such as "in view of" and "business intelligence", in which the words together have a specific meaning.

The definition of morphemes also plays a significant role in the interfaces of generative grammar in the following theoretical constructs:

  • Event semantics: the idea that each productive morpheme must have a compositional semantic meaning (a denotation), and if the meaning is there, there must be a morpheme (whether null or overt).
  • Spell-out: the interface where syntactic/semantic structures are "spelled out" by using words or morphemes with phonological content. This can also be thought of as lexical insertion into the syntactic.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kemmer, Suzanne. "Words in English: Structure". Retrieved 10 April 2014.
  2. ^ Morphology Classification Of Morphemes Archived 2014-03-20 at the Wayback Machine Referenced 19 March 2014
  3. ^ "ENG 411B Concepts". Archived from the original on 2013-02-18.
  4. ^ Matthew, Baerman (2015). The Morpheme. Oxford University Press: Oxford University Press. p. 8. ISBN 9780199591428. Retrieved 30 September 2019.
  5. ^ Gerner, Matthias; Ling, Zhang (2020-05-06). "Zero morphemes in paradigms". Studies in Language. International Journal Sponsored by the Foundation "Foundations of Language". 44 (1): 1–26. doi:10.1075/sl.16085.ger. ISSN 0378-4177. S2CID 218935697.
  6. ^ Dahl, Eystein Dahl; Fábregas, Antonio (2018). "Zero Morphemes". Linguistics. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780199384655.013.592. ISBN 978-0-19-938465-5. Retrieved 3 November 2019.
  7. ^ "Morphology II". Retrieved 10 April 2014.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Department of Linguistics (2011). Language files: Materials for an introduction to language and linguistics (11th ed.). Ohio State University Press.
  9. ^ Richard Garner (July 27, 2014). "College for dyslexic pupils uses flashcard system to teach literacy". The Independent.
  10. ^ Justine Halifax (January 4, 2015). "Dyslexia dictionary: Lichfield doctor father and son lead way in helping young sufferers". Birmingham Mail.
  11. ^ Ross Hawkes (May 14, 2019). "Author's tribute to experts behind Lichfield dyslexia school". Lichfield Live.
  • Baerman, Matthew (2015), Matthew Baerman (ed.), The Morpheme, Stephen R. Anderson, Oxford University: Oxford University Press, p. 3
  • Plag, Ingo (2015), The structure of words: morphology, Sabine Arndt-Lappe, Maria Braun, and Mareile Schramm, Berlin, Germany: De Gruyter, Inc., pp. 71–112

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