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Allomorph

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English

An allomorph is each alternative form of a morpheme. In other words, some morphemes change their sound or their spelling but not their meaning when they appear in different contexts - each of these different forms is classed as an allomorph.

And so to understand what an allomorph is, there is something that you must get your head around first ...

What is an Allomorph?

We have an entire article dedicated to morphemes - we recommend that you check that out before reading this one on allomorphs. Still, it won't hurt to have a quick recap ...

A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in a language. This means that a morpheme cannot be reduced beyond its current state without losing its basic meaning. This makes it different from a syllable, which is a word unit - morphemes can have any number of syllables.

A morpheme is not to be confused with a morph. A morph is the phonetic expression of a morpheme - in other words, it is how a morpheme sounds.

Morphemes come in two varieties: free morphemes and bound morphemes.

Free morphemes

Free morphemes can stand alone. Most words are free morphemes - some examples include: “house”, “book”, “tall”, “peacock”, and “smile”; these carry meaning on their own and are complete in themselves. Take the word “tall” for example - it has a meaning on its own, you can't break it down into smaller parts (such as t-all, ta-ll, or tal-l). “Peacock” is also a free morpheme; despite having more than one syllable, it cannot be broken down into smaller parts without losing its basic meaning.

Free morphemes are either lexical or functional. Lexical morphemes give us the main meaning of a sentence or text; they include nouns, adjectives and verbs. Functional morphemes help to hold the structure of a sentence together; they include prepositions (eg. with), conjunctions (eg. and), articles (eg. the) and pronouns (eg. her).

Bound morphemes

Bound morphemes cannot stand alone. They have to be bound to another morpheme to carry any meaning - bound morphemes include prefixes, like “pre” -, “un” -, and “dis” - (eg. pre-screen, undone, disapprove); and also suffixes, like - “er”, - “ing”, and - “est” (eg. smaller, smiling, widest).

With all of this in mind, let's go back to the focus of this article ...

What is an allomorph?

To recap: an allomorph is each alternative form of a morpheme. This could be a variation in sound (pronunciation), or spelling, but never in function or meaning.

Can you spot the allomorphs in the following sentence?

I bought an apple and a pear.

The answer is: the indefinite articles “a”, and “an”. In the sentence above we see both allomorphs: “an” for when the word following it begins with a vowel, and “a” for when the word following it starts with a consonant. Each form is spelled and pronounced differently, but the meaning is the same.

Allomorphs Dog in Disguise StudySmarterAllomorphs are like the same morpheme wearing different disguises. pixabay.com

What are the different types of allomorphs?

There is some debate around the different types of allomorphs - the way they are categorized will depend on which textbook you use! For the sake of clarity, we will take you through some examples of three common types of allomorph in the English language: past tense allomorphs, plural allomorphs, and negative allomorphs.

Past tense allomorphs

In English, we use the past tense morpheme “ed”, which is most often used with past regular verbs, for example: “planted”, or “washed”. It always has the same function (of making a verb past), but is pronounced slightly differently depending on the verb it is bound to: in “washed” we get /t/ (wash/t/), and in “planted” we get /ɪd/ (plant /ɪd/). Try saying these words out loud and you'll notice a slight difference in the way the “ed” morpheme is pronounced.

Struggling to notice the difference? Say these past tenses of the following verbs out loud, focusing on the “ed” morphemes: “wanted”, “rented”, “rested”, “printed”. In each of these words, the “ed” morpheme is pronounced /ɪd/.

Now do the same with this set of words: “touched”, “fixed”, “pressed”. Notice how the “ed” morpheme is pronounced /t/.

Each different pronunciation of the “ed” morpheme is an allomorph, as it varies in sound, but not function.

Tip: You may see certain pronunciations in this article (and other StudySmarter articles) written as symbols - the “ed” in “planted” written as “/ɪd/” for example. These symbols are from the International Phonetic Alphabet (or IPA) and they are there to help you understand how words are pronounced. For more information on the IPA, take a look at our article on phonetics.

Plural allomorphs

We typically add “s” or “es” to nouns to create the plural form; these plural forms of “s” and “es” always have the same function, but their sound changes depending on the noun.

The plural morpheme has 3 common allomorphs: /s/, /z/ and /ɪz/. Which one we use depends on the phoneme that precedes it.

Tip: A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a language - this could be a consonant, vowel, or diphthong. We use our larynx (or voice box) to make some sounds but not others - hence the terms “voiced” and “voiceless” to describe different phonemes.

When a noun ends in a voiceless consonant (ie. ch, f, k, p, s, sh, t or th), the plural allomorph is “s”. Examples include: “books”, “chips”, and “dishes”.

When a noun ends in a voiced phoneme (ie. b, d, g, j, l, m, n, ng, r, sz, th, v, w, y or z, or any of the vowel sounds: a, e, i, o or u), the plural form remains “s” or “es” but the allomorph sound changes to /z/. Examples include: “bees”, “zoos”, and “kebabs” - try saying these words out loud and you should feel how the plural allomorph becomes more of a “z”.

When a noun ends in a sibilant (ie, s, ss, z), the sound of the allomorph sound becomes /ɪz/. Examples include: “buses”, “houses”, and “waltzes”.

Other plural allomorphs include the “en” of words such as oxen, the “ren” of children, and the “ae” of words such as formulas and antennae. These are all plural allomorphs as they serve the same function as the more common “s” and “es” suffixes.

Deep dive: Plural suffixes often depend on the etymology of the word. Words that are pluralized with - 'ae' (such as antenna/antennae) usually have Latin roots, whereas words that are pluralized with -'e (such as child / children) tend to have Middle English or Germanic origins.

Negative allomorphs

Think of the prefixes we use to make a negative version of a word; informal (not formal), impossible (not possible), unbelievable (not believable) or asymmetrical (not symmetrical). Are you seeing the pattern here? “In” -, “im” -, “un” - and “a” - all serve the same function, and so they are allomorphs of the same morpheme.

What is a null allomorph?

A null allomorph (also known as a zero allomorph, zero morph, or zero bound morpheme) has no visual or phonetic form - it is invisible! Some people even refer to null allomorphs as “ghost morphemes”. You can only tell where a null allomorph is by the context of the word.

Examples of null morphemes appear (or rather, don't appear!) In the plurals for “sheep”, “fish”, and “deer”; for example, "There are four sheep in the field". We don't say “sheeps” - the plural morpheme is invisible, and so it is a null allomorph.

Other examples of null morphemes are in the past tense forms of words such as “cut”, “hit” and “cost”; for example, "Yesterday, Steve cut the plank of wood into pieces". We don't say “Steve cut the plank of wood up…” - the past tense morpheme is invisible, and so once again it is a null allomorph.

Allomorphs Sheep in Field StudySmarterThere are four sheep in the yard - but never four sheeps. pixabay.com.

Allomorph - Key takeaways

  • An allomorph is each alternative form of a morpheme - if a morpheme can change its pronunciation or spelling without changing its meaning, then this is an example of an allomorph.
  • The indefinite articles "a" and "an", are examples of allomorph, as they are different forms of the same morpheme.
  • Past tense allomorphs include different pronunciations of the suffix "ed". Each different pronunciation of the "ed" morpheme is an allomorph, as it varies in sound, but not function.
    • Examples include: "Planted", pronounced /ɪd/ (plant /ɪd/) "Washed" pronounced /t/ (wash /t/)
  • . The most common plural allomorphs are the different pronunciations of the - "s" and - "there" suffix did appear at the end of nouns to create the plural form. Examples include:
    • "chips" pronounced /s/ (chip /s/) "Bees" pronounced /z/ (bee /z/) "Buses" pronounced /ɪz/ (bus /ɪz/)
    • Other plural allomorphs include "en" and "ae", For example: Oxen Antennas
  • Negative allomorphs include the prefixes we use to make a negative version of a word, such as “in” -, “im” -, “Un” - and “a” -. Examples include:
    • Informal (not formal) Impossible (not possible) incredible (not believable)Asymmetrical (not symmetrical)
  • A null allomorph (also known as a zero allomorph, zero morph, or zero bound morpheme) has no visual or phonetic form - it is invisible! You can only tell where a null allomorph is by the context of the word. Null allomorphs exist within the plural forms of words such as “sheep” (eg. “There are four sheep in the field”), and the past tense forms of words such as cut (eg “Steve cut the wood”).

Allomorph

A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in a language. This means it cannot be reduced beyond its current state without losing its meaning.


An allomorph is each alternative form of a morpheme. These alternative forms could be a variation in sound (pronunciation), or spelling, but never in function or meaning.  

Some examples of allomorphs are:


Plural suffixes: - “s” (as in “dogs”), - “es” (as in “brushes”), - “en” (as in “oxen”), and - “ae”, as in “larvae” .


Negative prefixes: “in” - (as in “incompatible”), “im” - (as in “immoral”), “un” - (as in “unseen”), and “a” - (as in “atypical” ).


Past tense suffixes: the - “ed” in “planted” (pronounced /ɪd/), and the - “ed” in “washed” (pronounced /t/).


As you can see from these examples, allomorphs vary in spelling and/or pronunciation, but not in function.



A morph is the phonetic expression (the sound) of a morpheme - this includes any type of morpheme, free or bound. The word “buses” for example, contains two morphemes; “Bus” and “es”. The pronunciation, or sound, of each of these morphemes (/bʌs/ and /ɪz/) is a morph.


The “es” in “buses” is an allomorphic, as it comes in many different forms that have the same function; the “s” at the end of chairs, or the “ren” at the end of “children” for example; they all do the same thing, which is creating a plural form of a noun.


And so the difference between an allomorph and a morph is as follows: an allomorph is each alternative form of a morpheme (in terms of sound or spelling); a morph is simply how a morpheme (including each allomorph) sounds.

Final Allomorph Quiz

Question

Which of the following best describes an allomorph?

Show answer

Answer

Each alternative form of a morpheme (in terms of spelling and / or pronunciation).

Show question

Question

Each allomorph has a different function or meaning - True or False?

Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

Question

Which of the following suffixes is NOT an example of a plural allomorph?


Show answer

Answer

- “ing”

Show question

Question

Which of the following suffixes is NOT an example of a past tense allomorph?


Show answer

Answer

- “ed” pronounced / ɪz /.

Show question

Question

Which of the following prefixes is NOT an example of a negative allomorph?

Show answer

Answer

"Bi"-

Show question

Question

Which of the following best describes a null allomorph?


Show answer

Answer

An allomorph that has no visual or phonetic form.

Show question

Question

How can you tell where a null allomorph is?


Show answer

Answer

By the context of the word.

Show question

Question

Which word in the following sentence contains a null allomorph?

"Suzie played the lottery and hit the jackpot!"

Show answer

Answer

Hit. 

Show question

Question

Which of the following prefixes is NOT an example of a negative allomorph?


Show answer

Answer

“En” -

Show question

Question

The suffixes in the words “actor” and “writer” (- “or” and - “he”) are allomorphs of the same morpheme.

T / F

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Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Allomorphs are forms of the same morpheme that change its meaning.

T / F

Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

Question

The words “a” and “an” (as in “a banana”, and “an apple”) are allomorphs of the same morpheme.

T / F

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

The prefixes in the words “retry” and “defrost” (“re” - and “de” -) are allomorphs of the same morpheme.

T / F

Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

Question

If a morpheme can change its sound and / or spelling and keep the same meaning, then each of its different forms is an allomorph.

T / F

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

If you change the font color of a morpheme, then each different color is an allomorph.

T / F

Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

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