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Allomorph

Allomorph

Sometimes we use different letters or different pronunciations to express things that have the same meaning - we call these allomorphs. This article will define allomorphs, provide examples of allomorphs, and outline the different types of allomorphs.

Allomorph definition

An allomorph is a phonetic variant of a morpheme. Sometimes morphemes change their sound or their spelling but not their meaning. Each of these different forms is classed as an allomorph.

Allomorph and morphemes

Before we dive straight into allomorphs, let's remind ourselves of what a morpheme is.

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.

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, smile, car, peacock, and book. These words carry meaning on their own and are complete in themselves.

Take the word 'tall' for example - it has a meaning on its own and 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 (e.g. with), conjunctions (e.g. and), articles (e.g. the) and pronouns (e.g. 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 (e.g. pre-screen, undone, disapprove), and suffixes, like -er, -ing and -est (e.g. smaller, smiling, widest).

Now we have a good idea of what a morpheme is, let's get back to allomorphs.

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.

Allomorph example

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 word starts with a consonant. Each form is spelt and pronounced differently, but the meaning is the same.

Allomorphs A Dog in a bunny costume StudySmarterAllomorphs are like the same morpheme wearing different disguises - Pixabay

Different types of allomorphs

There is some debate about the different types of allomorphs. For the sake of clarity, we will take you through some examples of the three most common types of allomorphs in the English language: past tense allomorphs, plural allomorphs, and negative allomorphs.

Past tense allomorphs

In English, we add the morpheme '-ed' to the end of regular verbs to show the action was completed in the past. For example, 'planted', 'washed', and 'fixed'.

'-ed' always has the same function (making a verb past), but is pronounced slightly differently depending on the verb it is bound to. For example, in 'washed' it is pronounced as a /t/ sound (i.e. wash/t/), and in 'planted' it's pronounced as a /ɪd/ sound (i.e. plant /ɪd/).

Try saying these words out loud and you should notice a slight difference in the way the '-ed' morpheme is pronounced.

Struggling to notice the difference? Say these past tense verbs out loud, focusing on the 'ed' morphemes:

  • wanted

  • rented

  • rested

  • printed

In each of these words, the 'ed' morpheme is pronounced as /ɪd/.

Now do the same with this set of words:

  • touched
  • fixed
  • pressed

Notice how the 'ed' morpheme is pronounced as /t/.

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

The pronunciation symbols you see (e.g. /ɪd/) 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 and the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Plural allomorphs

We typically add 's' or 'es' to nouns to create their plural form. These plural forms always have the same function, but their sound changes depending on the noun.

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

A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a language - this could be a consonant, vowel, or diphthong. Some phonemes are voiced (meaning we use our voice box to make the sound) and some are unvoiced (meaning we don't use our voice box).

When a noun ends in a voiceless consonant (i.e. ch, f, k, p, s, sh, t or th), the plural allomorph is spelt '-s' or '-es', and is pronounced as a /s/ sound. For example, books, chips, and churches.

When a noun ends in a voiced phoneme (i.e. b, d, g, j, l, m, n, ng, r, sz, th, v, w, y, z, and the vowel sounds a, e, i, o, u), the plural form spelling remains '-s' or '-es', but the allomorph sound changes to /z/. For example, bees, zoos, and dogs.

When a noun ends in a sibilant (i.e, s, ss, z), the sound of the allomorph sound becomes /ɪz/. For example, busses, houses, and waltzes.

Other plural allomorphs include the '-en' in words such as oxen, the '-ren' in children, and the '-ae' in 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.

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 '-ren' (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, e.g. informal (not formal), impossible (not possible), unbelievable (not believable), and asymmetrical (not symmetrical). The prefixes '-in', '-im', '-un', and '-a' all serve the same function but are spelt differently, therefore, 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' and 'hit'.

Allomorphs Sheep in a barn StudySmarterThere are four sheep in the yard - but never four sheeps - Pixabay

Allomorph - Key takeaways

  • An allomorph is a phonetic variant of a morpheme. Sometimes morphemes change their sound or their spelling but not their meaning. Each of these different forms is classed as 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'.
  • Common plural allomorphs include the different pronunciations of the morpheme '-s'.
  • Negative allomorphs include the prefixes we use to make a negative version of a word, such as '-in'. '-im', '-un', and '-a'.
  • A null allomorph (also known as a zero allomorph) has no visual or phonetic form - it is invisible! For example, the plural form of the word sheep is sheep.

Frequently Asked Questions about 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 allomorph, 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.

An allomorph is a phonetic variant of a morpheme. Sometimes morphemes change their sound or their spelling but not their meaning. Each of these different forms is classed as an allomorph.

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. An example of a morpheme is the word house. 

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

Show answer

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

Question

Identify the allomorphs in this sentence:


'The farmer had 15 chickens and 12 sheep.'

Show answer

Answer

The -'s' at the end of chicken and 'sheep'. 

'sheep' is a null allomorph in its plural form.

Show question

Question

Identify the allomorphs in this sentence:


'I'm sorry but what you just said is unbelievable and impossible to believe.'

Show answer

Answer

The '-un' in unbelievable and the '-im' in impossible.


They both negate the base word.

Show question

Question

Identify the allomorphs in this sentence:


'I have an octopus and a fish.'


Show answer

Answer

The articles 'an' and 'a'

Show question

Question

Identify the allomorphs in this sentence:


'she watched the kids and he ran a race'



Show answer

Answer

the '-ed' at the end of watched and the word ran. 


They both show the past tense.

Show question

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