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Morphology

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Morphology
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Linguistics is the study of language, and there is a lot to unpack about language, so why not start small? Words are the smallest unit of meaning in a language, right? Guess again! Small segments of sound that carry meaning—many even smaller than words—are called morphemes. There are many types of morphemes that can come together to make a single word.

Morphology is the study of these sub-word sounds and how they function to create meaning in language.

Morphology Definition

Consider the word smallest from the paragraph above. This word can be broken down into two segments that carry significance: small and -est. While -est isn’t a word in and of itself, it does carry significance that any English-speaking person should recognize; it essentially means “the most.”

A division of linguistics, morphology is the study of the smallest segments of language that carry meaning.

Language includes everything from grammar to sentence structure, and the segments of language that we use to express meaning are most often words. Morphology deals with words and their makeup. But what are words made of?

There is an even smaller unit of language than morphemes—phonemes. Phonemes are the distinct components of sound that come together to build a morpheme or word. The difference between morphemes and phonemes is that morphemes carry significance or meaning in and of themselves, whereas phonemes do not. For example, the words dog and dig are separated by a single phoneme—the middle vowel—but neither /ɪ/ (as in dig) nor /ɒ/ (as in dog) carries meaning by itself.

In the example of the word smallest, the two segments small and -est come together to make a complete word. These building blocks are an example of individual morphemes.

Morphemes are the smallest units of language that have meaning and can’t be further subdivided.

When we put together the morphemes small (which is a word by itself) and -est (which is not a word but does mean something when added to a word) we get a new word that means something different from the word small.

Small – something slight in size.

Smallest – the most slight in size.

But what if we wanted to make a different word? There are other morphemes we can add to the root word small to make different combinations and, therefore, different words.

Morpheme Types

There are two major types of morphemes: free morphemes and bound morphemes. The smallest example is made up of one of each of these types of morphemes.

Small – is a free morpheme

-est – is a bound morpheme

Free Morphemes

A free morpheme is a morpheme that occurs alone and carries meaning as a word. Free morphemes are also called unbound or freestanding morphemes. You might also call a free morpheme a root word, which is the irreducible core of a single word.

Frigid

Are

Must

Tall

Picture

Roof

Clear

Mountain

These examples are all free morphemes because they cannot be subdivided into smaller pieces that hold significance. Free morphemes can be any type of word—whether an adjective, a noun, or anything else—they simply have to stand alone as a unit of language that conveys meaning.

You might be tempted to say that free morphemes are simply all words and leave it at that. This is true, but free morphemes are actually categorized as either lexical or functional according to how they function.

Lexical Morphemes

Lexical morphemes carry the content or meaning of a message.

Stand

Stage

Compact

Deliver

Meet

Blanket

Tree

Excess

You might think of them as the substance of language. To identify a lexical morpheme, ask yourself, “If I deleted this morpheme from the sentence, would it lose its meaning?” If this answer is yes, then you almost certainly have a lexical morpheme.

Functional Morphemes

As opposed to lexical morphemes, functional morphemes do not carry the content of a message. These are the words in a sentence that are more functional, meaning that they coordinate the meaningful words.

With

There

And

So

You

But

If

We

Remember that functional morphemes are still free morphemes, which means they can stand alone as a word with meaning. You wouldn’t categorize a morpheme such as re- or -un as a grammatical morpheme because they aren’t words that stand alone with meaning.

Bound Morphemes

Unlike lexical morphemes, bound morphemes are those that cannot stand alone with meaning. Bound morphemes must occur with other morphemes to create a complete word.

Many bound morphemes are affixes.

An affix is an additional segment added to a root word to change its meaning. An affix may be added to the beginning (prefix) or the end (suffix) of a word.

Not all bound morphemes are affixes, but they are certainly the most common form. Here are a few examples of affixes you might see:

-est

-ly

-ed

-s

un-

re-

im-

a-

Bound morphemes can do one of two things: they can change the grammatical category of the root word (derivational morpheme), or they can simply alter its form (inflectional morpheme).

Derivational Morphemes

When a morpheme changes the way you’d categorize the root word grammatically, it’s a derivational morpheme.

Poor (adjective) + ly (derivational morpheme) = poorly (adverb)

The root word poor is an adjective, but when you add the suffix -ly—which is a derivational morpheme—it changes to an adverb. Other examples of derivational morphemes include -ness, non-, and -ful.

Inflectional Morphemes

When a bound morpheme is attached to a word but does not change the root word's grammatical category, it is an inflectional morpheme. These morphemes simply modify the root word in some way.

Fireplace + s = fireplaces

Adding the -s to the end of the word fireplace did not change the word in any significant way—it simply modified it to reflect multiple rather than one single fireplace.

Morphology Examples

Sometimes it’s easier to see a visual representation of something than to explain it. Morphological trees do exactly that.

Unreachable – the inability to be reached or contacted

Un (inflectional morpheme) reach (lexical morpheme) able (free morpheme)

This example shows how the word unreachable can be broken into individual morphemes.

The morpheme able is an affix that changes the word reach (a verb) to reachable (an adjective.) This makes it a derivational morpheme.

After you add the affix un- you get the word unreachable which is the same grammatical category (adjective) as reachable, and so this is an inflectional morpheme.

Motivation – the reason or reasons why someone does something

Motiv (lexical morpheme) ate (derivational morpheme) ion (derivational morpheme)

The root word is motive (a noun) which, with the addition of the affix -ate becomes motivate (a verb). The addition of the bound morpheme -ion changes the verb motivate to the noun motivation.

Morphology and Syntax

Linguistics, the scientific study of language, is made up of several specific domains related to language. Starting from the smallest, most basic unit of language (phonetics) and graduating up to the study of discourse and contextual meaning (pragmatics), linguistics consists of the following sections:

  • Phonetics

  • Phonology

  • Morphology

  • Syntax

  • Semantics

  • Pragmatics

Morphology and syntax are close to one another in terms of the linguistic domain. While morphology studies the smallest units of meaning in language, syntax deals with how words are linked together to create meaning.

The difference between syntax and morphology is essentially the difference between studying how words are formed (morphology) and how sentences are formed (syntax).

Morphology and Semantics

Semantics is one level removed from morphology in the grand scheme of linguistic study. Semantics is the branch of linguistics responsible for understanding meaning in general. To understand the meaning of a word, phrase, sentence, or text, you might rely on semantics.

Morphology also deals with meaning to a degree, but only in as much as the smaller sub-word units of language can carry meaning. To examine the meaning of anything larger than a morpheme would fall under the domain of semantics.

Morphology - Key takeaways

  • Morphology is the study of the smallest segments of language that carry meaning.
  • Morphemes are the smallest units of language that have meaning and can’t be further subdivided.
  • There are two main types of morphemes: bound and free.
  • Bound morphemes must be combined with another morpheme to create a word.
  • Free morphemes can stand alone as a word.

Frequently Asked Questions about Morphology

Morphology is the study of the smallest units of language that carry meaning. Morphology helps to better understand complex words with many components such as unreliability, and the ways each morpheme function.

A morpheme is the smallest segment of language that contains meaning. An example is “un” as it is not a word, but it does mean “not” when added as a prefix to a root word. 

Some close synonyms (although not exact) for morphology are etymology and sound structure. 

Morphology is the study of morphemes, which are the smallest significant building blocks of language. 

It is the study of the structure of words. 

Final Morphology Quiz

Morphology Quiz - Teste dein Wissen

Question

What is morphology?

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Answer

A division of linguistics, morphology is the study of the segments of language that carry meaning.

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Question

What is the smallest segment of language that carries meaning?

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Answer

Morphemes.

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True or false: Morphemes can be further subdivided into multiple segments of meaning.

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Answer

False.

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Which of the following is a morpheme?

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Answer

Should.

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True or false: there is only one type of morpheme.

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Answer

False.

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Question

Is "re" in the following word a free or bound morpheme? 
Reiterate 

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Answer

Bound morpheme.

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Is the following a free or bound morpheme?

Contract

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Answer

Free morpheme.

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Question

_________ morphemes are morphemes that carry the content or meaning of a message.

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Answer

Lexical.

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Question

True or false: many bound morphemes are affixes.

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Answer

True.

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Question

______ morphemes must occur with other morphemes to create a complete word. 

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Answer

Bound.

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Question

What type of morpheme is the following?

re-

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Answer

Inflectional.

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Question

What type of morpheme is the following?

Flash

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Lexical.

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Question

What type of morpheme is the following?

Of

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Functional.

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Question

What type of morpheme is the following?

Trans-

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Derivational.

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Question

Un+pave+d

"-d" in the above example is what type of morpheme?

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Answer

Inflectional.

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Trans+form

"Form" in the above example is what type of morpheme?

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Answer

Lexical.

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Question

How many morphemes does the following word contain? 

Vacations

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Answer

Three.

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Question

How many morphemes does the following word contain?

Computational

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Answer

Three.

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Question

How many morphemes does the following word contain?

Build

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Answer

One.

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Question

How many morphemes does the following word contain?

Allowance

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Answer

Two.

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Question

Create a morphological tree for the following word (see hint for instructions)


Unfriendly

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Answer

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Question

Create a morphological tree for the following word (see hint for instructions)


Organisms

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Answer

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