Linguistics

Basic Morphology

Part of linguistics involves looking at grammatical analysis that involves recognising the basic units (or building blocks) in a linguistic expression and classifying them into various types. Morphology helps you see how words can be built up out of morphemes, which are the smallest units of meaning or grammatical function. From this you can deduce that no part of a word that is meaningless on its own can be a morpheme.

Let us look at a simple example, the English word reads. The initial sound of this word r has no meaning in English, neither has the vowel ea in the middle of the word, or the consonant d. They are therefore not morphemes, but only sounds. However, the set of letters or sounds represented by read has a meaning. The next letter or sound -s also has a meaning; it might not be as easily described as the meaning of read, but it still contributes to the meaning of the whole word by changing or adding something to the meaning of the word read, in this case the present tense for a single person, and as such it is considered a morpheme.

Types of morphemes

Morphology

Types of Morphemes

Classification of morphemes

By now you know the definition of morpheme, and the various types of morphemes, such as affixes, based on their position in a word, i.e. we looked at the structural patterns of morphemes. In this section, we will look at a dif­ferent way of classifying types of morphemes, based on the type of meaning they convey, or based on their functional patterns in words. Traditional linguists usually distinguished between two different types of morphological operations, namely: derivation and inflection. Likewise, we will distinguish between inflectional affixes which are related to the grammatical aspects of language such as tense, number and gender, and derivational affixes which attach to a root or stem to form new lexemes (with a new meaning).

 

For example, in the word teachers, we have a root teach and two affixes, -er and -s. These two affixes are somewhat different in their function. The -s performs a grammatical function, turning a singular noun teacher into a plural noun teachers. Inflectional affixes are very regular, i.e. if an inflectional affix like -s attaches to one word in a word class, it usually attaches to all the words in that word class. A large proportion of the English nouns are made plural by adding -s, e.g. dogs, umbrellas, doughnuts, etc. Inflectional affixes do not change the word class (or part of speech) of the stem. Teacher and teachers are both nouns, so the word class has not changed.

 

-er is a derivational affix as it turns the verb teach into a noun teacher, thereby form­ing an entirely new lexeme. Derivational affixes are more irregular than inflectional affixes, in that they can attach to some words in a word class but not to others. For example we can say teacher and writer and singer but not *fixer, *nurser or *guarder.

Other examples of inflectional affixes in English are -ed which changes the tense of a verb (work – worked), and -ess which changes the gender of a noun (lion lion­ess). Other examples of derivational affixes include the suffix -y which turns a noun or verb into an adjective (dream – dreamy) and the prefix em- which changes the meaning of a word such as power from an abstract noun into an action in empower. It is also important to note that in English inflectional morphemes which are eight in total are typically suffixed in a word after derivational morphemes. Following is a table of English inflectional affixes.

 

English inflectional morphemes

Grammatical functions

Examples

-s

third PERSON, singular NUMBER, present TENSE

My father work-s in Pretoria.

-ed

past TENSE

My father work-ed in Pretoria.

-ing

progressive ASPECT

He is milk-ng the cows.

-en

past participle PERFECT ASPECT

Julius has eat-en the cake.

-s

plural NUMBER

She loves doughnut-s.

-’s

possessive CASE

My son’s hair is curly.

-er

comparative DEGREE

Ncedile is tall-er than I.

-est

superlative DEGREE

He is the short-est in the team.

 

 

Inflectional suffixes

Derivational affixes

Inflectional suffixes are related to the grammatical aspects of language such as tense, number and gender, and form new word forms of the same lexeme.

Derivational affixes form new lexemes (with a new meaning), and do not have anything to do with grammar as such.

Inflectional suffixes are very regular, i.e. if an inflectional suffix attaches to one word in a word class it usually attaches to all the words in that word class.

Derivational affixes are more irregular than inflectional affixes, in that they can attach to some words in a word class but not to others.

Inflectional suffixes do not change the word class of the stem to which they are attached.

Derivational affixes can change the word class of the stem.

Examples:

work + ed

lion + ess

sing + ing

cat + ’s, etc.

Examples:

un + do (no change in word class)

re + cover (no change in word class)

in + flammable (no change in word class)

Africa + an (change from noun to adjective)

music + ian (change from noun to adjective)

 

Criteria for classifying the different types of morphemes:

Given the available data, you can classify morphemes by asking yourself the following questions:

1. Can it stand alone?

YES à it’s a free morpheme (e.g. bubble, orange)

NO à it’s a bound morpheme (e.g. -er in baker and -s in oranges)

2. Does it carry the main meaning of the word in which it occurs?

YES à it’s the stem (e.g. happy in unhappiness)

NO à it’s an affix (e.g. un- and -ness in unhappiness)

3. Does it create a new word by changing the meaning or part of speech, or both?

YES à it’s a derivational affix (e.g. re- in rewind and -ist in artist)

NO à it’s an inflectional affix (e.g. -est in smartest)

Last modified: 2019/12/02