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Morphemes

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Morphemes

Morphology is the study of words, word formation, and the relationship between words. In Morphology, we look at morphemes - the smallest lexical items of meaning. Studying morphemes helps us to understand the meaning, structure and etymology (history) of words.

Morphemes meaning

Morphemes (from the Greek morphḗ, meaning 'shape, form') are the smallest lexical items of meaning or grammatical function that a word can be broken down to. Morphemes are usually, but not always, words.

Look at the following examples of morphemes;

House

Bed

Book

These words cannot be made shorter than they already are or they would stop being words or lose their meaning. For example, 'house' cannot be split into ho- and -us' as they are both meaningless. However, not all morphemes are words. For example, 's' is not a word, but it is a morpheme; 's' shows plurality and means 'more than one'.

The word 'books' is made up of two morphemes: book + s.

You can identify morphemes by seeing if the word or letters in question meet the following criteria;

  • Morphemes must have meaning. E.g. the word 'cat' represents and small furry animal. The suffix '-s' you might find at the end of the word 'cat' represents plurality.

  • Morphemes cannot be divided into smaller parts without losing or changing their meaning. E.g. dividing the word 'cat' into 'ca' leaves us with a meaningless set of letters. The word 'at' is a morpheme in its own right.

Types of morphemes

There are two types of morphemes: free morphemes and bound morphemes.

Free morphemes

Free morphemes can stand alone and don't need to be attached to any other morphemes to get their meaning. Most words are free morphemes, such as the above-mentioned words house, book, bed, light, world, people and so on.

Bound morphemes

Bound morphemes, however, cannot stand alone. The most common example of bound morphemes are suffixes, such as -s, -er, -ing, and -est.

Let's look at some examples of free and bound morphemes:

  • Tall

  • Tree

  • -er

  • -s

'Tall' and 'Tree' are free morphemes.

We understand what 'tall' and 'tree' mean; they don't require extra add-ons. We can use them to create a simple sentence like 'That tree is tall.'

On the other hand, '-er' and '-s' are bound morphemes. You won't see them on their own because they are suffixes that add meaning to the words they are attached to.

Morphemes - Free morphemes and bound morphemes - StudySmarter Free morphemes versus bound morphemes. StudySmarter Original

So if we add '-er' to 'tall' we get the comparative form 'taller', while 'tree' plus '-s' becomes plural: 'trees'.

Morpheme structure

Morphemes are made up of two separate classes;

  • Bases (or roots)

  • Affixes

A morpheme's base is the main root that gives the word its meaning.

On the other hand, an affix is a morpheme we can add that changes or modifies the meaning of the base.

'Kind' is the free base morpheme in the word 'kindly'. (kind + -ly)

'-less' is a bound morpheme in the word 'careless'. (Care + -less)

Affixes

Affixes are bound morphemes that occur before or after a base word. They are made up of suffixes and prefixes.

Suffixes are attached to the end of the base or root word. Some of the most common suffixes include -er, -or, -ly, -ism, and -less.

Taller

Thinner

Comfortably

Absurdism

Ageism

Aimless

Fearless

Prefixes come before the base word. Typical prefixes include ante-, pre-, un-, and dis-.

Antedate

Prehistoric

Unkind

Disappear

Derivational affixes

Derivational affixes are used to change the meaning of a word by building on its base. For instance, by adding the prefix 'un-' to the word 'kind', we got a new word with a whole new meaning. In fact, 'unkind' has the exact opposite meaning of 'kind'!

Another example is adding the suffix '-or' to the word 'act' to create 'actor'. The word 'act' is a verb, whereas 'actor' is a noun.

Inflectional affixes

Inflectional affixes only modify the meaning of words instead of changing them. This means they modify the words by making them plural, comparative or superlative, or by changing the verb tense.

books - books

short - shorter

quick - quickest

walk - walked

climb - climbing

There are many derivational affixes in English, but only eight inflectional affixes and these are all suffixes.

Word class
Modification reason
Suffixes
To modify nouns Plural & possessive forms -s (or -es), -'s (or s')
To modify adjectives
Comparative & superlative forms
-er, -est
To modify verbs
3rd person singular, past tense, present & past participles
-s, -ed, -ing, -en

All prefixes in English are derivational. However, suffixes may be either derivational or inflectional.

Morphemes Categories

The free morphemes we looked at earlier (such as tree, book, and tall) fall into two categories:

  • Lexical morphemes

  • Functional morphemes

Reminder: Most words are free morphemes because they have meaning on their own, such as house, book, bed, light, world, people etc.

Lexical morphemes

Lexical morphemes are words that give us the main meaning of a sentence, text or conversation. These words can be nouns, adjectives and verbs. Examples include house, book, tree, panther, loud, quiet, big, orange, blue, open, run, and talk.

Because we can add new lexical morphemes to a language (new words get added to the dictionary each year!), they are considered an 'open' class of words.

Functional morphemes

Functional (or grammatical) morphemes are mostly words that have a functional purpose, such as linking or referencing lexical words. Functional morphemes include prepositions, conjunctions, articles and pronouns. Examples include, and, but, when, because, on, near, above, in, the, that, it, and them.

We can rarely add new functional morphemes to the language, so we call this a 'closed' class of words.

Allomorphs

Allomorphs are a variant of morphemes. An allomorph is a unit of meaning that can change its sound and spelling but doesn't change its meaning and function.

In English, the indefinite article morpheme has two allomorphs. Its two forms are 'a' and 'an'. If the indefinite article precedes a word beginning with a constant sound it is 'a', and if it precedes a word beginning with a vowel sound, it is 'an'.

Past Tense allomorphs

In English, regular verbs use the past tense morpheme -ed; this shows us that the verb happened in the past. The pronunciation of this morpheme changes its sound according to the last consonant of the verb but always keeps its past tense function. This is an example of an allomorph.

Consider regular verbs ending in t or d, like 'rent' or 'add'.

Now look at their past forms: 'rented' and 'added'. Try pronouncing them. Notice how the -ed at the end changes to an /id/ sound (e.g. rent /ɪd/, add /ɪd/).

Now consider the past simple forms of want, rest, print, and plant. When we pronounce them, we get: wanted (want /ɪd/), rested (rest /ɪd/), printed (print /ɪd/), planted (plant /ɪd/).

Now look at other regular verbs ending in the following 'voiceless' phonemes: /p/, /k/, /s/, /h/, /ch/, /sh/, /f/, /x/. Try pronouncing the past form and notice how the allomorph '-ed' at the end changes to a /t/ sound. For example, dropped, pressed, laughed, and washed.

Plural allomorphs

Typically we add 's' or 'es' to most nouns in English when we want to create the plural form. The plural forms 's' or 'es' remain the same and have the same function, but their sound changes depending on the form of the noun. The plural morpheme has three allomorphs: [s], [z], and [ɨz]

When a noun ends in a voiceless consonant (i.e. ch, f, k, p, s, sh, t, th), the plural allomorph is /s/.

Book becomes books (pronounced book/s/)

When a noun ends in a voiced phoneme (i.e. b, l, r, j, d, v, m, n, g, w, z, a, e, i, o, u) the plural form remains 's' or 'es' but the allomorph sound changes to /z/.

Key becomes keys (pronounced key/z/)

Bee becomes bees (pronounced bee/z/)

When a noun ends in a sibilant (i.e. s, ss, z), the sound of the allomorph sound becomes /iz/.

Bus becomes buses (bus/iz/)

house becomes houses (hous/iz/)

A sibilant is a phonetic sound that makes a hissing sound, e.g. 's' or 'z'.

Zero (bound) morphemes

The zero bound morpheme has no phonetic form and is also referred to as an invisible affix, null morpheme or ghost morpheme.

A zero morpheme is when a word changes its meaning but does not change its form.

In English, certain nouns and verbs do not change their appearance even when they change number or tense.

Sheep, deer, and fish, keep the same form whether they are used as singular or plural.

Some verbs like hit, cut, and cost remain the same in their present and past forms.

Morphemes - A visualization of the Ghost Morpheme - StudySmarter Examples of ghost morphemes. A StudySmarter Original

Morphemes - Key takeaways

  • Morphemes are the smallest lexical unit of meaning.
  • There are two types of morphemes: free morphemes and bound morphemes.
  • Free morphemes can stand alone, whereas bound morphemes must be attached to another morpheme to get their meaning.
  • Morphemes are made up of two separate classes called bases (or roots) and affixes.
  • Most words are free morphemes, and most affixes are bound morphemes.
  • Free morphemes fall into two categories; lexical and functional. Lexical morphemes are words that give us the main meaning of a sentence, and functional morphemes have a grammatical purpose.

Frequently Asked Questions about Morphemes

Free morphemes and bound morphemes.

Bound morphemes cannot stand alone as words and include suffixes like -s, -er, -ing, est.

Free morphemes can stand alone.  Most words are free morphemes, for instance: house, book, bed, light, world, people etc.

Morphemes are not syllables. A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in a language.

Lexical morphemes are words that give us the main meaning of a sentence. These words could be nouns, adjectives or verbs.

By looking for the smallest unit of meaning in a word. Try breaking the word down into smaller parts by removing the affixes.

Final Morphemes Quiz

Question

What is a morpheme?

Show answer

Answer

A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in a language.

Show question

Question

What are the two categories of morphemes?


Show answer

Answer

Free morphemes and bound morphemes.

Show question

Question

What are lexical morphemes?


Show answer

Answer

Lexical morphemes give us the main meaning of a sentence, text or conversation, like nouns, adjectives and verbs.

Show question

Question

What are functional morphemes?


Show answer

Answer

Functional morphemes have a functional purpose i.e.: prepositions, conjunctions, articles and pronouns.



Show question

Question

True or false? Functional morphemes are an ‘open’ class of words.




Show answer

Answer

False. Functional morphemes are a ‘closed’ class of words.

Show question

Question

True or false? A zero morpheme changes its form but does not change its meaning.



Show answer

Answer

False: A zero morpheme is when a word changes its meaning but does not change its form.

Show question

Question

True or false? Bound morphemes cannot stand alone.


Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

True or false? An allomorph is a unit of meaning that can change its meaning and function but doesn’t change its sound and spelling.


Show answer

Answer

False. An allomorph is a unit of meaning that can change its sound and spelling but doesn’t change its meaning and function.

Show question

Question

True or false? A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a language.


Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Complete the following sentence: A past tense allomorph changes its ... according to the last ... of the verb, but always keeps its function of past tense.




Show answer

Answer

Missing words: sound, consonant.

Show question

Question

Phonemes are not countable by ..., but by the … they make.


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Answer

Missing words: letter, sound.

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Question

How many morphemes do these words have?


Pumpkin.

Cats.


Show answer

Answer

Pumpkin has one morpheme, cats has two morphemes.

Show question

Question

Complete the following sentences. 

… are about meaning and structure in language.


…  are about sound and pronunciation in language.




Show answer

Answer

Morphemes are about meaning and structure in language.

Phonemes are about sound and pronunciation in language.

Show question

Question

Identify the morphemes in the following word;


unbreakable

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Answer

  • un
  • break
  • able

Show question

Question

Identify the morphemes in the following word;

shortest

Show answer

Answer

  • short
  • est

Show question

Question

Identify the morphemes in the following word;

plates


Show answer

Answer

  • plate
  • s

Show question

Question

identify the morphemes in the following word;

dog


Show answer

Answer

  • dog

Show question

Question

Identify the morphemes in the following word;

sharply


Show answer

Answer

  • sharp
  • ly

Show question

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