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Derivational Morphemes

It's easy to forget that there are linguistic units smaller than words that hold meaning. Most native English speakers likely don't think about the meaning of sounds like -ed, -ing, and -acious, but they use them—and other derivational morphemes—hundreds of times a day (there have been several in this paragraph already).

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Derivational Morphemes

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It's easy to forget that there are linguistic units smaller than words that hold meaning. Most native English speakers likely don't think about the meaning of sounds like -ed, -ing, and -acious, but they use them—and other derivational morphemes—hundreds of times a day (there have been several in this paragraph already).

Morphemes can be either inflectional or derivational, meaning they can form new words or add inflection to existing words. The simple definition is that derivational morphemes are those that derive new words. It would be difficult to create an exhaustive list of the examples and types of derivational morphemes, as they are one of the most productive way to create new words in the English language.

Definition of Derivational Morpheme

Before we get to the definition of derivational morphemes, let’s establish the meaning of the word derivation.

In linguistics, the term derivation refers to the creation of a new word.

The new, derived word is related to the previous form, but it is a new word nonetheless. Many words are derived by adding a morpheme, aka a letter or a cluster of letters. A morpheme is the smallest meaningful unit of language. The key to morphemes is that they must carry some sort of significance.

Morphemes are usually groups of letters, although they can be a single letter. For example, the letter ‘s’ denotes plurality when you add it to the end of a word that is a noun—that is its meaning in that context. (It should be noted that /s/ is not a derivational morpheme, but we’ll get to why later.) The letter ‘w,’ and just about any other letter of the alphabet, is just a letter and doesn’t carry any particular meaning.

So what's a derivational morpheme?

A derivational morpheme is an affix that derives a new word or a new form of an existing word.

As a reminder, an affix is a letter or group of letters we attach to the beginning (prefix) or end (suffix) of a root word. Here are some of the more common affixes in the English language.

Examples of Derivational Morpheme Affixes
PrefixSuffix
Un--ing
Be--ness
Anti--ly
De--ate
Mis--ful
Over--y

Derivational morphemes, whether prefixes or suffixes, usually change word class when added to a word (though not always).

Bounty (noun) + ful = bountiful (adjective)

In this example, we can see that the derivational morpheme -ful changes the noun, bounty, to the adjective, bountiful.

Derivational morphemes cannot be a word in their own right, though, because they are bound morphemes. Bound morphemes must be bound to another word or morpheme to create a word. Bound morphemes are those that can never stand alone as a word—as opposed to free morphemes, which can be independent words. A few examples of free morphemes are words such as eat, big, and ocean, while bound morphemes are affixes like -ment, im-, and -ify.

Derivational morphemes Definition of derivational morphemes Rope tied in a knot StudySmarterFig 1. Bound morphemes are always tied to an existing word.

Derivational Morpheme Examples

Here are some examples of derivational morphemes:

  1. "-ness" added to "kind" creates "kindness"
  2. "-ment" added to "develop" creates "development"
  3. "-ize" added to "modern" creates "modernize"
  4. "-less" added to "hope" creates "hopeless"

As we've seen, there are many examples of derivational morphemes in the English language. Interestingly, there is no theoretical limit to how many derivational morphemes you can add to a word.

For example, think of the word "proportion". It's a noun meaning the size or shape of something relative to its whole. Add the suffix -ate, and the word is now "proportionate," referring to something that is equal in size or shape relative to its whole. But if something is not proportionate, you could add the prefix dis- to get the word "disproportionate." If you wanted to describe something that is disproportionate, you simply add the suffix -ly to get "disproportionately."

Each time we added an affix, the word changed significantly; whether changing word class, as it does when you add -ly to get an adverb, or simply negating the base word with dis- to derive disproportionate.

Other morphologically complex words:

  • Compute + ate + ion + al = computational
  • Interest + ing + ly = interestingly
  • Multi + million + aire + s = multimillionaires

Inflectional vs. Derivational Morphemes

There are two types of bound morphemes: inflectional morphemes and derivational morphemes. The difference between derivational and inflectional morphemes is that inflectional morphemes signal a change in a base word’s grammatical form, e.g., its number, gender, person, or tense.

Notice how the following inflectional morphemes alter the words in each case:

Notice + ed = noticed

Plain + er = plainer

Nice + est = nicest

Crease +s = creases

Broke + en = broken

Lack + ing = lacking

An inflectional morpheme was added to each word, but it did not alter the word’s class. In other words, the nouns remained nouns (crease/ creases), the adjectives remained adjectives (nice/ nicest), and the verbs remained verbs (noticed/ noticed). Instead, the inflectional morphemes simply changed the words' form to reflect tense, aspect, number, superlative form and so on.

Derivational morphemes Inflectional vs derivational morphemes Nicest house example StudySmarterFig 2. "The red house is nice, but this house is the nicest in the neighborhood." Nice and nicest are two different words with the same base.

By contrast, derivational morphemes influence the base word to such a degree that it becomes a new word entirely. That new word may, of course, be related to the original in meaning, but it is a new word nonetheless.

If both an inflectional and derivational affix are attached to a single word, the derivational affix will be closest to the base word. For example, the word resignations = Resign + ation (derivational) + s (inflectional).

List of Class-Changing Derivational Morphemes

There are more instances of derivational morphemes changing the word class of the word to which they’re added. Below is a list of class-changing derivational morphemes. In these examples, the noun changes to a verb with the addition of the derivational morphemes.

Examples of Noun-to-Verb Derivational Morphemes
NounAffixVerb
Affection-ateAffectionate
Fright-enFrighten
Terror-ifyTerrify
Empathy-ise/ izeEmpathize

Below are examples of verbs changing to adjectives with derivational morphemes:

Examples of Verb-to-Adjective Derivational Morphemes
VerbAffixAdjective
Laugh-ableLaughable
Create-iveCreative
Lift-lessLiftless

Derivational morphemes can also change verbs to nouns (track/tracker), nouns to adjectives (boy/boyish), and so on.

Class-Maintaining Derivational Morphemes

As mentioned, derivational morphemes don’t always change the word class; those that don’t are called class-maintaining derivational morphemes. Here’s an example where the word class stays the same with the addition of a derivational morpheme:

friend (noun) + ship = friendship (noun)

Even though the words friend and friendship are both nouns, they are separate words with different meanings; they cannot be used interchangeably. Derivational morphemes always change either the semantic meaning of a word or the part of speech. In the case of class-maintaining derivational morphemes, only the meaning changes.

Here are some common class-maintaining derivational morphemes:

  • -ship (e.g., friendship)

  • Ex- (e.g., ex-cop)

  • -hood (e.g., boyhood)

  • Dis- (e.g., disengage)

  • Un- (e.g., unlock)

Derivational Morphemes - Key takeaways

  • A derivational morpheme is an affix that derives a new word or a new form of an existing word.
  • Derivational morphemes are either class-maintaining (meaning the word class stays the same with the addition of the morpheme) or class-changing (which means the word class changes with the morpheme).
  • Morphemes are either bound or free.
  • There are two types of bound morphemes: derivational and inflectional
    • Inflectional morphemes don't change the word class of the base word
    • Derivational morphemes can change the word class of the base word

Frequently Asked Questions about Derivational Morphemes

Examples of derivational morphemes include all prefixes and suffixes; so -im, -ship and un- are all examples of derivational morphemes.

The difference between derivational and inflectional morphemes is that inflectional morphemes signal a change in a base word’s number, gender, person, or tense and do not alter the word class. Derivational morphemes do not signal these changes, but they are capable of changing the word class.

Yes, the word teacher contains the derivational morpheme -er, which derives a new word (teacher) from a base word (teach). 

The two type of morphemes are bound and free. Bound morphemes must be tied to a base word, while free morphemes can stand alone as a word themselves.

No, -ing is not a derivational morpheme, it's an inflectional morpheme which means it adds inflection to the base word. 

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

True or false: derivational morphemes create words that are not related to their original form.

A(n) __________ is the smallest meaningful unit of language. 

Morphemes are usually groups of letters, although they can be a single letter.True or false: 

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