Morphemes

Morphemes

Nikki Ashcraft (University of Missouri, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8467-4.ch002

Abstract

This chapter introduces basic concepts in the field of morphology. In the first section, a morpheme is defined as the smallest unit of meaning in a language. In the second section, morphemes are divided into free and bound types, with bound morphemes further classified as either affixes (prefixes, infixes, suffixes, or circumfixes) or bound roots. This section additionally distinguishes between the role of function words and content words in a sentence. The third section outlines the nine word classes in English: nouns, pronouns, adjectives, determiners, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections. The final section of the chapter explains the implications of this information for teaching vocabulary, grammar, and language skills. The chapter concludes with questions for discussion and some practice exercises.
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What Is Morphology?

Morphology is the subfield of linguistics which studies morphemes. Morphemes are the smallest units of meaning in a language. They can consist of only one letter, a group of letters, or an entire word. For instance, the indefinite article a and the subject pronoun I are single letters which have meaning and which are morphemes.

Morphemes can also be groups of letters which represent a meaning but which are not a complete word. For example, although uni- is not a complete word, it has a meaning, which is “one.” This meaning is manifested in words like uniform (there is only “one form;” i.e., everything is the same) and unicycle (a cycle with one wheel). Similarly, -ness is not a complete word, yet when we add it to other word parts, it refers to a state of being as in happiness or sickness.

In addition, a morpheme can be an entire word on its own. To illustrate, dog, book, and house are morphemes, but we would also consider them to be complete words. Some words are made up of a combination of morphemes. Consider the word autobiography. This word consists of four morphemes: auto- (self), bio- (life), graph- (write), and –y (a noun-forming suffix). If we combine the meaning of these four morphemes, we have a noun that refers to a narrative that a person has written about his or her own life. A word, then, can consist of only one morpheme or multiple morphemes.

In all of these cases, whether the morpheme consists of a single letter, a group of letters, or a word, the morpheme represents a minimal unit of meaning. Lexical morphology looks at how morphemes are used to create words and inflectional morphology studies how morphemes add grammatical information to a sentence. You will learn more about these aspects of morphology in the coming chapters.

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Free And Bound Morphemes

Morphemes can be divided into free morphemes and bound morphemes. As noted above, there are some morphemes that are complete words (e.g., desk, him, run, and sick). With these morphemes, it is possible for us to categorize them according to their parts of speech (i.e., nouns, pronouns, adjectives, determiners, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections). This type of morpheme which is recognized as a complete word is known as a free morpheme. Free morphemes have the potential to serve as the base for the attachment of affixes (see below). For example, desk can add –s to form desks; sick can add –ness to become sickness. Additionally, free morphemes can combine with each other to create compound words. For instance, food that remains after a meal is left over. These two words are combined to create the adjective leftover, as in I ate leftover pizza for breakfast.

Bound morphemes are word parts that cannot stand alone as words, for example, de- or -ly. They must be connected to another morpheme in order to form a word. De-, which means “to remove,” attaches to the beginning of words like motivate and frost to create demotivate (to reduce someone’s motivation) and defrost (to remove ice). –ly can be added to the end of words to create adverbs, as in slow/slowly and gradual/gradually. Bound morphemes can be affixes or bound roots, both of which will be discussed in the coming sections. Notice the use of hyphens (e.g., de-, -ly) when these forms are written. The hyphens indicate that these forms are not complete words, and the direction of the hyphen shows where the bound morpheme attaches to other morphemes.

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