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A morpheme is the smallest meaningful unit in a language. A morpheme is not necessarily the same as a word. The main difference between a morpheme and a word is that a morpheme sometimes does not stand alone, but a word, by definition, always stands alone. The field of linguistic study dedicated to morphemes is called morphology.


When a morpheme can stand alone, it is considered a root because it has a meaning of its own (such as the morpheme cat). When it depends on another morpheme to express an idea, it is an affix because it has a grammatical function (such as the –s in cats to indicate plurality). [1] Every word is composed of one or more morphemes.

  • "Unbreakable" is composed of three morphemes: un- (a bound morpheme signifying "not"), -break- (the root, a free morpheme), and -able (a free morpheme signifying "can be done").
  • Allomorphs of the plural morpheme for regular nouns: /s/ (e.g., in cats /kæts/ ), /ɪz, əz/ (e.g., in dishes /dɪʃɪz/ ), and /z/ (e.g., in dogs /dɒɡz/ ).

Classification of morphemes

Free and bound morphemes

Every morpheme can be classified as either free or bound. [2] Since the categories are mutually exclusive, a given morpheme will belong to exactly one of them.

Classification of bound morphemes

Bound morphemes can be further classified as derivational or inflectional morphemes. The main difference between derivational morphemes and inflectional morphemes is their function in relation to words.

Derivational morphemes

  • Derivational morphemes, when combined with a root, change the semantic meaning or the part of speech of the affected word. For example, in the word happiness, the addition of the bound morpheme -ness to the root happy changes the word from an adjective (happy) to a noun (happiness). In the word unkind, un- functions as a derivational morpheme since it inverts the meaning of the root morpheme (word) kind. Generally, morphemes that affix (i.e., affixes) to a root morpheme (word) are bound morphemes.

Inflectional morphemes

  • Inflectional morphemes modify the tense, aspect, mood, person, or number of a verb, or the number, gender, or case of a noun, adjective, or pronoun, without affecting the word's meaning or class (part of speech). Examples of applying inflectional morphemes to words are adding -s to the root dog to form dogs, or adding -ed to wait to form waited. An inflectional morpheme changes the form of a word. English has eight inflections. [3] [4]


Allomorphs are variants of a morpheme that differ in pronunciation but are semantically identical. For example, the English plural marker -(e)s of regular nouns can be pronounced /-s/ (bats), /-z/, (bugs), or /-ɪz, -əz/, (buses), depending on the final sound of the noun's plural form.


A zero-morpheme, is a type of morpheme that carries semantic meaning but is not represented by auditory phonemes. They are often represented by /Ø/ within glosses. [5]

Generally, these types of morphemes have no visible changes. For instance, sheep is both the singular and the plural form. The intended meaning is thus derived from the Co-occurrence determiner (in this case, "some-" or "a-"). [6]

Content vs. function

Content morphemes express a concrete meaning or content, and function morphemes have more of a grammatical role. For example, the morphemes fast and sad can be considered content morphemes. On the other hand, the suffix -ed is a function morpheme since it has the grammatical function of indicating past tense.

Both categories may seem very clear and intuitive, but the idea behind them is occasionally harder to grasp since they overlap with each other. [7] Examples of ambiguous situations are the preposition over and the determiner your, which seem to have concrete meanings but are considered function morphemes since their role is to connect ideas grammatically. [8] Here is a general rule to determine the category of a morpheme:

Other features

Roots are composed of only one morpheme, while stems can be composed of more than one morpheme. Any additional affixes are considered morphemes. For example, in the word quirkiness, the root is quirk, but the stem is quirky, which has two morphemes.

Moreover, some pairs of affixes have the same phonological form but have a different meaning. For example, the suffix –er can be either derivative (e.g. sellseller) or inflectional (e.g. smallsmaller). Such morphemes are called homophonous. [8]

Some words might seem to be composed of multiple morphemes but are not. Therefore, not only form but also meaning must be considered when identifying morphemes. For example, the word relate might seem to be composed of two morphemes, re- (prefix) and the word late, but it is not.[ citation needed ] Those morphemes have no relationship with the definitions relevant to the word like "to feel sympathy," "to narrate," or "to be connected by blood or marriage."

Furthermore, the length of a word does not determine whether or not it has multiple morphemes. The word Madagascar is long and might seem to have morphemes like mad, gas, and car, but it does not. Conversely, some short words have multiple morphemes (e.g. dogs = dog + s). [8]

Morphological icons

Morphological icons are images, patterns or symbols that relate to a specific morpheme. [9] For children with dyslexia, it has been shown to be an effective way of building up a word. The word 'inviting' as an example is made up of two commonly used morphemes, 'in-' and '-ing'. A morphological icon for 'in-' could be an arrow going into a cup, and '-ing' could be an arrow going forward to symbolise that something is in action (as in being, running, fishing).

The concept of combining visual aid icons with morpheme teaching methods was pioneered from the mid 1980s by Neville Brown. [10] He founded the Maple Hayes school for dyslexia in 1981, where he later improved the method alongside his son, Daryl Brown. The school's curriculum uses morphological icons as a learning aid. [11]

Morphological analysis

In natural language processing for Japanese, Chinese, and other languages, morphological analysis is the process of segmenting a sentence into a row of morphemes. Morphological analysis is closely related to part-of-speech tagging, but word segmentation is required for these languages because word boundaries are not indicated by blank spaces.[ citation needed ]

The purpose of morphological analysis is to determine the minimal units of meaning in a language or morphemes by using comparisons of similar forms: for example, comparing forms such as "She is walking" and "They are walking," rather than comparing either with something completely different like "You are reading." Thus, the forms can be effectively broken down into parts and the different morphemes can be distinguished.

Similarly, both meaning and form are equally important for the identification of morphemes. For instance, an agent morpheme is an affix like -er that transforms a verb into a noun (e.g. teachteacher). On the other hand, –er can also be a comparative morpheme that changes an adjective into another degree of the same adjective (eg.. smallsmaller). Although the form is the same, the meanings are different. Also, the opposite can occur, with the meaning being the same but the form being different. [8]

Changing definitions

In generative grammar, the definition of a morpheme depends heavily on whether syntactic trees have morphemes as leaves or features as leaves.

Given the definition of a morpheme as "the smallest meaningful unit," nanosyntax aims to account for idioms in which an entire syntactic tree often contributes "the smallest meaningful unit." An example idiom is "Don't let the cat out of the bag." Here, the idiom is composed of "let the cat out of the bag." This might be considered a semantic morpheme that is itself composed of many syntactic morphemes. Other cases of the "smallest meaningful unit" being longer than a word include some collocations such as "in view of" and "business intelligence", in which the words together have a specific meaning.

The definition of morphemes also plays a significant role in the interfaces of generative grammar in the following theoretical constructs:

See also




Related Research Articles

In linguistics, an affix is a morpheme that is attached to a word stem to form a new word or word form. Affixes may be derivational, like English -ness and pre-, or inflectional, like English plural -s and past tense -ed. They are bound morphemes by definition; prefixes and suffixes may be separable affixes. Affixation is the linguistic process that speakers use to form different words by adding morphemes at the beginning (prefixation), the middle (infixation) or the end (suffixation) of words.

A lexicon, word-hoard, wordbook, or word-stock is the vocabulary of a person, language, or branch of knowledge. In linguistics, a lexicon is a language's inventory of lexemes. The word lexicon derives from Greek word λεξικόν, neuter of λεξικός meaning 'of or for words'.

A lexeme is a unit of lexical meaning that underlies a set of words that are related through inflection. It is a basic abstract unit of meaning, a unit of morphological analysis in linguistics that roughly corresponds to a set of forms taken by a single root word. For example, in English, run, runs, ran and running are forms of the same lexeme, which can be represented as RUN.

In linguistics, morphology is the study of words, how they are formed, and their relationship to other words in the same language. It analyzes the structure of words and parts of words, such as stems, root words, prefixes, and suffixes. Morphology also looks at parts of speech, intonation and stress, and the ways context can change a word's pronunciation and meaning. Morphology differs from morphological typology, which is the classification of languages based on their use of words, and lexicology, which is the study of words and how they make up a language's vocabulary.

A prefix is an affix which is placed before the stem of a word. Adding it to the beginning of one word changes it into another word. For example, when the prefix un- is added to the word happy, it creates the word unhappy. Particularly in the study of languages, a prefix is also called a preformative, because it alters the form of the words to which it is affixed.

Morphological derivation, in linguistics, is the process of forming a new word from an existing word, often by adding a prefix or suffix, such as un- or -ness. For example, unhappy and happiness derive from the root word happy.

A root is the core of a word that is irreducible into more meaningful elements. In morphology, a root is a morphologically simple unit which can be left bare or to which a prefix or a suffix can attach. The root word is the primary lexical unit of a word, and of a word family, which carries aspects of semantic content and cannot be reduced into smaller constituents. Content words in nearly all languages contain, and may consist only of, root morphemes. However, sometimes the term "root" is also used to describe the word without its inflectional endings, but with its lexical endings in place. For example, chatters has the inflectional root or lemma chatter, but the lexical root chat. Inflectional roots are often called stems, and a root in the stricter sense, a root morpheme, may be thought of as a monomorphemic stem.

A synthetic language uses inflection or agglutination to express syntactic relationships within a sentence. Inflection is the addition of morphemes to a root word that assigns grammatical property to that word, while agglutination is the combination of two or more morphemes into one word. The information added by morphemes can include indications of a word's grammatical category, such as whether a word is the subject or object in the sentence. Morphology can be either relational or derivational.

In linguistics, a bound morpheme is a morpheme that can appear only as part of a larger expression; a free morpheme is one that can stand alone. A bound morpheme is a type of bound form, and a free morpheme is a type of free form.

Tzeltal language

Tzeltal or Tseltal is a Mayan language spoken in the Mexican state of Chiapas, mostly in the municipalities of Ocosingo, Altamirano, Huixtán, Tenejapa, Yajalón, Chanal, Sitalá, Amatenango del Valle, Socoltenango, Las Rosas, Chilón, San Juan Cancuc, San Cristóbal de las Casas and Oxchuc. Tzeltal is one of many Mayan languages spoken near this eastern region of Chiapas, including Tzotzil, Chʼol, and Tojolabʼal, among others. There is also a small Tzeltal diaspora in other parts of Mexico and the United States, primarily as a result of unfavorable economic conditions in Chiapas.

In linguistics, a stem is a part of a word responsible for its lexical meaning. The term is used with slightly different meanings and would depend on the morphology of the language in question. In Athabaskan linguistics, for example, a verb stem is a root that cannot appear on its own, and that carries the tone of the word. Athabaskan verbs typically have two stems in this analysis, each preceded by prefixes.

Halkomelem Language of various First Nations peoples in British Columbia

Halkomelem is a language of various First Nations peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. It is spoken in what is now British Columbia, ranging from southeastern Vancouver Island from the west shore of Saanich Inlet northward beyond Gabriola Island and Nanaimo to Nanoose Bay and including the Lower Mainland from the Fraser River Delta upriver to Harrison Lake and the lower boundary of the Fraser Canyon.

In linguistics, apophony is any sound change within a word that indicates grammatical information.

In linguistics, a suffix is an affix which is placed after the stem of a word. Common examples are case endings, which indicate the grammatical case of nouns, adjectives, and verb endings, which form the conjugation of verbs. An inflectional suffix is sometimes called a desinence or a grammatical suffix or ending. Inflection changes the grammatical properties of a word within its syntactic category. Derivational suffixes can be divided into two categories: class-changing derivation and class-maintaining derivation.

Determiner Part of speech reflecting the reference of a noun

A determiner, also called determinative, is a word, phrase, or affix that occurs together with a noun or noun phrase and serves to express the reference of that noun or noun phrase in the context. That is, a determiner may indicate whether the noun is referring to a definite or indefinite element of a class, to a closer or more distant element, to an element belonging to a specified person or thing, to a particular number or quantity, etc. Common kinds of determiners include definite and indefinite articles, demonstratives, possessive determiners, cardinal numerals, quantifiers, distributive determiners, and interrogative determiners (which).

Paamese, or Paama, is the language of the island of Paama in Northern Vanuatu. There is no indigenous term for the language; however linguists have adopted the term Paamese to refer to it. Both a grammar and a dictionary of Paamese have been produced by Terry Crowley.

Odia grammar is the study of the morphological and syntactic structures, word order, case inflections, verb conjugation and other grammatical structures of Odia, an Indo-Aryan language spoken in South Asia.


In linguistic morphology, inflection is a process of word formation, in which a word is modified to express different grammatical categories such as tense, case, voice, aspect, person, number, gender, mood, animacy, and definiteness. The inflection of verbs is called conjugation, and one can refer to the inflection of nouns, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, determiners, participles, prepositions and postpositions, numerals, articles etc., as declension.

In linguistic typology, polysynthetic languages are highly synthetic languages, i.e. languages in which words are composed of many morphemes. They are very highly inflected languages. Polysynthetic languages typically have long "sentence-words" such as the Yupik word tuntussuqatarniksaitengqiggtuq which means "He had not yet said again that he was going to hunt reindeer." The word consists of the morphemes tuntu-ssur-qatar-ni-ksaite-ngqiggte-uq with the meanings, reindeer-hunt-future-say-negation-again-third person-singular-indicative; and except for the morpheme tuntu "reindeer", none of the other morphemes can appear in isolation.

Martu Wangka, or Wangkatjunga (Wangkajunga), is a variety of the Western Desert language that emerged during the 20th century in Western Australia as several indigenous communities shifted from their respective territories to form a single community. Traditionally, its speakers live in territory that is part of the Great Sandy Desert and near the Canning Stock Route, as well as Christmas Creek and Fitzroy Crossing. These are areas that are considered deserts but have many water holes that speakers travel between. There are an estimated 1,080 speakers of Martu Wangka in various communities across the Western Desert region. The largest of these communities is estimated at roughly 100 speakers, while some of the smallest communities have as few as 15 speakers. While older speakers continue to use Martu Wangka as their primary language, younger speakers tend to understand Martu Wangka but use different languages in their daily lives. For example, many younger speakers primarily use an English-based creole commonly referred to as the Fitzroy Valley Kriol.


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  2. Morphology Classification Of Morphemes Archived 2014-03-20 at the Wayback Machine Referenced 19 March 2014
  4. Matthew, Baerman (2015). The Morpheme. Oxford University Press: Oxford University Press. p. 8. ISBN   9780199591428 . Retrieved 30 September 2019.
  5. Gerner, Matthias; Ling, Zhang (2020-05-06). "Zero morphemes in paradigms". Studies in Language. International Journal sponsored by the Foundation “Foundations of Language”. 44 (1): 1–26. doi:10.1075/sl.16085.ger. ISSN   0378-4177.
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  9. Richard Garner (July 27, 2014). "College for dyslexic pupils uses flashcard system to teach literacy". The Independent .
  10. Justine Halifax (January 4, 2015). "Dyslexia dictionary: Lichfield doctor father and son lead way in helping young sufferers". Birmingham Mail .
  11. Ross Hawkes (May 14, 2019). "Author's tribute to experts behind Lichfield dyslexia school". Lichfield Live .