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Morphophonology (also morphophonemics or morphonology) is the branch of linguistics that studies the interaction between morphological and phonological or phonetic processes. Its chief focus is the sound changes that take place in morphemes (minimal meaningful units) when they combine to form words.


Morphophonological analysis often involves an attempt to give a series of formal rules or constraints that successfully predict the regular sound changes occurring in the morphemes of a given language. Such a series of rules converts a theoretical underlying representation into a surface form that is actually heard. The units of which the underlying representations of morphemes are composed are sometimes called morphophonemes. The surface form produced by the morphophonological rules may consist of phonemes (which are then subject to ordinary phonological rules to produce speech sounds or phones ), or else the morphophonological analysis may bypass the phoneme stage and produce the phones itself.

Morphophonemes and morphophonological rules

When morphemes combine, they influence each other's sound structure (whether analyzed at a phonetic or phonemic level), resulting in different variant pronunciations for the same morpheme. Morphophonology attempts to analyze these processes. A language's morphophonological structure is generally described with a series of rules which, ideally, can predict every morphophonological alternation that takes place in the language.

An example of a morphophonological alternation in English is provided by the plural morpheme, written as "-s" or "-es". Its pronunciation varies among [s], [z], and [ᵻz], as in cats, dogs, and horses respectively. A purely phonological analysis would most likely assign to these three endings the phonemic representations /s/, /z/, /ᵻz/. On a morphophonological level, however, they may all be considered to be forms of the underlying object ⫽z⫽, which is a morphophoneme realized as one of the phonemic forms {s, z, ᵻz}. The different forms it takes are dependent on the segment at the end of the morpheme to which it attaches: the dependencies are described by morphophonological rules. (The behaviour of the English past tense ending "-ed" is similar: it can be pronounced /t/, /d/ or /ᵻd/, as in hoped, bobbed and added.)

The plural suffix "-s" can also influence the form taken by the preceding morpheme, as in the case of the words leaf and knife, which end with [f] in the singular/but have [v] in the plural (leaves, knives). On a morphophonological level, the morphemes may be analyzed as ending in a morphophoneme ⫽F⫽, which becomes voiced when a voiced consonant (in this case the ⫽z⫽ of the plural ending) is attached to it. The rule may be written symbolically as /F/ -> [αvoice] / __voice]. This expression is called Alpha Notation in which α can be + (positive value) or − (negative value).

Common conventions to indicate a morphophonemic rather than phonemic representation include double slashes (⫽  ⫽) (as above, implying that the transcription is 'more phonemic than simply phonemic'). This is the only convention consistent with the IPA. Other conventions include pipes (|  |), double pipes (‖  ‖) [1] and braces ({  }). [2] Braces, from a convention in set theory, tend to be used when the phonemes are all listed, as in {s, z, ᵻz} and {t, d, ᵻd} for the English plural and past-tense morphemes ⫽z⫽ and ⫽d⫽ above. [3]

For instance, the English word cats may be transcribed phonetically as [ˈkʰæjəts], phonemically as /ˈkæts/ and morphophonemically as ⫽ˈkætz⫽, if the plural is argued to be underlyingly ⫽z⫽, assimilating to /s/ after a voiceless nonsibilant. The tilde ~ may indicate morphological alternation, as in ⫽ˈniːl~nɛl+t⫽ for kneel~knelt (the plus sign '+' indicates a morpheme boundary). [4]

Types of changes

Inflected and agglutinating languages may have extremely complicated systems of morphophonemics. Examples of complex morphophonological systems include:

Relation with phonology

Until the 1950s, many phonologists assumed that neutralizing rules generally applied before allophonic rules. Thus phonological analysis was split into two parts: a morphophonological part, where neutralizing rules were developed to derive phonemes from morphophonemes; and a purely phonological part, where phones were derived from the phonemes. Since the 1960s (in particular with the work of the generative school, such as Chomsky and Halle's The Sound Pattern of English ) many linguists have moved away from making such a split, instead regarding the surface phones as being derived from the underlying morphophonemes (which may be referred to using various terminology) through a single system of (morpho)phonological rules.

The purpose of both phonemic and morphophonemic analysis is to produce simpler underlying descriptions for what appear on the surface to be complicated patterns. In purely phonemic analysis the data is just a set of words in a language, while for the purposes of morphophonemic analysis the words must be considered in grammatical paradigms to take account of the underlying morphemes. It is postulated that morphemes are recorded in the speaker's "lexicon" in an invariant (morphophonemic) form, which, in a given environment, is converted by rules into a surface form. The analyst attempts to present as completely as possible a system of underlying units (morphophonemes) and a series of rules that act on them, so as to produce surface forms consistent with the linguistic data.

Isolation forms

The isolation form of a morpheme is the form in which that morpheme appears in isolation (when it is not subject to the effects of any other morpheme). In the case of a bound morpheme, such as the English past tense ending "-ed", it is generally not possible to identify an isolation form since such a morpheme does not occur in isolation.

It is often reasonable to assume that the isolation form of a morpheme provides its underlying representation. For example, in some varieties of American English, plant is pronounced [plænt], while planting is [ˈplænɪŋ], where the morpheme "plant-" appears in the form [plæn]. Here, the underlying form can be assumed to be ⫽plænt⫽, corresponding to the isolation form, since rules can be set up to derive the reduced form [plæn] from this (but it would be difficult or impossible to set up rules that would derive the isolation form [plænt] from an underlying ⫽plæn⫽).

That is not always the case, however; the isolation form itself is sometimes subject to neutralization that does not apply to some other instances of the morpheme. For example, the French word petit ("small") is pronounced in isolation without the final [t] sound, but in certain derived forms (such as the feminine petite), the [t] is heard. If the isolation form were adopted as the underlying form, the information that there is a final "t" would be lost, and it would then be difficult to explain the appearance of the "t" in the inflected forms. Similar considerations apply to languages with final obstruent devoicing, in which the isolation form undergoes loss of voicing contrast, but other forms may not.

If the grammar of a language is assumed to have two rules, rule A and rule B, with A ordered before B, a given derivation may cause the application of rule A to create the environment for rule B to apply, which was not present before the application of rule A. Both rules then are in a feeding relationship.

If rule A is ordered before B in the derivation in which rule A destroys the environment to which rule B applies, both rules are in a bleeding order.

If A is ordered before B, and B creates an environment in which A could have applied, B is then said to counterfeed A, and the relationship is counterfeeding.

If A is ordered before B, there is a counterbleeding relationship if B destroys the environment that A applies to and has already applied and so B has missed its chance to bleed A.

Conjunctive ordering is the ordering that ensures that all rules are applied in a derivation before the surface representation occurs. Rules applied in a feeding relationship are said to be conjunctively ordered.

Disjunctive ordering is a rule that applies and prevents the other rule from applying in the surface representation. Such rules have a bleeding relationship and are said to be disjunctively ordered.


The principle behind alphabetic writing systems is that the letters (graphemes) represent phonemes. However, many orthographies based on such systems have correspondences between graphemes and phonemes that are not exact, and it is sometimes the case that certain spellings better represent a word's morphophonological structure rather than the purely-phonological structure. An example is that the English plural morpheme is written -s, regardless of whether it is pronounced /s/ or /z/: cats and dogs, not dogz.

The above example involves active morphology (inflection), and morphophonemic spellings are common in this context in many languages. Another type of spelling that can be described as morphophonemic is the kind that reflects the etymology of words. Such spellings are particularly common in English; examples include science/saɪ/ vs. unconscious/ʃ/, prejudice/prɛ/ vs. prequel/priː/, sign/saɪn/signature/sɪɡn/, nation/neɪ/ vs. nationalism/næ/, and special/spɛ/ vs. species/spiː/.

For more detail on this topic, see Phonemic orthography, particularly the section on Morphophonemic features.

Related Research Articles

In linguistics, an allomorph is a variant phonetic form of a morpheme, or, a unit of meaning that varies in sound and spelling without changing the meaning. The term allomorph describes the realization of phonological variations for a specific morpheme. The different allomorphs that a morpheme can become are governed by morphophonemic rules. These phonological rules determine what phonetic form, or specific pronunciation, a morpheme will take based on the phonological or morphological context in which they appear.

Morpheme Smallest unit of morphology, or grammar in a language

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.

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.

An orthography is a set of conventions for writing a language. It includes norms of spelling, hyphenation, capitalization, word breaks, emphasis, and punctuation.

In phonology and linguistics, a phoneme is a unit of sound that distinguishes one word from another in a particular language.

Phonology is a branch of linguistics that studies how languages or dialects systematically organize their sounds. The term also refers to the sound system of any particular language variety. At one time, the study of phonology only related to the study of the systems of phonemes in spoken languages. Now it may relate to

In linguistics, an alternation is the phenomenon of a morpheme exhibiting variation in its phonological realization. Each of the various realizations is called an alternant. The variation may be conditioned by the phonological, morphological, and/or syntactic environment in which the morpheme finds itself.

In phonetics, palatalization or palatization refers to a way of pronouncing a consonant in which part of the tongue is moved close to the hard palate. Consonants pronounced this way are said to be palatalized and are transcribed in the International Phonetic Alphabet by affixing the letter ⟨ʲ⟩ to the base consonant. Palatalization cannot minimally distinguish words in most dialects of English, but it may do so in languages such as Russian, Mandarin and Irish.

A phonemic orthography is an orthography in which the graphemes correspond to the phonemes of the language. Natural languages rarely have perfectly phonemic orthographies; a high degree of grapheme-phoneme correspondence can be expected in orthographies based on alphabetic writing systems, but they differ in how complete this correspondence is. English orthography, for example, is alphabetic but highly nonphonemic; it was once mostly phonemic during the Middle English stage, when the modern spellings originated, but spoken English changed rapidly while the orthography was much more stable, resulting in the modern nonphonemic situation. However, because of their relatively recent modernizations compared to English, the Romanian, Italian, Turkish, Spanish, Finnish, Czech, Latvian and Polish orthographic systems come much closer to being consistent phonemic representations.

Palauan language Austronesian language

Palauan is a Malayo-Polynesian language native to the Republic of Palau, where it is one of the two official languages, alongside English. It is widely used in day-to-day life in the country. Palauan is not closely related to other Malayo-Polynesian languages and its exact classification within the branch is unclear.

Phonemic awareness

Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness in which listeners are able to hear, identify and manipulate phonemes, the smallest mental units of sound that help to differentiate units of meaning (morphemes). Separating the spoken word "cat" into three distinct phonemes,, , and, requires phonemic awareness. The National Reading Panel has found that phonemic awareness improves children's word reading and reading comprehension and helps children learn to spell. Phonemic awareness is the basis for learning phonics.

Yakkha is a language spoken in parts of Nepal, Darjeeling district and Sikkim. The Yakkha-speaking villages are located to the East of the Arun river, in the southern part of the Sankhuwasabha district and in the northern part of the Dhankuta district of Nepal. About 14,000 people still speak the language, out of 17,003 ethnic Yakkha in Nepal. Genealogically, Yakkha belongs to the Eastern Kiranti languages and is in one subgroup with several Limbu languages, e.g. Belhare, Athpare, Chintang and Chulung. Ethnically however, the Yakkha people perceive themselves as distinct from the other Kiranti groups such as Limbu.

A diaphoneme is an abstract phonological unit that identifies a correspondence between related sounds of two or more varieties of a language or language cluster. For example, some English varieties contrast the vowel of late with that of wait or eight. Other English varieties contrast the vowel of late or wait with that of eight. This non-overlapping pair of phonemes from two different varieties can be reconciled by positing three different diaphonemes: A first diaphoneme for words like late, a second diaphoneme for words like wait, and a third diaphoneme for words like eight.

In some models of phonology as well as morphophonology in the field of linguistics, the underlying representation (UR) or underlying form (UF) of a word or morpheme is the abstract form that a word or morpheme is postulated to have before any phonological rules have applied to it. By contrast, a surface representation is the phonetic representation of the word or sound. The concept of an underlying representation is central to generative grammar.

In historical linguistics, phonological change is any sound change that alters the distribution of phonemes in a language. In other words, a language develops a new system of oppositions among its phonemes. Old contrasts may disappear, new ones may emerge, or they may simply be rearranged. Sound change may be an impetus for changes in the phonological structures of a language. One process of phonological change is rephonemicization, in which the distribution of phonemes changes by either addition of new phonemes or a reorganization of existing phonemes. Mergers and splits are types of rephonemicization and are discussed further below.

This article is about the sound system of the Navajo language. The phonology of Navajo is intimately connected to its morphology. For example, the entire range of contrastive consonants is found only at the beginning of word stems. In stem-final position and in prefixes, the number of contrasts is drastically reduced. Similarly, vowel contrasts found outside of the stem are significantly neutralized. For details about the morphology of Navajo, see Navajo grammar.

In phonology, voicing is a sound change where a voiceless consonant becomes voiced due to the influence of its phonological environment; shift in the opposite direction is referred to as devoicing or desonorization. Most commonly, the change is a result of sound assimilation with an adjacent sound of opposite voicing, but it can also occur word-finally or in contact with a specific vowel.

A phonological rule is a formal way of expressing a systematic phonological or morphophonological process or diachronic sound change in language. Phonological rules are commonly used in generative phonology as a notation to capture sound-related operations and computations the human brain performs when producing or comprehending spoken language. They may use phonetic notation or distinctive features or both.

This article discusses the phonological system of standard Russian based on the Moscow dialect. For an overview of dialects in the Russian language, see Russian dialects. Most descriptions of Russian describe it as having five vowel phonemes, though there is some dispute over whether a sixth vowel,, is separate from. Russian has 34 consonants, which can be divided into two types:

This article is about the phonology of Egyptian Arabic, also known as Cairene Arabic or Masri. It deals with the phonology and phonetics of Egyptian Arabic as well as the phonological development of child native speakers of the dialect. To varying degrees, it affects the pronunciation of Literary Arabic by native Egyptian Arabic speakers, as is the case for speakers of all other varieties of Arabic.


  1. The IPA provides single and double pipes for minor and major suprasegmental groups, and these are scarcely distinguishable from the letters for dental and alveolar-lateral clicks.
  2. The IPA provides braces for prosodic notation.
  3. Gibbon, Dafydd; Moore, Roger; Winski, Richard (1998). Handbook of Standards and Resources for Spoken Language Systems: Spoken language characterisation. Berlin; New York: Walter de Gruyter. pp. 61–62. ISBN   9783110157345.
  4. Collinge (2002) An Encyclopedia of Language, §4.2.