Basics of English Morphology: Basic Definitions
by Mohamed Zayed, a Linguist
Morphology is the study of morphemes and associated morphological processes, namely inflection and derivation.
A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in a word. The word ‘inexpensive’ includes two morphemes in and expensive. Each morpheme has its own meaning. The addition of in to expensive gives the sense of not. Morphemes can be a single orthographic letter and yet still change meaning. For example, the s in cats is a morpheme and changes the first morpheme cat from singular into plural. Other examples would be laughed which is made up of two morphemes laugh and ed; with the addition of ed altering the tense of the first morpheme and thus the time of occurrence. Or indistinguishable, which has three morphemes; and antidisestablishmentarianism, which consists of six separate morphemes.
2. Free Morpheme vs. Bound Morpheme
There are two classes of morphemes: morphemes which occur independently as words (free morphemes), and morphemes which occur only as part of a word and which could not stand on their own (bound morphemes). The first class, which are called free morphemes, would include cat, distinguish, laugh. The second class, which are called bound morphemes, would include un, s, ed, able, anti.
Allomorphs of a morpheme are the different variants or realizations of the same morpheme. For example, the morpheme ‘-s’ in cats, cat’s and laughs or the ‘er’ in smaller, winner, eraser have different pronunciations yet it is still the same morpheme expressing plurality.
A morph of a phoneme is its realization in a word. In other words, how many morphemes does a single morpheme have? The morpheme ‘-s’ has many different realizations or morphs, it may be uttered as ‘z’ or ‘s’. In other words, morphs are the different forms of uttering the same morpheme. Morphemes are realized by forms which are called morphs.
(How many morphs = pronounce the morphemes of the words)
5. Inflection & Derivation
Inflection is a grammatical process which produces all the possible word-forms of a lexeme. Hence, the words adapt, adapts, adapting, adapted are all inflections of the lexeme ADAPT. That is to say, inflections are grammatical variants carrying the same meaning.
Derivation is a process which results in the formation of different lexemes. Hence, derivation results in a change of meaning. Hence, the words adaptor, adaptable, adaptability, adaptation are derivations since they are different lexemes with different meanings. The inflections of the adjective small would produce the adjectives smaller and smallest. Derivations change nouns into verbs, verbs into nouns, and so on; for example: adapt/adaptable/adaptation; sensitive/sensitivity; rich/richness. Derivational word-forms can be substituted by a single morpheme (e.g. inexpensive–cheap), but inflectional forms cannot be so substituted.
Geese, deer and children (irregular inflection)
The affix -able attaches to verbs, deriving adjectives. The affix -able is therefore a derivational affix—an affix that derives a new word, a new dictionary entry.
A root is the base form of a word which cannot be further analyzed without total loss of identity. It is that part of the word left when all the affixes are removed. In the word meaningfulness, removing -ing, -ful and -ness leaves the root mean. In English most roots are free, but a word like dentist is made from an affix ist and a root dent which is bound.
7. Affixes (or Affix)
Affixes are a type of bound morphemes which cannot stand alone. Generally speaking, there are two major types of affixes: those which are added to the beginning of a root (prefixes), e.g. unhappy; those which follow (suffixes), e.g. happiness. Affixation is the process of attaching one morpheme (prefix or suffix) to another (root).
prefixes: dis-, un-, for-, anti-, semi-, hyper-, in-, en-
suffixes: -ment, -ion, -er, -ing, -s, -able, -ize, -ship, -ity