What Is Morphology?

Morphology is the study of the structure of words and their relation to other words. Since a morpheme is the smallest linguistic piece ‘with a grammatical function,’ it serves as a common unit of analysis.[1] Morphemes have different functions, such as forming new words, changing parts of speech, or adding specific grammatical meanings. This paper focuses on the functions of such morphemes as roots, suffixes, and prefixes and includes a brief morphological analysis of twelve words.

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The word villager is formed with the help of two morphemes: village and –r, where the former is the root, a unit that cannot be divided into smaller morphemes,[2] and the latter is the suffix. In English, roots are primarily free morphemes that can function as words.[3] It is noteworthy that bound stems also exist in the language (for instance, philosopher). However, the words under consideration are constituted with the help of free stems.

The second morpheme in the word villager is bound as it cannot function on its own. In the English language, bound morphemes are always attached to a root. The suffix ‑r is derivational since it adds a new semantic meaning to the word village.[4] This word, meaning ‘a a place’, is transformed into a new one (villager or ‘a person coming from a village’) with the help of a suffix that has the meaning of a place of origin.’[5] Other examples of the function of this suffix include Londoner, a southerner, and New Yorker.

At this point, it is essential to add that some affixes tend to be used with particular parts of speech. For instance, the suffix –er is regarded as an attribute of a noun, and it is not associated with the shifts of word classes. When –er is added to a noun, it creates a noun with a new meaning. In the case of the suffix –meant, the affix is common for nouns that are derived from verbs. This pattern can be illustrated by the following words government, improvement, and statement.

Another word to be scrutinized is the verb records, which consists of two morphemes as well: the root (free morpheme) record and the inflectional suffix (bound morpheme) ‑s. Often, words in the English language have multiple meanings, and it can be difficult to understand which connotations arise without a context.[6] The word under analysis is an example of this phenomenon, known as polysemy, and as such, it can be problematic to identify the exact function of the suffix. At the same time, the morphological characteristics remain the same irrespective of the meaning of the word.

The suffix ‑s does not change the grammatical category but transforms some of its aspects. For instance, it can have the meaning of plurality if we assume that the world record is a noun. This bound morpheme can serve to denote the doer of the action (third person, singular) if the word records function as a verb in a sentence. Therefore, the identification of the grammatical attributes of the word is pivotal as to the morphological analysis due to the polysemy of English words. Some other causes of the use of ‑s as a sign of plurality are boxes, cats, and dogs. For grammatical features related to verb forms, other illustrations of the use of the morpheme under analysis write, swims, and claims.

The next word to consider is prearrangements, a complex example consisting of the morphemes pre‑ (bound morpheme), arrange (free morpheme), ‑ment (bound morpheme), and ‑s (bound morpheme). The root in this word is arranged, and it is a free morpheme. In terms of the part of speech, this word is a verb. The prefix pre‑ is a derivational morpheme as it adds a particular meaning (‘before’) to the root. Other exemplifications of the use of this prefix are prejudged and premature.[7]

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The suffix ‑ment is also a derivational morpheme as it adds a new connotation to the word: ‘a state that results from an action. In addition, this morpheme also transforms the verb prearrange into a different part of speech, the noun prearrangement. As for a similar usage of the morpheme in question, refreshment or government can be pointed out.[8] Finally, the bound morpheme ‑s is an inflectional suffix that refers to the grammatical category of plurality. It is possible to come up with other instances such as governments or roots to illustrate the use of this morpheme.

One more word to analyze is useful, which consists of the free morpheme use and two bound morphemes ‑ful and ‑ly. In terms of identifying the part of speech, the root user is a verb. The morpheme ‑ful is derivational as it transforms the verb use into the adjective useful. This suffix has the denotation ‘marked by’; other examples of this function are helpful, wonderful, and playful. The bound morpheme ‑ly is also derivational as it turns the adjective useful into the adverb usefully. Such adverbs as playfully or rapidly can serve as a good demonstration of this use of the suffix under consideration.

Another complex word to examine is indirectness, which can be divided into the bound morpheme in‑, the root direct, and the bound morpheme ‑ness. The prefix in‑ is a derivational morpheme that adds a new connotation of negation to the word (‘not direct’). Another example of this function of the prefix is insubstantial.[9]

The derivational suffix ‑ness adds a new meaning (‘quality’) to the word and converts the adjective indirect into the noun indirectness. To illustrate the same function for this suffix, it is possible to look at such words as kindness or helpfulness. Deferral is a word consisting of two morphemes: the root defers and the bound morpheme ‑al. The suffix is a derivational morpheme with the meaning ‘action’ that turns the verb defer into the noun deferral. Other instances of the utilization of this suffix include referral, disposal, and disapproval.

The word dancing also consists of two morphemes: the root dance and the bound morpheme ‑ing. However, depending on the context, it is possible to analyze the suffix in more than one way. It is noteworthy that in both cases, the morpheme is derivational. The suffix ‑ing can transform the verb dance into either a participle or a noun that, depending on the intended meaning of the word, will perform different roles in a sentence. In order to illustrate this use of ‑ing, it is possible to employ reading or thinking.

Importantly, the stem may take several affixes to form a meaningful word and cannot be used with some of them as a free pattern. The word inconceivable can be seen as an example of this peculiarity of word-formation. Inconceivable is comprised of three units: the bound morpheme in‑, the root conceive, and the suffix ‑able, a derivational suffix that transforms verbs into adjectives, adding the meaning of ‘ability. Thus, the new word created by adding ‑able to conceive, making conceivable, means ‘able to conceive.’ Some cases of this function are loveable, solvable, and achievable. As mentioned above, the prefix in‑ is a derivational morpheme that has the meaning of negation (‘not conceivable’). Other words that can serve to illustrate the use of this prefix include inexpensive and intractable.

The word antiperspirant also has three morphemes: the bound morpheme anti‑, the root perspire, and the bound morpheme ‑ant. The suffix under analysis adds a meaning implying an ‘agent’ to the root, creating a new word. In this case, the derivational suffix ‑ant changes the verb perspire into the noun perspirant. To illustrate this function of the suffix, other examples to consider include such words as claimant or disinfectant. The derivational prefix anti‑ means ‘opposite’; the word antiseptic can be used as an illustration of the application of this morpheme.

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The word hyperactivity consists of four morphological pieces: the bound morpheme hyper‑, the riot act, and the two bound morphemes ‑ive and ‑its. Interestingly, all the affixes in this word are derivational as they add meaning (in the case of hyper‑) or change the part of speech and add a new meaning (in the cases of ‑ive and ‑it). The suffix ‑ive transforms the verb act into an adjective, adding the meaning ‘condition’ (another example of this function is the word passive). The suffix ‑city changes the adjective active to the noun activity with the connotation ‘state’ (one more case is passivity). The derivational prefix hyper‑ is an illustration of an intensifying affix (other instances are hypertension or hypersensitive).[10]

The word overcooked can be divided into three morphological units: the bound morpheme over‑, the root cook, and the bound morpheme ‑ed. The derivational suffix ‑ed turns the verb cook into the adjective cooked (the word prepared presents a vivid illustration). The derivational prefix over‑ adds the meaning ‘excessive’ to the word cooked. Other words derived in a similar way are overdone and overlooked.

The final word to analyze is taken, which consists of two parts: the root take and the bound morpheme ‑en. The suffix ‑en is inflectional as it is used to change some grammatical aspects of the word. In this case, the suffix in question is used to form a participle. The same function can be traced in such verbs as taking (taken), shake (shaken) and prove (proven).

In conclusion, it is necessary to note that the morphological analysis of English words sheds light on the functions that different morphemes can perform. Polysemy, a feature of the English language in which a word has multiple meanings, is often an attribute of many morphemes that may form different parts of speech or add new meanings to existing free morphemes. Another distinctive feature of the language is that the root is generally a free morpheme. It is also necessary to remember that more than one affix can be added to a root, so it is important to be attentive when identifying a free morpheme.

Reference List

Aronoff, M. and K. Fudeman, What Is Morphology? 2nd ed., Malden, Blackwell, 2011.

Baker, A. E. and K. Hengeveld, ‘The Language User,’ in A. E. Baker and K. Hengeveld, (ed.), Linguistics, Chichester, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012, pp. 29-56.

Bauer, L., ‘Concatenative Derivation’, in R. Lieber and P. Štekauer, (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Derivational Morphology, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 118-136.

Fromkin, V., R. Rodman and N. Hyams, An Introduction to Language, 10th edn., Belmont, Wadsworth Cengage, 2014.

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Haspelmath, M. and A. Sims, Understanding Morphology, London, Routledge, 2013.

Rainer, F., ‘Polysemy in Derivation’, in R. Lieber and P. Štekauer, (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Derivational Morphology, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 338-353.

Schmid, H. J., ‘Morphology’, in N. Braber, L. Cummings and L. Morrish, (ed.), Exploring Language and Linguistics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 77-110.

Yule, G., The Study of Language, 6th edn., Cambridge, CUP, 2017.

  1. M. Aronoff and K. Fudeman, What Is Morphology? 2nd edn., Malden, Blackwell, 2011, p. 2.
  2. M. Haspelmath and A. Sims, Understanding Morphology, London, Routledge, 2013, p. 21.
  3. Haspelmath and Sims, p. 21.
  4. G. Yule, The Study of Language, 6th edn., Cambridge, CUP, 2017, p. 69.
  5. H. J. Schmid, ‘Morphology’, in N. Braber, L. Cummings and L. Morrish (ed.), Exploring Language and Linguistics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 99.
  6. A. E. Baker and K. Hengeveld, ‘The Language User’, in A. E. Baker and K. Hengeveld (ed.), Linguistics, Chichester, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012, p. 40.
  7. V. Fromkin, R. Rodman and N. Hyams, An Introduction to Language, 10th edn., Belmont, Wadsworth Cengage, 2014, p. 43.
  8. Haspelmath and Sims, p. 100.
  9. L. Bauer, ‘Concatenative Derivation’, in R. Lieber and P. Štekauer (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Derivational Morphology, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 118.
  10. F. Rainer, ‘Polysemy in Derivation’, in R. Lieber and P. Štekauer (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Derivational Morphology, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 350.
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