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Morphology is the study of word formation, of the structure of words.
Some observations about words and their structure:
some words can be divided into parts which still have meaning
many words have meaning by themselves. But some words have meaning
only when used with other words
some of the parts into which words can be divided can stand alone as
words. But others cannot
these word-parts that can occur only in combination must be combined in
the correct way
languages create new words systematically
What linguists infer from these observations:
• The meaningful parts into which words can be divided—e.g., boldest can be
divided into bold+est--are called the morphemes of the language. These are
considered the basic units of meaning in a particular language.
• Words that have meaning by themselves—boy, food, door—are called lexical
. Those words that function to specify the relationship between one
lexical morpheme and another—words like at, in, on, -ed, -s—are called
grammatical morphemes.
• Those morphemes that can stand alone as words are called free morphemes
(e.g., boy, food, in, on). The morphemes that occur only in combination are called
bound morphemes (e.g., -ed, -s, -ing).
• Bound grammatical morphemes can be further divided into two types:
inflectional morphemes (e.g., -s, -est, -ing) and derivational morphemes (e.g., -
ful, -like, -ly, un-, dis-
• Processes of word-formation can be described.
A morpheme can be defined as a minimal unit having more or less constant
meaning and more of less constant form. (‘More or less’ because... see below.)
For example, linguists say that the word buyers is made up of three morphemes
{buy}+{er}+{s}. The evidence for this is that each can occur in other combinations
Handout for Psy 598-02, summer 2001

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of morphemes without changing its meaning. We can find {buy} in buying, buys,
and {er} in seller, fisher, as well as buyer. And {s} can be found in boys, girls, and
The more combinations a morpheme is found in, the more productive it is said to
Note the terminology: Braces, { } indicate a morpheme. Square brackets, [ ]
indicate a semantic characterization. Italics indicate a lexical item.
1. Morphemes can vary in size: neither the number of syllables nor the length of
a word can indicate what is a morpheme and what isn’t. For example, Albatross
is a long word but a single morpheme, -y (as in dreamy ) is also a single
2. Just as linguists have had success dissecting phonemes into combinations of
distinctive features, so they have viewed morphemes as made up of
combinations of semantic features. For example, we can analyze a word like
girls in terms of both its morphological and its semantic structure:
girls = {girl} + {s}
{girl} = [-adult; -male; +human, ...] + {s} = {PLU} = [plural]
[More on this when we get to the topic of Semantics.]
3. Two different morphemes may be pronounced (and even sometimes spelled)
the same way. For example, the –er in buyer means something like ‘the one who,’
while the –er in shorter means something like ‘to a greater degree than.’ The first
er always attaches to a verb, while the second –er always attaches to an
adjective. It makes sense to consider these two different morphemes that just
happen to sound the same. (The first is called the agentive morpheme {AG} since
it indicates the agent of an action; the second is called the comparative
morpheme {COMP} since it indicates the comparative degree of an adjective.)
4. We can’t always hold to the definition of a morpheme as having unchanging
form. For example, when we consider words like boys, girls, shirts, books, we
conclude that –s is the plural morpheme (symbolized {PLU}.) But what about
words such as men or women? Here plurality is indicated not by adding –s but by
changing the vowel in the stem. Yet we still want to say that men is,
morphologically, {man} + {PLU}, even though the form of {PLU} is quite different
in this case.
In the same way, it seems sensible to say that went = {go} + {PAST}, just as walked
= {walk} + {PAST}, even though in the first case {PAST} involves a morphological
change in form quite different from the usual adding of –ed.
5. Sometimes it is very difficult to identify morpheme boundaries. For example,
the word hamburger originally meant {Hamburg} = ‘a city in Germany’ + {er} =

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‘originating from.’ But probably most people now understand the word as
meaning {ham} = ‘ham’ + {burger} = ‘hot patty served on a round bun.’
Division of Morphemes into Various Types
Lexical and Grammatical Morphemes
Lexical morphemes are those that having meaning by themselves (more
accurately, they have sense). Grammatical morphemes specify a relationship
between other morphemes. But the distinction is not all that well defined.
Nouns, verbs, adjectives ({boy}, {buy}, {big}) are typical lexical morphemes.
Prepositions, articles, conjunctions ({of}, {the}, {but}) are grammatical
Free and Bound Morphemes
Free morphemes are those that can stand alone as words. They may be lexical
morphemes ({serve}, {press}), or grammatical morphemes ({at}, {and}).
Bound morphemes can occur only in combination—they are parts of a word.
They may be lexical morphemes (such as {clude} as in include, exclude, preclude) or
they may be grammatical (such as {PLU} = plural as in boys, girls, and cats).

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Inflectional and Derivational Morphemes
We can make a further distinction within the set of morphemes that are both
bound and grammatical. Bound grammatical morphemes (those that don’t have
a sense by themselves and, additionally, always occur in combinations) are
commonly known as affixes. They can be further divided into inflectional
and derivational affixes.
Here is some of the evidence for the distinction between inflectional and
derivational affixes (the book has more):
Inflectional Affixes
Derivational Affixes
All are suffixes
May be either suffixes or prefixes
Have a wide range of application. E.g.
May have a wide or narrow range
most English nouns can be made
plural, with {PLU}
All native to English (since Old English Many were adopted from Latin, Greek,
was spoken around 500-1000 AD)
or other languages. (Though others,
especially the suffixes, are native,
including {ful}, {like}, {ly}, and {AG})
Inflectional Affixes
English has only eight inflectional affixes:
{PLU} = plural
{POSS} = possessive
{COMP} = comparative
{SUP} = superlative
{PRES} = present
{PAST} past
{PAST PART} = past participle
{PRES PART} = present participle
Notice that, as noted above, even irregular forms can be represented
morphologically using these morphemes. E.g. the irregular plural sheep is
written as {sheep} + {PLU}, even though the typically form of {PLU} is not used
Similarly, better = {good} + {COMP}; drove = {drive} + {PAST}.
Derivational Affixes
There are an indefinite number of derivational morphemes.
For example, the following are some derivational suffixes:

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{ize} attaches to a noun and turns it into a verb: rubberize
{ize} also attaches to an adjective and turns it into a verb: normalize
{ful} attaches to a noun and turns it into an adjective: playful, helpful
{ly} attaches to an adjective and turns it into an adverb: grandly, proudly
A different {ly} attaches to a noun and changes it into an adjective: manly, friendly
English also has derivational prefixes, such as:
{un}, {dis}, {a}, {anti}, all of which indicate some kind of negation: unhappy, dislike,
atypical, anti-aircraft
Inflectional Affixes Again
{PLU} plural nounds are repsented as root + {PLU}, whether or not {-s} is
actually added to the root.
{POSS} possessive nounds are root + {poss}, whether or not {-s} is added. It’s a
historical accident that both these affixes sound the same.
{COMP} and {SUP}. comparative and superlative adjtectives. happier = {happy}
+ {COMP}; happiest = {happy} + {SUP}. Arguably, most beautiful = {beautiful} +
The remaining inflectional affixes are attached to verb stems, forming present
and past tenses, and present and past participles:
Webster’s dictionary defines a participle as “a word having the characteristics of
both verb and adjective; especially an English verbal form that has the function
of an adjective and at the same time shows such verbal features as tense and
voice and capacity to take an object.”
Our examination of inflectional affixes thus leads us into a discussion of the
various morphological forms that verbs can take, though this topic can’t be fully
explored until we deal with the topic of Syntax.
Present Tense
{PRES} present tense forms are root + {PRES}. But there is only a surface affix
when there is a 3rd person singular subject. That’s to say:
John loves Mary = {love} + {PRES} = {love} + {-s}

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You love Mary = {love} + {PRES} = {love} + {Ø}
However, modal verbscan/could, shall.should, will/would, may/might and
must—show an absense of this third person singular –s.
John may love Mary.
When a modal verb occurs in a sentence, it is always ther first verb form and is
always followed by an uninflected verb form.
Past Tense
{PAST} past tense verb forms. John walked = {walk} + {PAST}.
drove ={drive} + {PAST}
In English, only the first verb form is inflected for tense. For example:
I think; but I have thought; and I am thinking [??]
Past Participle
{PAST PART} driven = {drive} + {PAST PART}
A past participle always follows a form of the auxiliary verb have (in a simple
active sentence). (And if both a modal and the auxiliary have occur in the same
sentence, have follows the modal: We may have gone.
They have walked home, but not They walked home. [past tense]
Gone, come, hit, walked are all past participles.
Present Participle
{PRES PART} drinking = {drive} + {PRES PART}
Present participles always occur with an -ing suffix. In a simple active sentence,
the present participle always follows a form of the auxiliary verb to be, as in They
were laughing
If both the auxiliary have and the auxiliary be occur in the same sentence, the
form of be always follows the form of have: We have been eating, not *We are have
Verb Forms
Believe it or not, verbs in English are perfectly systematic. Consider:

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Someone may have been knocking at the door
1. knocking is the main verb, since it is the right-most verb.
2. It is a present participle, because it immediately follows a form of be.
3. been is an auxiliary verb, because it is not right-most.
4. It is a past participle, because it immediately follows a form of have.
5. have is an auxiliary verb, because it is not right-most.
6. It is also uninflected, since it follows a modal (may).
7. may is a modal, because it lacks the third person singular –s.
8. It is inflected for present tense, since the first and only the first verb in a simple
sentence in English is inflected for tense.
Word Formation Processes
Obviously words don’t make words, people make words! But study of historical
change in languages shows that people do so in ways that are systematic. Since
children often make words too, the study of historical language change has
potential relevance to study of child language.
derivation: adding a derivational affix, thus changing the syntactic category.
orient > orientation
category extension: extending a morpheme from one syntactic category to
another. chair (N) > chair (V)
compound: combining two old words to make one new one: put-down
root creation: inventing a brand new word. Kodak
clipped form: shortening a word: brassiere > bra
blend: two words smooched together: smoke + fog > smog
acronym: the letters of a title become a word: NASA
abbreviation: a little like clipping: television > TV
proper name: hamburger < Hamburg
folk etymology: a foreign words is assimilated to native forms: cucuracha
(Spanish) > cockroach (English)

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back formation: removing what is mistaken for an affix. burglar > burgle
Problems facing the child
Where are the word-boundaries in continuous speech?
What affixes are used?
What grammatical morphemes?