Morphology is the branch of linguistics that studies the structure of words.

      In English and many other languages, many words can be broken down into parts. For example:





      un -  carries a negative meaning

      ness - expresses a state or quality

      s - expresses plurality

      ing - conveys a sense of duration

      A word like “yes”, however, has no internal grammatical structure. We can analyze the sounds, but none of them has any meaning in isolation.


      The smallest unit which has a meaning or grammatical function that words can be broken down into are known as morphemes.

      So to be clear: “un” is a morpheme.

      “yes” is also a morpheme, but also happens to be a word.


      Consider the following word. How many morphemes does it contain?



      The way that morphemes operate in language provides the subject matter of morphology.


      Morphologists also study the patterns which occur in the combination of morphemes in a given language.

      Take, for example, the following words:

      rewrite       retake             relive 

      “re” is a bound morpheme: it attaches only to verbs and only at the beginning of a word. We can’t say “writere” or “takere”


      Therefore, part of a speaker’s linguistic competence is knowing, in addition to the meaning of the morphemes of a language, the ways in which the morphemes are allowed to combine with other morphemes.


      There are several important distinctions that must be made when it comes to morphemes:

      (1) – Free vs. Bound morphemes

      Free morphemes are morphemes which can stand alone. We have already seen the example of “yes”.


      Bound morphemes: never exist as words themselves, but are always attached to some other morpheme. We have already seen the example of “un”.

      When we identify the number and types of morphemes that a given word consists of, we are looking at what is referred to as the structure of a word.


      Every word has at least one free morpheme, which is referred to as the root, or stem.

      We can further divide bound morphemes into three categories:

      prefix            un-happy

      suffix             happi-ness

      infix               abso-blooming-lutely

      The general term for all three is affix.


      (2) – Derivational vs. Inflectional morphemes

      Derivational morphemes create or derive new words by changing the meaning or by changing the word class of the word. 

      For example:

      happy             unhappy 

      Both words are adjectives, but the meaning changes.


      quick              quickness        

      The affix changes both meaning and word class - adjective to a noun.

      In English: Derivational morphemes can be either prefixes or suffixes.


      Inflectional morphemes don’t alter words the meaning or word class of a word; instead they only refine and give extra grammatical information about the word’s already existing meaning.

      For example:

      Cat             cats

      walk             walking


      In English: Inflectional morphemes are all suffixes (by chance, since in other languages this is not true).

      There are only 8 inflectional morphemes in English:


      -s         3rd person sg. present

      “He waits”

      -ed past tense

      “He waited”

      -ing      progressive                      

      “He is waiting”


      -en past participle

      “I had eaten”

      -s         plural                      

      “Both chairs are broken”

      -’s        possessive                       

      “The chair’s leg is broken”


      -er      comparative                     

      “He was faster”

      -est      superlative                        

      “He was the fastest”


      Inflectional morphemes are required by syntax. (that is, they indicate syntactic or semantic relations between different words in a sentence).

      For example:

      Nim loves bananas.


      They love bananas.


      Derivational morphemes are different in that syntax does not require the presence of derivational morphemes; they do, however, indicate sematic relations within a word (that is, they change the meaning of the word).

      For example:

      kind             unkind   

      He is unkind     

      They are unkind


      A morpheme is not equal to a syllable:

      "coats"  has 1 syllable, but 2 morphemes.          

      "syllable" has 2 syllables, but only 1 morpheme


      Types of Word-Formation Processes

      One of the most productive ways to form new words is through affixation, which is forming new words by the combination of bound affixes and free morphemes.

      There are three types of affixation:

      prefixation: where an affix is placed before the base of the word


      suffixation: where an affix is placed after the base of the word

      infixation: where an affix is placed within a stem       (abso-blooming-lutely)

      While English uses primarily prefixation and suffixation, many other languages use infixes.


      In Tagolog, a language of the Philippines, for example, the infix ‘um’ is used for infinitive forms of verbs    (to _______)

      sulat      ‘write’      sumulat         ‘to write’

      bili        ‘buy’       bumili       ‘to buy’

      kuha      ‘take’       kumuha         ‘to take’


      You might think that this is just memorization, but there are two ways to tell that this is not the case: 

      First, all regular verbs conform to the rule.

      Second, the form is productive. In other words, we could come up with a new word in Tagolog, such as "tilat": In this case, the new word would take the regular infix.

       ‘tilat’             ‘tumilat’


      A second word-formation process is known as Compounding, which is forming new words not from bound affixes but from two or more independent words: the words can be free morphemes, words derived by affixation, or even words formed by compounds themselves.

      e.g.       girlfriend        air-conditioner

                  blackbird                looking-glass    

                  textbook        watchmaker


      Compound words have different stress, as in the following examples:

      1.      The wool sweater gave the man a red neck.

      2.      The redneck in the bar got drunk and started yelling


      In compounds, the primary stress is on the first word only, while individual words in phrases have independent primary stress.

      blackbird       black bird

      makeup          make up  


      A third word-formation process is known as Reduplication, which is forming new words either by doubling an entire free morpheme (total reduplication) or part of a morpheme (partial reduplication).

      Examples: ‘goody-goody’, ‘hoity-toity’, ‘wishy-washy’, and ‘teeny weeny’.

      Other languages make much more extensive use of reduplication than English.


      In Indonesian, for example, total reduplication is used to form plurals:

      rumah                  ‘house’  

      rumahrumah         ‘houses’

      ibu                       ‘mother’ 

      ibuibu                  ‘mothers’

      lalat                      ‘fly’        

      lalatlalat                ‘flies’


      Tagolog, on the other hand, has partial reduplication to indicate future tense:

      bili        ‘buy’       bibili              ‘will buy’

      kain      ‘eat’         kakain            ‘will eat’

      pasok      ‘enter’      papasok        ‘will enter’


      A fourth type of word-formation process is known as Blending, where two words merge into each other, such as:

      brunch           from breakfast and lunch

      smog              from smoke and fog 


      Semantic Changes

      In addition to new words being formed, words can change their meaning while retaining their original shape. There are several ways that this can be accomplished.

      One of the first ways, Broadening or Widening occurs when the set of appropriate contexts or referents of a word increases.


      Broadenings are frequently the result of generalizing from the specific case to the class of which the specific case is a member.

      An example from Old English is the following:

      Originally the word ‘dog’, pronounced OE [docga], referred to a specific breed of dog. The same is true of the word ‘bird.’


      Broadening seems particularly common with proper names, such as:






      A second type of semantic change is called Narrowing which occurs when the set of appropriate contexts or referents for a word decreases.

      Narrowing is less common, historically, than extensions, though it is still found fairly frequently.


      Some examples:

      OE hund      ‘hound’      originally all dogs, now to a particular type of dog.

      ME girl                originally referred to young people of any gender.


      A third type of semantic change is called Amelioration which occur when a word takes on somewhat grander connotations over time.

      Some examples:

      OE       knight     


      This word originally meant ‘youth’ or ‘military follower’ (powerless and unimportant people) but has since been elevated to refer to people of a more romantic and impressive status.

      ME squire     

      This originally was someone who held a knights shield and armor, now refers to a country gentleman.


      The final type of semantic change, called Pejoration is the opposite of semantic elevation; it occurs when a word acquires a more pejorative meaning over time.

      Some examples:

      OE lust          originally ‘pleasure’

      ME      wench      originally ‘a female child’

      ME silly          happy, blessed, innocent


      It is interesting to note that semantic changes in one word of a language are often accompanied by (or result in) semantic changes in another word.

      For example: as hund became more specific in meaning, dog became more general. In this way, the semantic system as a whole seemed to remain in balance.