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2) Introduction to morphemes

So does language begin with words?

No. Language begins with sounds. It is important to understand this first and foremost. We have already raised this point, but it is worth raising again – language begins with sounds!

If I appear to be emphasizing this with a rather bizarre desperation, it is because it would be easy to think that since we are beginning our exploration of language and linguistics with words that this is where language begins. When you think about it logically though, all words are composed of various sounds grouped together. The word ‘cat’ is composed of three distinct sounds - /c/, /a/ and /t/.

So why aren’t we starting with looking at how sounds create language?

Well, in the not-too-distant past, when European football used to be free on the telly, Manchester United or Arsenal would jet off to Spain for a titanic contest with Barcelona. When the commentators referred to Barcelona, they would pronounce it ‘Bar-se-low-nah’ (bɑ:sɜ:ləʊnæ). After a few years though, commentators took to attempting to pronounce the names of teams as people in their native country might pronounce them. Thus, Barcelona, because the Spanish tended to soften the /s/ sound, began to be pronounced as ‘Bar-th-low-nah’ (bɑ:θɜ:ləʊnæ) instead.

It's uncanny. They could almost be Spanish.

Of course, the habit died away quickly and we were mercifully spared any further stumbling attempts by John Motson and Mark Lawrenson to imitate an authentic Spanish accent.

There is a serious point here. Different people, with different first languages and cultural backgrounds, tend to pronounce English words differently. If you see the word ‘celtic’, you might pronounce the ‘c’ as either /k/ or as /si:/ (‘see’), depending on whether you are talking about celtic tribes, or Glasgow Celtic football club.

So understanding the sounds of language brings with it certain complications not directly related to the simple learning of a phonetic alphabet.

It is for this reason, that we are beginning not with sounds, but with words. By exploring how words work first, we will hopefully be better placed to understand the ways in which language sounds later.


Morphology is the study of how words work – their shape and structure, their components and parts. Last week, we explored some of the ways in which human language differs from the ways in which animals communicate. A key difference was that human beings tend to overlay a system or structure upon words in order to gain from them a greater variety of meaning.

So, for example, a small child might bellow out an utterance like ‘DOG!' This could mean any one of a number of things. I could mean ‘I want a dog’, or ‘there is a dog’, or ‘there are hundreds of dogs coming, get out of the way!’. In order to be more specific, a system of words (or grammar) is used, which can adding verbs and adverbs.

One of those ‘systems’ is one which enables us to differentiate between the singular (just one of something) and the plural (many of something). The word ‘dog’ is a word complete on its own, and it possesses a distinct meaning: dog.

Of course, if you add an ‘s’ onto the end of the word ‘dog’, you change the meaning. ‘Dogs’ becomes plural:

In effect then, the word ‘dogs’ is made up of two distinct units of meaning. ‘Dog’ and ‘s’. The word ‘singing’, similarly, is composed of two distinct units of meaning – the verb ‘sing’, and the suffix ‘ing’.

These small units of meaning are known as morphemes, and they are the smallest units of meaning in language, and already you are hopefully noticing that some morphemes differ from others.

Prefixes, Roots and Suffixes

This is probably old hat to most of you - but it certainly wasn't taught to me before I came to study language so for the sake of clarity...

If we consider the word 'singing' again, we can note that there are two distinct units of meaning. 'Sing' is the more important of the two. 'Sing' is the verb, and without it the word itself is meaningless. Therefore, this morpheme forms the root of the word.

The 'ing' which appears at the end of the word serves to add a little more information to the verb. 'Sing', is actually ongoing – it is 'sing-ing'. Because the 'ing' has been added to the end of the verb, it is known as a suffix. There are other suffixes which can be attached to the word 'sing':

• Sing – ing
• Sing – er
• Sing – s

And many words, not just verbs, can have a suffix attached to it:

• Do – ing (verb 'do' is the root)
• Grass – y (noun 'grass' is the root)
• Invite – ed
• Motiva – tion

In each of these examples, the verb is the root and the grammatical morpheme attached to it is the suffix.

However, words cannot just have morphemes attached to the end of them. They can have morphemes attached to the beginning of the word as well. The word 'attend' has a root verb 'tend'. The morpheme 'at' as been attached to the beginning of the morpheme in order to make it active. An 'anticlimax' is a root noun of 'climax' with the morpheme 'anti' attached to in, in order to indicate a reversal of that root.

These morphemes attached to the beginning of words are known as prefixes.

Suffixes, roots and prefixes are all morphemes which have a distinct significance, the combination of which generates the sense of the word itself. The following examples have broken down words into the prefix, root and suffix, and provided an explanation of the meaning for each:

Here is a nice wee video demonstration which illustrates these points:

Free and Bound Morphemes

There are other categorisations of morphemes though, which help us to understand more the ways in which words function.

The morphemes ‘ball’ and ‘sing’, for example, are described as free morphemes because they actually stand on their own and require no additions to them. Their meaning, if you like, is independent of any grammatical changes which might be made. Consider the words 'and', or 'boy'. Each of these words constitutes a single unit of significance, and that significance is not dependent on another morpheme being added to it. Some morphemes, for example, actually are whole words – ‘sing’, ‘run’, ‘carry’, ‘ice’ – they carry a meaning all on their own.

In contrast, morphemes like ‘s’ and ‘ing’ only have meaning when they are attached to another morpheme. These are known as bound morphemes, because they only make sense when they are bound to another morpheme. If you consider 'ing', for example – it only makes sense when it is used as a suffix (i.e., when it is attached to the end of another morpheme). If we take the free morpheme 'sing', and add the bound morpheme 'ing' to it, then we have the word 'singing' – a word composed of more than one morpheme (a complex word).

The morpheme ‘ing’ does have a kind of significance, but it is more implied than direct. So, if you think about words that have ‘ing’ added onto the end of them, they usually have something to do with duration. ‘Singing’ is ‘sing’, carrying on for some time. ‘Running’ is a ‘run’ which is ongoing. ‘Carrying’ is a ‘carry’ which is ongoing (as is ‘ongoing’!). The morpheme 'ed' usually indicates past tense.

Lexical and Grammatical Morphemes

Free morphemes can be further subdivided into content words and function words. Content words, as their name suggests, carry most of the content of a sentence. Function words generally perform some kind of grammatical role, carrying little meaning of their own. One circumstance in which the distinction between function words and content words is useful is when one is inclined to keep wordiness to a minimum; for example, when drafting a telegram, where every word costs money. In such a circumstance, one tends to leave out most of the function words (like ‘to’, ‘that’, ‘and’, ‘there’, ‘some’, and ‘but’), concentrating instead on content words to convey the gist of the message. (Weisler, and Milekic, 1999)

‘Content words’ function for whole words, but there is a similar division between morphemes which carry most of the content (or meaning) of a word, and those which perform a more grammatical function. These different morphemes are known as lexical morphemes and grammatical morphemes.

Lexical morphemes are those that have a lexical meaning by themselves (more accurately, they have sense). Grammatical morphemes specify a relationship between other morphemes. Nouns, verbs, adjectives (‘boy’, ‘buy’, ‘big’) are typical lexical morphemes. Prepositions, articles, conjunctions (‘of’, ‘the’, ‘but’) are grammatical morphemes. But the distinction is not all that well defined – the English language is notorious for its tendency to ignore any set rules. It is for this reason that the rudiments of language is often easier to learn through the prism of a more systematic language (such as Latin, or Swahili).

Lexical morphemes and grammatical morphemes can be either free or bound, as you can see from the following diagram and table:

The bound lexical morphemes are perhaps the most difficult to understand in this respect, largely because they form the root of words and carry a meaning which is not necessarily in current usage. For example, the word ‘feline’ means ‘cat-like’. There is a suffix of ‘ine’ in this word (meaning ‘like’) – although this does not carry any meaning relating to cats. This means that ‘fel’ must be the morpheme which carries the meaning of the word.

‘Fel’ actually originates from the Latin word ‘felinus’, or from ‘feles’, which literally means ‘cat’. So the morpheme ‘fel’ carries the lexical meaning of the word. But ‘fel’ on its own does not make any sense! It is only when ‘fel’ is combined with the grammatical morpheme ‘ine’ that a proper word is formed. ‘Fel’, therefore, is not only lexical (because it carries the lexical meaning of the word), it is bound (because it makes no sense unless combined with another morpheme).


Morpheme Type
Complex word
A word composed of more than one morpheme
‘singing’, ‘tickled’, ‘unprepossessing’
A bound morpheme which appears at the beginning of another morpheme
un – prepared’, ‘de – stabilise’
A bound morpheme attached to the end of another morpheme
‘Faint – ing’, ‘occasion – ally
A free morpheme which forms the root meaning of complex words
bio – graphy’, ‘anni – versary’, ‘un – bear – able’
Free morpheme
A morpheme which is not dependent on another morpheme in order to have meaning
‘Boy’, ‘amaze’, ‘ball’, ‘sing’
Bound morpheme
A morpheme which is dependent on another morpheme, and does not make sense on its own
‘ing’, ‘ed’, ‘ly’, ‘s’, ‘cran’
Lexical morpheme
A morpheme which has a complete lexical meaning all on its own (lexicon means a list of words)
fel – ine’, ‘boy – ish’, ‘tumbl – ing’
Grammatical morpheme
A morpheme whose purpose is to alter the grammar or sense of another morpheme (grammar means a system of words)
‘and’, ‘-ation’, ‘-ed’, ‘the’


Finch, G. (2003). Word of Mouth: A New Introduction to Language and Communication. Basingstoke, Palgrave

Finch, G., Allan, K., Bradshaw, J., Heyden, G. and Burridge, K. (2009). The English Language and Linguistics Companion. Basingstoke, Palgrave

Fromkin, V. A. (2000). Linguistics: An Introduction to Linguistic Theory. Oxford, Blackwell

Weisler, S. and Milekic, S. P. (1999), Theory of Language. Michigan, MIT Press

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