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How Morphology Works?

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Wondering how words work? The answer to that question lies in a system that linguists call morphology. Read on to learn the 6 things you need to know about morphology so that you can finally understand what’s in a word!  

Simple definitions

  • Morphology - the system that gives our words their internal structure
  • Morphemes - the smallest meaningful pieces of a word  

To break those terms down a bit more, we have to acknowledge the fact that words aren’t made up of random pieces of language bits cobbled together in some haphazard way. The truth is that there’s a whole structure underlying the words we use everyday. What is perhaps even more interesting is that every language’s morphology system is different. This means that words get formed differently in different languages. To recap, morphology is the rule-based system that gives words their internal structure, and morphemes are the actual bits of language from which our words get built. 

A simple example

Take the English word ‘traveling.’ How many morphemes do you identify? 

The answer is 2!  

What are they? The first morpheme is ‘travel’ and the second is ‘-ing.’ The way you can tell these are the two morphemes in the word is because they are meaningful units that can’t be broken down any smaller. Specifically, ‘travel’ is a verb that can’t be broken down into any smaller meaningful pieces, and ‘-ing’ is a meaningful grammatical unit that tells us the verb it is attached to is in progress – and it also can’t be broken down any further.

6 things you should know about morphology

  • Not all words are made up of multiple morphemes 

The word ‘cat’ or ‘season,’ are each just one single morpheme. Of course, we could easily transform those words into multi-morpheme words by simply tacking on other morphemes, like ‘cats’ or ‘seasoned.’

 

  • There’s a distinction between free vs. bound morphemes

We’ve established that some morphemes like ‘cat’ and ‘season’ can be their own independent words. However, other morphemes, like ‘-ing’ or ‘-ology’ can’t. You’ll notice they only appear when attached to another root morpheme. Linguists call independent morphemes free morphemes – and the dependent ones, bound morphemes. 

 

  • Order matters 

When a word has multiple morphemes, that’s when morphological ordering rules come into play. Take the English word ‘redoing,’ for example. It has three morphemes. With ‘do’ as the main root morpheme, we know that ‘re-’ goes at the beginning and ‘-ing’ at the end. This is because according to English morphology rules, ‘re-’ is what we call a prefix (goes before the root) and ‘-ing’ is a suffix (goes after the root). Beyond prefixes and suffixes, there’s one more location-based morpheme type: infixes! These are morphemes that go inside another root morpheme, and Arabic is famous for them!

 

  • Not everything that looks like a morpheme is actually a morpheme 

Here’s a great example: the ‘ing’ of ‘traveling’ is a morpheme, but the ‘ing’ of ‘king’ is not. They’re the same sequence of sounds and letters, so what makes them different morphologically? It all comes down to meaning: if the ‘ing’ carries an identifiable meaning in the word - then it’s a morpheme! Otherwise, it’s not. Since we can’t trace a specific meaning to the ‘ing’ in king, we know it’s not its own distinct morpheme in that context.

 

  • Morphology is often at the heart of how new words get created 

When new technologies are invented or culture shifts occur, we often find ourselves in need of a new word to help us talk about them efficiently. And what do we usually rely on to do it? Morphemes! Take for example the word ‘computer’ - where did that come from? Well, it came from the verb ‘compute’ and the suffix ‘-er’ to indicate ‘the doing of computing.’ Two pre-existing morphemes combined to make one useful new word! 

 

  • Languages vary in how complex their morphology is 

This comes down to what we call the Syntax-Morphology Trade Off. This is the idea that the simpler a language’s syntax, the more complex its morphology. And vice versa. Take for instance a language like Latin, which has a complex morphology but simple syntax. To learn Latin, you have to memorize a bunch of morphological conjugations and case distinctions, but the syntax is simple. On the other hand, a language like English has quite simple morphology, but relatively complex syntax. To learn English, you don’t need to memorize a bunch of morphological conjugations or case distinctions, but you do need to master some pretty nuanced syntax rules. In other words, languages vary in how complex their morphology is. And the main reason for this is because of the Syntax-Morphology Trade-Off.

To summarize

  • A language’s morphology is the system that gives its words their internal structure
  • Morphemes are the smallest meaningful pieces of a word
  • Words can be made of a single morpheme or multiple morphemes 
  • There’s a distinction between free vs. bound morphemes
  • Morphological ordering rules come into play when a word has multiple morphemes
  • Not everything that looks like a morpheme is actually a morpheme 
  • Morphology is often at the heart of how new words get created 
  • Languages vary in how complex their morphology is 

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Emily Rae Sabo
Written by Emily Rae Sabo

Emily, a Pittsburgh native, is a linguist at Mango Languages whose areas of specialization are the social and cognitive factors that impact bilingual language processing and production. Having studied 7 languages and lived in various countries abroad, she sees multilingualism—and the cultural diversity that accompanies it—as the coolest of superpowers. Complementary to her work at Mango, Emily is a Lecturer of Spanish at the University of Tennessee, a Producer of the We Are What We Speak docu-series, and get this...a story-telling standup comedian!

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