Morphology – how to understand it

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Morphology – definition

morphology Morphology is the study of meaning in individual units of language.

redbtn It is concerned with the structure of words.

redbtn The smallest unit of meaning is a morpheme.

redbtn Morphemes can be classified as either free or bound.


redbtn A free morpheme is a unit of meaning which can stand alone or alongside another free or bound morpheme.

redbtn These are usually individual words, such as

lid sink air car

redbtn A bound morpheme is a unit of meaning which can only exist alongside a free morpheme.

redbtn These are most commonly prefixes and suffixes:

ungrateful insufficient
childish goodness


redbtn A knowledge of morphology creates an awareness of meaning at a sub-lexical level. That is, we can deconstruct a word and consider its component parts.

redbtn The stems, roots, prefixes, and suffixes of words can be recognised. This can throw light on etymology (the origins of the word) thus giving us more power to communicate efficiently.

redbtn NB! The term comes from the Greek word morph, meaning shape or form.

redbtn Free morphemes are units of meaning which cannot be split into anything smaller, as in the following examples:

tree gate pillow
butter flower rhinoceros

redbtn However, the terms ‘gate’, ‘butter’ and ‘flower’ can also exist alongside another free morpheme. The following examples comprise two free morphemes

gatepost buttermilk sunflower

redbtn Bound morphemes are also units of meaning which cannot be split into anything smaller. However, they are different from free morphemes because they cannot exist alone. They must be bound to one or more free morphemes. Almost all prefixes and suffixes are bound morphemes.

Prefixes asymmetrical, subordinate
unnecessary, empower
Suffixes cowardice, minty
fruitful, swimming

redbtn The following words are made up of two free morphemes or components which could stand alone and retain their meaning.

inkwell mothball
sunflower slapstick

redbtn Note that morphemes can only be classified according to their given semantic context.

redbtn Take for example the word ‘elephant’ which is a free morpheme. Although it is a lengthy word, it cannot be split up into any smaller units of meaning within this particular context. That is, the word ‘elephant’ refers to a large grey mammal with a trunk and tusks which is indigenous to India and Africa.

redbtn The final three letters of elephant may spell ‘ant’, but that unit of meaning does not exist in the context of the term ‘elephant’.

redbtn Now take the word ‘ant’ as a separate unit of meaning referring to a small insect. In that context ‘ant’ is a free morpheme. Add another free morpheme in the form of ‘hill’ and we have a word comprising two free morphemes – ‘anthill’.

redbtn The unit ‘ant’ can also be classified separately as a bound morpheme in yet another context. The term ‘ant’ can act as a prefix in the word ‘antacid’. As such, it is a bound morpheme because its meaning only exists in conjunction with the free morpheme ‘acid’.

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2003

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