What is Morpheme in Linguistics?
Morphemes in Linguistics
There are at least two fundamental approaches to studying the words in a language – the Word-based approach and the Morpheme-based approach. The former takes words as a whole as meaningful units, while the latter breaks words into sub parts or constituents and analyses their structure. The second school of linguistics focuses on an abstract concept of Morphemes, which is defined as nothing but the minimal unit comprising a form and a function in language. There are motivations to go with each of these approaches and both describe words in a interestingly distinct ways. In this blog post, we focus only on the latter approach, which is also more popular and widespread.
Note that the branch of linguistics that deals with these abstract units and how they combine to form even larger units, interacting possibly with syntaxin a language is known as Morphology.
It is important to know that when we say minimal unit, we mean that it cannot be broken down further into more, smaller constituents. Hence, in the latter approach, the word is not seen as the smallest unit of language.
A word can be composed of one or more morphemes. In case of the former, we call such a word as a monomorphemic word. In case of latter, on the other hand, the word is said to be polymorphemic. Most of the words in English are polymorphemic.
For example, in English Language, the word “pen” is one morpheme as it cannot be broken down any further. However, the word “pens” can be broken down into two of these, as follows:
pen + s
Here, ‘pen’ gives semantic content and -s performs the grammatical function of making it plural. (Note: “s” is also called as plural morpheme in English). Hence, “pen” is not a morpheme but a word that is made up of 2 of these. In a similar fashion, the word “say” is one morpheme, and the word “saying” is made up of say and ing (ing performs the grammatical function of making the verb progressive). You will find plenty of these examples in a language.
Functions of a Morpheme in Language
From the definition itself, we can say that they have two functions in any language:
- Semantic Function – related to meaning.
- Grammatical Function – related to functional aspects.
We can also express this by saying: Morpheme = form + function (By form, we mean the phonological realization (known as morph). The function, on the other hand, can be semantic, i.e. contributing to meaning. It can also be purely grammatical in nature.
Note that this fundamental definition becomes problematic in a lot of cases. For instance, in the case when a morpheme has no form but a function (null morpheme), no well defined form but a clear function (ablauts), a form but no obvious function (empty morpheme), Lastly, with just one form and more than one meaning (portmanteau morpheme). Nonetheless, this classic definition of a morpheme works fine as a starting point.
Difference between Morpheme and Morph
Next, a morph is the actual, phonological representation of the morpheme in a language. In other words, it comprises a phonological string that contributes to meaning or has a grammatical role. So, while morpheme is an abstract concept, a morph is an actual representation in speech or writing.
Depending upon the linguistic environment or morphophonetic constraints of a language, a morph can be realized differently, especially in synthetic and polysynthetic languages. Such different realizations of morphs, which nevertheless relate to the same abstract morpheme, are known as allomorphs.
For example, in English, we say that the grammatical function of past tense is defined by an abstract past tense morpheme concept, which has the following phonetic realizations or morphs.
force + past–> forced (-ed)
build + past–>built (-t)
sleep + past–> slept (ablaut)
ring+ past–>rang (ablaut)
eat + past–>ate (suppletion)
Different morphs of the same morpheme are known as allomorphs. All of these phonetic realizations, i.e. allomorphs, map to the single concept of past tense in English.
Types of Morphemes in Linguistics
The classification can be done in different ways. Depending upon whether a morpheme can exist independently in a language or not, they can be of two types:
- Bound Morphemes: which cannot stand on their own, and need to be fixed or attached to another one.
- Free Morphemes: which can occur independently in a language. They are generally the roots in a word.
Another way of classification is depending upon the type of affixes involved in the word. Here also, they can be classified into two kinds:
- Inflectional affixes – addition of these to the root or stem brings no change the grammatical category of a word.
- Derivational affixes – addition of these to the root or stem generally, but not necessarily, results into a change in the grammatical category of the word.
A language generally has a limited set of Inflectional morphemes. However, the derivational ones are many and show variation in a language. They can also be very productive.
Lastly, they can be classified as lexical (content) or grammatical (functional) types. As the name suggests, lexical ones provide core meaning to the word. And grammatical ones occur as affixes, and have a larger role to play in the syntax of a language. Highly inflectional languages are richer in functional morphemes. Generally, the fixed morphemes occur as the root forms of the words, often marked as the dictionary entries. The bound ones, on the other hand, occur as the affixes.
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