Null Morpheme or Zero Morpheme
What is a Null Morpheme in Linguistics?
Null morphemes are a special case of morphemes in linguistics that have some meaning or semantic content, but do not have a phonological shape or, in simple words, they cannot be pronounced by the language speakers. Being phonologically null, they just perform a morpheme’s function of rendering semantic content or a grammatical role to the word. In linguistics, a null morpheme is represented by the symbol Ø. To understand better about morphemes, check this detailed blog post on what are morphemes?.
Null Morpheme Examples
For example, consider the plural morpheme (–s) in English. The plural morpheme is a suffix in English that gets attached to the root word (nouns) to make them plural. Hence,
cat + -s = cats
book + -s = books
Note that there can be variations in this form:
bus + -es = buses
child + -ren = children
In all these cases, however, we can clearly see a morphological form, which can be pronounced by the speakers, getting attached to the root word.
But if we take a word like “sheep”, we will see that the plural for this word will still be sheep and not *sheeps (an asterisk marks grammatically incorrect and unacceptable in linguistics).
sheep + -s(=Ø) = sheep
The word “sheep” gets attached to a null plural morpheme, which changes the meaning, but doesn’t get expressed phonologically. This means that although there is no change in pronunciation after addition of this morpheme to the root, it is changing its meaning to plural. The same is true for an instance of plural morpheme in a word like deer.
deer + -s(=Ø) = deer
The only means by which one can get the plural interpretation for such words is the syntactic environment and context.
Null morphemes pose a fundamental contradiction to the traditional definition of a morpheme in linguistics, which says that a morpheme should be “phonologically expressed”, amongst other things. Note that a null morpheme is not the same as an empty morpheme in linguistics.
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